Low Down Trains, planes and Bernie Eccleston feature in a mini-epic adventure into history and heritage in post-war Essex. Using hand-made models of cars and people, film and photography, there’s lots to learn and to love in Chris Dobrowolski’s new show, premiering at Brighton Fringe.
Written and performed by Chris Dobrowlski, with co-writer & director Paul Bourne for Menagerie Theatre.
Review Chris Dobrowolski declares himself a fraud. He’s not a performer, he’s a visual artist pretending. Not quite true – he has a couple of very successful ‘theatre’ pieces in his back catalogue – but a key driver of his art is the question of authenticity and what makes things real.
In the atmospheric and perfectly matched surroundings of Brighton Toy and Model Museum (what, you’ve never been? Go, it’s a jewel) with just a screen and a paddle for pointing, Chris takes us on a whizz-bang journey from his early obsession with cars, to making models and kinetic sculpture, becoming an artist on the university lecture circuit and way beyond.
Many people have tight emotional attachments to childhood toys. Most of mine were taken away when I was twelve and I still search flea markets for a sailor doll with an HMS Mauritania hat. Chris is currently living in the Essex home he grew up in, with his 91 year old mum, surrounded by mementoes and memories of his personal history.
Confident and relatable in his easy-going delivery, with proper Essex swearing, Chris weaves a narrative that connects the life of his Polish father and their German friend on a post-war housing estate, where streets are named after military heroes, with his own artistic development. The history of place, how the local becomes universal brings the story full circle in an hour packed with juicy information. Sounds a bit formal, more biographical lecture than art? Not so, because everything is illustrated through Chris’s fantastic miniature models, choreographed and story-boaded, mixing real with fake, still images with film, documentary footage with invented scenarios. As an artist he gets an idea and runs with it; his residency at Bedford Libraries is a joy. Like Richard DeDomenici turning the De La Warr Pavilion into a crazy golf course, he knows how playful art brings people together.
What begins as biography stealthily develops into a manifesto against right-wing governments, fascism and the ideology of our current political leaders. Priti Patel is a local MP; Chris shows her spitting out refugees who float off in a tiny dinghy, probably filmed in his bath-tub. It’s a quietly elegiac moment in this busy, buzzy hour. There’s some nervous energy in this second ever performance that will relax over time into a more conversational style, and a bit of trimming wouldn’t go amiss but Toy Stories feels like a keeper.
Luisa De la Concha Montes, The Play's The Thing UK British Theatre & Performance Criticism June 23 (Brighton Fringe )
This is not a conventional play. Part artist manifesto, part PowerPoint presentation, this incredibly creative show explores the life and work of artist Chris Dobrowlski. The setting for this show couldn’t be more perfect. Nestled between model train tracks and vintage toys, Chris’ performance takes place inside Brighton’s Toy Museum (which, funnily enough, is also below Brighton’s train station).
As we enter the venue, we are asked to look at a video playing on an old television set, which is also Chris’ work. On the screen, there is a model car going around in circles on top of a stack of papers with the lockdown government guidelines. We see a model toy version of Boris Johnson and Telegraph and Guardian newspaper sellers wearing masks, while “I’m Bored” by Iggy Pop plays in the background. This sets the mood for the show, making clear that humour is embedded into Chris’ visual language.
The show opens with Chris launching himself fully into amusing self-deprecation. We immediately learn that he is the textbook definition of a failed artist, as he is still living with his mother, and his studio is actually her shed. He takes us on a life-tour, outlining what it was like to live in post-war Essex with a Polish dad and a British mum.
Chris intercalates videos of his art installations with family photographs, and personal anecdotes. Failure becomes a running concept in the show. He talks about how, in his final year, he attempted to build a boat to escape art college. The boat sank, but it resulted in Chris being invited to other universities around the country to talk about how not to make a living as an artist. Ironically, he remarks how his initial attempt at escaping art college ended up in him coming back for many years as a lecturer.
Politics is also a prominent topic in the show. He talks about fascism, explaining how his dad escaped Poland during the Second World War. He also includes his very blunt opinions about the current political environment. He shows us the art pieces he has made about Priti Patel’s anti-immigration policies, and Boris Johnson’s response to the pandemic, making a poignant point about the connection between fascism then and now.
