What if self-identifying women around the world spontaneously started growing several feet taller? In this dystopian drama, the Sleepless Theatre Company explore the global repercussions of such a phenomenon. The injustices that women face across the globe are magnified, as women grow taller and stronger than men, are used for manual labour, but still don’t receive equal pay. By focusing on one family’s story, they create an intimate play that is profoundly relevant.
Cara and Nate are thrilled by the prospect of becoming parents as they read the result of the pregnancy test. It’s positive! Daunted by the prospect, but also excited, they discuss plans for the times ahead; telling their parents, decorating the nursery, selecting a school. The beginning of Nine Foot Nine lulls the audience into a false sense of normality, as it feels like an ordinary domestic drama about a young couple starting a family.
Alexandra James and Paul O’Dea share a remarkable chemistry, rendering their characters’ relationship entirely believable. Their happiness is intoxicating, establishing an immediate connection with the audience. It is clear that we can emotionally invest in this couple. Sadly, their elation dissolves as Cara begins ‘sprouting’ during her pregnancy, horrifically growing by several feet over a short space of time.
Thankfully, this play doesn’t attempt to physically depict a nine foot woman on stage. Instead, a bloodcurdling scream is emitted and Cara paints herself with white paste. Bandages are applied to cover the excruciating stretch marks. During these transitions, we are informed by vox pop interviews and news reports that ‘sprouting’ is a global phenomenon. Nicola Chang‘s brilliant sound design effectively uses this clever device to convey magnitude on a restricted budget. It helps provide context to global events happening outside the play’s narrative, which is focused on a singular family.
Cara grows so big that she can’t feel her baby grow inside her. “I can’t feel my baby kicking”. Nate becomes the attentive husband, caring for Cara. However, tensions start to rise when he starts to restrict Cara to the flat, for fear she will hurt herself and the baby. Rather than a cruel, oppressive boyfriend, it is clear through Paul O’Dea‘s nuanced performance that Nate genuinely cares for Cara. Although misguided, his intentions are good, but their relationship is pushed to breaking point.
Having a newborn baby adds mounting pressure. She can fit in the palm of Cara’s hand so Nate instinctively wants to protect his baby from being accidentally hurt as a result of her mother’s tremendous size. Frustrated and repressed, Cara leaves to become a political activist, helping exploited ‘sprouters’ in Brazil.
Now a single father, O’Dea’s Nate is left to raise their daughter, played by Misha Pinnington. Torn between protectiveness and fear, he teaches Sophie to repress her powerful strength, and consider her size. This father-daughter relationship is compelling, yet troubled, as Nate makes the same misguided judgements.
Alexandra James is magnificent as Cara. Portraying her character’s anger and frustration at being oppressed, James depicts an acute vulnerability and a sense of helplessness, of being trapped inside her own body. Her selection of what dialogue is spoken vocally, and what she articulates in British Sign Language, is profoundly powerful. Dramatically, it means that her dialogue holds more gravity. Her character is entirely relatable, even when she leaves Nate to raise their daughter. Perhaps I sympathise with Cara because I am a woman, but I credit James’ performance with being able to evoke sincere empathy.
Nine Foot Nine uses creative captions to make its performance accessible to all members of the audience. The sensory lighting design from Jess Hung brilliantly complements the captions. An abstract pattern of cubes are lit different colours whenever the news reports and vox pops change interviewees. When a character vocally screams, this is mirrored in Hung’s lighting, as all the cubes are illuminated at the same time, providing a sensory overload to those with hearing difficulties.
This is a provocative dystopian play that is disturbing, powerful, and inclusive. Its relevance on a global level is striking, but by focusing its narrative on a single family, it also manages to relate on a human level. It highlights the strain that this scenario would have on relationships. Magnificent performances from both Alexandra James and Paul O’Dea are evocative, showing the weakness and vulnerability inherent within us all, even if you are Nine Foot Nine.
Nine Foot Nine is one of my highlights from the Incoming Festival at Manchester’s HOME.