It’s hard to classify the work of Stuart Bowden. His one-person storytelling theatre works are at once hilarious and melancholy. They exist in a particular space of fringe theatre: intricately crafted stories built for small rooms and small audiences, they lift and rise that audience, gathering us all up in the magic of stories and the closeness they can breed.
The first time I saw Bowden was crammed into an overcrowded venue at the 2011 Adelaide Fringe for The World Holds Everyone Apart, Apart From Us. That show told the story of Alvin, a man who goes to the desert to learn how to live alone, so he can travel in a spaceship to find a planetary friend for the Earth.
I returned to Bowden’s work in 2012 with The Beast, about Winslow, a beast who lives alone in his cave and falls in love with a woman who lives in the village below. In 2014, he brought us She Was Probably Not A Robot, the story of the sole survivor of a global catastrophe, and the robot, Celeste, who has been building a replica of Earth.
Bowden’s show this year is Before Us: he plays a creature who lives alone under a rock in a forest. The creature bounds across the stage, leaping and twirling in a dance that is awkward and uncoordinated, yet celebratory and proud. She sings about the extinction of her species: ‘everyone is dead / I’m the only one left.’ As day breaks, she declares it is bedtime. She lies down on her side, her body curved into a stiff arc with her rigid head and legs hovering off the ground.
Bowden’s body is encased in a green sack, the billowing fabric creating the impression of a segmented insect. The creature tells us that her body is very desirable to other members of her species. She knows she looks good. As she moves, her lumps shift and she appears to tuck her stomach up under her breasts. I am ascribing too much of a human figure to this creature, but there is something wonderful in this performance: a bearded man wearing a green sheath, claiming a female character and telling us how beautiful her body is, this lumpy body that can be shifted and tucked into itself.
This nocturnal creature comes out only at night because the sun would dry her right up: it dried up her boyfriend, she tells us, just as it dried up the others of their kind before him. When the other creatures in her species existed, she tells us, she was renowned for her drawings of humpback whales with human hands. Now there is no one to draw for, she lives alone – singing songs on the toilet, power walking through the forest – before one day hearing the sounds of a party, and power walking towards the music to join in.
The stories Bowden tells in his solo shows are of unlikely heroes: men who build spaceships, beasts who fall in love, the last surviving human, the last surviving undiscovered green nocturnal insect who lives under a rock. Brought to life by a mostly-bearded, sometimes-bespectacled man, these people and these creatures are socially awkward and lonely – by choice, or responsibility, or tragedy – but still they want to claim their own space, whether in this world or another. We champion them in their quest, and laugh with and at them as their journey progresses.
The worlds Bowden creates are not quite our own: they are the Earth of the future in Everyone Is Apart and Not A Robot; or the places on our Earth we don’t inhabit, in The Beast’s cave and the forest floor of Before Us. When he tells these stories, though, Bowden firmly places them in the theatre and the real spaces we exist in. As I watched Everyone Is Apart, an ambulance wailed its way down the road outside, and Bowden folded an ambulance wailing its way past Alvin into the story. As we skipped through the gutted department store where The Beast was performed, he pointed out the remains of dead bird lying on the concrete floor. In Before Us, the audience member who accidentally let something fall to the ground became a partygoer dropping things in shock.
Each time Bowden brings the world of the theatre into the world of the play, we laugh. Beyond the emotions of these characters trying to find their place in the world, beyond the occasional tears the audience sheds, the moments when Bowden’s worlds clash into ours are fantastically funny.
There is a definite sense of the low-fi about Bowden’s work. This is aided by his performances in Adelaide and Melbourne at Tuxedo Cat, a transient venue that reclaims disused city spaces to create intimate fringe theatres. It comes through in the design, too: a tree made of black milk crates; a robot head made from a cardboard box and aluminum foil. Simple, looped music is played on a banjo uke and a Casio keyboard.
It’s beautiful, this simplicity, and is used to highlight the complexity of the stories Bowden tells. His characters are imbued with a hyper-specificity that sets them firmly outside of our own experiences, but into this he builds nuance, the experiences of the individual becoming universal. Beyond merely sympathising with his characters, we recognise ourselves in them and discover a new beauty in our own lives. His characters are self-effacing but confident in their small worlds, and his performance shines with complexity. When he sings, his voice is tender and full.
Often when I watch Bowden’s work I am caught in a space between hysterical laughter and emotional tears, somewhere between second-hand embarrassment and second-hand pride. But always, when I leave the theatre I find myself refreshed and newly alive. At the beginning of Before Us, Bowden tells his audience that at the end of the show we will all collectively die. If that is what death is like, we should do it more often.
Before Us was presented by Don’t Be Lonely at Tuxedo Cat for the 2015 Adelaide Fringe. Season closed. Playing Det Andre Teatret, Oslo, March 20 – 21, and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, March 30 – April 5.