Licensed to Ill, Camden People’s Theatre

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Rolling Stone famously reviewed it with the headline “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece”. Simon Maeder and Adam El Hagar’s unofficial history of the band, which revels in the haphazard brilliance of these unlikely New York rappers, underlines both their idiocy and their intelligence. The show has all the anarchy and DIY spirit of a fanzine: it’s scrappy, colourful and bursting with unapologetic enthusiasm.

This telling of the Beastie Boys’ rise to fame has the same chaotic, hyperactive energy as the video of Fight for Your Right (which gets its own lo-fi stage re-creation). Licensed to Ill follows the band from wannabe punk rockers to hip-hop superstars, as Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz find their way to the top of the charts through a combination of talent, accident and arrogance.

Much like its troublemaking protagonists, Licensed to Ill never takes itself too seriously. Brainstorming names, the band reject one suggestion because “it’s not stupid enough”. A similar logic drives the show, which never accepts a simple staging solution if there’s a sillier one to be found. So there are sequences of physical comedy, relentless one-liners and an extended gag involving a puppet.

But it’s not all laughs. Lurking forever on the periphery of the Beastie Boys’ meteoric rise is the nagging discomfort of misogynistic lyrics and cultural appropriation.

Ultimately, Licensed to Ill is more celebration than critique. Having established such speed in the storytelling, there’s a loss of momentum in the final third, which begins to drag. But what never disappears is an evident love for these three “idiots” and the masterpieces they produced.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

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Tribute Acts, Camden People’s Theatre

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The dad of one of my best friends is a long-time Labour Party member. He’s supported the party for all his adult life and since retiring he’s started getting more involved in local politics. When we were talking about the Labour leadership election, this friend of mine made it clear that her dad wasn’t backing Jeremy Corbyn. I was. So when the vote was announced, she immediately messaged me: “are you happy with the result?”

And I realised, with a little jolt of surprise, that I wasn’t quite sure how to reply.

Hope can be an oddly scary thing. I am, for the most part, a pretty optimistic person. Sure, the world can seem depressingly fucked up a depressingly large amount of the time, but acknowledging that has never stopped me from finding wonderful, beautiful, hopeful things to restore my faith in it. Seeing positives and believing in the possibility of something better, though, is a very different thing from investing hope in a solid person or party or promise. The moment you do that – the moment you shove all your optimism on the shoulders of a Jeremy Corbyn or a Natalie Bennett – you’re opening yourself up to the all-too-likely possibility of disappointment.

Tribute Acts is all about hope, heroes and the heartbreak of being let down. TheatreState’s new show has a fantastic central premise: Cheryl Gallacher and Tess Seddon use their shared disappointment in their once heroic dads as a parallel for the disheartening trajectory of the left. Sam Gallacher and Rodger Seddon, like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, are men in suits who seem to have all the answers. Cheryl and Tess want to believe in them. They used to believe in them. But betrayal by father figures, whether biological or political, is hard to bounce back from.

On stage, Cheryl and Tess’s dads join them as projected presences, speaking from screens over their shoulders. Each performer has interviewed the other’s father, asking questions about political beliefs and family memories. The two men on screen smile and hesitate, awkward and unsure of what is being asked of them. They tell dad jokes. They struggle to recover memories that are cherished by their daughters. They stick firm to their principles – both are lifelong socialists – but are tellingly unable to locate women in their visions of the future. Asked who they’d want as advisers if they became prime minister, both name a string of men.

We’re invited, then, into the same process of disappointment that has tainted Cheryl and Tess’s relationships with their dads. Gradually, behind the suits and the smiles, we see the repeated failures and the broken promises. Both men left their families, and so the spectres of divorce and adultery still haunt these father-daughter relationships. Even without the experience of a broken family, though, the countless small letdowns that accompany the realisation that your parents are just people, after all – flawed, fallible people – is wrenching. Cheryl and Tess’s performance style riffs on shared silliness and the playful dynamic they have as a duo, yet within that there are startlingly poignant moments.

