Content Warnings: See Sad-Vents’ VAULT Festival Listing before engaging with the piece.
Sad-Vents is a deeply personal story which will no doubt resonate with anyone who has found themselves trapped in cycles of trauma, with experiences of mental health issues and abuse at the fore. The show aims to shine a light on what happens when you stare into the void, and, the compounding negative effects of social media on recovering from our traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, the piece is fundamentally flawed. Sad-Vents struggles to find its footing early enough to make a genuine impact on the issues it tackles. It’s easy to be dazzled by the high-tech, high-concept setup of having a show fully livestreamed in front of you, but rather than adding to the piece it often feels that the Instagram screen and animated presentation distracts. The fundamentals are missing here, which is a mighty shame given the heart and passion that is clearly on display.
Eleanor, playing a semi-fictionalised version of herself, comes out early on to relay the show’s myriad content warnings to the audience. The experience is disconcerting, but not in a way that builds atmosphere, instead in a way that leaves you wondering whether the show is intending to add shock value and market themselves on the basis of those warnings. The show’s ushers have already asked us to consider the content warnings before we come in, which are plastered onto the door, and VAULT Festival have taken extra special care in preparing their audiences for the environments of the shows they are entering. To then go over the content warnings again at the beginning with long pauses during which anyone can leave publicly, while declaring that your show is going to be “quite different” to anything the audience has experienced before, feels odd and to me, unsettling more than anything else.
Creating a safe environment is not about relaying content warnings over and over and then asking the audience if they are alright with everything; a safe atmosphere should be nurtured in the way you approach themes and the audience’s sensitivities, as well as the physical experience of being in the theatre. Granted, the performer did spend time reminding us that we can leave at any point. But the bench layout of the venue means we would have to awkwardly shuffle out of our seats and walk either right in front of the stage or in front of a whole row of punters in doing so. Equally an odd experience is discovering the bag of goodies on your seat – a Karma Cola and a discount for Fetish gear among them – their connection to the piece a little unclear.
Eleanor, the character, livestreams to us the story of her early 30s, from a crazed squirrel that has been following her since childhood, to her relationship with her body and self-harm, substance abuse by the kilogram and her abusive relationship with an older married man named Tony. The technical elements of the show are pulled off brilliantly. To elucidate, there is a bedroom setup on stage with a huge screen behind it. Eleanor spends almost the entire time with phone in hand, slipping and sliding in and out of an Instagram Live, with the screen displaying her notifications as story moments, murderers cyber-stalking her halfway through, and images to complement the story popping up regularly to add to the comedy. This setup works best when the show is trying to make us laugh. It is clear also that significant consideration has been taken for the angles at which Eleanor films herself and how it can create a striking scene on stage. At one point fully swoddled in a blanket, we see Eleanor only through the screen and hear her muffled ramblings through the covers.
The show is seventy-five minutes long on a good day, and on the performance I was in the show length overran even beyond that. As a piece of Fringe Theatre, it’s too long, and introduces an entirely new storyline in the main character getting a new boyfriend sixty minutes in. The structure of the piece is deeply confusing from a narrative standpoint. Tonally, the first forty-five minutes feels more like an extended dark comedy skit rather than a story which builds to the climax point. That central moment of the play is beautifully unwound, with poignant imagery and stunning performance, but there’s nothing nearly dramatic enough in the two acts proceeding it that allows us to prepare for that point in the story. There’s something of a chicken-and-an-egg question here – did the story come first or the high-tech concept? Either way, the story needs serious retooling if it wants to demonstrate the dramatic chops to deal with the highly sensitive topics on display.
I’m offering up two stars here very deliberately. I didn’t have a bad time in the show by any stretch, and initial discomfort around the content warnings wore off quite quickly. Hill is a fantastic performer, and every movement, twitch of the eye, clutch of her body and manically performed TikTok dance is crafted beautifully. The tech is pulled off masterfully too, which allows me to offer it another star, yet I am left with the feeling that the whole thing was drastically overproduced for the story it wants to tell. Oddly for a play about social media, the components that make it up feel disconnected. These wonderful vignettes and moments don’t contribute to a build-up in tone, and so the moment of release is so stark, so bold, that it dissolves rather than flourishes in an emotive sense. In parallel also, some of the metaphors feel unsubstantiated – the cannibalism section looks great visually but I was unsure where it was supposed to slot in with the rest of what I was seeing.
This piece needs work. The concept and parts of the blocking are great, the central performance shows so much promise, and I wouldn’t want to offer up a review that didn’t give some genuine critique from my experience with it. With retooling of the story and a very ruthless culling of the superfluous elements, this would be something I’m sure I personally would have enjoyed. Your experience may vary.
Recommended Drink: Sad-Vents is best paired with an Aunt Roberta – 100% proof, potently intoxicating, no holds barred.
Want to see what you think? You can catch Sad-Vents at VAULT Festival before February 3rd at 20:30. Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.