Centralia @ Wardrobe Theatre – Review

Centralia poster
Multinational company Superbolt Theatre are at the Wardrobe Theatre (above the White Bear) this week with their take on the fascinating true story of Centralia, Pennsylvania – once a thriving mining community of over 2000 inhabitants until in 1962 a trash fire lit by miners inavdvertently ignited a coal vein beneath the town starting an underground fire that still burns to this day. Though efforts were made through the 60s and 70s to extinguish the fire, none made any impact and, as cracks appeared in the roads and houses and the ground fell into sink holes, the state of Pennsylvania took the decision that the cheapest option was to condemn the town and relocate the entire population. Nearly everybody left, but 4 people stayed and now they’ve stopped off in Bristol as part of their world tour to tell their story through theatre, dance and music.

Our guides on this journey are Jennyfer whose mother was killed by the carbon monoxide from the fire leaking up through the ground, Alister – the young man who runs the general store but harbours dreams of becoming a rock star, Patrick – the vicar who believes God has blessed Centralia (and who preaches the benefits of shoes) and Norman whose wife chose to leave Centralia but was pleased to leave him there too. We get to hear a bit of what’s going on beneath the surface with these characters but, considering the bizarreness of their situation, I felt it would have been beneficial to delve a little deeper into why they’ve stayed and their thoughts about living in an abandoned town.

Perhaps like the story of the town of Centralia itself, this piece of theatre is both thought-provoking and surreal. At the start, as we meet the touring Centralians, there is an intentional am-dram feel to things but as the play progresses, the quality of performance switches from the poignant asides of these four final residents to their comically bad attempts at telling their story through their various chosen media (though some of these sequences are both technically complex and innovative).

Overall the play feels slightly disjointed – more of a series of vignettes than a coherent story – which is further compounded by the play-within-a-play device. That said, there are a number of highlights that make this worth a watch – for example, some intense baton-twirling to the music of Cher, a tightly choreographed dancing shoe routine, a sequence full of silent expletives and an ingenious cameo by country music legend Kenny Rogers as the town’s mayor! Overall this is a fun hour of theatre and you’ll leave smiling, if slightly confused, about what you just saw.

Superbolt’s Centralia is at the Wardrobe Theatre nightly at 8pm through to Friday and costs £5.

For an idea of the variety of madness you can expect, take a look at Superbolt’s photo gallery here.