But what resonates just as much – perhaps more, as I process my ambivalence about Corbyn’s leadership – is the hurt of broken political promises. They might fuck you up, your mum and dad, but so do the false hopes and empty promises of slick, suit-clad politicians. I’m the same generation as Cheryl and Tess. I also remember the heady rush of Tony Blair’s landslide election and the now painfully ironic hubris of the campaign’s blasts of D:ream’s ubiquitous “Things Can Only Get Better”. As a child, not understanding the politics or what the “new” bit of New Labour might mean (everything’s new when you’re seven), that song and the excitement that accompanied the 1997 election had the flavour of prophecy. Things could only get better, surely. (*cue bitter laugh*)

Intertwining those two strands of betrayal – personal and political – is a brilliant idea. First disappointments are always the harshest, and so the slow, painful process of losing faith in parents is a compelling analogy for losing faith in the left. In practice, though, the two halves of the show don’t ever fully knit together. As Cheryl and Tess speak into their microphones about the promises of men in suits with footage of Blair rolling behind them, it’s clear what TheatreState are doing, but this basic conceit isn’t really advanced at all over the course of the show. Instead, the two performers’ family relationships begin to dominate, taking us further and further into the personal while the political lingers like a half-forgotten shadow.

Tribute Acts opens with a reference to one of the iconically naff moments in 90s cinema: Bruce Willis saying his hero’s goodbye to daughter Liv Tyler in the fantastically bad disaster blockbuster Armageddon. As snippets from the movie flicker on screen, Cheryl and Tess enter in ridiculous, billowing space suits (see what I mean about the silliness?), heroes in their own way about to step into the unknown. This daft framing device – nodded to again when both performers don copies of Liv Tyler’s dress – is, oddly, one of the show’s most powerful tactics. It captures, with a distancing dose of hyperbole, what we so often want from parents and leaders alike: someone who will step in and save the day (and possibly, like Bruce Willis, the whole world). Away from Hollywood, though, it’s never quite that easy.

Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel

"Es patērētājs" simpozijs.

Item: Entertainment (Ticket to Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel)
Cost: One review/response/blog/whatever the fuck we’re calling these now
Needs: 20% Esteem, 80% Self-actualisation
Affect: Excellent / +7

There’s no star rating but already this feels like a judgement; this decision to value in stark terms an exchange that is both work and not work. I’m not paying to be here and nor am I being paid, but it’s still a transaction. I think, not for the first time, about Megan Vaughan’s three reasons why she doesn’t accept free tickets for reviews and feel a twinge of something like guilt or discomfort or anxiety. How do you reconcile something that you love with an exchange that you hate?

Our lives can be measured out in transactions. The rent, the bills, the grocery shops – all the money we shell out just to keep going. The self-medicating coffees, chocolate bars and glasses of wine. The books and albums and theatre tickets and works of art that offer us identity and fulfilment at a price. The gifts that aren’t about how much money we spent, but sort of are. The building deficit of guilt.

Our lives can be measured out in transactions, and for twelve months artist Harry Giles did just that. On an excruciatingly exhaustive blog, he recorded every last purchase and how it made him feel. As he explains, it was an experiment in asking how consumer capitalism affects us on an emotional level. How does living inside capitalism actually feel? And is it possible to change that through what we buy?

Each purchase, as Giles explains in the show that has now emerged from the project, was logged along with its cost, what it fulfilled according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the emotion it elicited on a scale of -10 to +10. A picture gradually emerges: of money grudgingly handed over for the essentials, of an ongoing battle between ethical principles and guilty pleasures, of the hundred different ways in which our buying habits affect our wellbeing.

For the data junkies, Giles has put together a detailed annual report of his findings, but the numbers – as so often – are misleading. When he first strides across to the microphone on stage at Camden People’s Theatre, in his slightly-too-big suit and backed by his powerpoint presentation, Giles has the air of a bottom-rung sales rep about to break down some figures for us. Slides flash up on the screen as Giles explains them slightly-too-loudly and slightly-too-enthusiastically. As the piece goes on, though, the initial parodic tone becomes splintered by anxiety and the promised simplicity – “it all adds up,” Giles repeatedly assures us – unravels into more and more complication.

