with ★★★★★ for the visuals and staging in general
This is one of the most controversial plays of the season for sure. Do you think “I, Joan” at The Globe sparked a debate? Google what people say about “Cages” and you will feel overwhelmed by the emotions and opinions people have after seeing it.
Since “Cages” is such an original performance, I felt like it deserves a slightly unconventional form of a review as well. So I shall just write freely and see where it takes me. Hold on tight.
What is “Cages”, really?
It’s a tech-heavy musical, filled with holograms, projections, and well-sung pieces by CJ Baran. It’s a love story, but also a kind of dark fairytale. I would say it’s the most technologically advanced show I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure.
Since 12 October 2022, you can also enjoy an art exhibition showcasing pieces of art inspired by the show. The exhibition is free to enter and available to view every day, in the foyer of the Riverside Studio.
The ‘Caged’ exhibition features top-tier contemporary artists picked for their distinctive storytelling style, themes, and personalities. Among the standout pieces is a lenticular artwork of Lauren Baker featuring a beating human heart; a neon flower painting created by multidisciplinary artist Naomi Wallens; and a neon monkey installation designed by ‘Punk Rock Legend’ Mark Illuminati along with Amy Winehouse’s tattoo artist Henry Hate.
If you’re around Hammersmith, this exhibition is definitely worth having a look at! There’s also a bar and a cafe on site, so you can view the art pieces with a glass of bubbly in your hand.
See a trailer to “Cages” here:
What’s the story about?
It’s a story of a “chosen one” (Woolf, played by CJ Baran), who comes to save a nation, and falls in love with a girl in the meantime. All this happens in the Kingdom of Anhedonia, where emotions are forbidden and hearts are kept in cages. Anyone found guilty of feeling anything is chased by the guards and fined. Music is also forbidden, as it leads to the expression of feelings. And there’s only one man who could change the fate of Anhedonia (guess who).
What adjectives would I use to describe “Cages”?
Extremely visual, magical, and immersed in tech. But also repetitive, predictable, and overly lengthy in the (completely unnecessary) 3rd act.
Which movie would I compare “Cages” to?
As a concept, it reminded me of the original “Avatar” by James Cameron. When it was released in 2009, it amazed audiences. It was completely fresh in terms of its approach to visual arts in film, and it used new technologies in a way nobody used before. IMAX became a well-known name also because of “Avatar”, and the 3-D movie craze started at that time. However, did anyone get excited about the story in “Avatar”? Did it showcase great acting? Do you even remember what the story was? Probably not really, because well.. they were not the best. And that’s exactly the thing I felt as I was watching “Cages”. It’s an extremely pretty wrapper hiding a sadly hollow story. Still, a beautiful experience though, don’t get me wrong.
What’s the best thing about “Cages”?
Without a doubt, the magic of mixing holograms, the latest stage tech, and the purest quality of sound available – left me in awe.
Riverside studios is a perfect venue for a performance like this – with cinema-quality sound equipment, I felt the music crawling under my skin, and the specific sounds of raindrops or metal objects dropped on the floor came from a very specific place.
The holograms, especially in the first 15 minutes of the play, were so good they almost distracted me from the story and action. My brain started processing questions like “how is this possible” and “how did they put this together”? The movement is choreographed to perfection and allows a smooth blending of the digital and real world – you can see how much work CJ Baran has put into his blocking and choreography
I also liked the concept of the Kingdom that bans emotions and keeps hearts in cages – it could be a good concept for a mini-series maybe? I’d love to find out more about how this lifestyle was imposed on people, how the education system works etc – it was just barely shown in the musical, but in a longer production, it would work much better.
CJ Baran’s voice was a delightful surprise – it matched the songs well and generally created an unorthodox style of musical, with pop/rock tunes from the 2000s. It’s not my favourite kind of music, but I enjoyed exploring this new musical experience and didn’t mind immersing in this type of music style for a change. I would love to hear CJ Baran’s music in other types of arrangements too – maybe in a little bit heavier songs?
