Wednesday 26 September 2012

Big Hits – GetInTheBackOfTheVan, Soho Theatre

[or: review as object lesson in why self-reflexivity isn't as good as getting to the point]

There are a million different ways I might start this review. Each plausibly reflective of a different facet of a show that is variously “essential viewing”, “funny, sexy, frightening” or “smart, hard, awesome”; caustic, casual, obscene and innuendo-riddled. Instead, I already seem instead to have reflected the fact that it is a bit overlong and perhaps unsure where it's going.

I might also start with a“what I did with my weekend” approach: I came to Big Hits straight from DIALOGUE at the BAC. I was terrifically wired on coffee, and probably hadn't had enough to eat. I had also been talking to some incredibly smart theatre makers and fellow writers-about-theatre all afternoon, so perhaps my critical faculties were also buzzing a bit too hard.

Mention could be made of the fact that I didn't see company GetinTheBackofTheVan's inaugural production External – a response to Ontroerend Goed's Internal – robbing me of the chance to chart the company's development as Matt Trueman surely will.

All these things are relevant. And none of them make for a good intro.

There's also the temptation to start off with smut: “Last night ended, as so many nights do, with me staring up the naked bumhole of a performer.” etc. So I'll stop trying to introduce the thing cleverly, or with writing, and will just get on with the thing and stick this in as an appendix.

(Thinking about it, though, the above is more or less exactly how the show itself starts – self-consciously talking about itself as a show and not getting started.)

Big Hits opens with Lucy McCormick dressed in a little black dress – all plunging, gauzy neckline, visible bra and white high heels – and Jennifer Pick in a massive rabbit costume with a microphone gaffer-taped to her head (Lucy: “I said 'Why not dress as a bunny girl?'...”). They're introducing their show Big Hits. Their show Big Hits is “on a mission. [We'll] learn SELF-IMPROVEMENT with [them] here tonight and [we] will COMPLETELY improve [o]ursel[ves]. That way [we] can be better in the world”.

They want a show with balls. Enter the hapless Craig Hamblyn – stripped to the waist and covered in blood in a way that suggests he's just stepped out of Thalheimer's Die Orestie – as their bearer of the aforementioned necessary actual and figurative extras.

You've grasped the aesthetic, right? No set; visible *means* (microphones, speakers, iPod, floodlight and disco ball); that tacky arthaus kinda thing. The kind of thing I have plenty of time for, but of which I have consequently seen a lot. If you want a shorthand, think: the carnage at the end of an imaginary Gob Squad office party; an existential vision of artists photocopying their bums wearing animal masks.

One of the things discussed at DIALOGUE yesterday was the relative redundancy of “theatre criticism” containing an “assessment”. But then there are interesting side-effects of the non-judgement-wielding or -yielding review. No, I won't star-rate Big Hits. I don't star-rate anything. And I can avoid talking about what might or might not specifically have worked (or: worked-for-me). But, for reasons that will shortly become apparent, a description of the “plot” or even the arc of the show isn't much use for a consideration of the work...

What happens is that Lucy sings Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah about a dozen times while __ hops about in the rabbit suit, performs a rabbit death and then continues on stage as a kind of browned-off compère figure. Craig also remains on stage enacting his own trajectory of dejection, performing a series of increasingly difficult tasks, mostly involving the holding of some very heavy-looking speakers. Lucy's performances of Hallelujah become increasingly desperate, “attention-seeking” and sexualised. By the end, she has shown us her right breast, simulated a considerable amount of aggressive sex, spanked herself so hard that, by this final performance of the group's week-long run, her derrière looks rather badly bruised, and finally has presented us with a long view up her bottom.

In light of the non-judging review, the interesting question with which these antics leave this self-reflexive critic is what the hell one does say about them.

I might start by positioning myself in relation to them (no, that's not a double entendre, although this is a show dripping with them). Reassuring you, my clever, unshockable, avant-garde reader, that I was not in the least bit offended by anything I saw.

I might go further than merely reassuring you by showing off: that I have seen every single one of these elements on a stage before (ok, not specifically Lucy's bottom, but bottoms like Lucy's); or even more show-offy: I lived in Berlin, dammit: this sort of thing is just a quiet night in a club there. I could point to specific artistic precedents – the “cake-fucking scene” in Dave St. Pierre's Un Peu de Tendresse – Bordel de Merde, the performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit in Superamas's Big Third Episode – and note that both go a lot further. But that would be missing the point.

But instead, let's go back to the first principle of trusting that the company know what they're doing and talk about what they have done.

