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'Dancing Bear' at the Palace Theatre, Manchester - review

An exploration of the struggle between faith, sexuality and gender identity.

2018-02-07

Queer Contact is always one of the highlights of the theatre calendar in Manchester. It’s a season of provocative, imaginative and quirky work.

This year it’s been pushed out of its home by the redevelopment of the Contact building. Embracing what circumstances have dictated, Contact are continuing to programme work across the city. This is how Dancing Bear, a centrepiece of the season, comes to be playing in the vast, Gothic splendour of the Palace Theatre. It’s great to see Contact’s work popping up all over the city and filling big spaces, but sometimes the fit is an uneasy one.

Dancing Bear is a musical, poetical, polemical piece full of direct address to the audience. It gets lost beneath a vast proscenium arch in a building more used to housing massive West End musicals, than more intimate expressive pieces.

The titular character is a literally a dancer in a bear suit. The bear unexpectedly discovers that it likes dancing, the more the bear embraces dancing the more human it becomes, shedding fur and revealing skin. The hybrid bear is unwelcome anywhere in any group.

This nursey rhymed story punctuates a series of monologues, songs and movement pieces themed around gender fluidity sexual identity, self-acceptance and religion. The balance between all these forms is well-judged. The songs expand emotionally on the monologues and the dances clearly relate to the issues each character talks to the audience about.

The monologues themselves are a little repetitious in content, form and voice. They all speak to the Millennial’s obsessions with self-identification, victimisation and self-worth in more or less the same emotion, language and tone.

The exploration of religion adds a contentious note to the cast’s monologues and peppers them with something unexpected and challenging, but they are all delivered in same worthy tone of the wronged and disappointed.

There are some sequences that really don’t work. Having a chorus of synchronised calls of “faggot” after someone’s revealed their identity is cringe-worthy. And there’s definitely no need for that chorus to then explain to us that they’re only acting and quite nice really.

At one point there’s basically a lecture on how the Bible has been misread to excuse homophobia, which struggles to find its place in a cabaret styled show. But these are occasional weakness rather than fatal flaws.

There’s some great songs and some great singing, especially from Beccy Owen. Owen Farrow is captivating as Divinia De Campo and also, importantly, not as Divinia De Campo, exploring the transitions between the two personas meaningfully. Katie Fenwick is so fully and brilliantly integrated as the BSL interpreter, that she performs supporting characters in scenes and has her own testimony as part of the show.

The musicians provide an effective chorus as well as a great band, and the show inhabits the cabaret format well.

Dancing Bear is a little like the dancing bear it tells the story of, a hybrid that struggles to find a home. Here, it is hampered by a cavernous venue, when it needs the intimacy of “the club at the edge of town”, a space one of the songs describes.

If it can decide on who its audience is, and then play to its strengths in a more intimate venue, the show could take root and be a great success.

Rating: 3/5

Dancing Bear runs until 7th February at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, then 6 & 7 April at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Find out more here.

Words by Stephen M Hornby