Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff; 13th October 2016
The first full length theatrical show from roller-skating and aerial duo Bella Kinetica is a scrapbook of animated sound clips, a series of vintage moments that chart aspects of a lifelong friendship. Through performers Jessie Rose and Lisa Truscott, we see factory work, an air-raid, childish fantasies of motherhood, and some sad truths of adult life, resolving eventually into an accomplished, if unextraordinary, old age.
The look of the show has an underlying 1950s style that tallies with the central ‘prime-of-life’ section, when the characters’ ages would roughly match those of Truscott and Rose (who is also the show’s costume designer). Long sepia strings of laundry, pinnies and pillowcases, span the wide back wall of the theatre, creating a striking image for the pair to play against. Items of washing will be brought into play later to indicate ageing, signify children and husbands, and connect the equipment used for circus technique to the landscape of this 1950s reverie.
The programme tells us that Rose and Truscott are Iris and Sylvia but, in what seems like an extended introductory movement sequence (which, it transpires, is the form of the whole 55 minutes), they could be symbols of multiple women rather than two particular personalities. There’s something generic about the situational scenes and emotions presented to us that makes me wish for a bit of depth and detail so that I could learn to care more for the women portrayed.
The pair never speak, although they mime conversation in a way that forestalls genuine communication or connection. We just watch these scenes roll by like pictures through a train window. The metaphor suggested by the title, however, is paid little further attention beyond the white rollerboots worn throughout, strapped on as life begins, removed as it reaches completion (nor is anything made of the role of roller skating in 1950s culture). The separate aspects of functional and artistic movement seem sadly compromised in their relationship to each other.
There are moments when the whirling skating skills fit perfectly – jive steps at a dance, or in a heartfelt reunion. A routine from Rose on an aerial sling of silks fabric is a painfully accurate representation of despair following the loss of a child, embodying the sense of being simultaneously in the grip of something inescapable and abandoning one’s own grip on normal functioning. Sound design from Liam Quinn reinforces this internally conflicting state with accompaniment that flips between piano melody and jagged electronic vibrato. The show also contains some lovely snatches where the soundtrack is silenced to allow the noises of rubber wheels on the stage floor, or of the wires running to human counterweight Dave Mitchell (hidden in the wings), to convey their own drama.
It’s the pre-recorded sounds, though, that drive the narrative of the women’s friendship; clips of interview conversation with elderly women regularly emerge from an overlapping burble of voices to recount memories of best friends, courting, or social attitudes. Period singers like Doris Day appear, and modern artists with a fifties style, like Caro Emerald. Alongside the show, Bella Kinetica run a reminiscences project to open up conversation around the past among groups of elderly women. The responses from any particular group session can be included within the soundtrack for the local performance, allowing ageing communities to feel a sense of direct connection to the show.
For me, though, the connection was missing. I was hoping for more substance and – in a show performed entirely on roller skates – more style. Life On Wheels is a pleasantly moving picture but, like the view out the train window, makes no mark on my soul.