Fake It ‘Til You Make It, Soho Theatre

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During the conversation I was lucky enough to host with Tim Crouch the other weekend, there was a question from the audience about care in his shows. Particularly with a show like The Author, which made the audience disturbingly complicit in the violence and abuse it described, the idea of care becomes crucial. Tim replied that it’s about a relationship of openness with an audience, about inviting them into a contract. That, perhaps, is why it was so important for audiences in that show to know that they could leave, that part of that contract was the option to walk out and refuse to be complicit.

I was reminded of a (rich and brilliant) conversation I listened to about a year ago between Alex Swift and Chris Goode, which also grappled with this notion of caring for an audience within a piece of theatre and what that really means. It also reminded me of Fake It ‘Til You Make It, the show Bryony Kimmings has made with her partner Tim Grayburn, which I’d seen at Soho Theatre just a few days earlier. In that show, care is everything. There’s the very visible care that Bryony and Tim take of one another on stage throughout the show, there in little looks and fleeting touches, but also the care they show towards their audience. This is their story, but they’re telling it for us.

Like Bryony’s last show, the brilliantly galvanising Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, Fake It ‘Til You Make It is a potent blend of autobiography and activism. Also like that show, made with Bryony’s young niece Taylor, this new piece features a non-professional performer in the shape of Tim. And just as Taylor was the catalyst for Credible Likeable, it’s Tim and his experience of clinical depression that form the starting point for Fake It ‘Til You Make It, opening out into a wider look at men and mental health. The personal is always political.

Care starts with the tone. After a gloriously silly opening dance, Bryony steps up to the microphone to explain to us what’s happening here – to set out the contract. “This is a love story,” she warns us. “I know. Gross.” She elaborates: this is a story about men with clinical depression (like Tim) and the women who love them (like Bryony). It’s going to get dark, Bryony admits. But she also wants to look after us, hence the good luck dolls scattered around the stage and the purposeful silliness of the aesthetic. Sometimes, the only way to seriousness is through humour.

And every silly touch is there for a reason. Tim’s face is kept covered by ridiculous headgear – binoculars, paper bag, fluffy cotton-wool clouds – because one of his conditions for appearing on stage was that he wouldn’t have to look at the audience. When he comes out with a tangle of ropes atop his shoulders, this initially whimsical device has transformed into a simple but affecting metaphor for Tim’s mental turmoil, making it all the more emotional when he is finally revealed to us and speaks, exposed, directly to the audience.

The love story itself is also silly in the telling, cute and self-mocking in equal measure. Bryony and Tim collide, literally and metaphorically, their lives unexpectedly smashing into each other. Their early romance is almost childlike in its sweetness, played out in cartoonish smiles and dorky dance moves, and when the couple move in together they drape a tent across the stage like a kids’ den. When Bryony discovers Tim’s anti-depressants, then, it’s with a rude jolt. The illness that he has kept secret for years disrupts the bliss of their shared life, injecting the romance with darkness but also with honesty.

Honesty – always startling, sometimes embarrassing – is a recurring trait of Bryony’s work and right at the heart of what she’s doing here. What is as damaging as the depression itself for Tim and other men like him is the shame that has needlessly become attached to it. When he does eventually speak to us, Tim confesses one of his greatest fears: that suffering from mental health issues would somehow make him less of a man. There’s a tangible release in banishing that shame, in forcing it out with frankness.

In lots of ways it’s also an illustration of the same blunt but necessary point I made in writing about Violence and Son: patriarchy shits on everyone. Masculinity is oppressive to men as well as to women, its demands to “toughen up” and “grow a pair” stifling the possibility for many men to even acknowledge their feelings, let alone talk about them. Having seen this social pressure inflict its scars on men in my own life, the bold openness of Fake It ‘Til You Make It is a deep sigh of relief.

