Negative reviews strike me as pointless, and damning with faint praise as futile.
My ideal reviewer is a matchmaker of sorts, a yenta (not a pander) who helps a show find its audience and an audience find its show. Maybe it’s not a match made in heaven, not entirely free of challenges and failures, but it’s rewarding for both in the end. The audience finds the challenge engaging: not so easy that it bores nor so difficult that it alienates. The company finds an audience that welcomes the challenge and will come back for more. The result, if not true love, might be Flow. Everybody wins.
Which brings me to GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s Jennifer Pick and Lucy McCormick offering to “open up and let [me] in, right in” to an “evening with conversations, songs…shit like that”. Not the most auspicious invitation, a bit bathetic, but let’s keep an open mind.
From the outset we don’t hit it off. Two youngish women in tawdry dress and hair extensions wander before a bank of superfluous tech on an undressed stage, fitfully burbling banalities and playing air violin to miscellaneous show tunes. I come smack up against my expectation that a performer should try to win my trust, try convince me early on that she knows what she’s doing. The pair already have shit daubed on them. My brain, responding at some pointlessly visceral level, duly stops looking for subtleties and stuffs the show into the pigeonhole of painful parodies of mainstream entertainment, post millennium. Blunt. I feel blunted. That was quick.
From then on, I fail miserably to silence my inner critic, a hectoring bastard at the best of times. I just can’t relax and have a laugh at Number 1's fierce, layered parodies. My bad. By the end i’m just feeling cranky and well, stingy.
The problem with parody is that the audience needs to be intimate with the work, form or practice being parodied. The more references we can catch, the more the piece coheres and resonates with us. If we fail, we’re left feeling excluded by an in-joke. At a loss for a frame of reference, we probably just end up comparing it to work that did manage to engage us - better work as far as we're concerned. Everybody loses.
My problem is that not only am I not sure what they’re making fun of, I’m not at all convinced that they know either. They certainly cast a wide net: mass culture, musicals, reality TV, theatre, “performance art”, “failed art”, each other, themselves, us, me. The one aesthetic rule at work seems to be "go further, push till it breaks." Apparently, everything is one big fail.
The way performance art generally escapes the traps of mainstream narrative - the constant chasing after what will happen in the end, or at least what will happen next - is to force us to ask “What’s happening now?” It’s a ploy that was mainstreamed years ago by TV shows like 24 and Lost.
OK, I’ll bite. I’ll just give them my trust anyways and ask: if they're not just trying tease a response out of me with a cattle prod, what are they doing?
Surely it’s not irony all the way down: one can only reassure oneself that “that’s the point!” so often before it all starts seeming pointless again. You can only undermine and undercut so much, can’t you?
Of course their target isn’t mass culture. After decades of exploring ever cheaper and easier ways to push our most basic buttons, mass culture is reduced to parodying itself, it doesn’t need performance art’s help. From TV to the West End, from productivity to food, it’s all porn now and we all know it.
As for just making fun of us, I don’t for a second believe that Jen and Lucy are that mean spirited. They may not be letting me in, may be refusing to give me my expected dose of theatrical intimacy and vulnerability porn, but they’re nowhere near stupid and mean, for all the show of being stupid and mean.
Maybe they’re making fun of themselves by questioning an artistic process that has invaded their homes and their lives, leaving its mess everywhere, making it impossible to connect after all. Maybe they’re really wishing private was private, fuck off was fuck off.
I can’t help searching for answers in subtleties, hoping for something that can actually resonate, not just clang around my brain and gut. Of course expecting subtlety from a company whose very name screams GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN in all caps risks missing the point.
Maybe they’re telling me that subtlety is overrated. I no doubt overrate it; I love smugly patting myself on the back for catching a subtle detail or two.
As for the shit…
I’ve changed (...quick estimate)1812 nappies in the last 2.5 years; and as far as I’m concerned 1972 was the last time anyone said anything funny or interesting about shit on stage. “Literally eating shit!” (while of course not literally eating shit) is hardly subtle. If anything, it’s way too on the nose.
Come to think of it (which took a while) an awful lot of the details of this show are way, way too on the nose. The pretentious address of the title, the weird literal aptness of using “Send In the Clowns” (lyrics here) and “Tell Me It’s not True” (the team anthem of cheesy ploy merchants), the “stools” brought from home, the red door and the mimed window, the bra, the telling us to fuck off by saying “Fuck Off” a hundred times or just leaving the stage, and of course the shit that’s literally shit, only not really, all of it hilariously too on the nose.
Finally there’s the show’s failure itself; and it does fail, right on the nose. It’s not even just looking to fail, not just chasing the fading fashion for shows that holler “Look at my glorious failure! Isn’t it fab!”, it’s actually daring to fail.
Maybe the subtlety was under my nose all the time.
I kind of like the uncertainty of all these maybes, it’s been a while since a show has left me floundering this badly. Good. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. I might find a way to let my guard down. Well, maybe next year.