Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Love and death are the two themes of Hummingbird, a noirish murder romance set in mid-twentieth century America based on a true story and reinterpreted as a stunning piece of physical theatre
Love, death and deception are running themes throughout Hummingbird, a tale of a couple who go on a murdering spree in 1950s America, based on the true story of the Lonely Hearts Killers.
Edith Cole is a young girl working in a funeral parlour somewhere in small town USA. Through a lonely hearts advert on the radio, she meets Ralph Conti. The two fall in love – a lucky escape for her, since Conti is a confidence trickster who steals money and valuables from vulnerable women. After she moves in with him, though, and discovers what he does to make money, Edith joins him in his trade and theft soon turns to murder.
Stunningly performed throughout, Hummingbird blends physical theatre with minimal dialogue, a spot-on soundtrack and tight direction. The highly accomplished, Lecoq-trained cast of three, Harriet Feeny, François Lecomte and Adam Gordon, have excellent poise and control, at times holding tableau-like positions like an art installation, at others throwing each around with precision that just narrowly avoids crashing into the table in the centre of the stage. It’s clear that everything in Hummingbird is immaculately planned. Every gesture, every move, every word, every sound, every change of lighting means something and is timed to perfection.
Feeny and Lecomte play the couple – she young and naïve, he initially hard and suave then clearly smitten with her – while Gordon flits around the edges playing the remaining characters: the fast talking, tough detective who is determined to break them, the radio DJ lining up the hits and various other characters, including a number of ladies. These latter he deftly hints at with just a hat and a few effeminate gestures. Sexual relationships and arguments are both stylised though acrobatics.
Hummingbird has a noirish tone, with the detective frequently in the background asking questions and picking through evidence, but there are funny touches too, such as when Edith uses the dead body she is working on as a desk to take down the phone number of the lonely hearts ad and Conti practices the lines he’s going to use on Edith but constantly gets her name wrong.
A lot of thought has clearly gone into the pre-recorded soundtrack, which sets the scene with, at times, eerie strings causing a feeling of unease, at others, rock ‘n’ roll hits of the 1950s and the Mr Clean TV advert lending a lighter note and giving a sense of the period, as well as the ongoing interrogation of the couple by the detective. The fact that it’s pre-recorded allows the use of a wider variety of sounds and voices than could be provided by the actors, including at one point a cacophony of female witnesses talking over each other, and it also gives the sense that it’s a record of the case that’s being listened back to later. In contrast the live spoken words by the actors seem all the more powerful and present because they are few and far between. Silence too is used effectively. When the couple first meet, they stare wordlessly at each other for so long it begins to be uncomfortable for the audience.
There is a masterful use of props as well: a light somehow exactly recreates a microphone in a vintage radio broadcast, the table is used both to set the scene in the couple’s flat, but also symbolically to represent the power differential between Edith and her employer and later as the walls of the prison, while a dress and shoes are very cleverly moved around like a puppet to represent the woman who wore them. It’s imaginative and it’s carried off with finesse.
Only one thing could make it better. I would have just wished for this to be in a venue with a proper stage and backdrop. Occasionally the action drops out of sight at ground level, which is on the same level as the front row of the audience, and the performance is set against a not-particularly attractive black stage curtain the top of which ends around eye level for those in the back row. It is best to sit nearer the front if possible.
Fortunately the backdrop doesn’t matter that much because you cannot peel your eyes away from the performers for a second during this powerful performance.