That’s not to say that Fake It ‘Til You Make It can’t also be difficult. When I saw an early scratch of the show, at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh last summer, I was an emotional mess by the end. Returning to it over a year later (and minus the deadly cocktail of stress and sleep deprivation), I found it less tear-jerking, but there are still some really black moments. When Bryony searches blindly through the streets of London for a floundering Tim, it’s painful to watch, like an icy fist grasping through the ribs, and the more exposing moments of the performance feel just as raw as in that charged room in Leith last year. Talking about reality or truth on stage is always problematic, but when Bryony and Tim laugh and cry together it’s real laughter, real tears.

It’s important, then, for our laughter and tears – our presence in the room with them – to also be acknowledged. Fake It ‘Til You Make It cares for its audience by never pretending that we’re not there and always keeping our responses in mind, right up to the invitation to speak to or email Bryony and Tim after the show itself has finished. In many ways, the piece they have created is one long, generous act of making visible – and that includes us.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me, or Who’s in charge of this story?

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“It’s nice to be documented,” says Jess Latowicki to the audience, “right?” Over our shoulders, lurking in the shadows, is Tim Cowbury, the other half of Made in China. He’s taking notes: notes on Jess, notes on us. He’s the writer here. Well, sort of, explains Jess. This is his show. Only, at the same time, it’s not.

Who’s in charge of this story?

I’ve always thought of humans as storytellers. As a writer, perhaps that’s no surprise. When Galen Strawson, in a recent article for the ever-brilliant Aeon, quotes Oliver Sacks writing “each of us is a narrative, this narrative is us,” I’m nodding my head. Stories – at least for me – feel like a way of understanding the world, of communicating. Reading Hannah Nicklin on the theory of the “storied self” – the idea that we build and reinforce our sense of identity through stories (the story “I’m a writer” or “I’m a runner”) – I felt a jolt of recognition.

But Strawson questions that truism that we construct ourselves through stories. He argues that it’s “false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing”. Life as experienced from day to day, he reasons, has neither the shape nor order of a narrative. He throws various spanners into the narrative machinery, from the common experience of a fractured or multiplied self (W Somerset Maugham: “I recognise that I am made up of several persons”) to the fragility and fallibility of memories (James Salter:”There is no complete life. There are only fragments”). The more I think about it, the more I find myself conceding that he might have a point.

Perhaps, instead of using stories to organise our internal memories and experiences, we tell the story/ies of our lives for and through other people. Or, without quite knowing it, they tell their own stories through us. It’s one idea among many that Made in China’s new show, Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me, toys with. Jess, on stage in sequinned hot pants, is in one sense being authored by Tim. He’s written the script and he’s manning the lights, controlling how Jess – and, via her, himself – are seen. This is his story.

In reality, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Made in China are a duo, and while it’s easy to identify Jess as performer and Tim as writer, they are very much co-authors of their work. During the performance, too, questions are constantly being raised over authorship and agency. Jess challenges Tim, twists his words, throws the piece off-balance again and again. There’s an uneasiness around the male gaze – Jess wiggling her hips, under the lights controlled by Tim, watched by him and us – but at the same time a playful subversion of it. It’s never anything so simple as the image of a woman being authored by a man, instead engaging that dynamic in order to upend it.

Then there’s the story itself. In between scripted sparring between the couple – the acknowledgement of their real-life relationship sitting (deliberately) uncomfortably beneath the increasingly personal sniping – Jess narrates over and over the fiction of Tim’s heroic death [insert “Death of the Author” gag here]. It’s a strange sort of wish fulfilment, targeting another of the ways in which we inconsistently self-narrativise at the same time as the culture we live in scripts us. This death – written, remember, by Tim – attests to a cultural (and typically masculine) desire to prove oneself, to be the hero, to die young yet live forever in the memories of others. It’s a story we’ve heard before.

But in Jess’s ironic delivery, it’s drained of all heroism. The restless, independent man going off to find himself, the brave confrontation that ends in tragic self-sacrifice – from Jess’s lips it all sounds pathetic, unoriginal, like the script from some old, half-remembered movie. Which, of course, it is, as is the image following it of the grieving hoards and bereft girlfriend at the funeral. And then, as Jess describes in meticulous, ludicrous detail the outfit she wears to mourn Tim, a new script – a new story – breaks through: that of advertising and vacuous women’s magazines and the empty fetishisation of things. Narratives tell Jess and Tim, rather than the other way round.

