Powder Keg, winners of the Royal Exchange’s 2016 Hodgkiss Award designed to support the realisation of a brand new piece of ambitious theatre by an exceptional artist or company in the North of England, bring Bears to the Royal Exchange Studio.

We want people to see a piece that is about climate change without it preaching to them or without it fearmongering to the point where people just turn away from it. I think that is one of the main reasons a lot of people don’t focus on climate change as one of the overriding problems of the world.

It’s a big ask, and Powder Keg make it twice as hard by doing the entire hour without words.  A cast of three don polar bear suits and adopt a human like existence on a set consisting of large white cubes and a white and grey corrugated shack to the rear.  They eat crisps and Kit Kat and drink Coke from a promotional bottle ironically marked ‘Tobago’.  They spray themselves with deodorant and discard the empties.  It’s a clever closed loop ecosystem where it is the bears who are killing themselves.   Nice set up, subtle observational humour, evocative soundscape, so far so good.

But after twenty minutes the play is screaming ‘where is this going next?’ and for the next five minutes it fumbles clumsily towards the next phase.  It’s a key transition that defines how we see the rest of the play; greater impact here would make the quiet reflective moments later on so much more powerful.

Once we reach the next stage – hunger – we enter a new world, very different from the first but equally fascinating.  We witness the destruction of the bears’ environment.  There’s good physicality, clever use of light and the beginnings of improvised music played on discarded items; but then you think ‘why not make more use of this style of music throughout?’.  And there could be much better use of the space; I wanted to see the three bears each sit precariously on tiny cubes as they play slow violins (which they do play in the show).  It’s such a familiar image that each audience member would connect to.  And how powerful would speech be here after the complete absence?

In terms of producing a piece of theatre that addresses climate change, this really does work in so many ways.  It’s a very ambitious play that achieves the objectives set out by the company; it is sensitive, neither preaching nor spreading fear.  Certainly it’s more in line with the work you see at Flare than in the usual Royal Exchange studio programme, which means it may take time to get used to the style.

And yet I don’t think it is ambitious enough in its overall structure, and there is scope to vary the pace much more effectively at key moments.  Perhaps this is the risk of devised work.


Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

One Response to “Bears”

  1. Amanda says:

    Well observed review. The pace was out on this. The ithers reviews will be entertaining. Trying to finish mine this morning.

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