Perhaps the most obvious influence (to an outside eye) on the genesis of the work could be seem to be the ever-more-ubiquitous TV format of the talent show. To position myself as a critic in relation to that: I can say with pride/appalling-cultural-ignorance/unashamed-snobbery that I haven't seen even five minutes of a single one of these shows.

I couldn't give a fuck about X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Pop Idol, or Britain's Got Talent. Obviously, having lived in the UK for a while, I do have a peripheral awareness of Simon Cowell's existence, and of Alexandra Burke's hideous version of Jeff Buckley's massive improvement on Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. I am also aware of that godawful version of Heroes that some maniac thought would be an appropriate song with which to try to raise money for the British Army. I could even make the pat observation/attempt-at-witticism that the only line in Hallelujah that might have any relevance in its new-found status as a squawky anthem for the godlessly godawful is: “But you don't really care for music, do ya?”

I am, however, aware of the critical discourse, and the *social* discourse, around this sort of programme (I might not watch the programmes themselves, but I do still read newspapers and listen to the news, so they're more or less unavoidable. Which I profoundly resent), and it is an interesting subject on the macro level. On the other hand, I'm not sure that talent shows are so pervasive in our culture yet that the best response isn't just to ignore them – that making theatre/Art *against* them (if that's what this is; which certainly isn't the whole story, if it's any of the story) doesn't just dignify the wretched things far more than they deserve and that ignoring them altogether wouldn't be a better solution.

But Big Hits goes a lot further than just being a witless critique of the TV Talent Show format. Really it's “about” (difficult word) the commodification of human (particularly female) sexuality, the way sexuality is sold back to us through pornography, television and advertising, about labour in general and about performance. Well, that's some of what it seemed to be about to me. Perhaps largely because of my British desire to pin things down to a purpose and some sort of utilitarian comment function. Maybe it wasn't meant to be about any of that and was just a strange, wild and oddly readable bit of art that I should have been thinking about in a totally different way.

That said, if it was about those things, we might, as critics, be able to discuss the extent to which the piece brought something/anything new to the table of that discussion, or to the artform.

As Mark Ravenhill said on Twitter: “Last performance tonight at Soho Theatre of Big Hits. I urge you to see it. Funny, sexy, frightening, essential.” perhaps because of the relative rarity of work like it in a mainstream UK performance space.

As Matt Trueman, also on Twitter, said: “Institutional context: an arsehole on a stage at the ICA is a very different proposition to an arsehole on a stage at the Soho Theatre.

And, I think both writer/director and critic are right. Ecologically speaking I'm pleased that this show exists.

I do think, however, that side-effects of this ecological context had a lot to do with how I wound up watching it on Saturday night.

That is to say, I'm not sure this is the sort of show that benefits from the above sort of bigging-up. I saw it with an expectant sold-out audience – though of what they were expectant was less clear. Some people had definitely decided it was going to be a funny show and laughed at all the jokes. Loudly. Other people were presumably watching more intently for the meaning behind the jokes. As an audience it felt fractured, and slightly frustrated as a result of that fracture. (That sense of at least two factions in an audience mentally tutting at, or worrying about, their co-audients' audible responses/lack-of-audible-responses. We've all been in those audiences, right? We sometimes can't help but be in one or other of those factions, right?)

Big Hits feels like a show that would do well for being discovered for itself, rather than being sold out on a wave of probably un-meet-able hype. i.e. – if I'd seen it for myself as a matter of course rather than going on the recommendations of three notoriously hard-to-please friends, then I'd have probably been going wild about it too. Instead, I went pre-armed with all these slightly unqualified recommendations.  So, the position one goes in with tends to wind up being modified to: “Well, it was fine, but I'm not sure it's as good as everyone else said it was.” And I don't think it's just critics who have an instinct to bridle at hype.


I still haven't said anything meaningful about the show, only about my experience of sitting in it and thinking about other peoples' responses to it.

So, to get back to the show...

Plainly the most striking thing in the show is the extent and nature of Lucy's self-abuse (to which I will return). However, in an interesting way I found the difficulty of Craig's tasks far more absorbing. There was some astute use of dual/triple focus where, while Lucy was doing something absurd and sexual, and Jennifer was being a wryly cute or cutely wry rabbit, Craig would be in real pain undertaking some actually physically painful labour. There's an available reading that would note about what a very Victorian-to-the-Sixties model of masculine and feminine roles. Sure, people can argue that these roles still hold far too much currency, and that Victorian women weren't really encouraged into high heels and belt-length skirts to snap up a mate. At the same time, hard physical labour seems to be something of which we see less and less as Britain's economy moves away from any kind of manufacturing. I don't suppose the piece was intended as a comparison between lap-dancing and labouring, but it's an available critical endgame, I think.

