In both folklore and fiction, the caterpillar has long symbolised rebirth. In transforming into a beautiful creature capable of flight, the lowly insect has come to represent the potential for personal change and has featured in everything from children’s fables to a platinum-selling hip-hop album. The title of Alison Carr’s new play is therefore appropriate, given its questions of identity, authenticity, and what it truly means to ‘fly’.
Or it could just refer to the cake. The play is mysterious, in both content and meaning, avoiding categorisation and leaving audiences with more questions than answers. For these reasons, this review will avoid any detailed description of the plot and its developments, for while there are plenty of laughs to be had, there are also plenty of turns, all of which deserve to be experienced in person, rather than spoilt here.
Set during a seaside town’s annual ‘Birdman’ competition, Caterpillar focuses on the lives of a B&B owner Maeve (Tricia Kelly), recovering from a stroke, and her caring but abrasive daughter Claire (Judith Amsenga). The relationship of mother and daughter is complicated by the arrival of the keen but well-meaning Simon (Alan Mahon), whose determination to fulfil his deceased girlfriend’s wish has brought him to the town to take part in the competition, hoping to fly off the pier in an amateur hang-glider.
Caterpillar keeps you guessing. Tightly directed by Yasmeen Arden, the play skilfully switches between moments of great wit and moments of bizarre and sometimes unsettling recrimination. It’s an entertaining but tense watch, for beneath the jokes and the banter there is genuine darkness and pain, sometimes suggested, sometimes present, but always threatening to explode.
Balancing humour and tension is a difficult trick to pull off, but Carr manages it with a script that is both well-paced and well-judged, offering audiences just enough information without ever giving the game away. The performers do well with this material, with each actor presenting characters that are plausible but peculiar, giving us an impression of a person, but one that might not necessarily be completely true.
Credit must also be paid to the set design of Holly Pigott, whose Bayview B&B feels homely, lived-in, and belies any of the troubles that may lurk beneath its exterior – much like its occupants. The walls, put together with what appear to be wooden shipping crates, were a particularly nice touch, invoking the salt and surf of the seaside, and helped in no small part by Jac Cooper’s sound design that drifts between the cawing of gulls and eerie electronics.
Caterpillar will not please everyone. The play takes several risks during its later sequences that may seem a little far-fetched, particularly when it comes to the changing behaviour of its central characters. As mentioned above, the play offers no easy answers and no simple explanations, and this lack of resolution could prove unsatisfying for those who want to understand the why of it all.
Caterpillar is an amusing, strange, and provocative work, delivering up a twisty tale where no one is quite who they seem, and everyone appears to have something to hide. Who is the caterpillar? Who is the butterfly? Who falls and who flies?