Review: Thamesis

by | February 11, 2023

It’s midsummer: night’s veil is at its thinnest, the boundary between reality and magic at its most porous. Thamesis, a queer solo show written and performed by Nathaniel Jones and directed by Leah Aspden, plays out under the blue light of the riverbed. Taking us with him on his winding course through first loves and loneliness, through fairy realms and failed hook-ups, Jones weaves together spoken word, an original folk score by Faye James, and bare-your-soul excerpts from diary entries. Thamesis is experimental, pieced together like a patchwork quilt. Exploring the ebb and flow of growing up in a generation where individualism drowns out community and sex is “just an emotional carbohydrate to satisfy our hunger for intimacy,” Thamesis hankers for a simpler time, one of river gods and fairy-tale mysticism. As the show draws to its climax, the prosaic threatens to intrude on the mystical, making it collapse like a house of cards.

“I’m sure a lot of you are prepared to bare your souls in the Burton Taylor studio tonight,” Jones grins, addressing the audience in a showman’s oily tones. Like an Apprentice candidate conducting market research, he begins the show by asking us, “When was the last wedding you went to?” Luckily, he doesn’t seem too interested in our answers. He pulls out his phone and plays us a video of his sister’s wedding. Crackly bagpipe sounds fill the studio, the quality akin to nails scratching on a whiteboard. He asks us: “Can you hear that?” The staging is deliberately playful and interactive, blurring the boundaries between life and art. When the speakers crackle or the lights come on at the wrong moment, I’m not sure whether it’s part of the show or mere opening-night clunkiness. “Alright, well, we’ll just stay in the riverbed then, guys,” Jones says, resigning himself to the inky blue that’s being projected on his face.

Jones is chirpy, conversational, and dressed in the uniform of a typical Oxford student: Doc Martens and a cable-knit jumper. Except for the crown in his hair, that is, which is dripping in gold. What is going on, and why are we here, watching a Nokia-quality video of his sister’s wedding? “I have friends who are obsessed with getting married,” Jones confides in us. Then, a little wistfully, he adds: “The longing for the final closure of loneliness…”

Jones has gathered us here to celebrate midsummer with him, the turn of the “wheel of the year.” Celebrating the change of the seasons is better than celebrating a birthday, he claims, because “it feels more natural when it’s not about…you.” This is ironic, as it soon becomes apparent that Thamesis is an introspective unravelling, one where we dip our toes in Jones’s memories and float down the current of his psyche. Yet his diagnosis of our craving for a life grounded in community and ritual, rather than in our isolating cult of individualism, is dead on. Jones and his ex-boyfriend had “planned a drive to Stonehenge, to see the sunrise with the hundreds of others,” underscoring their need for a collective breaking of bread. But modernity is always just around the corner, impinging glaringly around the carefully constructed paganism. Opening his Book of Shadows, Jones clears his throat enigmatically. “Yesterday’s recipe for honey-cakes. From BBC Good Food.” Eventually, even he is forced to acknowledge that his reconstruction of a world of fairy-tale mysticism falls short of the real thing: “The Druids wouldn’t be very happy with me.”

It quickly dawns that Thamesis is a cry for help cloaked as a paean to midsummer. “I am stagnant,” the narrator confesses, still trapped in the whirlpool of his abusive first love. He must allow his reminiscences – pieced together from Word docs, Notes-app paragraphs, and screenshots of messages from significant others – to be swept away by the tide of the river. And Jones must learn how to cope when the nights start to get longer again.

Thamesis is Jones’s quest for the bliss of “a never-ending midsummer,” and the realisation that it will never come. Despite the slightly facile ending, Thamesis is vital, engaging, and experimental. If you are prepared to listen to folksy ballads about honeyed wine and river gods – ballads which make one think of a medieval pageboy on an acid trip – then get yourself to the Burton Taylor studio and watch the river gods come to life on the shortest night of the year. ∎

Thamesis is produced by Colmo Theatre, written by Nathaniel Jones, and showing at the Burton Taylor Studio 7-11 January 2023.

Words by Irina Husti-Radulet.