“Do you ever get the feeling that someone is putting words in your mouth?” asks Jess, eyeballing a member of the audience. “Say yes,” she quickly instructs them.

“Yes.”

That interest in self-narrativising – or unwittingly allowing our lives to be narrated by others – folds into my persistent interest in scripting and authorship, an interest that Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me absolutely shares. As well as being (sort of) scripted by Tim, Jess puts words into the mouths of various audience members, asking them questions and feeding them the answers. We have a role here, but it’s tightly controlled – so long as we choose to play along. The fault lines between the scripted and the unscripted visibly shift.

Similarly to the slippages between text and performance that I’ve been thinking about in Action Hero’s work, in Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me Jess and Tim also play with the slipping and sliding boundaries between themselves as writers, performers and people. How much of this is scripted? How much of this is them, Jess and Tim the real-life couple, and how much of it is “Jess” and “Tim”? Who’s doing the scripting, and who’s being scripted? Who has the power here?

When I spoke to Jess and Tim just before they took Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me to Edinburgh, they joked that they had ended up making the same show as Action Hero. Wrecking Ball (at least from what I’ve seen at work-in-progress stage) has different concerns at its core, but there are some striking similarities. Those similarities also extend to Actress, the latest from Sleepwalk Collective. Three shows made by couples; three shows interested in authorship and performance and the dynamics of the male gaze.

Just as there’s a lot more in those other two pieces, there’s a lot more that Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me is also “about” (modern relationships, autobiography, the one-woman show, the representation of romance in pop culture). But there’s something all three shows are doing, in varying ways, that keeps niggling at me. Something about who is controlling the story. Something about all those agency-robbed women written by men. Something about how the cultures and structures we live within insidiously script us, and how we might read those scripts while subverting them.

Because whether or not we understand and organise our own lives through stories, stories are still important; stories are still how we understand the lives of others and how we hope they will understand us in turn. And so asking “who’s in charge of this story?” is never a trivial question.

Photo: David Monteith-Hodge.

Ablutions, Soho Theatre

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We sometimes talk about theatre that intoxicates; performance that, like a drug, invades the senses. But how often does it really achieve the warmth, the fuzziness, the edge of nausea that comes from one (or two, or three) too many drinks? I’m not talking drunk acting, at which theatre can be both glorious and excruciating. I mean: how much theatre actually wraps us up in the inebriation it represents?

Ablutions, Fellswoop Theatre’s adaptation of the Patrick Dewitt novel of the same name, gets pretty damn close. Every ingredient of the production, from the woozily repetitive live soundtrack to the dim, occasionally throbbing lights, is swirled into a potent cocktail of intoxication and imagination. A hangover is a fierce snarl of electric guitar; the glitter and excess of Las Vegas materialises from little more than flashing lights and slurred Elvis.

Our guide through this blurred landscape is an unnamed, alcoholic barman, forever blankly pulling pints. Though actually, that’s not quite right. Because Ablutions maintains the key stylistic feature of Dewitt’s novel, relating all the action in the second person. You shoot the breeze with the losers propping up the bar, you drive home drunk to your furious wife, you clutch the pain in your side from your knackered liver. You’re the one retching silently yet again in the bathroom and reaching for the pills as you take a shower. And we, the audience, are oddly implicated.

The performances have the same giddy, swirling feel as the rest of the production. Eoin Slattery as protagonist-cum-narrator is the only fixed point, a slight slouch in the shoulders and all light extinguished from his eyes, while Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone orbit him as a wide surrounding cast of (often larger than life) supporting characters. People have a habit of drifting in and out of the story, dissolving as suddenly as they appear, like ghosts or drunken visions.

