FOSSILS at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol

Academically driven Vanessa is a scientist who appears to be as cold a fish as the coelacanths that she and her two PhD students Dominic and Myles are studying. However, there is a deeper mystery lurking underneath. Deeper even than the mystical one she chooses to chase in Loch Ness which concerns her missing father and the lost bond that was forged during her childhood.

Told with a range of innovative and surprisingly very melodic and harmonious electronic music created by violin, harmonium and synthesisers the atmosphere conjured up is one of mystery and a poignant sense of loss.

Helen Vinten perfectly captures the professional academic who clearly doesn’t understand the more jokey students under her command in the lab.  Her scorn for creationists and popular science is suddenly punctured by an influx of Nessie stories in the press, and when she is approached to write an article for ‘Nature’ magazine about the connection with her father’s old research the story takes a sudden twist and Vanessa is driven to find out about a painful personal secret. She even becomes slightly playful herself and the moment when she dipped her toes in the icy waters of the Loch was wonderful.

Bucket Club are an associate company at Farnham Malting and Fossils arrives in Bristol following a successful run in last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and a New York transfer to Brits Off Broadway. The company are clearly in full control of the mood and pace and interject some spirited little touches which work well to combine quirkiness with a solid plot.  Adam Farrell plays the more puppy-like student with a naïve charm while doubling up as the lost father’s rather odd old chum and Nessie hunter, Brian.  Luke Murphy is the more serious researcher and although his character is not as well developed, he provides the greater share of the music and strange accompanying mood noises.  I particularly enjoyed a weird wind-like effect caused by pulling what looked like lawnmower starter wire poking out from a box of electronic trickery.

All the other parts are played by a range of plastic model dinosaurs and fish props handled by members of the cast, and the characterisation is handled with aplomb.  Designer Rebecca Jane Wood’s set is decidedly eccentric and the various coloured wire, transparent plastic containers and toy boats are combined though effective lighting changes to alter the mood and hint at a sinister force beneath the surface.

Nel Crouch has created a delightful, playful piece with a good mix of serious dramatic pondering about the past and its place in the present, with a good smattering of light comedic moments. The latter could have been cranked up a notch or two without spoiling the overall story, but the whole thing works as a reflection on love, loss and a hidden mystery.

A charming story, charmingly told which digs in the past to uncover some, if not all, the mystery that lies beneath the surface.   ★★★☆☆    Bryan Mason   5th October 2017