Gym Party

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As an audience member, I have a slightly strange relationship with Gym Party. I went to two very early scratch versions, spent over an hour in a rehearsal room chatting about it with Made in China’s Jess Latowicki and Tim Cowbury, and saw a final work-in-progress at the Almeida Festival – before entirely missing the Edinburgh run. Now, catching it at BAC, it’s the fourth time I’ve experienced the show in some form (fifth if you count the extended conversation about it) and each time it’s been significantly different.

What has remained the same in each of these various incarnations, however, is the underlying impulse. Made in China want to talk about competition. It is, as Jess admitted when I spoke to them, a massive, nebulous topic. There are the more obvious types of competition – sporting events and talent contests – but it’s also a drive that motors almost every area of our existence and is deeply embedded within free market capitalism. As Jess says, “There’s always a winner in the free market, whether it’s Hollywood, or whether it’s banking, or whether it’s you got a new car but I got a better new car.” In whatever context it might be, individuals are constantly pitted against one another.

The desire of Made in China (at least, this is the impression I got from our conversation and from the various incarnations of the show that I’ve seen) is to address not the specifics of competition, but its troubling grip on us as a society. The various manifestations of competition, be it X Factor, a political debate or a game of one-upmanship between school kids, are all just symptomatic. What the company is attempting to do, by alluding to all these different varieties of real world competition within the frame of a staged contest that they compete in each night, is to playfully but powerfully draw our attention to how competition determines our interactions and what that might be doing to our society.

With such ambition and scope comes the very real possibility of failure. There is, after all, a hell of a lot to fit in there. What’s been fascinating about seeing the show at various stages of its development is witnessing just how much material has been hacked off, discarded and occasionally recovered along the way. Victims of the process included a scene in which performer Chris Brett-Bailey was tied to the floor, a sub-plot involving the gym party of the title, and a shrine to Hollywood actor Taylor Kitsch, an ardent espouser of hard work and American Dream ideals.

The show at the end of this process follows a smart and surprisingly tight structure, within which there is room for a certain amount of conflict, messiness and digression. Even the material itself sometimes seems engaged in an internal competition, but the rules of the containing contest are clear. The piece is divided – ironically, one might argue – into three parts. Rather than acts, however, these take the form of rounds. Competing in these rounds are Jess (Latowicki), Chris (Brett-Bailey) and Ira (Brand), all dressed in primary school PE-style shorts, T-shirts and plimsolls, with the added gaudiness of brightly coloured wigs. They all want their name up in lights; they all want to win. There are lots of things they’re willing to share, but not the glory of victory.

There is a light balance throughout between anger and playfulness, which is expressed in perhaps its purest form through the rounds of competition themselves. These start out innocuously enough, with a light-hearted blend of sports day activities and party games. Jess, Chris and Ira are up against each other in contests to see who can stuff the most marshmallows in their mouth or who can jump the furthest. It’s silly, entertaining, riotous stuff, even on the fourth viewing.

In the second round, we are taken into more personal territory with a series of votes based, essentially, on nothing but appearances. In this section there are obvious similarities with Ontroerend Goed’s latest show Fight Night (which, incidentally, I paired with Gym Party in an Edinburgh preview feature), but where Fight Night felt slick and smug, here there is an uncomfortable proximity between laughing pretence and very real approval or rejection. It’s often funny, but there are also odd, jolting lurches when the hollow meanness of the task suddenly hits you with horrible force. This feeling is to an extent replicated in the final round, in which the personal is brought right to the fore and the role of the audience is even more integral.

Following each of the rounds – and this is where the anger really bites – are the penalties for the losers. It might all seem like fun and games, but the punishments that ensue leave us in no doubt of the bitter consequences for those who find themselves unable to win. Here too the show carefully tiptoes the line between the fake and the real, the funny and the distressing. The most unsettling of these moments occurs when Jess, one of the losers, strips down to her underwear and stands on a platform while Ira brutally criticises her physical appearance. The genius of it is that Ira’s dry delivery still generates laughs – great guffaws that quickly sour in the mouth. Like so much competition, it’s hilarious and horrifying in the same moment.

