Assault Events throw up a dancing gem at the Pick 'n' Mix festival

There's no such thing as a free lunch, so when a theatre company leaves free beers waiting on each table, suspicions rise. 

As thirty-odd theatregoers fill the top room of Belfast’s Old Museum Arts Centre for Assault Events' Alibi, some look askance at the movie-lit red-clothed tables. There's no stage to speak of, but four of Asda's finest 4.8% Bière DeLuxe greet the audience, along with bottle openers.

Plying the audience with free booze is one way for a company to endear themselves to an audience, but you don’t have to be rubbered to enjoy Alibi. A site-specific shot of narrative choreography following three characters, the show's performers dance around the dark edges of dating and relationships in the present-day.

Stevie Prickett plays the modern-day nightclub lothario, breaking out the moves and trying to capture the attention of ladies Emily Dobson and Sioda Martin.

As the audience adjust to the set-up they realise that the sultry electro they’re hearing isn’t a Portishead CD but an original score performed by Sophy Smith and Tim Dickinson. Like a seductive fairy godmother, Smith skirts the edge of the scene with a radio mic, creating a narcotic atmosphere.

Emily Dobson and Stevie Prickett in Assault Events' 'Alibi'. Photographs (c) Neil HarrisonThe soundtrack is impressive. A segued journey from the downtempo trip hop of Massive Attack to the wistful moments of Groove Armada, the music follows an intelligent design that makes it more than a second-rate imitation. Aural cues lurk amidst the bass and beats, like drills whirring low in the mix, or comedy bubbles popping when the character’s expectations do.

The focus, though, is on the three twentysomethings decked out in denim lowers and white tops. There’s no dialogue, names or monologues. None are necessary, for the cut and thrust of pulling on a night out will likely be familiar to anyone attending the show. Opening in Derry’s Sandinos, Alibi adapts its layout to the venues it is performed in, in this case clubs, bars and non-theatrical locations.

Choreographed by Sandie Fisher, Alibi is a show that needs space. Using a low wooden bar table, waist-high platform and plush square stool as principal props, Prickett and Dobson dance rings round each other, gradually becoming more entwined. What begins like an audition for a B*Witched video quickly becomes something more dynamic and engaging, like watching dominoes fall, ribbons twirl or sparklers spin on Hallowe’en night.

Although produced in collaboration with writer Michael Duke, there is scant narrative. Necessarily so, perhaps, as to have characters developing, speaking and acting means they’d need a tenuous excuse to break into dance. The value of the ‘story’ is in making the dancing accessible to the audience who might not otherwise consider the form. In engaging a new crowd, Assault succeed admirably.

Kicked to the sidelines when her friend finds love with Prickett, Martin languishes alone as the duo’s routine builds in ambition. They bounce off one another and toss bottles like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, with wide eyes and coy glances doing enough to show the status of the relationships. For a moment it’s an odd Belfast Bollywood that snaps into contact dance and capoeira, with an unspoken sexual charge running like hot wire between the pair.

Emily Dobson, Stevie Prickett and Sophy Smith. Photographs (c) Neil Harrison.Alibi is an eavesdropper’s dream, alive with the giddy thrill of watching the public exposion of the fighting couple at the next table. We see the lusty cat-and-mouse of new lovers turn quickly to the cold war and mind games of a sour relationship, expressed through dramatic dives that morph into faints, falls, dance slashes and twisting sexual karate.

One of the three is going to get hurt, and Alibi prompts enough quick shifts of sympathy to keep things devilishly interesting. The girls duke it out in a dramatic dance-off, a catty pas-de-deux that abates before obsession and jealousy move in.

The purpose of the free beer becomes apparent when Alibi dares audience members to get involved. None tonight are up to the challenge. As the show finishes, though, you feel that you owe the cast and crew a drink or two, for the sheer energy and invention on display. 

Kiran Acharya