'Enjoyable' isn't the word: unnerving and thought-provoking are more appropriate. When the invitation to a Teddy Bear’s Picnic arrived in my pigeon hole, I suspected the Upper Sixth Theatre Studies set would have something dark and unusual planned. My instructions were simple but obscure: to meet at the feet of ‘My Know-it-all-Darwin.’ The gauntlet was thrown down for an evening of puzzle-solving. Making sense of the experience would be down to me.
Waiting at the Darwin statue outside Main School Building, I became aware of a pair of binoculars winking at me from the trees. Bobbing along the driveway, the Professor (Jack Humphreys) made his grand entrance and began chastising the invited audience for our school-boy errors: “This is no laughing matter, Lesley. Keep up! Stragglers will be flogged.”
Descending the narrow stairs down to the former Economics classrooms, we paused on the stairwell and were instructed to wear an odd beak-like mask and to maintain a strict silence for the rest of the evening. A disconcerting experience at first, the mask made me feel safe, and meant I didn't have to 'look interested' - I could just react the way I felt.
The Professor's unpleasant personal comments, delivered sotto voce as he let us in, prepared the way for a roller-coaster. His dark, dark comedy compared with the intense distress of his victims was just horrible.
The way the 'story' unfolded from room to room, with a contrast between the hysterical evangelical whiteness and the unhappy, masochistic darkness was powerfully conveyed by the two occupiers: India Eaton and Liza Stolyarova. And in the Professor’s den, yes, I was imagining that he dismembers some of those teddy bears in his spare time!
Three moments stood out above all: first, the moment when the pink girl (Nina Churchill) changed her gait from childish skipping into an old lady's hobble. The transformation from a young girl besotted with pink into a decrepit old woman in her second childhood was totally convincing.
By pure coincidence, I had just spent the afternoon in a care home lounge. As the character transformed from a joyous skip through the autumnal leaves to a rheumatic-ridden stoop, this resonated for me. A few hours before I had watched real elderly people in their dance therapy session, where their physical weaknesses momentarily disappeared and they moved with a renewed vigour.
I didn't spend enough time in the dark ‘room of rocks’ to understand completely how that fitted in. I could see the contrasts, and watched the mirroring, but I felt I only had a partial glimpse. I know that immersive theatre always means you can never see everything - so I would want to see the whole thing again!
Between them, the students created a nightmare vision, with great attention to detail - the yellowing bananas, the pink old lady/little girl clunky shoes, the Professor’s macabre 'experimental notes', the toys that spoke for the children, and, of course, the climax of being impelled to see eye to eye with one of the characters. Having my face held, to stare into the pink girl's eyes at the end, became a moment when I became part of the performance, and that was truly unsettling.
Thank you very much for the invitation; your production will stay with me for a long time.