Chris has a dream. He’s tired of feeling that his life is going nowhere fast, tired of working in a café, tired of feeling that what he does has no impact on other people – luckily, the solution is simple. Chris has found his purpose in life: all he has to do is raise the Titanic. What could possibly go wrong?
Sunked is a two-man show created by acclaimed spoken-word poet (and incumbent Bard of Exeter) Chris White, and it’s about much more than just a hundred-and-five year old boat. It’s a zany and vibrant rapid-fire rollercoaster of a show, fuelled by White’s powerful poetic rhythm, comedic timing, and raw, open introspection. Somewhere in between, Sunked finds time to incorporate everything from humorous musical numbers (favourites include the catchingly-titled ‘Boats That Are Disappointing’) to beret-toting characters being drawn “like one of your French girls”, much to the bemusement of the audience. If this is all sounding a little crazy, then you’re getting the right idea; thankfully, it was just the right kind of crazy. Unlike its subject matter, Sunked left no audience member with that sinking feeling.
There is a sort of undeniable charm to Sunked, a charm that is difficult at first to pin down. The plot is a little insane, in the way that only a one whose finale includes the main character being handcuffed to a radiator by a scheming (and exceedingly Canadian) James Cameron can be. While the delivery was fantastic throughout, the pace was such that at times I was surprised the performers had time to breathe. The energy on stage was palpable, and the performance seemed almost set to run away with itself, the actors being dragged along for the ride sometimes just as much as the audience. Sunked was not the type of slickly choreographed show which is viewed from the comfortable distance of one’s theatre seat; it was instead, in a way that proved infinitely more charming, an exceedingly personable experience.
it was just the right kind of crazy
It is with this establishment of empathy that Sunked really succeeds. Much of the show’s content, when not about the fictionalised Chris’ quest to raise the Titanic from its watery grave, is deeply open introspection on the part of the real Chris White. Exactly where to draw the line between fictional and factual Chrises is largely up to the audience, as he expounds his hopes and insecurities via intense and engaging poetic delivery. In catching up with Chris after the show, I was able to ask him just how he managed to reconcile these two worlds within Sunked; how, for example, does one fit an intrinsically farcical story of ocean antics alongside a deeply touching discussion of a sometime distanced relationship with one’s mother?
He responded with characteristic honesty – it’s about why he performs, and how he feels about himself as an artist. Chris’ mother, he tells me, “crops up in everything I do” – to him, this relates to an idea of responsibility. He worries that he is too self-absorbed, about the possibility that he is creating poetry and performance just for his own benefit, to indulge his own ambitions. This, he admits, is partly the cause for Sunked’s fixation on personal dreams, and how they affect (and are affected by) interpersonal relationships. As Sunked’s fictional Chris becomes too fixated on his ambitions, his relationships with those around him suffer due to his unwitting self-absorption; meanwhile, this is undercut by the ongoing narrative of Chris’ maternal relationship. We hear one side of a phone conversation in which Chris, excited to tell his mother about his new (as yet distant) goals, has to explain why he doesn’t have a “real job” yet. As the play concludes with Chris realising that his ties to other people may be more important than his Titanic-raising dreams, he reads out a heartfelt letter to his mother. It’s not an apology, nor is it a plea – it simply an honest expression of understanding. For Sunked, there is no true closure – we are left with an image of the real-life Chris, determined to follow his own dreams but acutely aware of his responsibilities and debts to others.
This undercurrent of emotion is what provides the real backbone of this otherwise buoyant and, at first glance, irreverent play. White, who proves a remarkably genuine performer, has created something which – with all its craziness, and all its hilarity – manages to connect audience to performer on a deeply personal level. “Poetry needs shit,” Chris tells the audience, “and shit needs poetry.” Sunked, through all its nautical antics, is a piece which explores this relationship of art and subject matter – and sees the performer trying to find his own place between the two. Alongside that, the show is also charming, energetic, and deeply hilarious – so what’s not to like?