Review: Jack Dean’s ‘Nuketown’ @ Exeter Phoenix

Nuketown is a combined storytelling and protest art project about cities, public money and the possible end of life as we know it.”

This Monday, 14th of May, Jack Dean reached the second leg of his tour and performed his most recent piece, Nuketown, here at our very own Exeter Phoenix. Jack Dean is an Exeter-based performer and writer who has performed all over the world: from the Bowery Poetry Club in New York to Latitude Festival here in the UK. His mediums include spoken-word poetry, theatre and rapping, and Nuketown seems to combine elements from all three. Storytelling, live musical performances and a whole load of Lego are just a few of the things to expect from this show. Unsure of what to expect from a performance described as a “combined storytelling and protest art project”, I was interested to know what the evening had in store.

Nuketown is based around the imaginary, utopian city called, you guessed it, Nuketown. Jack Dean tells us two stories. The first is about Alfred, our Lego protagonist, and the second, about a tour-guide in the Cold War museum. At first, the two seem like two different narratives, but by the second act the links between the two become clear. The main one, of course, is nuclear weapons, which appears to be the main premise behind the performance. Dean’s use of theatre and storytelling is an innovative way to get the audience thinking about our choices, and even activism, regarding state security and public spending. Nuketown, and all the buildings in it, apparently worth £205bn, the same amount as Britain’s nuclear weapons deterrent, Trident. Dean takes this even further, asking the audience to come to a Lego-building session before the performance, where our Lego creations were evaluated and given a price relative to its equivalent in real town planning. This really made me think – what could we really do with £205bn?

The concept of Nuketown is actually quite clever. The juxtaposition of the Lego set, usually a child’s toy, with the main theme, the serious topic of nuclear weapons, engages the audience in a way I haven’t seen before. The set itself is amazing – the set constructer Matt Sykes-Hooban has done a fantastic job of creating a charmingly detailed city made of Lego. Sights include a modernist building that houses the Cold War museum, a metro station with a moving train, a forest with light-up street lamps, a realistic looking beachfront, and a little neighbourhood for our hero, Alfred. Building with Lego was a huge part of my childhood, and I really felt like I was reliving the games I used to play, as if I was giving life to my own Lego characters all over again.

Unfortunately, the execution of Jack’s ideas left a little to be desired. Aside from numerous technical issues, which I am happy to overlook as I’m no tech-whizz myself and understand that things go wrong when you least expect it, it was clear that the performance as a whole was unpolished. Whether it was down to nerves, not having enough rehearsals or simple unprofessionalism, I was a little let down by number of slip-ups. Guitars played notes that were out of tune, the set got knocked over in between scenes, and Jack and Josh tripped over various times. All mistakes that could’ve been avoided. For £12 per ticket, I was expecting something a little more professional. Nuketown does have the potential to be something quite remarkable. Jack Dean and Josh Lucas use the set and a live camera feed to create a strange but quirky storytelling experience. A lost cat, a government conspiracy, nuclear weapons, and Lego as far as the eye can see: Nuketown plays with an incredibly stimulating and relevant topic, and embraces an inventive style of storytelling, but is let down by the overall execution. Jack Dean is a creative young artist, and I am sure that he will have much more to give to the performing world. Nevertheless, I was disappointed with their numerous blunders throughout the evening.

– by Luanna De Abreu Coelho 

*Image courtesy of Exeter Phoenix

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