The Ugly Sisters, St Stephen’s

RashDash’s rock-infused cabaret restyling of Cinderella really shouldn’t be as good as it is. Reimaginings of fairytales are hardly original; almost every maligned fictional villain has now had the story retold from their misunderstood perspective. Likewise, there is nothing particularly earth-shattering about RashDash’s scruffy-punk aesthetic or the music of accompanying band Not Now Bernard. So the gloriously anarchic product, transcending its angsty teenage premise, is fairly remarkable testament to the charisma and chemistry of this accomplished performing duo.

The narrative twist that is executed by RashDash throws the Cinderella story into the midst of rabid, fame-obsessed contemporary culture and the distorted world of “reality” television. Dragged up in a world of burned out cars and used needles, twins Emerald and Pearl undergo their own rags to riches transformation when their fortunes are changed by their mother’s marriage to a wealthy single father, but this is no fairytale. As they find themselves increasingly overshadowed by seemingly perfect Arabella – dubbed “Cindy-rella” by Emerald – the girls decide to copy their stepsister by entering You Shall Go to the Ball, a nauseatingly plausible television contest to win the affection of a prince.

But it’s not the gruesome dissection of reality TV that really slices to the bone – we already know that The X Factor is an amplified freak show, the grim voyeurism of the eighteenth-century asylum made-over by the worst excesses of Saturday night entertainment. Instead it is RashDash’s cuttingly perceptive indictment of the roles that women are straitjacketed into by this media-obsessed society that remains most firmly embedded in the mind. In an attempt to match the appeal of materialist, manicured Arabella (ironically represented by a male band member wearing a tiara), the two sisters wriggle into boob tubes and totter on platform heels, pouting with hands on hips in a pose that exemplifies the anxiously conformist vanity of the Facebook profile picture – hilarious but grotesque.

There is also something fairly potent in RashDash’s approach about the nature of narrative and the power held by the storytellers. With the media under a particularly scorching spotlight at present, their turning of the tables is yet another instance of how our perceptions are determined by those clutching the pen – the implication being, of course, that it has always been this way. While such distortions now lie in the hands of profit-conscious TV producers and tabloid editors, the continued currency of fairytales illustrates that there has always been a tendency to paint heroes and villains.

Such musings, however, arose mostly after the event. The show itself carries its audience along on a momentum of charismatic, impressively physical performances and fierce vocals; a sharp and irresistible adrenalin rush of playful, cabaret-style narrative riffing that races past at a furious gallop. The intensely performative confessional of the cabaret show is an appropriate vehicle for telling Emerald and Pearl’s side of the story, but this genre is spliced with other elements. The use of foot pedal looping to create a layered musical narrative, for example, offers one of the performance’s stand-out moments of inventiveness, suggesting the noise of the various voices surrounding this story. RashDash also throw in some cheeky chunks of meta, making knowing nods to the theatrical conventions they are working within and teasing us with the prospect of intimidating audience interaction that often accompanies such performances, without ever fully committing to this strand.

Ultimately, it is perplexingly hard to articulate just why this works. There may not be a great degree of originality or distinctiveness to RashDash’s approach, but in execution it is unfailingly enjoyable. Like the fairytale it takes as its basis, it may be familiar and not all that exciting on paper, but it translates into an undeniably engaging night of entertainment.

Oh, The Humanity and Other Good Intentions, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

A sports coach with a struggling team. Two internet daters desperate not to be alone. A spokeswoman without a script. A pair of photographers trying to capture something intangible and a couple without a clue as to where they are going. This seemingly unconnected assortment of characters all have something to get off their chests, something occasionally profound and messily human.

Will Eno’s series of short plays function like streams of consciousness, hyperreal vocalisations of the rambling, irrational, uncertain and sometimes mad thoughts that incessantly rumble through our brains. This familiar yet unfamiliar world, evoking an oddly disturbing Freudian atmosphere of the uncanny, is seemingly one in which lies are unthinkable. From the broken, ageing sports coach to the rambling lonely hearts, these characters are all helplessly compelled to tell the truth, as the private, the taboo and the mutedly mundane all trip indiscriminately from their mouths. By stripping back all artifice and laying honesty bare, Eno’s writing startlingly reveals just how many little lies and omissions cloak our everyday conversation, leaving his lines unsettlingly naked by comparison.

