Saturday 5 June 2010

The Three Stigmata of Pac-Man - Sir John Mills Theatre (Pulse '10)

Ross Sutherland’s The Three Stigmata of Pac-Man could have suffered from sharing a less sensational version of exactly the same plot as Whenever I Get Blown Up... were it not for a couple of saving graces; firstly, Sutherland, while a founder member (a decade ago!) of performance poetry schticksters Aisle 16, is basically a stand-up comedian who chucks in a few “poems” for good measure, which happily avoids another hour of trying to untangle the narrative from forced rhymes and unhappy similes. Secondly, he doesn’t present himself shielded by the irreproachable seriousness of his subject or enormous self-regard. Instead he’s just quite a funny bloke taking the piss out of himself. He’s not half as clever as it might have been nice for him to have been, but that’s hardly the point. And by this stage in the weekend, I’m just grateful that he’s competent and funny.

When his story starts, he’s working as a music journalist for the Manchester edition of Metro, which shares an office with the Daily Mail (I assume this is all true). He’s (lazily) writing music previews while his opposite number across a cardboard partition is writing terrifying predictions of how Britain is being swamped by gypsies who will lower the value of your house. He speculates that journalism has now become the practice of writing possible futures. It’s a neat observation. Then he loses his job, largely because a bunch of people in America whose job it is to trade in “futures" quite spectacularly cock it up, and all the money in the world suddenly contracts. Sutherland doesn’t make this link between the sale of futures on global markets and his own contribution to the craft of selling the future explicitly (although he’s welcome to nick it), but it’s roughly around this nexus that the shows baggy contents revolve.

There’s an amusing digression about a reviewer pronouncing Sutherland a racist, which is turned into a prose poem in which the reviewer in question sees everything in the world as fascistic. Elsewhere, toward the end, there’s an extended passage describing a humiliating return to the parental home and a near-breakdown. That this is all delivered as amusing, blokey self-effacement says a lot more about his talents as a writer and comic performer than might occur at the time. At no stage does this feel either particularly self-important or -indulgent. Rather than pleading a case for his specialness, “Ross Sutherland” seems to effortlessly describe things happening to himself as if they could be happening to anyone, or even to you. There’s also the fact he’s clearly making some stuff up – unless he really can travel in space and time and repeat events again and again in different genres.

Ultimately, this is a likeable, though not profound show. Worryingly, it is made all the more likeable by the simple facts of the performer's charm and good humour. "Worryingly", because, I'm not sure I especially want my “theatre” – and I’m not sure many of the above shows would want to be categorised as “theatre” – to win me over with charm and some nice jokes. But then I suppose [and this is a pretty sudden hypothesis] when you impose that much reality into a performance, perhaps different criteria for assessment suddenly kick in. After all, if the story isn’t made up, if the people really are real, if it’s not “acting” but, well, what? being? – if the co-ordinates have been re-set to such an extent, then perhaps the way one responds is also altered.

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