IN BOCCA  AL LUPO. Written by Jemma Kahn and Tertius Kapp. Directed by Jane Taylor. Illustrated and performed by Jemma Kahn. Sound Design by Charl Johan Lingenfelder. Lighting Design by Themba Stewart. Costumes by Ella Buter.

Tracey Saunders

A story can begin in many places. One that begins with goats eating fallen secrets is bound to be wondrous and fantastical and In Bocca Al Lupo is that and more. Jemma Kahn’s previous award winning productions The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults and We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants earned her much acclaim and a cult following. The sassy and insolent Chalk Girl (Klara van Wyk) and the decadent Roberto Pombo were on hand in earlier shows but this time she is flying solo and she soars.

Billed as Kamishibai Memoir, Kahn takes you along on her journey to, through and from Japan where she acquired the skill of this deceptively simple yet complex, Japanese theatre form. For those unfamiliar with Kamishibai (translated from the Japanese paper play) it consists of an illustrated performance where hand drawn story boards, displayed in a frame (in this instance four frames) are changed throughout the performance. Kahn is as talented an artist as she is an actor and writer and the illustrations are exquisite.

Jemma Khan in ‘In Bocca al Lupo’

She has used various styles, from hyper realistic sketches of a Japanese forest to abstract verdant green panels. Quirky anime style cartoons and satirical caricatures set the tone of each chapter in this autobiographical story as the illustrations serve as prop, set and backdrop. While many are realistic they leave enough to the audience’s imagination to intrigue and titillate. Her skill in manipulating the boards to partially reveal different parts, eventually making up a very different whole is akin to a theatrical type of Tetris.

 Women that run with wolves

There are several relationships, some more successful and less toxic than others, that are woven through the narrative – from Japan, to Ireland and places in between. The one which lingers the longest and touches the most tender nerve is that of Kahn’s with her grandmother, a feisty and determined woman from whom she seems to have inherited a number of traits. They share the idiom In bocca al lupo, the Italian equivalent of the English expression “break a leg” as well as the ability to love passionately if not wisely.

The script is a thing of beauty and aided by Tertius Kapp Kahn flits between comedy and tragedy with metaphor and memoir forming the base of a very personal and painfully honest account of her life after completing an undergraduate degree in drama and fine art. Her clarity of insight, admittedly in hindsight, provides a hyper-aware self portrait and she shares some of the more intimate moments with a wry self deprecating wit which is hilarious.

Her irreverence is worn as a protective shield and her canny observations of Japan, “a country with which there is something profoundly wrong” is matched only by her microscopic analysis of her interior landscape. As she balances the micro and macro details of her life so to she draws a line from the mass trauma of Hiroshima to the micro effect of radiation on her own family. There are echoes of the overwhelming sense of sadness she feels at the diorama depicting the Hiroshima prefecture, both before and after the 1945 atomic bombing, reflected as she surveys the remains of her personal life after a disastrous relationship.

The grand agony of life seems to be an amplification of her personal pain and it is in these reflections that this is most keenly felt. The metaphors and descriptions are as rich and vibrant as the illustrations themselves and so vivid that they add another visual layer to the piece. Sometimes white powder is sugar, a soft coating left by magical fairies and at other times it is just cocaine.

The ordinary is made magical

The ordinary is made magical and the mundane seems almost murderously numbing. Till slips with telephone numbers become treasure and recreated Skype calls, her only tenuous connection to her family back home, appear like small episodes of a hospital television drama. She emphasises the aural horror of the cicada with a larger than life, hyper-accurate illustration of the insect. A short while after she has you humming Yesterday as she conjures up a different type of beetle in a sentimental nostalgic Beatles cafe.

The build-up to the final scene is a theatrical gem and she has a perfect sense of the dramatic. Aided by Lingenfelder’s sound design she reveals her final fear and conceals her future all in one beautifully choreographed sequence. In Bocca Al Lupo is confessional without being contrived and Kahn will captivate and enthrall you in equal measure.

Where and when: Alexander Upstairs, 30 January to 11 February

Book: Alexander Upstairs