Review: CAGES, Riverside Studios

Is this what "Future Theatre" will look like? Let's hope not.

By: Sep. 22, 2022
Review: CAGES, Riverside Studios

Review: CAGES, Riverside Studios What fresh hell is this? Those who come to see musical theatre for the acting, the songs and the story may be wondering where Cages fits into this art form.

Transplanted from an LA warehouse into the black box theatre of Riverside Studios, Cages is the brainchild of Woolf and the Wondershow aka CJ Baran and Benjamin J Romans. They may be the ultimate multi-hyphenates, with both crediting themselves as "creator/founder/producer/director/writer/composer". In addition, they both handle sound design and Woolf plays the central character, also (and confusingly) named Woolf.

The show's Unique (as in only) Selling Point is its visual effects, especially the video animations and holograms by brothers David and Ryan Richardson whose designs have nods to the works of Fritz Lang, Tim Burton and Robert Rodriguez. The combination of live actors with holograms and projections is termed "Future Theatre" by Woolf and the Wondershow; indeed, almost all of Cages' dramatic heft - such as it is - comes not from the script or the songs but from the impressive computer-generated imagery which at times stands toe-to-toe with that used on West End shows like Life of Pi.

This modern fairytale plunges us into a monochrome world called Anhedonia where emotions are banned, hearts are to be kept in metaphorical cages and the government decides who marries who. Woolf, aka The Boy With The Red Heart, hides away, using mathematical formulae to create steampunk-inspired mechanical instruments. He bumps into a red-headed gothic waif called Madeline (acted by Allison Harvard, voiced by Frida Sundemo, silhouette dancing by Mackenzie Smith) and the pair fall instantly and deeply in love.

When she is called up for her arranged nuptials, Woolf runs off to the forest chased by government agents. There, he is rescued by the Chemist (Harwood Gordon), an avuncular father figure who tells our hero that only he, Woolf, can save everyone through the power of music. Drinking a potion from the Chemist, Woolf goes on a trippy journey to process his emotions and is soon ready to take on the government - but will he succeed?

Does any of that sound at all familiar? Thought so. Cages' highly derivative story is shallower than an August puddle with practically every aspect already seen in any number of books, films, graphic novels and musicals. The most obvious dystopian influences are 1984, Equilibrium, THX 1138, The Matrix, Logan's Run and Queen musical We Will Rock You but there are also shades of Star Wars in the way the father figure Chemist guides Woolf through his transcendence and, in the final showdown, tells him to abandon the algebra and trust his heart over his head.

Exposition is handled almost entirely by a Richard Burton-like voiceover very much in the style of Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds while the use of silent movie captions and the stark mechanistic visuals suggest someone is keen to reference Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Characterisations are wafer-thin: in her few scenes, Madeline has more than a hint of manic pixie dream girl about her, the Chemist is essentially The Matrix's Morpheus without the natty shades and the other characters aren't much more than stage filler. The pacing is fast but jumpy, frequently skipping over plotholes. Every writer borrows but, theatrically, this comes across as a lazy and incoherent patchwork of concepts lifted and shifted from other works.

The music is scarcely better. The references are more recent but the lack of original input is evident here too. The oft-reprised Somebody's Someone works off a short and simple lullaby melody and a hackneyed chord progression. As a whole, the soundtrack is synth-heavy with splashes of orchestral, pop and rock and together resembles an early-2010s indie mixtape featuring LCD Soundsystem, MGMT and many emo bands of that era.

The songs' lyrics can be generously described as basic and banal, the arrangements are cut-and-paste and Woolf's voice - irony alert - struggles to convey the world-saving emotions at the heart of this tale, despite (or maybe because of) the ample use of vocal effects. One has to wonder if he would have been better off handing over singing duties to someone else and focusing on the creating, founding, producing, directing, writing, composing and sound design side of things.

The acting leaves something to be desired. Well, pretty much everything. Madeline, the Chemist and the psychedelic backgrounds are all rendered through CGI and Woolf spends much of his time synchronising his motions with the visual wizardry around him. We rarely see facial expressions from the live actors and its usually left to the voiceover to explain whatever feelings are being explored in a particular scene. It can't be easy to emote to a projection but, considering this is a bedrock creative choice by Woolf and the Wondershow, it is a surprise to see how impassive the former's stage actions are.

Cages is undeniably a very pretty show with eye candy aplenty. This, alongside the creative choice to break up the action into bitesize and formulaic chapters (voiceover, song, rinse and repeat) and the distinct lack of dramatic depth gives the impression that this import is best thought of as a collection of staged music videos.

As a live experience, this has more in common with a gig than musical theatre and, with a few adjustments, would maybe work better in that format. Is Cages really what "Future Theatre" looks like? Let's hope not.

Cages continues at Riverside Studios until 1 January 2023.

Photo Credit: Cages

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