The other key strand of the show, alongside the three rounds of competition, is made up of interweaved monologues from the performers. Each of them asks us to imagine them at a key point in their lives, all aged twelve. For Jess, it’s the mortifying aftermath of falling out with a group of friends; for Chris, a moment of betrayal at the school dance; and for Ira, it’s the first time she discovered the victory involved in acts of noble self-sacrifice. Juxtaposed with the frenzied tempo of the contests, these are delivered with captivating stillness, adding interesting shade to the bright and sometimes blinding light of the rest of the piece. This segment also produces one of my favourite moments of the show when the stillness is eventually broken by Chris, who takes up his guitar to perform a haunting rendition of ‘Everlong’.

Although it can sometimes feel as though the show has moved away from the reference point of its title, it is in these monologues that it regains its vital significance. The gym party – a distinctly American term, but one with a clear British equivalent – is one of the first serious competitions in life. The prize might only be to dance with the partner of your choice at arm’s length, but it’s a competition nonetheless – and a cutthroat one at that. The significance of the memories being pinned to the age of twelve, meanwhile, is perhaps that this is the age when we are on the cusp of competition turning nasty, when we are at the tipping point between that playfulness and anger. There is also something striking about the potent anxiety of adolescence, an anxiety that seems to be mirrored in our nagging impulse to compete. What if we don’t fit in? What if we’re lagging behind? What if we’re a failure?

These insistent, troubling questions bubble away beneath the whole piece, uniting what might otherwise seem like disconnected fragments. As well as the competitions and the monologues, we get the desire for fame and beauty; the desperate need for attention; the poison of David Cameron’s “aspiration nation” rhetoric, barely concealed within a blistering speech from Jess. There is also, crucially, a key element of competition being addressed through the relationship with the audience. They are here for us, the performers frequently remind us – to give us “bang for our buck”, as Ira puts it. If it weren’t for us, none of this would be happening.

It strikes me that there are a number of layers to this relationship with the audience. In one sense, we are like the television audience watching contestants being humiliated on talent shows, silently offering our complicit approval simply by choosing to watch. As the performers are keen to point out, our quiet acquiescence can be read as a “consensus”. Linked to this, we are also a necessary presence, both in a theatrical sense (though, interestingly, the knowing references to the theatrical contract have been diluted since earlier showings, wisely abandoning a pointed meta-theatricality in favour of a more all-encompassing construction of the audience’s role) and in a “democratic” sense. We vote and thus we are essential to the outcome. One individual succeeds, but they only succeed via the approval, aid or inaction of the collective, offering another fascinating perspective on how competition functions in our society. After all, what would the success of the individual mean without the presence of the group they outstrip?

They may involve their audience, but equally integral to Made in China’s approach is the desire not to offer us with ready-made answers. As Tim explained to me back in the summer, “the show won’t try and give answers and we never really have”. He went on to say that the company are much more interested in asking questions, in creating a provocation and leaving it up to audience members to go away and form their own opinions. As an audience member and as a critic, this is a tactic that I tend to find far more effective than work that simply tells me what I should think. If you make a straightforward argument, it can be disagreed with and therefore easily dismissed; if you ask a question, it has a habit of lingering for longer.

It’s interesting that this is an explicit aim of Made in China’s work, as there are ways in which some of the earlier versions of the show arguably did come close to offering answers, or at least to implicitly instructing audiences in their response. Without giving too much away, the ending that I saw in the Almeida Festival work-in-progress was far more shocking and confrontational, seeming to actively encourage an intervention from audience members. It was deeply uncomfortable and provoked a number of walk-outs. The final scene that the company eventually opted for in Edinburgh and at BAC, however, tones down the discomfort, still asking for the audience’s involvement but in a way that enables the conclusion rather than interfering with it.