If the show sometimes feels like it’s turning in circles, it’s only apt. The haze of alcohol and drugs fucks up temporality – was that conversation last week? last month? just a moment ago? – and Dewitt’s protagonist is always moving without getting anywhere. Like the circular movement with which he interminably wipes pint glasses, his life (or should that be our life?) has been a constant carousel of drink, drudgery and disappointment. Even an aimless road trip to the Grand Canyon eventually brings him full circle, right back to where he started.

Problem is, this circularity doesn’t always make for engaging theatre. Initially the looping, echoes and repetition are intriguing and hypnotic, but it all feels stretched out just that bit too far, beginning to test the patience by the end. You also get the feeling that extended second-person narration works better in print than in performance, where it starts to labour. Walking out of the theatre and into the chill winter air, Ablutions quickly feels like the drunken daze it depicts: a dizzying, disorientating and ambivalent interlude.

Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Soho Theatre

“I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories” René Pollesch

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For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve been pretty independent. Less in a loud, Destiny’s Child, “throw your hands up” way, more in a quiet, fairly content, getting on with it way. Most of the time, I think I’m OK with the idea of being alone. Yet still there’s this voice socially hardwired into the back of my brain somewhere that periodically shouts “OH HOLY FUCK IF I DON’T SETTLE DOWN SOON I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE SURROUNDED BY CATS”. And no matter how coolly indifferent I think I am to it, I can never completely silence it.

There’s a scene in Alice Birch’s brilliant Revolt. She said. Revolt again. which articulates all of my ambivalence about marriage in ways that I hadn’t even articulated to myself before seeing it. In it, a woman responds to her boyfriend’s marriage proposal with meticulous logic, picking apart the ideology knitted around this institution thread by thread. What her boyfriend has actually just said that he wants, she concludes, is to turn her into “a thing to be traded”.*

I’m thinking about both of these things as I’m watching Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, RashDash’s latest show. About that culturally embedded demand to MATE NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN and about the idea that marriage, this state we’re all taught to aspire to, is essentially about ownership. I’m not particularly comfortable with either idea. No, more than that: as a feminist, I feel I should probably reject both – the voice and the institution.

But it’s not quite as easy as that, as RashDash recognise. Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered is about those conflicting desires to be independent and to be secure; about what we really ask of one another in modern relationships; about whether we should be asking something different, something more. It’s about different kinds of love and how our culture values them. It’s about the idea of “The One” and it’s about every love song you ever heard on the radio.

Bea and Dee are best friends. They love each other. They used to live together, but now Bea has left to live with her boyfriend. Dee misses her. Dee wants her back. Why can’t they just stay together forever?

Representations of female friendship are nothing new, but RashDash dramatically shift the ground on which this one stands. Bea and Dee are no pale imitation of Carrie Bradshaw and her mates in Sex and the City, dissecting relationships over brunch while sporting the latest pair of Manolo Blahniks. RashDash even dare to suggest (*gasp*) that female happiness might rest on more than footwear and fornication. Why do romantic pairings have to be the relationships that define our lives?

There’s something at once bracing, optimistic and sadly resigned about the central suggestion that the two women bind their lives together – not as lovers, but as partners nonetheless. The whole in sickness and in health thing, as Dee puts it. Right from the start, however, it’s clear that this experiment is unlikely to succeed. The hopeful gesture of a new way of relating to one another is balanced by the social and cultural pressures that make it unthinkable. That voice that screams “GET MARRIED OR DIE ALONE”.

RashDash tell this story with a blend of blunt dialogue and striking physicality. In one moment, performers Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are rubbing their heads against one another, nuzzling like animals. In the next, they are rolling and jumping, flinging one another around the space. The struggles of their friendship and the pressures of the surrounding world are played out physically, the challenges and disagreements unmistakable in their bodily collisions.

And although the speech exchanged between the two women is sharp and often funny, the most powerful moments play out in the visual and the abstract. In one hilarious yet heartbreaking scene, Greenland yells song lyrics into a microphone (“You’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to”; “If you’re not the one then why does my hand fit yours this way?”) while Goalen runs blindly and fitfully around the stage, covered in a plastic sheet that is wedding veil, suffocation device and shroud all at once. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful visual metaphor for the stifling demands of romantic love, as shouted out from every love song, every romcom, every thoughtlessly saccharine Valentine’s Day card.

