You may have heard of Caliper Boy - we've previously spotted his era-spanning scrawls around London and learned a bit more about the legend of this early 1800s downtrodden child, allegedly locked away in a cellar in 1819 by his prostitute mother until age 12, when he escaped to find his father. dANTE OR dIE is a theatre company that dances, sings and performs a type of musical theatre that is the complete opposite of the stuff of the West End. The company of multi-talented performers create highly original work that lingers long in the memory after the lights have come up, and Caliper Boy is their disorientated, distorted, distinctly urban embodiment of this London legend.
Two dancers play the boy, playing him as a wide-eyed, eager young lad waiting for his father who is allegedly coming to pick him up. Terry O'Donovan and Pia Nordin twist and turn themselves through some astonishing choreography, suggesting the multiple disabilities of the locked away little boy without mawkishness or over-egging it. At various points the two bodies become one and as the tales of longing, of childlike wonder in an urban dystopia come tumbling out, we watch the hybrid being with two legs, four arms and two heads move steathily through the shadows as the musicians provide accompaniment.
And it's worth pointing out that the musicians aren't merely accompanying trumpet players: they are integral to the performance, wandering around the performance space singing tales of alienation, of urban decay and wanting to belong, sometimes even climbing over the seats brandishing guitars and rattles. The entirely original score is unsettling but accessible, tuneful and once you get used to seeing dancers with trumpets strapped to their legs that are still being played by a musician crouched on the floor, Caliper Boy finally makes a lot of sense.
One particularly poignant scene has O'Donovan and Nordin dancing ecstatically while eating MacDonalds burgers, telling a joyful tale of being taken out by the father who has finally arrived. As they fling themselves around the stage, scattering bits of bread underfoot while talking and dancing with their mouths full, it looks grimy, a bit wrong, but sweet and uplifting thanks to the music and the optimism of this character the company has imbued with hope and compassion. While Caliper Boy could have been played for all its Victorian Gothic thrills, dANTE OR dIE have done something much more clever and memorable, making an historical legend a thoroughly modern London story of a little boy who wants to know, in a city this big and this crowded, why he isn't like the other children. Head to the People Show Studios to find out for yourself.
Caliper Boy at The People Show Studios, Bethnal Green, until Friday 7 December, £7.00. For more information, go here.