TW: discussion of abusive relationships

The play starts – a lone person wanders onto the stage. They exchange friendly words with the lighting director (Evie Cakebread). As The Protagonist walks toward Evie, they drop pages and electric candles onto the floor. He is flustered but undeterred by the lapse of silence interjected by the rattle of plastic hitting the stage; picking up the candles, sliding the switch at the bottom, and creating ambience to complement the lighting in rows of spectral yellow. A candle is given to the audience member in the front row to hold in their lap with the instruction: ‘just imagine it’s real’. The electric candles are a little less ceremonious than real ones but decidedly more endearing. There is an immediate rapport with the audience – The Protagonist asks Evie to dim the lights, and start to sing a folk tune about the old Gods, their power, their beauty, their danger…

Thamesis, the new production from Colmo Theatre, is a poignant one-man show that urges you to cast aside the real world and use your imagination as you are welcomed into the realm of the Pagan Gods. Leah Aspen co-directs alongside Nathaniel Jones, who is also the writer, and the lone actor. The audience has come in from the cold February breeze, but The Protagonist assures us that it is Midsummer; he says that ‘we are on the riverbed of the Thames’ in the presence of Gods. Setting the scene is little more than vivid blue lighting, but you want to believe. Within this new world, the actor artfully weaves together music and acting: a performance that is part spoken word, part folk performance, part play, part confession, Thamesis is a tapestry of feeling exploring the connection between a buried past and the primal forces that entice it out. 

Instead of acts, the performance is structured with open questions that invite the actor to unravel stories about his past. These include a question on marriage and one on what they were doing in Midsummer last year. These serve as doorways to discussions of identity, both on a societal scale and a personal one. For example, when talking about marriage, The Protagonist discusses how modern holidays are often a ‘palimpsest of gendered traditions’, something that’s hard to reconcile with queer identity because only a decade ago, same-sex marriage was illegal. On the other hand, you have The Protagonist’s own past and what marriage means to them. They read out old notes from when they were going out with their first boyfriend at the age of 15, the naivety of the thought that it would end in marriage. The journey from a wider discussion to the personal reflections shows the audience the wistfulness of The Protagonist whilst they reflect – why are they so caught up in their past? As the play goes on, it is revealed that they have created their own palimpsest; one of layering false realities to try and get away from the truth of this first relationship. He casts these writings into the river, hoping they will disappear, but the Gods that reside in the river are not so foolhardy – over time, things start to feel… off. The tone shifts. Evie’s lighting stops complying to his commands. The Protagonist starts to lose control of the narrative. The riverbed starts to speak, drawing out a confession of what really happened…

It is an inventive, unique way to explore the effect of abusive relationships and how they corrupt a person’s psyche. The multimedia exploration builds on the layers of meaning; the singing is beautiful, the writing deft; Jones navigates the tonal shifts eloquently. At the start, the way The Protagonist interacts with the audience immediately makes you like him. In character, he is confident in his lack-of-confidence. The performance isn’t meant to be a polished act, but a personal one. Not an actor, but a friend recounting their experiences during this long Midsummer evening. This means that, when the tone turns darker and you realize the actor’s performance is breaking down, you feel real sympathy. 

It’s short, impactful, and a good way to spend the evening. At the start, the actor laments that he would usually include ‘audience participation’. In this instance, the performance will be all about himself. Despite this, the audience gets to ruminate on their own experiences. The use of segmenting questions enables the audience to take away their own reflections on the subjects. You learn about the Pagan traditions and think about them with regard to your own relationships and how the Gods would help you confront any hidden truths. While, at first, the jump from Pagan festivals to personal relationships seems tenuous, as it goes on, it becomes clearer. When someone has buried themselves so deeply in false reality to protect the memories of what they thought was love, only something as primal and bold as these Gods are able to draw out the confession.


Special thanks to the production.