Besides the show itself, I found the pre-show experience fantastic. Premium ticket holders receive access to a “Cages” lounge, decorated in Anhedonia style. There are cages, hearts, and mathematical equations on the walls and you can just grab a complimentary negroni and enjoy the atmosphere while sitting in a comfy armchair. The lounge has a fantastic vibe of excitement in the air and matches the show’s vibe perfectly. If you get a chance to grab a premium ticket, don’t think twice, it’s worth it.
Ok, so what’s the deal with the issues with “Cages”? Is it a bad show or not?
Yes, I have to admit it’s a pretty bad theatre in terms of acting, logic, and story writing (it’s not so simple though, so please read this till the end). As a musical, it’s wearisome, with songs being quite similar to each other and no particular standout, memorable pieces. There’s not much creative flair in terms of story, with the script being more of a mix and match of well-known archetypes – from the Bible, “Matrix”, Tim Burton’s films, “Footloose”, and many more.
It’s almost as if CJ Baran and Benjamin Romans took all the classic stories we all know from cinema, music, and TV series, put them all in a huge bucket, mixed them well, and then picked up a random set, and decided to incorporate them in the show. And not even hide these inspirations – Tim Burton’s colours and style in city visuals look just way too similar to “Nightmare Before Christmas”.
I was really hoping to find something new and surprising in the actual story, but well – as the show opens with the final scene, and then we go back in time to explain what happened, it closes the door to many potential surprises – we already know how the story ends! Also, we’ve seen this story many, many times before…So if you are going to see this show with the attitude that this is a theatre play, you won’t like it. You might hate it actually.
As the play progressed, I was getting annoyed with the inconsistencies of the show: firstly we see the characters speaking to each other using text, like in a black and white movie, but after a while, both characters start singing and text projections are not used anymore. It just seemed not well thought-through as a concept.
The show is also very uneven. The first act injects energy and excitement into the whole production – it sets the scene and frankly, has 99% of the whole story in it. I could see only the 1st act and not miss anything at all. 2nd and 3rd acts are less action-packed and more just created for the visual pleasure of the audience. But they’re not needed at all, in terms of the story itself.
So who would enjoy “Cages”?
Anyone coming to see this with an open mind and NOT as a theatre show. I understood that I started to enjoy “Cages” when I switched my expectations and saw it as an “immersive cinema” experience, almost like a 4-D show (but not as cringey as those 4-D cinemas in the 2000s, more like the new, immersive cinema experiences). Without the traditional expectations for a theatre play, this show defends itself (not fully, but it tries).
It will land well with anyone who likes movies like “The Hunger Games”, “The Divergent” or “Twilight”. And, of course, “The Avatar”.
Who would NOT enjoy “Cages”?
Anyone who likes to analyse the story, character, motivations, and logic of action. Also, someone who’s not ok with excessive autotunes in music and doesn’t like pop/rock/house style of music. If listening to Swedish House Mafia or Daft Punk fills you with dread, skip this show.
If you’re a huge Tim Burton show, don’t see this one. You’ll just get annoyed seeing how the show tries to recreate the vibe of your favourite movies.
Let me just mention the ticket prices:
Ok, this one annoyed me. We are in a cost-of-living crisis. And tickets for a show costing £50 per person (for general seating, not the premium one), are outrageous. TodayTix luckily opened a scheme with tickets available for 50% off (thank you TodayTix, for saving theatregoers’ butts and wallets), but without it, I can’t imagine justifying paying all this money for an off-West End show, sorry. This is more of a cinematic experience and I would recommend pricing it more along the premium cinema prices rather than upmarket West End ones.
16+; Contains strobe lighting effects and flashing lights, plus the use of smoke and haze.
VENUE: Riverside Studios
Runs until 1 January 2023, buy tickets here
RUN TIME: 1hr 45 + interval
COMPANY: Scenario Two & Woolf And The Wondershow
CAST: CJ Baran, Woolf And The Wondershow