I’ve never seen a show quite like this – and that’s not just because of the special effects. I’ve never seen a show with so many equally amazing parts as disappointing parts. Cages is put on by Woolf and Wondershow, which is the creation of CJ Baran and Benjamin Roman, who also both produced, directed, wrote, and composed the show.

Cages takes place in the fictional dystopian city of Anhedonia in an unspecified time, where no one experiences emotions – well, except for Woolf, (played by real-life person Jack Butterworth) the recluse who lives in a clock tower and the beautiful woman Madeline (a hologram, played by Allison Harvard), who can inexplicably love. When Woolf sees Madeline, he instantly falls in love. He creates noise on his machine (which will later become music) to express his feelings for Madeline, and they spend many seasons in love’s bliss.

Inevitably, Madeline is summoned to a governmental arranged marriage. As a result, Woolf decides to write a symphony that encompasses all the emotions – including anger, sadness, joy, lust, and love – and play it for the people of Anhedonia so their hearts (which, by the way, are physically and metaphorically in cages) can be free to feel emotions. Woolf ends up getting captured and killed by the government, making him a martyr because in this act he also frees everyone’s hearts. Madeline was imprisoned and had her memory wiped but ends up surviving.

I included a summary to show the narrative’s lack or originality and significance. The most frustrating aspect for me was Madeline’s (pun intended) lifelessness. I don’t know why she wasn’t played by a live actor, but it perpetuates the classic girl-as-a-passive-victim trope. Though she could love just like Woolf, she was reduced to a muse, a victim, and a passive two-dimensional character (again, pun intended) that got neither backstory nor the screen time the man did.

By far the most stunning aspect of the show are the special effects. The production is mesmerizing and stunning; it took me a few seconds to reenter the real world when it was finished. Though the music may not be to everyone’s taste, it cannot be denied that it is very well done. It ranges from techno all the way to classical depending on what is happening in the story, but it works. What does not work are the lyrics. They aren’t cheesy; they just don’t make sense. It is like they are trying too hard to be profound. Ironically, one of the themes in the story is music being the most powerful conveyer of emotion; they did not accomplish this in Cages.

I am immensely impressed with Butterworth’s acting skills. He engages with the special effects seamlessly. The amount of emotion he is able to convey with holographic people is incredible. All of the transitions were smooth, the line between screen and reality effectively blurred. He also has a very pleasing voice, sounding like he trained in pop music rather than in musical theatre, which works with the ambiance of the show.

Like I said, with this show having so many elements that vary widely on how impressive they are, it’s difficult to give an overall rating. I’d give the special effects, acting, and musicality five stars, whereas I’d give the narrative and lyrics one star. I think the reason Cages received poor reviews is because it’s presented as a musical, which it’s just not. If it were presented as anything else – an experimental art piece, concept album, extended music video – it probably would have done much better in the press.

For anyone who wants to experience this trippy show for themselves, I want to give a warning to those overwhelmed by strobe lighting, surround sound, and powerful bass. The show is so loud, it is almost an immersive experience. I also want to offer the advice of having an art-for-art’s-sake mentality when you see it. Not every decision had a reason behind it. In order to have an enjoyable experience, you just have to appreciate the aesthetic of the production (and wow is it aesthetic!)

Cages is on at Riverside Studios until the 1st of January. Make sure to check out the curated companion art exhibition when you go for an altogether enjoyable evening in Hammersmith.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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