Lullaby Of A Bottlecap Queen
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – OCTOBER 2017
The Northampton Arts Lab have been at it again; working tirelessly on their latest, and most ambitious project to date. It’s a much taller order to stage a sincere drama than it is a comedy, however having gelled together as a collective working on their two past, more light-hearted productions, ‘Artmageddon’ and the ‘General Meeting of a Medium Sized Firm of Accountants’, they proved they were more than up for the task with ‘Lullaby Of A Bottlecap Queen’.
Staged in The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, ‘Lullaby Of A Bottlecap Queen’ was a triumph, throwing together amateur and professional actors alike, in order to slowly unravel the mysteries surrounding a new drug Pax – Latin for ‘peace’ – which sits somewhere between ‘Mother’s Little Helpers’, ‘Morty’s Mindblowers’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Soma’.
This experimental drug seemingly offers up new hope for people tormented by their past through erasing the problematic memories. However, as you might expect, the drug comes with unpredictable and devastating side effects. As a radio caller notes near the start of the play, “if we can come to terms with our past – our future will be saved.” Simply erasing the past seems like an easy option but in the long term it will ultimately have adverse effects – perhaps a comment on wider society could be also drawn from this too.
Based on an idea by Thomas Jordan, who wrote the majority alongside Megan Lucas, with additional writing from Tom Clarke, Jess Fowler, Michelle La Belle, Alan Moore, Joshua Spiller and other members of the Northampton Arts Lab – the play begins with a combination of vignettes, giving us a taste of the drug’s effects, as well as intermittent news reports and adverts that provide us with context, whilst we’re also introduced to the silhouetted figure of The Bottlecap Queen, who we see listening to old tape reels behind the same screen bearing the broadcasts.
Trust the snails #PAXisBliss
Posted by Arts Lab Northampton on Thursday, 14 September 2017
Dr. Joseph Pomatia (Steve Scoles) reads from a medical report on the trials of the drug and we learn of its supposedly beneficial effects, whilst Laura Haywood immediately adds a level of intrigue with her Bottlecap Queen performance that takes us on a harrowing journey as she grows ever more tormented, until her precarious grasp on sanity finally gives way.
The first act concludes with a shadow puppet Bottlecap Queen – created and performed by Tamsyn Payne, with help from Haywood – who waves goodbye to the doctors, lawyers and nurses, each represented by their own shadow puppet symbols. The first act leaves many questions to be answered.
Directed by Megan Lucas (who also controls the visual and sound effects) as well as Thomas Jordan and Jess Fowler, ‘Lullaby Of A Bottlecap Queen’ grows increasingly coherent as it progresses and the dots are joined in the narrative. What we learn is that the drug has been developed from marine snail alopecia and, after minimal trials, it was administered to 36 patients all suffering from different levels of PTSD by Dr. Amanda Wirths. Anwen Burrows manages to transmit the conflicted emotions of Wirths as her misguided efforts end up hurting instead of helping her patients, despite a few of the lines eluding her – although this did feel somewhat fitting, given it’s in a play about memory loss.
It becomes clear the characters in the vignettes are all either Dr. Wirths’ patients or are related in some way to them. Addar Siedlecki’s performance as the soldier haunted by what he had seen in WWII, was highly animated and at times explosive. We see him recount his bad memories to a nurse who provides him with the drugs to erase them from his mind but ultimately cause it to slowly unravel into the tangles of delusional Messiah complex. Fuelled by the nurse (Alex Rex) who becomes emotionally but not romantically invested in him, the soldier plummets into insanity and opens The Beyond Truth Museum, where he espouses his farfetched conspiracies as fact. We’re told he’s picked up patients #11-20 as acolytes along the way. His sister (Jess Fowler) tries to help but this proves fruitless and she’s left resenting the nurse.
The mother (Nicola Osborne) and the ex (Matthew Fell) also express similar helplessness in the face of their loved one’s demise – recounting their stories over and over, until they gradually blur into an unsettling collage. It is around this point that we begin to see the beginning of Dr. Amanda Wirths own struggle with crippling memory loss.
Unsurprisingly, the drugs end up on the black market – Rex’s nurse is later revealed to be largely responsible – and we witness teenagers Harry, Em and Luca taking a fatal dosage of the drug in pursuit of hedonism. Played by Samuel Jones, Julia Langley and George Sutton respectively, the trio perfectly portray the increasingly circular conversation and creeping paranoia of a drug experience gone wrong. Once they’ve all succumbed to their final sleep, they’re dragged off stage by black hooded characters.
As Dr. Wirths is questioned by the lawyer (Tom Jordan), the final pieces of the narrative fall into place. Despite her responding ‘I do not recall’ to everything asked of her, we learn that the development of Pax was catalysed by her desire to remove her own troublesome memories, specifically what she feels to be her responsibility for the death of a stranger who saved her own life. She now has the lives of the 36 patients on her conscience too but it all becomes a jumble in her chemically pulverised memory banks.
We later see Wirths taking a bottlecap necklace out of a picnic basket, mirroring the Bottlecap Queen in an earlier scene. There’s supposed to be 36 bottlecaps on the necklace, representing each of the patients, but she finds there to actually be 37. What becomes clear to both the doctor and the audience at that moment is that she and the Bottlecap Queen are one and the same. What she’d been doing with the tape reels was trying to retain the memories of all the patients she’d lost, but they’d all merged into her own scrambled memories and in the end she can’t distinguish them from personal experiences.
With ‘Lullaby Of A Bottlecap Queen’, the Arts Lab Northampton have set the benchmark for the other Arts Labs to strive towards, proving it doesn’t take trained writers and a professional cast to stage a successful and thought-provoking production; all you need is a good reserve of drive and determination – the respect they garnered from the Cosmic Trigger crew attests to this fact. We can’t wait to see what they follow up with next…
Photos: Tom Clarke