Billing itself as a ‘live multimedia gig, theatrical experience and single release’, and promising to be ‘intimate, [and] immersive’, Biding Time (Remix) has the makings of a pleasing and personal piece of theatre, but its untidiness and scattershot approach often work against it.
Based on singer Louise Quinn’s own experiences in the music industry and co-written by Quinn, Pippa Bailey, Grid Iron’s Ben Harrison (who also directs), and the band’s drummer Bal Cooke, the story it tells is both slight and familiar, but no worse for that: the arc of innocence corrupted by commerce is endlessly fascinating, and Quinn’s self-aware persona adds a nice feminist bite to the commentary.
So we watch as a female-led indie band (Scottish artpop group A Band Called Quinn) starts to have some success only to find it comes at a high cost. Signed to a major label and guided by a sleazy ‘Mr Big’ (performance artist Dianne Torr, relayed by video and suitably oleaginous), their creativity is compromised at the altar of commerciality; band members are discarded for not fitting ‘the look’ and the singer suffers the double whammy of being sexualised to boost sales – Quinn’s outfits becoming more racy as her trajectory rises – while being demonised by the public for such perceived attention seeking.
It’s a double standard we’ve seen throughout the history of pop, from Blondie to No Doubt to Texas, when an attractive female presence is used to sell the band while minimising the importance of the musicians. But though the story contains few surprises, Harrison’s production conveys things sharply and concisely – a few pointed lines from characters projected on the backdrop (albeit some of these seem gratuitously surreal – for reasons that were lost to me, one was dressed as the Green Man and one as some sort of pirate) and the disembodied voices of ‘the public’ are enough to get a sense of a morally bankrupt, exploitative industry, and the strain success puts on relationships with family and friends.
While it made for a striking image, I was also mildly baffled by the presence of the giant white rabbit (Lewis Sherlock), who malevolently stalks the stage, dancing, making lascivious gestures or, through hand puppets, addressing the singer in the nagging voices with which she has come to contend: like a cross between the malevolent apparition from Donnie Darko and Bez from the Happy Mondays, he clomps around dispensing heavy handed symbolism – shooting sacked band members, blindfolding the singer and by the time he dug out an actual camp stove to sauté Quinn’s beating heart after he tears it from her, the temptation is simply to go: yeah, thanks, we get it already.
I’m sure my own personal antipathy to technology played a part in my annoyance at the pointlessness of having to wear headphones to hear what could have easily been projected in the small space of the venue (an exasperation quickly shared by the, admittedly, friendly staff, who had to come and reset mine three times in the first five minutes, as I kept accidentally switching to another radio channel), but my companion agreed that it all felt needlessly gimmicky, and detracted from the actual performance, which was a shame, since the band fits neatly into the tradition of charming, Scottish indie pop, and this production contains much which is engaging and delightful.
Instead, it felt isolating rather than intimate. Live music works best as a collective experience, whether it’s the crowd-fed adrenalin of a stadium or the frisson of intimacy a pub gig allows – if it didn’t, we might as well all stay home and listen to Spotify.
Here, kept separate by our individual headsets, there was no sense of being part of an audience; having the soundtrack played directly into your ear somehow makes the events on stage more distant than immediate. There were moments when the crowd clearly wanted to applaud (though ironically the songs that most elicited this spontaneous reaction were those that were supposed to illustrate the band’s creative nadir, when they had sold out for the sake of commercialism – which goes to show there’s something about a catchy pop song that bypasses the critical faculties) – and smatterings of applause would break out but, devoid of cues, the clapping would die out, almost embarrassed, throughout, eventually undercutting what could have been a redemptive and satisfying finale.