And the nakedness of the piece does not end with the writing. Layer by layer, Erica Whyman’s direction peels back the illusion of stagecraft, pulling away the curtain concealing the magician’s secrets. Between each of the scenes, the transitions are increasingly conspicuous, until eventually the panels of the set swing back fully to reveal the hidden, inner workings. The experience is that of watching a piece of theatre fall gloriously apart, until we are left not even with characters but with individuals dislocated in time, floating somewhere between fiction and truth. Realism disperses to unveil the reality beneath; a car dissolves back into two chairs and characters misplace their back stories.

The admission that recurs most frequently within Eno’s heightened bubble of veracity is “I don’t know”. In interrogating what it means to be alive, the piece recognises that one of the defining features of our humanity is our uncertainty, our ability to weigh possibilities and conclude the calculation with a question mark. There is also something beautifully indecisive about the performances, which can suddenly segue from calm containment to passionate outburst, as recklessly demonstrative as the emotions we suppress. Lucy Ellinson in particular, whether as frantic spokeswoman or wistful singleton, has a constantly searching, anxious quality behind her gaze that speaks of the terminal human quest for meaning.

Of the fractured scenes that we are witness to, the splinter that protrudes most strikingly at the show’s centre is the scenario featuring the two photographers, their lens focused firmly on the audience. Eno’s witty, surreal study of idiosyncrasy is swiftly turned on its spectators as Ellinson gently asks us, eyes stretched wide: “how do you want to be remembered?” Because, as the structures of theatricality drop away and the divisions between performer and audience break down, the piece’s perceptive observations extend to us all.

Bring the Happy, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

As Oscar Levant famously said, “happiness is not something you experience, it’s something you remember”. This way of viewing happiness is particularly pertinent to Invisible Flock’s latest project, an undertaking to map the happiness of an entire city. Setting up a hub at the centre of Leeds, for a period of two months this group of artists collected happy memories from local people, recording them and plotting them onto a 3D map. What emerges is as much sadness as happiness.

The performance that Invisible Flock and accompanying band Hope and Social have created from this vast compendium of memories, however, is about as joyous as theatre gets. Memories, from the mundane to the sublime to the ridiculous, are recited by the performers and projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, backed by alternately raucous and contemplative music. There are odes to the hundreds of babies born in local hospitals and to the chemically enhanced euphoria of going out and getting wasted. We wave glowsticks and sparklers and are invited to waltz with strangers.

Despite this encouraged silliness and unapologetic delight, more serious threads are plucked through the fabric of contemporary happiness. There is something inherently poignant about happy memories; the very fact that they are memories indicates that those moments must be in the past and in some sense lost. For this reason, the happiest of recollections on the map are often born from the most moving of circumstances. There is also an intensely personal quality to Invisible Flock’s creation. While being specific to the city of Leeds – a city I have never visited – the piece has the gentle power to summon memories of the places that hold happy memories for you wherever you might come from, providing a delicate diversion via reminiscence.

Unsurprisingly, however, not everyone embraced the idea in the same way as the audience at St Stephen’s. The question that Invisible Flock were most frequently asked by irritated passersby was simply “why?” Why spend time doing something so twee, so ridiculous and so seemingly without a purpose? Why sugar-coat a city rather than address its problems? Why – the most aggressive complaint – is this being funded? In the time since Invisible Flock began this project, their reasons have been vindicated, though possibly not in the way they would have hoped for, by the government’s concern with happiness in modern Britain. Unlike David Cameron’s falsely smiling initiative, however, there is something profoundly heartfelt about what Invisible Flock are doing.

It is also easier than it might initially seem to conjure valuable reasons for this project. As much as it is, on the surface, about happiness, asking questions about what makes people happy also seems to inevitably reveal what makes them unhappy, uncovering more truths about modern society than might be imagined. The project presents a way of understanding how we live today and how we lived yesterday – a living document of a city.

And, of course, there is the simple but not to be underestimated joy that Invisible Flock’s resulting creation is capable of engendering. Leaving with a smile like a stain that can’t be scrubbed off my face, it’s difficult to demand any better reason than that.

Me and Mr C, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

This show, we are told from the outset, might be a bit shit. It’s improvised, you see, and performer Gary Kitching can’t make any promises. Some nights it’s good, some nights it’s bad. Unlike most theatre, we are encouraged to start from a position of deflated expectations.

To review this piece of theatre, therefore, is to tell a small lie. The performance I saw was unique to the specific number of audience members in the space, the personalities and experiences that those audience members brought into the room, the particular mood of Kitching as a performer and the thoughts that floated to the fore of his mind in that 50 minutes. It might be argued that every performance is specific to the performative moment, but improvised performance is more specific than most. So, acknowledging my limitations at the off, I would like to follow Kitching’s lead and lower any expectations from this piece of criticism.