Primarily, though, it does seem to be aimed at eviscerating (or perhaps *re*viscerating) the contemporary picture of female sexuality. Or rather, not sexuality, so much as the performance of it in the service of the entertainment industry.

Looking at the elements here, we have the idea of the narrative, the sub- misery-memoir backstories that are much beloved of the TV talent show – the end-of-the-line bastardisation of the idea that one has to suffer for one's art. Part of Lucy's character arc is the questing to perfect her performance of Hallelujah by putting herself through some suffering. This includes an incredibly uncomfortable ten minute (?) “domestic violence” routine, in which Craig repeatedly stage-punches her in the face. While one could easily accuse it of trivialising violence against women, I think it transcends the accusation by the way that Lucy plays the scene – continually looking over her shoulder between each punch in that staple cliché of pornography, and, in this context, a way that suggests she's just checking we're still watching her. But with wide eyes that disturbingly recall that most tasteless of pop titles “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” (which in turn recalls both the Adam Curtis/Punchdrunk collaboration and the more recent news stories about Chris Brown, his new album, that review of it that went viral, and his deeply strange new neck tattoo).

This emphasis on being watched and on the lexicon of pornographic semiotics form the cornerstone of the piece. Lucy's non-stop stream of filthy double-entendre and incredibly graphic gesticulations – so graphic that you might well choose to believe that that can't possibly mean what it looks like – clash interestingly with Craig's joke-puncturing shtick and Jennifer's slightly more wide-eyed, clownish stare into the audience – her face always looking only two steps away from breaking into a smile or giggles.

So that's the stuff that's in the show. A sort of story about someone beating themselves up in order to feel the pain so they can sing Hallelujah better, assisted and then turned on by a 5'-something bunny with a spooky voice, that dies before the end and is reincarnated as a kind of talent show judge, and a bloke holding heavy speakers at arms length whilst trying to avoid looking like Christ (Paraphrase: “There's enough religion in the song already” – which is some neat irony right there, given Cohen's (obvious, pronounced, ancestral) first-half-only approach to the Bible.)

So, yes. What does it all mean? Pretty much what you like. Obviously there are some strenuous pointers. Definitely some really interesting material in there. Almost certainly to slightly over-long feel of it is deliberate in order to bang home the point (fnarr) and to make you feel the repetitions.

I suppose (on a personal note), I'd have liked it to maybe tell me/suggest some stuff I haven't thought of before. Or to have gone just that bit further into The Unacceptable, so that I had been genuinely appalled. But if that's not what GetInTheBackOfTheVan wanted to do, it felt fine that it wasn't what they'd done.

Basically (and this is an assessment. Sorry), I liked it (in retrospect more than in the watching, although there was enough smut, jokes and near-nudity to keep me entertained). I look forward to seeing more of their work. It feels like a great (almost) starting point for a young company. Perhaps some of their shtick will start to feel a bit less borrowed in time (That Gob Squad, and slight Forced Ents debt could do with fading a bit, maybe – although it's an interesting question whether that debt is actual or just a result of talking in quite a deadpan way into a microphone.)

...fades out...

...lights suddenly shut off...


Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for this. I'll have to wait until I can see it elsewhere. I just wanted to add something to you're contextual bit: I performed Doris Day can Fuck off at Soho earlier this year and was, well, not shocked, but slightly perturbed, well, no, actually, fully perturbed at how funny the show suddenly was. I hadn't changed it much since Edinburgh and I felt like in the face of so much laughter the show was a totally different beast, referring to different things than what I'd intended, had the vulnerability disappeared? Do Soho-ers laugh at anything? Can people think as they laugh?

I can't compare the two shows having not seen this one, but Doris... seems vaguely similar in that it featured humiliation and singing. Oh, wait, that is funny isn't it, because that's what mainstream entertainment now is. Is BH a show for a TV audience, and then is the Soho audience the perfect audience for this?

Balls, wish I'd seen it.

Andrew Haydon said...

Actually, I should contextualise the make-up of that audience a bit more - it seemed more-than-usually full of the great and the good. Think I spotted Simon Kane, Maria Aberg and Tom Scutt (plus me and Maddy Costa both on press tix), so it felt like it was an audience who were up for an Arty show and not just in for *comedy* because The Soho Does Comedy... Hmm.

I wonder if the difference in the DDFO audience was partly down to a different time-slot to its Edinburgh incarnation, and yer Soho crowd being a bit better, um, "watered" as it were...