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June 14, 2017 | by  | in Theatre |
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The Basement Tapes

Six years ago, someone close to me died. I still haven’t sorted out her things. Each item is simultaneously vital, and meaningless. I’m angry at the things: they have outlived her. Subconsciously, they haunt me. They are a reminder of what no longer exists.

— Director Jane Young, speaking on the motivation for The Basement Tapes at BATS theatre.

 

Roll up, roll up; hold up, hold up; po’ up, po’ up.

I love to… I wanna… I’m tryna…

I’ma rock the boat, work the middle ’til it hurt a little.

— Excerpt from Kanye West’s “Fade”, the song that soundtracks the first scene of the piece, featuring central performer Stella Reid twerking all over the space and using an old radio as a makeshift instrument. This follows a brief prologue wherein our protagonist fearlessly attempts to negotiate a vegan pizza combo deal with a small Pepsi from Dominos.

 

The juxtaposition of those two introductions to the world of Basement Tapes is some indication of the multitudes that it contains within. The writing both amuses and affects, and Reid’s performance is as much non-verbal as it is defined by her witticisms and monologues. Some laugh-out-loud moments are sandwiched jarringly next to scenes marked by the awkward laughter turning to baited breath, and a whispered “what the fuck” or “oh god no” from the row behind you, but that’s part of the charm.

Basement Tapes prides itself on the ability to lull you into a false sense of security with its comedic sequences to the point where you feel immensely comfortable with the protagonist and wouldn’t even mind chatting to her for a bit afterwards if she’s not too busy (as many audience members do after the finale). Then, it sucker punches you with a pang of emotion or a wave of dread, realising the protagonist isn’t even entirely comfortable sharing the same space as you.

Take the play’s premise: a granddaughter is to clear out her grandmother’s old basement, and while looking through the hoarded objects and solving word puzzles in back issues of old newspapers, comes across a tape recorder and a pile of cassettes. Through these, she uncovers her grandmother’s old memories, committed to tape before her death. However, when Reid’s character realises that the first tape refuses to replay her grandmother’s recording, her response is not to predictably launch into a maudlin monologue, nor to shrug it off and go back to sifting through junk. It is to interrogate the inanimate object under harsh lamplight, replete with a butchered Brooklyn Goodfellas-esque accent and crazed facial expressions. What follows when the tape is finally placed back into the player shows a real sense of tangible loss felt by the granddaughter in the absence of her grandmother, but also cleverly foreshadows the final twist in the tale as well as terrifying the hell out of the audience by the section’s conclusion.

The team behind Basement Tapes use the space given and the props sourced to the absolute very best of their abilities. Despite the horror and melancholia inherent to the show’s DNA, I can still recollect a range of moments where disused radios, tubing, and ’80s record sleeves were used as lightsabers, microphones, and punchlines for the excellent script. The bitches brew of audio-based theatre, site specific theatre, comedy, and  horror might turn some off, but there is still the emotional core — the central problem of how you grieve for a person you never fully knew.

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