Of two things, however, we can be fairly certain. The “me” of the title is Kitching, emerging as a lonely wannabe comedian, and the Mr C is his fiery haired ventriloquist dummy, possibly the most terrifying prop to grace a stage at the fringe this year. This pairing is a nod to comedy convention, following in the tradition of Keith Harris and Orville, but that is where the piece’s conformity ends.

Kitching’s principal trick is to upturn expectations, both comedic and theatrical. As Kitching ever more despairingly attempts to engage in conversation, the ventriloquist dummy, usually the loquacious linchpin of a comedy double act, remains obstinately silent. During the comedy club interludes in which Kitching’s aspiring stand-up comedian is steadily broken, the audience is actively invited and even taught how to heckle – in fact, we are told, we will ruin the show if we don’t – inviting ever more inventive jeers from the crowd.

The extent to which the audience truly determines the piece is, unsurprisingly, limited. There is a sort of formula to the show that Kitching has shaped, one that relies on certain inputs but that calculates these into an answer that one suspects does not greatly vary. The audience interaction that Kitching does cultivate, however, slots fluidly into the piece and rarely falters thanks to a performance that puts us oddly at ease but never lets us switch off.

Where the role of the audience really becomes interesting, though, is when the piece takes a darker turn. Viciously plucking at the sinister undertones that have lingered throughout, Kitching car crashes closer and closer to destruction, releasing a raging torrent of self-hatred. With startling suddenness, the flavour of the audience’s involvement shifts without prompting, as sensitive a barometer as any to the mood of the work. Within moments, what has thus far been lightly, intelligently entertaining is transformed into an altogether blacker and more poignant proposition. It might not smash the low expectations that Kitching sets us, but it certainly exceeds them.

What I Heard About the World, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

What do you think of when someone mentions Brazil? Israel? How about Korea? The concept behind this collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe is born from the partial knowledge that we can now boast about all the far-flung corners of the world, dinner party trivia that slots together into a fragmented vision of the globe. As Thorpe puts it, “the more we know, the bigger the world gets”, and the more knowledge is accumulated, the more that the gaps in our knowledge glare out at us.

Creating a colourful theatrical map, Thorpe, Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly and mala voadora’s Jorge Andrade relate stories and quirky snippets of facts from around the world, communicated through direct narration, through pen-scrawled pictures, through roughly assembled sketches and through electric guitar accompanied music. Eschewing the indifferent wisdom of statistics, their charming and disturbing anecdotes all veer on the wacky side of odd, from cardboard cut-out figures issued by the American military to the families of servicemen and women, to a confession hotline that promises to cleanse you of your sins at a reasonable rate.

It rapidly becomes clear that what all of these stories share is their focus on artificiality. In a newspaper in Singapore, the editors photoshop suits onto obituary photographs; in Brazil you can hire mourners, while in Germany paid-for protestors are a booming commodity. Most staggeringly, a couple in Korea allowed their own baby to starve to death because they were so fixated on caring for their virtual child that they forgot they had a real one. Everywhere, it seems, signs and substitutes abound, and anything can be bought if you know who to call. The piece skilfully traces a map of an increasingly connected yet dislocated globe, around which revolves a Baudrillardian precession of simulacra.

As a backdrop to this carousel of eccentricity, the stage at St Stephen’s is packed with paraphernalia both homely and exotic – an apt accompaniment to the driving thoughts behind the piece. A fish tank and a sofa sit in the same space as a poolside life-belt and a paper plane, speaking of a yearning for both adventure and hearth. It is, as the piece recognises, essential to our self-identity to have a sense of place, a sense of place that is as much defined by stories of the “other” as it is by the idea of home.

As Thorpe, Kelly and Andrade repeatedly emphasise, the stories they tell are all true, collected through a formidable process of research and reassembled in different formulations for each of the show’s incarnations, but the very theatricality of the piece inherently begs us to question this truth. And, of course, we are right to. For these can only ever be constructions of the truth, ephemeral simulacra in the same way as the photoshopped suits or the donkeys painted as zebras in Gaza zoo. As soon as a piece of information is passed on, it gains a new identity, clothed in a thin film of fiction.

Yet, as inaccurate and incomplete a cartography as they draw, there is something oddly comforting about the stories that this production collects in cupped hands. As one woman from the anecdotes recognises, stories are a way of staying alive, of passing down a legacy that might cross mountain ranges and oceans. Simple facts, like national borders, can melt, change and die away, but stories are ever present.