Bristol-based writer and performer (and occasional Exeunt contributor) Tom Wainwright critiqued rampant consumerism and the hell of the high street in his last show, Pedestrian, and scored a huge hit at Edinburgh in the process. His latest creation, Buttercup, tackles another modern phenomenon — reality TV — and the result is hilarious, perceptive and deliciously surreal.
Buttercup is a cow from Lancashire. She’s never been in love, but thinks it might feel like eating a Fruit Salad – ‘the sweet, not a salad made of fruit. I hate fruit’ — that is, leaving you slightly out of breath and with sticky hands. She lives with her mother, brother and three half-brothers, and spends her time tucking into ‘the box of telly’. And what more is there for someone like her, who’s ‘ugly, fat and fick’? But then Jamie Oliver comes to town, promising to sprinkle a little of his North London sparkle over their blighted lives by teaching them all to cook ