Review: PHOBIA @ North Melbourne Town Hall

As Marion Crane gracefully steps into the bathtub to take her final wash, it's not the coquettish innocence of her face that stays in the memory, nor is it the pure whiteness of the shower curtain. Instead, it is the incessant squealing of violins, alerting everyone but Marion to the immanent danger lurking just a few feet away. Without the nerve-jangling intensity of the soundtrack, this iconic Hollywood scene would remain as just another cinematic murder. As it is, this scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is etched into the collective consciousness of generations of movie-goers, and has forever condemned both white shower curtains and violin E strings to be associated with bathtub murder.

Bernard Herrmann, the composer who wrote this memory-scarring piece of music, was not the only one to be fascinated by the power of sound in Hitchcock’s work. As well as being the composer for Psycho, Herrmann also composed the soundtrack to Vertigo, another Hitchcock classic, and it is this film that has inspired Chamber Made to create the highly innovative Phobia.


It's a Friday Night Funnyman!


Ari Sharp said…
Phobia defies easy categorisation and artfully combines elements of theatre, cinema, dance, mime, music and sound artistry. Whilst telling aspects of the story of Vertigo, Phobia seeks to bring it to life not through the narrative, but through the endless cacophony of sounds and music which accompanies the action. Six artists take their place on the wide expanses of the stage. They are surrounded by a mountain of props, costumes and musical instruments which seem not too different from the play room of a kindergarten, perhaps one for kids with a severe case of Attention Deficit Disorder and a surplus of red cordial. The stage is essentially a Foley studio – the sound studio used in films – as it would have been in Hitchcock’s days, before technology removed the need for sounds to be recorded in a single take. The set is a tad confronting at first, as the audience strains through the dull light to see the wide array of props laid out before them.

The performers glide through the performance with a heightened awareness of their physical environment. Rarely do the six players interact with each other; instead it is the musical props the performers engage with, often with unusual and confronting results. It is tempting but misleading to describe this as the ultimate ensemble performance. Rather, it is six skilled solo performances, each happening simultaneously and each adding a layer of complexity to the sound produced. There is no sense in which these are actors themselves taking part in the telling of the story, but they are the supporting cast to a story that is implied but not shown. We are watching the extras exist in the absence of the stars.

Phobia takes an enormous risk, and dares the audience the follow. Without a strong narrative to pull together the disparate threads, there is a possibility that performance could degenerate into an aural freak show. Instead, it works, through persuading the audience that the sounds they hear are not merely an add-on to the main feature – the movie and its plotline – but are legitimate forms of expression which deserve recognition in its own right.

One real strength of the show is its striking attention to detail. Hundreds of sound props are used, and each one seems perfectly chosen to suit the desired sound. The spoken-word parts are crisply timed, and see multiple performers parroting each other, although rarely actually engaging in dialogue. There is a strong bond of trust that has built up between the six performers and the unseen sound and lighting designers. Every sound and every movement is perfectly choreographed and looks misleadingly effortless.

By trade, each of the performers are musicians, most comfortable when using their instruments as extensions of themselves. In Phobia, their musicality is only the starting point for their performance. As actors, as mimes and as dancers they all demonstrate skill and subtlety, and show impressive control to not be overwhelmed by the prop-strewn stage. The outcome is remarkable, and one that, ahem, breaks the sound barrier.
Anonymous said…
Really interesting review. Sounds an intriging show. I could offer reviews of "menopause - the musical" and "Back to the Shtetl"
but I'm not sure I could do either of them justice. Fishy

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