IN BRIEF Smart sci-fi exploration of gender power shift is unsettling and rivetingly told

Sci-fi on stage can be a real hit and miss affair, which is why it’s great that recent exponents of this genre have been really successful. Ella Road’s THE PHLEBOTOMIST stoked our fears about truth, power and humanity to great effect. Now, Alex Wood’s carefully-crafted NINE FOOT NINE riffs upon the societal and psychological impacts of changes in physical size and power in the gender mix.

Nate and Cara are a loving couple who we first meet at that most stressful and joyful of times, as they discover the results of a pregnancy test. Sometime before their daughter Sophie’s birth, a global epidemic of unusual growth (“sprouting”) begins to affect the female population, eventually making Cara over nine feet tall with an accompanying increase in strength. The tortuous extension process is conveyed alarmingly well by both the female actors through expressing a physical agony perhaps akin to childbirth (or could one say rebirth?).

Apart from an increase in strength, the change in size has a huge number of other ramifications, including a feeling of disconnection from her growing child “I can’t feel them inside me” Cara laments to Nate. Everything Cara does has to be recalibrated, from a hug to a smack to a hit, which presents challenges for both sexes. Later, as men are the less strong of the sexes and so in less demand, women still find themselves exploited, simply in new ways.

Schools introduce segregation, and prejudice is never far from the surface where difference is involved; at school, late sprouting girls are labelled “stunters”, creating psychological issues on top of the physiological ones, putting pressure on all who try to support the young women, including schoolteacher Nate.

Wood has chosen to tell this global story by focussing on one family, in doing so making it human and relateable. He has clearly thought about a raft of impacts and their ramifications carefully and picked a number to explore, and even manages some humour to leaven the tension. This is what gives the text substance and makes it worthy of close audience attention. Direction by Helena Jackson is subtle but firm, moving the show forward at a good clip.

All three actors are well-cast. Paul O’Dea as Nate is the unchanging part of this equation, yet ironically as a teacher and the male (and therefore not a sprouter) he has to try to help others through this seismic change. His calm, warm and loving (yet ultimately overprotective) approach is a solid hub for the characters to move around. It is all the more disturbing, therefore, to see him snap and for the pent-up anguish to come tumbling out after Sophie has used her power to hurt another child. Alexandra James as Cara is very effective, ambitious and unafraid, portraying the acclimatisation to her new status in a way that we can relate to. Misha Pinnington as Sophie portrays the vulnerable innocence of the child well, and then later as she becomes the only link between her separated parents, becoming a force to equal with as she stands up to Cara.

A huge positive in this script’s case is the introduction of sly humour, as used in the clever and layered scene-changing sound montages, where adverts for stretchmark glitter and elevator shoes for men remind us that whatever happens, someone is always ready to make a buck out of our trials. The humour extends to a couple of very uncomfortable 911 emergency calls with sex-related issues (which were nevertheless very funny, albeit painful for us men!). Notable in its own right, the engaging and smart sound design includes a continuous heartbeat backing track which gives a useful underscore to the events on stage.

Alongside all these positives, I must air a couple of reservations that I had about the presentation as a whole. There was a bit too much jumping around in time for me, timings were a little hard to fathom at the start.

Secondly: how to create the height without showing it. The stylistic decision to render the growth in an abstract visual manner is double-edged. The text needs to remind us of the size difference, and just sometimes I wondered if there might have been another way to show this difference.

Finally, the whole show is captioned with the caption screen sitting top centre of the set. The one thing that I found sometimes difficult to juggle was my attention being drawn to the screen and away from the action.

Sleepless Theatre’s production does the script justice and makes us think, which makes for a satisfying 60 minutes at the theatre.

NINE FOOT NINE played the Edinburgh Festival 2018 and returned for the Incoming Festival at the end of June 2019, playing Manchester, Bristol and London.

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