The wonderfully named Barking Spider Visual Theatre has created a show as warm and nourishing to the soul as the cups of hot chocolate handed out to audience members as they arrive. A fascination with objects led artistic director, and performer Penelope Bartlau, to create and co-direct a show about why we hold on to things, or perhaps why they hold on to us.
The Memorandium invites audiences to be part of the story by sharing the memories that certain objects carry for them. Bartlau and composer/performer Leah Scholes ask people to pick a number, matched to an assortment of parcels held in a cabinet on the stage. These are then opened, and the audience member is asked what sort of memories the objects conjure up for them. Bartlau then weaves these freshly revealed memories into stories, with Scholes creating an evocative soundtrack using various olde wares and antiques displayed onstage.
From the start, Bartlau and her team, including co-director and set designer Jason Lehane, want the audience to go back, to remember things. The theatre foyer is filled with small treasures that once belonged to somebody - Johnny Cash vinyl records, delicate tea-cups, hand-knitted dolls and bears. The audience is taken outside to the back door of the theatre and led through a lamp-lit room filled with more objects. Backstage, we see a real wooden swing hanging over a bundle of leaves, with a misty light all around it.
Bartlau's childhood experiences of working in deceased estates, where she helped her mother sort through items compiled over somebody's lifetime, is strongly felt in this show. She uses a combination of audience participation, drawing and puppetry to ask the question 'is memory more imagination or fact?'
A highlight was a story recounted by a recorded male voice, talking about how he earned pocket money as a teenager by doing the gardening for an elderly couple. The story unfolds like a long-held secret, as the man talks about how his teenage self dealt with the sudden death of the elderly man. The actions he took to preserve the man's dignity and good name was surprising, and touching. The whole story is beautifully accompanied by Bartlau, who draws matching pictures onto a screen projected for the audience. This visual element was moving and rivetting, allowing us to get an insight into the death of this ordinary, and by all accounts good, man. I hung on every word.
Bartlau's warmth and openness is infectious, and she is a great storyteller. This is theatre that reminds you of the power and pleasure, and communal experience, of a great shared story.
The final piece with Bartlau and a little blue-haired doll/puppet is an exquisite and sweet end to the show.