When I volunteered to write about The Song Company’s Mind Over Matter, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Billed as “a zany musical comedy surrounded by vocal arrangements of 1980s pop hits”, the only thing I was sure of was that my companion and I were in for a unique experience!
Upon entering the wonderful Art Deco-styled Harold Lobb auditorium at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music, the scene was set: 80s pop music playing in the background, the grand piano was centre stage, flanked by two raised platforms, with an illuminated skyscraper to one side. This, I presumed, represented the headquarters of BABEL, “a giant computer corporation run by a man known simply as ‘The Boss’”, and its two lifts with personalities of their own.
The hall’s lights dimmed and the catchy music faded away, plunging us into an atmosphere of impending doom. Antony Pitts, the Song Company’s Artistic Director as well as the writer and conceptualiser of the show, and Leonie Cambage, its director, took to the stage to welcome the audience before the show commenced.
The cast took their places in a semi-circle on stage. Faces painted white and bodies clad in 80s power suits in pink, turquoise, check, and iridescent green sequins, they performed hits by Joe Jackson, a-ha, and Tears for Fears in glorious five-part harmony. This part of the show still had elements of a recital, but with a sense of fun and physical looseness, especially Antony when he led the ensemble in an a cappella rendition of a-ha’s Take On Me. If tunes like Mad World weren’t so engrained in our collective consciousness, these arrangements could almost pass for Renaissance motets, especially with countertenor Maximilian Riebl’s pure voice soaring over the top. Maximilian was then centre stage to perform Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, and his captivating voice resonated throughout the auditorium.
Spooky piano tremolo signified a darkening of mood (as did the literal dimming of the lights), as the omnipotent BABEL sat aglow in the foreground. The Prelude and Fugue, composed by Antony, was an overture of sorts before the action began. You could hear the Baroque form infused with elements of boogie woogie and modern harmony, yet it was tense and virtuosic nonetheless, creating a foreboding feeling of technology about to run amok.
The commencement of Act I was signified by Maggie Chen, Lift A and piano, joining Antony, Lift B and piano, in synchronised body percussion. BABEL was moved to centre stage, rotating on its axis, creating a kaleidoscopic effect on the ceiling.
In Antony and Leonie’s foreword, we had been warned that the story was very fast paced – and they weren’t kidding! The intensity and pace of Mind Over Matter’s allegorical tale of “the consequences of humanity’s actions and the role of technology” was well-matched by Antony’s through-composed chamber opera: its frenetic music was constantly in motion, all the while with the four-hand piano part unrelenting.
I must admit that the story’s intricacies lost me somewhat, but overall, Mind Over Matter was a unique and explosive show with strong performances from all cast members, especially Pip Dracakis, whose performance of a BABEL-infected Mabel was very convincing (in a gold-sequinned jumpsuit, nonetheless!).
After The Song Company’s challenges of late, Mind Over Matter cemented it as a force with which to be reckoned; unafraid to be bold and make a point.