Review: The Populars at Summerhall

To be completely upfront: it’s basically impossible to do The Populars justice in a small space. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a journey. You enter the room in darkness, slow jazz playing and the performers moving sinuously. It’s standing room only, and you notice the way other people fill the space just as much as you do the dancers.

Indeed, The Populars is about space; space filled by bodies, space left empty, space that’s yours or someone else’s, and breaking down the lines between these spaces, as well as the lines between everything else. The audience are drawn into becoming performers, and the performers sometimes spectate. The end result is a spectacular liminal space, where anything is possible. Even the shyest person could find themselves dancing with abandon; there’s something of the feel of a Northern Soul dance hall crossed with the ecstatic spontaneity and weirdness of a Pentecostal chapel.

The performers (Neal McWilliams, Elin Phillips, Mali Ann Rees, Rick Yale) are fantastic, technically and emotionally, and the show as a whole is a masterpiece. Directed by Paul Davies, this is a superlative example of immersive theatre, and as a production put on multiple times, something to check out if it tours closer to you. Not only is it a great time, but it plumbs with great eloquence the issues facing us as a country, facing down an uncertain future. As the show progresses, journeying through dance, poetry, improv, and politics, you journey from darkness to light, before the show ends in darkness again, but a different darkness, where you feel, just maybe, that things might not be quite as dark as they seem, so long as you can dance.

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