I’m slouching back in a large white chair, looking up at yards of white curtain as whale music and a string of complements come through my headphones. My feet are soothed by a foot spa; a voice tells me I’m a born winner with naturally great breasts; but try as I might I can’t shake off the image of the social worker coming to take me away from my crack-dealing mother.
I’m at Sampled, The Junction’s micro-festival, sitting in Bryony Kimmings’ The Hall of Gratuitous Praise, an individual audio installation that has a soundtrack to please every Mel Gibson wannabe and anyone in need of a comedy pick-me-up; but the show I’m really thinking about is her Mummy Time, a one-punter-three-performer piece in which your big sister leads you home to where mum is doing the ironing while putting away a bottle of gin. Maths homework and a tea of sandwiches and Wotsits are interrupted when Uncle Tony calls and mum needs help bundling up some crack; so you get packing, until a social worker knocks at the door and one post-hug-from-sister-moment later you’ve been lead away. It’s mad, messy stuff (a blind over one of the windows falls away during the six-ish minutes; judging by my big sister’s face I’m not sure she expected me to actually eat the Wotsits), but Kimmings is a master of the haphazard, and this is one-to-one theatre close to the top of its unsettling game.
The audience member as an individual is at the centre of a lot of work at this year’s Sampled. Sitting back to relax is an easy option; this is a festival where the punter gets as much as they’re willing to give, not least in the work-in-progress showings throughout the day. A lot of recent debate about WIPs boils down to the role of the audience: is it fair to charge for work that isn’t finished? Is this theatre’s equivalent of flogging seconds? Are works-in-progress largely restricted to an audience of those with strong industry attachments and/or family and friends, who might not be the best providers of public feedback? The Sampled approach is a healthy one; works-in-progress are presented as just that, and with a dose of scheduled feedback sessions and targeted questionnaires, your role as provider of feedback is nicely acknowledged.
Most of the WIPs come in JAM, the Junction’s regular line-up of pieces in development and the festival’s opening event. Pick of a mixed bunch are Chris Bailey’s romp through Hitchcock histories in Adventures in Mondo Truth, and Ira Brand’s A Cure for Ageing, an intriguing mixture of performance and scientific research. A section in which she calculates the life expectancy of a random audience member before running through a list of major world events he may or may not live to see is distressingly effective. The piece is still in its early stages and some unfocussed sections about Brand’s grandfather don’t yet sit with the rest of her material, but this is a powerful show in the making.
After a quick cake pit-stop – served up by a pineapple-bedecked Hunt of festival hosting duo Hunt & Darton – I caught Victoria Melody, a new name to me and one of the most intriguing theatre makers I’ve come across recently. She describes her work – straddling performance, film and visual arts – as exploring anthropological and documentary approaches to arts practice by immersing herself in Britain’s clubs and societies; and before you start feeling that sounds like a lot of hot air, by clubs and societies she means office workplaces, beauty contests for bikers, Oxford punting trips and pigeon races.
Her latest – Major Tom – is a quietly provocative piece performed by Melody with her basset hound, Major Tom himself (who, after an earnest attempt to greet the audience as they came into the space, snoozed quietly on the stage for most of the show). The piece follows Melody as she enters Major Tom into amateur dog trials, picking up medals and working her way towards professional trials and eventually Crufts. At some point during the process she makes the brilliant decision that the best act of solidarity with her champion hound (and great material for a show, too) would be to enter a beauty pageant herself; and so rather than Melody I should be referring to our performer as the current Mrs. Brighton, who’s midway through preparations for the Mrs. England Championships 2013.
The piece itself is a mixture of film clips from dog shows and beauty pageants and narrative storytelling, presumably with more to be added over the coming months as mistress and hound continue their trials. Melody is a natural storyteller with a terrific sense of style and a superb eye for detail; she never directly critiques the worlds of showing and pageantry, but beneath the show’s natural charm there’s an uneasy commentary on self-obsession – a list of candidate requirements for wannabe Mrs. Englands (uncannily similar in tone to the requirements Major Tom has to meet for trials) draws simultaneous chuckles and gasps from the audience. Watch out for this one at a town – or pageant – near you.
I was a few minutes late for Michael Pinchbeck’s The Beginning (I got held up playing pitch and putt on a double-decker bus; that final hole took longer than I’d reckoned…) Pinchbeck has a smart approach to creating shows, and this new piece about communication and the performer’s relationship with the audience is slickly done. There are lots of ideas bubbling underneath the surface; questions of interpretation (of material by the performers; of the performance by the audience), language and communication – he and his co-performers flip between modes of ‘themselves’ and assumed characters, communicating in a mixture of English, French, music – live and recorded – and written cue cards. It’s a rich display of aesthetics, but never quite gels with its subject matter – a working through of the stage directions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a combination of cue cards, boots and hard hats isn’t the touchstone for the rest of the piece that Pinchbeck perhaps hopes.
Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker’s The Oh Fuck Moment, on the other hand, is a well rehearsed study in getting an audience on side, and paid a welcome visit following its Fringe First-winning run at last year’s Edinburgh festival. We all make mistakes; we all have moments when we wish the earth would open up and swallow us; when having hit the wrong button / gone to the wrong house / boarded the wrong flight, our thoughts boil down to two simple words: oh fuck. Those moments, from the seemingly trivial mis-sent email to the horrific fatal slip-up with a plane’s landing gear, are explored around a staffroom table installed in the Junction’s admin office in a show that’s a gentle blend of performance, poetry and pop-psychotherapy. Are we at our most human in the moments when we cock things up? Far from being a gloomy ode to failure this is the theatrical equivalent of a big hug and a reminder that ever since caveman missed the mammoth and speared his mate, we’ve all been there before. To err is not just human but a vital chunk of humanity; so long as we learn from our mistakes – and try our best to forgive – those oh fuck moments needn’t be the end of the world.
My pick of day, though, comes from poet, playwright and illustrator Molly Naylor, whose new show My Robot Heart – developed and performed with band The Middle Ones – is a gorgeous piece of performance storytelling. Inspired by a Japanese inventor’s quest to develop a robot capable of love, the show is a masterclass in whimsy; a subtle, witty and gently moving tale of love, loss and late-20s angst. Supported by BAC, Bristol Old Vic and the Junction, it’s also a top example of the artistic results of collaboration between venues; one to watch out for at Edinburgh this summer.
Before I left, I picked my Lego figure of choice for Andy Field’s ZILLA (he may well have subsequently played a starring role in a disaster action movie; I’ve no idea…), and an interactive Israeli dance lesson was getting under way as I snuck out and resisted the temptation for a final round of bus-based pitch and putt. A mini sampling of Sampled, but a promising selection of what could fast become one of my favourite weekends away.