As the administrative litter of capitalism accumulates around him on the stage – receipts upon receipts upon receipts – Giles gives voice to the inner dialogue that underscores so much of our buying activity. That woozy cocktail of guilt, denial, principle and compromise, all delivered with jittering, ever-mounting anxiety, is so familiar at times that it hurts. I think of all the times I’ve shopped at the supermarket chain I hate and all the takeaway coffees I’ve convinced myself I need despite the waste. Giles also sharply captures the dilemma of ethical consuming: it seems necessary, in a harmful system, to make the least harmful choices, but expressing your politics through consumption feels like both a contradiction and a cop-out. In the end, of course, every decision is a sort of defeat.

But Giles also recognises the intense emotional attachments we can form for the things we choose to spend our money on. As I write this, I’m glancing occasionally across the room to my bookshelves. Of everything in our flat, it’s the sight I find most comforting, the collection of things that most roots me in this place. I can feel the glow of all those little, individual purchases: bribes to get myself through a hard day’s work, rewards for miniature achievements, satisfyingly impulsive buys. Unlike pretty much everything else, books are almost guilt-free purchases for me, which begins to explain why I own so many. I know that that erasure of guilt is false in many ways, but I allow myself to feel good about these objects. Money well spent.

So where does that leave us? Ultimately, there are no answers in Giles’ data, and the punishing year he spent tallying up every last penny has not helped him on his way to happiness – be that through frugality or extravagance. If anything, it seems like an oddly masochistic exercise, as does Giles’ intense and exhausting performance. As playful as it often is, Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel is difficult to laugh at, its chuckles leaving behind a bitter taste and its restless anxiety spreading from stage to audience.

Watching, though, I feel just the right kind of queasy. The discomfort that Giles has consciously documented is not one that can tell us how to assuage our spending guilt, but by cultivating the same discomfort in his audience he begins to push past the numbers and through to the feeling of money and politics (the two sometimes seeming indistinguishable from one another). And as I’ve reflected before, I think there’s something in how politics feels, something that – when it denies us easy, sentimental catharsis – holds within it a sort of hope. Beyond immediate guilt or gratification, we can’t really change how we feel through what we buy, but perhaps we can start demanding the kind of emotions that aren’t easily bought and sold.

The Fanny Hill Project, Camden People’s Theatre

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Behind even the most misguided shows, there is usually the nugget – however small – of a good idea. When I first saw The Fanny Hill Project in Edinburgh last year, the good idea at its heart was obscured by the messy, distracted production created around it. TheatreState had paired John Cleland’s erotic novel with the contemporary tale of co-director Tess Seddon’s experience as a model in a foot fetish club in New York, and from there departed into a sprawling exploration of women’s representation in the 21st century. As I wrote in my review at the time, “A feminist piece about modern representations of women is not short of targets, which is perhaps where TheatreState’s fierce but confused satire falls down”. The show had bags of ambition, but precious little focus.

The Fanny Hill Project v2.0, as TheatreState have cheekily christened it, is an impressive transformation, excavating the central idea of the original piece and making it into the show it always had the potential to be. Other than retaining its core concept, the show is unrecognisable, adopting an entirely new structure. Whereas the initial production was all over the place, its madcap scenes loosely strung together, here it has been honed down to its essentials and marshalled into a tight, effective framework. Shedding all the accessories that got in its way first time round, the show is now completely built around its twin narratives of two women – one 18th-century, one 21st-century – who end up selling their bodies.