The whole performance is a journey, literally and metaphorically. We get to know Chris’ fixation with Scalextric car sets, model planes and construction toys. But rather than being a strange obsession, we understand there is more to it. Vehicle making becomes Chris’ metaphor for growth, an ode to childhood, and a way of looking inwards by looking back.
This show is far removed from the stuffiness of the art world. The language it uses moves beyond inaccessible ‘art-speak’, and instead invites us to see contemporary art as a hilarious, absurd and moving event. More gallery opening press releases should be written in the style of Chris Dobrowlski. Toy Stories ran through 21 May.
Well, the first thing I’ve got to credit Menagerie Theatre for is introducing me to Brighton Toy and Model Museum. Situated under Brighton Station, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of toys and models from over the decades. Amongst it are numerous extensive train tracks, working Meccano models and many other vintage delights. It’s worth the ticket price to have a look round the museum alone if you arrive early enough before the start – however, this is supplemented by some of Dobrowolski’s own models.
Anyway, on to Toy Stories itself The first thing to say about this is this straddles Brighton Fringe categories, none of which I’d really consider to be its advertised category of theatre. Chris Dobrowolski is an artist, and the show is best described as a talk from him on what he does, how he ended up doing what he’s doing, and some stories of what happened in his life because of this. You won’t be hearing any recitations of Shakespeare here, but Dobrowolski is an engaging storyteller – and that, I think, has a lot to do with how he’s forged the career he has.
It begins with how his parents met. As you may have guessed from the surname, Chris Dobrowolski’s father is Polish. He is one of the Polish fighters captured in the Russians in 1939, then allowed to fight from Britain in 1941 after the Germans turned on Russia, only to not be allowed back. There was one nice anecdote about the meetings of both the Polish Veterans and German ex-POWs, but as they dwindled in number they eventually merged.
Then we move on to his very niche line of work: making art out of children’s models. After a cynical about 100% correct observation about scale models of race cars apparently making it okay to advertised cigarettes on children’s toys, we move on to his crowning triumph: a Scalextric race track in the library. And you could have your own car modelled on the track. And have a live camera following your car. I’ll say it again. It’s YOUR OWN CAR. On a SCALEXTRIC RACE TRACK. With a LIVE CAMERA. In a LIBRARY. (And this isn’t just a boring oval track, but running under all the shelves and underneath the computers and everything.)
Dobrowolski also talks a bit about his teaching work -and here I think he undersells himself. At the risk of overdoing the chiche about inspiring young minds, he clearly did. So much that when a former student who he barely knew sadly died and his parents invited him to a memorial exhibition of their work because Dobrowolski was an inspiration to him, I don’t think his realise just how poignant it was.
The only thing I wasn’t convinced about was the analysis of the rise of fascism. As the risk of repeating what I’ve said before: I’m pretty sure 100% of the audience already agrees Fascism is bad, and have already seen parallels with the Stop the Boats policy. And original though the toy-centric analysis is, everybody over-analyses subjects that the whole audience already agrees with. What would have been an interesting take is the rise of nationalism in Poland – this would have fit in very well with the story beginning and ending there – that that was only touched upon before . Ah well, maybe the next edition. Toy Stories doesn’t really belong in the theatre section, but as an inspirational talk it’s a lovely hour. And a great idea to set it in a toy museum.
A note from me- Chris Dobrowolski - on Chris Neville Smiths Criticisms
For me , this show is primarily about sociopaths and manipulation. Although the content is all true I highlight and amplify the ugly side of my ego. In a way I 'play the role' of a self obsessed artist. Of course I realised how poignant it was to be invited to the memorial exhibition of a student I had taught - the glossing over of poignance is deliberate. I make out I had no idea who this student was where in reality I met him on numerous occasions. I knew him but not well. The poignance is there but my character is too self obsessed to dwell on it. The 'real me' also didn't want to milk this sad event. The grief was not mine to exploit.
Failure is a predominant theme running through the show. In one section I illustrate my journey of discovery into far right political cultural theory using toys. The end result of this extensive but myopic research is that after taking the journey all I do is conclude the obvious - fascists are bad! It's a conclusion that becomes a particularly bad case of 'stating the bleeding obvious' when- as Chris Neville Smith points out- the average theatre going audience invariably has similar political leanings as myself and I'm 'preaching to the converted'. This sense of futility is kind of the point. However, C, N. Smith's review is evidence that this point isn't clear. In subsequent edits of the show this is addressed more overtly.