Wednesday 23 August 2017

The Baby Farmer - Melbourne Fringe Festival preview

Ghoulish, grotesque, unsettling and suspenseful. These are some of the words used in my review of The Laudanum Project's 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival show, The Grand Guignol Automaton. Thankfully, these masters of horror storytelling are back this year with The Baby Farmer. Admittedly when I first read the title of the show I thought it was going to be a cute comedy piece but when I saw who was behind it, I went to a very dark place very quickly.

"I have to say that it’s extremely heartening to hear that just seeing our name can do that to you. Happiness gained through other peoples' discomfort is what we do best I suppose," Nick Ravenswood, the show's writer tells me. "The Baby Farmer is best described as a dark Victorian fable that is set against the backdrop of London’s East End during the 1870’s. The story centres around six year old Agatha May and her mentally disturbed mother Winnifred Alcorn."

"Since fleeing to London to escape the horrors of her past, Winnifred has found work as a baby farmer and is currently caring for five newborn infants. The miserable drudgery of Agatha and Winnifred’s existence is turned upside down as an ever-growing nightmare of nocturnal premonitions and visitations befall them. As Agatha and Winnifred’s desperate world slowly begins to unravel a shadowy stranger appears on the streets of Whitechapel and initiates a terrifying game of cat and mouse that will leave both mother and daughter changed forever."

"As usual, my character Alphonse Cheese-Probert narrates the entire story while Captain Enoch Malleus (Gareth Skinner) plays the live soundtrack on keyboard & cello," Ravenswood says. "This is Gareth’s first production with The Laudanum Project and he’s brought a really stark and skeletal feel to the entire piece. The Baby Farmer is by far our most tragic work and I think most of that has to do with the depth of emotion that Gareth has placed into the score."

Baby farming was a historical practice of taking custody of a baby or child in exchange for payment in the late-Victorian era and Ravenswood undertook plenty of research to not only understand the mentality and process behind this but also to get an awareness of what life was like back then. "I did a lot of reading up on Amelia Dyer who was a baby farmer in the late 1800’s and she is still regarded as one of the world's most prolific serial killers. At the time of her execution, a handful of (child) murders were attributed to her, but it is strongly believed that she was responsible for many more similar deaths - potentially over four hundred," he says. "While Winnifred is not actually a serial murderer I wanted to utilise some of the elements of Dyer’s life in Winnifred’s story. For example, Dyer worked as a nurse and transferred those skills over into baby farming. The idea of something healing and nurturing that gets distorted into a dark and fatal reflection of itself was absolutely fascinating to me. It felt like a perfect fit for a story that was going to be full of mirror images and unexpected inversions."

"The process of actually writing The Baby Farmer was pretty fast however. I tend to digest an idea for a fair while and then vomit it all out fully formed. I think the time I spent writing the first draft was about a week," he says. "When it came to the score Gareth worked just as fast and he had the guts of it in place within a month of receiving the script. There were almost no edits needed for the music, what you hear is pretty much what Gareth heard when he read it. I think the hardest part for Gareth was waiting for the book and exhibition to be finished so they could all launch at the same time. The play was well and truly out of the gate first."

If the performance itself isn't enough to terrorise your soul, Ravenswood has released an adult picture book of The Baby Farmer with illustrations by Chloe Neath. "Chloe and I had collaborated on a couple of projects prior to this so we pretty much understood each other's work and aesthetics and felt that we’d be a great fit. Chloe works in sharpened charcoal on brown paper and her attention to detail is almost frightening to behold! I guess you could call her work photorealism but it also has a depth of soul that goes way beyond being just hyper real." Ravenswood tells me.

"Chloe put in over five hundred hours work into the illustrations as well as working on the different layouts with me. We teamed up with a fantastic guy called Matt Revert who designed the whole book and pulled all of the different elements together. As well as being a very talented book designer Matt is an author and musician so he really understood what we were going for and knew that the book, show and exhibition had to almost function as one entity. 
Unfortunately, the exhibition platform is no longer running, but the book will be available for purchase at all performances."

Despite the horror and gruesomeness in their stories, The Laudanum Project excel in having their audience hang off their every macabre word and leaving them wanting more. We don’t treat the audience like idiots. Within the monologue and the music we give people the space to paint their own pictures and walk their own landscapes. I think it’s kind of a rarity these days for audiences to be given the freedom to think and not have everything tied up in a nice little bow for them."

"We also maintain a level of intensity with all of our productions that can leave audiences pretty drained. It’s an hour and twenty minutes of fear, claustrophobia and horror that is delivered in florid, detailed language with a musical score that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go for a single second," Ravenswood says. "It can be emotionally powerful stuff and I think the effects of that tend to linger."

Five Quick Ones

Art is a fingerprint. A bowel movement.
The best live show I've seen is a performance of "Bar Kokhba" by John Zorn and The Masada Chamber Ensemble at The Knitting Factory in New York City in the early 90’s.

The best advice I was ever given is "be your word." 
A song that describes my life is "Earth Died Screaming" by Tom Waits.
A food I can't live without is sugar.

Show Information

Venue: The Meat Market, 3 Blackwood St, North Melbourne.
Season: 27 - 30 September | Wed - Sat 9:00pm
Length: 80 minutes

Tickets: $35 Full | $30 Conc
| $25.50 Group 6+
Bookings: Melbourne Fringe Festival

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