This structure also allows Seddon and fellow performer and director Cheryl Gallacher to return to the spotlight, whereas previously they were hidden in the background or absent entirely. It’s a wise choice, as the pair have a compelling dynamic and an effortles way of inviting in their audience. In a fun little preamble, they coax us all into playing “I have never”, most beloved drinking game of eager-to-impress students. This quickly becomes a way of introducing Seddon’s shady past, which in this version – unlike before – she takes full ownership of. When Seddon first revealed this secret, she explains, Gallacher was desperate to make a show about it; in return, Seddon dug up Cleland’s novel and presented Gallacher with the challenge of Fanny Hill. There’s eye-rolling reluctance from both parties.

So the two women, Seddon as herself and Gallacher as Fanny, do battle in their attempts to tell their stories, while Jordan Eaton observes proceedings from behind a DJ booth at the back of the stage. Each chapter, linking together events in the lives of the two protagonists, is announced into the microphone by Eaton, wrenching away narrative control from the very people whose narratives are at stake. The quickfire sections are separated by a bell – ding! – with more than a hint of the boxing ring. Women here are repeatedly interrupted and sidetracked in the authoring of their lives, competitively pitted against one another while the audience problematically look on.

Performance is key. Thanks to the knowing structure and the winking self-awareness, we are constantly reminded that this – like the outfits the performers switch between – is all put on. When Seddon and Gallacher throw shapes to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, their moves fiercely mock the “sexy” tropes of contemporary music videos; the artificiality of pillow fight fantasies is gleefully pointed up by the use of a fan to scatter feathers into the air around the two giggling performers. And we begin to wonder whether “Tess” and “Cheryl” – the versions of themselves that the performers present on stage – are also carefully constructed performances. Is the appealing kookiness that they adopt just another role that women are expected to fulfil? (my Manic Pixie Dream Girl alarm starts to go off)

The Fanny Hill Project v2.0 still leaves questions unanswered, but now in a way that feels apt and intentional. The closing scene, rather than departing in bewilderment, leaves a powerfully bitter taste in the mouth. What if, TheatreState suggest, the only way of getting one’s voice heard as a woman in a casually misogynistic culture is to conform to the image that culture insidiously projects? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. It’s a troubling thought, and one that hangs in the air long after the feathers have fallen to the ground.

 

Open dialogue

Colchester 24.4.13 Theatre Arts Society and Frequency Theatre ViTW Reception 2 (2)

Originally written for The Stage.

The post-show discussion does not have the best of reputations. What should be an opportunity to share thoughts and gain artistic insights often becomes a stilted Q&A, a one-sided stream of anecdotes, or an unspoken contest to see who can ask the most intelligent question. But what about a post-show discussion for people who hate post-show discussions?

One of those people – by her own admission – is Lily Einhorn, project manager of the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs community engagement scheme. The project offers free tickets to residents of the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, many of whom Einhorn noticed were attending the theatre on their own. Recognising the lack of opportunity these theatregoers might have to discuss the work they were seeing, and acknowledging that the usual post-show format might alienate or intimidate them, Einhorn set about creating an alternative.

The Two Boroughs Theatre Club is modelled on the book club format: rather than being plunged straight into discussion immediately following a show, recipients of Two Boroughs free tickets are invited back after they have all had a chance to watch and reflect on a production. And just as a book club would never dream of inviting the author, Einhorn is firm that no members of the artistic team should be present for the discussion facilitated by the Theatre Club.

“I thought it would be really nice to have a group where the creative team are strictly not allowed,” Einhorn explains, “because I wanted it to be a comfortable atmosphere where people felt like they could say anything they wanted without fear of offending anyone, but also without fear of feeling like they’re stupid.” She continues, “it’s about unlocking something in them and saying: ‘your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s opinions’”.

Einhorn’s brainchild has been run in partnership with Guardian writer and Dialogue co-creator Maddy Costa, who has similar reservations about the traditional post-show format. “We all kind of hate the post-show discussion where everyone’s trying to ask the most interesting question,” she says. “So Lily and I both agreed that we don’t even go to those things; what we wanted to create was something different.” Their Theatre Club is designed to be as welcoming as possible, doing away with the hierarchies that usually characterise post-show events and creating a space that allows for relaxed, open discussion. The response has been enthusiastic, prompting Costa to try it out at other theatres, both through Dialogue and in association with theatre producers Fuel.