Andy Field and Ira Brand’s put your sweet hand in mind – which I fell giddily head over heels for – was originally born from the desire to make a show about love “in which no one falls in love”. In the end the piece that they made, while it was also about other loves, didn’t quite fit that initial bill. Somehow, somewhere along the line, romantic love crept in. It’s hard to keep out.

In Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Dee and Bea make a similar discovery. Turning one’s back on the promise of romantic love and the fiction of “The One” is no small feat. Given that it seeps into every last corner of our culture, it’s unsurprising that we find it so hard to get away from. As Field once put it, “love turns everything into a love story”.

But voicing the desire for a way of living that is not solely constructed around a romantic partner feels important, both in the context of feminism and in the simple sense of how we relate to one another. If we can uncouple our sense of identity and wellbeing from an inward-looking dependence on one other human being, perhaps we can begin to look outwards to each other, our communities, the world we live in. We can take joy in other kinds of love, kinds of love that aren’t bound up in a lucrative commercial package.

At the moment, however, it remains difficult to imagine. If Dee and Bea fail, and if put your sweet hand in mine fails, then the real failure lies with the society that plants that nagging voice in our heads.

*Incidentally, Alice Birch is currently working with RashDash on two new projects, which is very good news indeed.

The One, Soho Theatre

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“It’s kind of funny. And it’s kind of sad.” These are the words of Harry, one half of the nightmarish pairing at the centre of Vicky Jones’ prickly debut play, but they might as well act as a strapline for this story of vicious lovers. That blend of the bitter and the hilarious, along with its uneasy ambivalence, neatly characterises Jones’ narrative of two individuals who are terrifyingly adept at pushing one another’s buttons. It’s equal parts side-splitting and jaw-dropping (not necessarily in a good way) to watch, repeatedly juxtaposing giggles and winces, all the while underscored with the sense of something queasily problematic.

It’s clear from the start that the piece – particularly as directed here by Steve Marmion – is out to ruthlessly skewer romantic cliches. After sitting through a medley of cheesy love songs while the rest of the audience file into the space, the lights go down to reveal a star-studded backdrop at the rear of Anthony Lamble’s minimal living room set, and the opening strains of “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera (a show with a dubious romantic hero if ever there was one) usher on Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rufus Wright as couple Jo and Harry. The pair embrace, only for the Hollywood romance to abruptly give way to a perfunctory, joyless fuck. Porn plays in the background and Jo throws Wotsits into her mouth.

Given the scenario and the distinctive, charismatic presence of Waller-Bridge, comparisons with Fleabag – the performer’s fearlessly filthy solo show, directed by Jones – immediately invite themselves. This might as well be one of the countless sexual encounters described in that show, where the addition of Wotsits would be one of the least surprising aspects of its catalogue of promiscuity. And like Fleabag, The One insistently pushes at the boundaries of acceptability. It has a “did they really just say that?” quality about it, not to mention the same razor-sharp comedy, impeccably delivered by the ever-extraordinary Waller-Bridge. Yet, while Fleabag also traded on discomfort and fired out laughs that quickly soured in the mouth, there is something altogether more knotty and unsettling about The One.

The action of the piece is claustrophobically confined to the one room, in what could be seen as a jaded, ironic take on the drawing-room comedy. Waiting up for news of the impending birth of Jo’s niece, the bored couple tease, taunt and torment one another, occasionally including Harry’s friend, colleague and old flame Kerry in their sparring. Both Harry and Jo are fiercely intelligent, each using their frustrated intellect and intimate knowledge of the other to push at their limits. The gender politics are complicated by the knotty student/teacher relationship between the pair: English professor Harry is ten years Jo’s senior and taught her at university, suggesting that something lightly exploitative – or at the very least illicit – was in play right from the beginning.

