Home Theatre, Manchester; Thursday 4th May 2017.
America, the early 1960s: the space age had begun, there was talk of putting a man on the moon – long-haired hippies everywhere freaked out at the thought of little green men being out there.
Caught up in the giddy enthusiasm of the era, NASA big-wigs spent the 60s swanning around as if they owned the place, they were the president’s best friends after all. But the goofy boffins soon realised that they’d spent far too long on their complicated rocket science equations and had neglected something that should have been obvious from the start: no one knew how to communicate with aliens.
Due to strict immigration controls, America was lacking in volunteer aliens who could attend language lessons, or take part in cultural exchange programmes. So NASA decided to go with the next best thing: dolphins.
A team of mad scientists were given NASA cash with the mandate of teaching these highly intelligent creatures how to speak basic words of English. The idea was simple: the scientists would formally write up their methods and processes (like a really neatly written GCSE science report); and this could then be re-used as soon as first contact with ET was made.
It was a great plan, it was going to be the cutest experiment ever. What was the worst that could happen?
Quite a lot, it seems: NASA’s pompous project directors made the cultural error of forgetting that America (and thus their own staff) was in the midst of the liberal Swinging Sixties. The mad scientists completely lost the plot: they moved Peter The Dolphin into a luxury penthouse apartment on the top floor of their lab, gave him a shit-load of LSD, then they wanked him off when he got horny. And he never said a word. Would you?
It’s all true, check Wikipedia.
Some 50 years later, Breach Theatre bring their new play, Tank, to Greater Manchester – this is their portrayal of the whole sorry episode, Tank should be seen as a public education production fired directly at the liberal extremists of Greater Manchester. If you harbour any theoretical notions that humans and dolphins should be free to explore sex and drugs with each other in the name of furthering science, Tank is the show for you.
Tank is sinister and tense, the performance generates an ever-increasing (and at times unbearable) atmosphere of sexual tension. This is material that will make you cringe and writhe around in your seat in intellectual discomfort, more agonising than watching Paul and Mary discuss soggy bottoms on Great British Bake Off. There is no way on Earth to describe how the jaw-dropping horror slowly creeps up on you over the space of an hour as Breach gently crank up the tension, constructing an ever-more-viable and believable threat that they’re about to deliver an explicit sex scene between Peter The Dolphin and Mad Margaret. For that reason alone, this play is a theatrical triumph, no question about it.
The sex-tension is the stand-out feature of Tank, but several other elements of the performance add to the dark and mysterious atmosphere. Two of the four cast members seem to be stood to the side continuously describing the plot and the characters, almost like live commentators on the play itself. They question the motives of the characters, romanticise the story, even argue with each other about what the whole thing means. There’s very little actual, traditional plotline delivery of the kind that you might expect from a play. This plot-confusion induces a mild annoyance, in a few instances it almost makes it seems as if Breach haven’t rehearsed their play properly, but it isn’t long before the powerful sex-tension reaches out and strangles you again.
Tank is a true masterpiece of psychological horror in the theatre. Numerous gasps and psychotic outbursts occasionally erupt from the audience, at one point a hipster seems to suffer a mini breakdown and appears to call for the show to be stopped. When the horrifying end does come (and it really is a shocking climax), everyone disperses quietly, not speaking, faces still physically aching from having spent an hour holding the same expression of terror.
But, uncomfortable as it is, this is an important and thoroughly entertaining piece of educational drama for the Greater Manchester masses. Perhaps not one that is suitable for showing in schools, but if you don’t put yourself through things like Tank, how else will you know about the wrongs and rights of drug-fuelled sexual experimentation between humans and dolphins – or that the issue even existed in the first place?