I was intrigued by the dramatic shift in tone between the two different endings and in the different responses they provoked from an audience. At the Almeida, the atmosphere in the audience after the show was one of light shock; it was as if we had been collectively shaken, and were still reeling slightly from the force. At BAC, however, the aftermath was calmer, more thoughtful. On leaving the performance at BAC, my own position on these contrasting conclusions was ambivalent. There was something thrilling and violently galvanising about the original ending, which without doubt had more of an immediate impact than the modified one. On the other hand, the way that Made in China had eventually chosen to conclude the show made more dramaturgical sense, completing a structural circle rather than rupturing it.

Because I found myself torn but fascinated, and because I know Jess and Tim a little from our conversation a few months back, I emailed them the day after seeing the show at BAC to ask about the decision to change the ending. Given how much I talk about dialogue between critics and artists, it seemed like an interesting opportunity to initiate that kind of conversation. I made it clear in my email that I was simply curious, that I appreciated it was a slightly unconventional request from a critic, and that I would completely understand if they didn’t want to share the details.

Happily, though, Tim replied with a brilliantly thoughtful and articulate explanation of the company’s decision. Their interpretation of the reaction to the Almeida showings was that audiences were “getting and digesting our message before the show was finished”, resulting in an intervention within the theatre space rather than outside of it. This touches on a question I frequently find myself grappling with, namely whether action in the theatre can be a spur to action outside the theatre. I still don’t think I have an answer to that one. Made in China, however, “don’t want people to have the catharsis of righting wrongs within the theatre: they should save that for the real world”. Instead of intervening, audiences should leave “cursing their own passiveness and maybe (ideally) the fact that the show, like most of the power structures in our society, sneakily manipulated this passiveness of out them”.

It’s this idea of passivity and manipulation that I’m most intrigued by. Some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in theatres have involved being uncomfortably torn between action and stasis, feeling the need to do something but not quite able to do it. It’s a feeling that is sickeningly familiar in a world where the structures around us so often reduce us to a state of perceived powerlessness. And it is this feeling, I think, that was missing from Fight Night – a helpful comparison to bring back in at this point.

When I saw the show in Edinburgh, I found myself slightly perplexed by how I could have so much admiration for the show’s intelligence yet be almost completely unmoved by it. Despite the machinations by which it cleverly revealed the failings of modern democracy, I was not left feeling angry or frustrated. There were a couple of moments during the show when the sharpness of its critique sent a slight shiver down my spine, but afterwards I found it all too easy to shrug off. It was so slick, so glib, so seemingly pleased with its own cleverness. Despite the obvious necessity of my presence as an audience member, I never really felt that I had any influence on the outcome – which is of course the realisation that Ontroerend Goed and The Border Project wanted to provoke, but that internal conflict that I described above can only be produced when there seems to be some possibility of making a meaningful intervention, however slim that possibility might be. I felt utterly distanced from Fight Night, in such a way that its impact barely touched me.

By contrast, Gym Party is injected with a certain sense of risk. Yes, we know that it’s theatre, that it isn’t “real”, but there’s somehow something more raw, more rough about it, which allows an audience – perhaps – to feel that their intervention is an actual possibility, that it might change something. The opportunity is there, and the weight of responsibility falls on our shoulders if we fail to take it. This is an extraordinarily delicate balance to strike. The piece must make us feel that we can act, yet at the same time disable that possibility. It has to build in its own failure.

Personally, though it gets far closer than Fight Night, I’m not quite sure the balance has entirely been struck. The first time I saw the ending, I felt horrified by how little action I took, but the event did offer the opportunity for others to intercede. The second time around, intervention was possible and yet not attempted, but the force with which the piece closed was weakened; perhaps the feeling of manipulation was greater, but the guilt was less. The comparison, however, begs an interesting question. Are we more affected by the opportunity to act within the space of the theatre, or by a piece that implicates us through our failure to act? In the spirit of Made in China, I’ll just leave that question mark hanging …