Einhorn and Costa are not the only ones seeking alternative models to the post-show Q&A. Camden People’s Theatre, for instance, has created a format it calls Talk Show Club, in which discussion is led by another theatre-maker who has not been involved with the show in question. China Plate, meanwhile, has adapted the post-show events surrounding its latest tour of Mess to suit the specific needs of both production and audience. Caroline Horton’s show is based on her own experiences of anorexia, opening up numerous issues around eating disorders. In recognition of this, China Plate are currently touring the show in association with the charity BEAT, taking it into schools and colleges as well as theatres and running a tailored series of discussions and workshops designed with psychiatrists from Kings College Hospital.

While numerous practitioners are currently experimenting with different formats, the idea of a model that eschews the post-show set-up of questions and answers is not entirely new. The National Theatre’s Platforms programme, which has been running almost as long as the theatre itself, is decidedly not post-show. Instead, the building runs regular events in the slot before its evening shows, ranging from straightforward discussions about the productions in the current repertoire to conversations that address the programme more obliquely. In the past, for example, Platforms have hosted numerous comedians and politicians, as well as a memorable encounter between atheist writer Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“It isn’t about being immediately reactive, audience wise, to what you’ve just seen,” says Platforms programmer Angus MacKechnie. “It’s either about making a choice to learn more about what you have seen on a previous occasion or coming to prepare yourself in advance of seeing it, usually on that night.” As a result, MacKechnie suggests that “it’s a different kind of commitment from audiences and we get a different kind of relationship with the audiences”. Because of the absence of an educational focus, MacKechnie explains that these events also offer audience members the opportunity to ask questions that they might not normally voice.

The desire to make critical conversations around theatre more inclusive and accessible is a feature that many of these initiatives share. The Theatre Club discussions might be guided by Costa, but the principle is that everyone in the room is equal and free to share their thoughts. “I am not the person with all the answers,” Costa makes clear, “I go in with as many questions as anyone else.” In line with this approach, Fuel’s co-directors Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell make it clear that the Theatre Club events represent “one of the key ways that we are building new audiences and making our work more accessible”. Lorna Rees, one of Fuel’s local engagement specialists and a regular organiser of post-show events, puts her attitude simply: “for me there are no ‘silly questions’”.

Crucially, all of these events are about contact and conversation. MacKechnie insists that at the National Theatre “we don’t just drop the curtain and that’s it, you haven’t got any more contact with us”, while for Einhorn the Two Boroughs Theatre Club is about “prolonging and enriching” the theatregoing experiences of its participants. The conversation itself, meanwhile, is one in which exclusive, specialist vocabulary is exchanged for straightforward, honest expression. For Costa, it all comes down to a simple but vital distinction: “Theatre Club is a place where we don’t ‘speak’ theatre, we talk about theatre, and those are two very, very different things”.

Conversation Starters

  • Maddy Costa and Fuel have found that offering refreshments instantly shifts the mood of a post-show event, transforming it into a welcoming social context. As Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell put it, “you don’t have to spend a lot on hospitality, but you do have to be hospitable”.
  • It can also help to move the discussion out of the theatre space. While the National Theatre’s Platforms have successfully used the stage, Lorna Rees suggests that sometimes the auditorium “can be quite intimidating and not conducive to discussion”.
  • Involving the audience does not have to be difficult or complicated. Costa explains, “I always start by just getting a quick show of hands, did you like it, did you not like it, something very simple like that”.
  • Angus MacKechnie recommends experimenting with the format and fitting it to the context of discussion. “In terms of format, form should follow function,” he says.
  • Fuel point out that it must be clear where and how the event is taking place, so they recommend sending out invitations, putting up flyers and making sure box office staff are fully briefed.

Photo: The Lakeside Theatre, Colchester.