Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring

Review by Steve Timms | 31 Mar 2016

All of ordinary life is on show in Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, which proves a high water mark for theatre company Quarantine

The show opens with Mr Blue Sky by the Electric Light Orchestra: “Hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race.” Apt.

Forget traditional notions of what theatre is supposed to be: there are no actors, no characters, no plot, and no three act structure. The performers in Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring by Quarantine Theatre are ordinary people (though at the end, you’ll realise – if you didn’t already – that there’s no such thing as an ordinary person) who have volunteered to participate, sharing details about their lives with director Richard Gregory to build something from scratch. They are babies, children, teenagers, and pensioners, all from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds. Audiences can see each part separately but Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring really needs to be experienced as a whole.

In Summer, there are 40 plus people on stage, who respond spontaneously to a series of random questions and tasks projected on to a screen. What we’re witnessing really is a ‘happening’ – an event which is different at each performance. There’s a mass stage fight, and lots of dancing – mostly good. In the most startling section of Summer, each performer brings on to the stage a suitcase filled with personal possessions, which are carefully unpacked and laid out, and then re-arranged by the cast. Tiny fragments of other people’s lives. There’s enough material in this one sequence to create a hundred other shows.          

In Autumn, the barrier between performer and audience is removed: it’s a two hour interval, and the stage becomes a large social club. We have a clairvoyant, ping pong, conversation tables, a silent disco, and a reading room where performers from Summer share books that have changed the way they think about the world.

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Winter is a 45 minute film that takes the form of an interview with local woman Mandy King-Holmes, who has a terminal illness and two years left to live. It’s another challenge for a woman who has already struggled with deafness and childhood abuse. “When you get told you’re terminal”, she says, with level-headed stoicism, “you realise you have no future.” Her courage is moving, and a privilege to witness.

The quartet ends with the quiet simplicity of Spring, in which nine pregnant women pose a series of questions to their unborn child. Half of these seem like legitimate concerns: Will you get bored of my reading you a bedtime story? What if I disappoint you? What if you disappoint me?

But then the tone becomes glib, and the questions more inappropriate: Will I walk in on you having sex? Will you walk in on me? Will you invite your father’s new girlfriend to your wedding? This sort of cynicism – questions that appear to have strayed in from the world of Forced Entertainment – seems at odds with Quarantine’s essential decency. 

Quibble aside, Quarantine has created something genuinely special with this show. Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring is a high watermark in the history of a remarkable theatre company.