Harry and Jo’s interactions throughout the play, which takes place across the one night, explore varying levels of transgression within relationships. How far would you go to hurt the other person? And how far is too far? There are repeated, rapid descents from playfulness into something far less savoury, testing that delicate tipping point between OK and not OK. It is clear that they both derive a perverse pleasure from abusing one another; at one point Kerry asks “who wants to live like this?”, but evidently they do. Their relationship is a constant competition, in which both of them are desperate to win.

Too often, however, the effect of all this back and forth – no matter how witty – is the sense of a series of rehearsed arguments and provocations. There is a flavour of the thought experiment to certain scenes, with the characters acting merely as ciphers. This is not to say that the theatre is not a place for thought experiments, but when conversation progresses onto a troubling preoccupation with rape – replete with the sort of rape jokes that abound in lad culture – the emptiness of its musings becomes seriously problematic. The play, like its characters, is interested in button-pushing, but I wonder if ultimately it takes its tactics a little too far without offering anything to justify them.

I suspect that a good portion of this ambivalence and discomfort is as much a product of Marmion’s production as it is of the play that Jones has written (although that suspicion, of course, depends on a potentially disingenuous separation of the two). Other than standing it up on stage, Marmion does little to engage with or interrogate the stickier aspects of the piece, and the interventions he does make feel odd and uneven. The aforementioned skewering of romance (the stars, the music, the low lighting between scenes) is an obvious choice, but one that is increasingly out of step with the play. This is clearly about far more than simply unmasking the sham of a particular idea of romantic love. The half-heartedly choreographed movement between scenes is painfully awkward in its sort-of-abstract suggestions of erotic game-playing and sexual violence, while some unnecessary pouring away of wine and fiddling with clock hands seems calculated to do little more than inform us that time has passed.

Meanwhile, as unfailingly brilliant as Waller-Bridge may be, I’m not sure that casting her in this play – which, even without seeing the note in the script, we might quickly deduce has been written for her – is entirely helpful. For a start, it makes that connection with Fleabag, through the lens of which Jones’ play is then inevitably viewed. And then, because of that unbearable yet electric quality that she brings to the role, the character of Jo dominates the stage; it becomes her show. Of course this is partly down to the fact that Jones has written the piece with Waller-Bridge in mind, but it would be fascinating to see what a different actress might bring to that central dynamic. Along with different direction, it might also allow the play to breathe a little more.

Seeing as comparisons with Fleabag are unavoidable, there is one more that feels worth drawing. The real kick in the guts of that piece was the way in which its humour attacked the audience. We laughed – great big guffaws of laughter – and then caught ourselves in the act of laughing, made suddenly aware of just what it was we were laughing at. We were made to feel complicit. The One reaches for the same reaction, but comes up a little short. There’s still unease, certainly, and the laughter is still barbed, but it feels as though we are let off the hook slightly. If that sharp humour and thorny complicity is the aim of the game, it needs to be executed a little more cleverly than it is here.

Yet despite all my uncertainty about – and in some cases anger towards – the play, I can’t just go ahead and dismiss it. The One has, for better or worse, lodged itself in my brain, still picking away two days later. It certainly has something to say, or some provocation to make, even if I can’t quite pin it down. Perhaps its slipperiness, its very resistance to being pinned down, is preciously the point.

I also find myself wondering if it’s trying to do something smarter than I’ve given it credit for. One of the most striking things about its resolutely unpleasant characters is the extent to which they are fixated on individual desires. Which makes me reflect that the title might refer not so much to “The One” in the mystical sense of one’s soulmate (though this is clearly one inference), but to the isolated number, the atomised modern individual. I’m reminded, via Andy Field, of the quote from writer and director René Pollesch: “I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories”. The One is not a love story – not in any traditional sense, anyway – but it is a damning display of the way in which the constant pursuit of and obsession with love and sex are intimately tied up with a society which places focus firmly on the self. Jo and Harry, locked into their hermetically sealed relationship, are perfect portraits of apathy; they barely leave the house, they don’t know where their lives are going, they are so bored that all they can think to do is tear strips off one another. This, perhaps, is where an obsession with “The One” – in both senses of that phrase – ultimately leads.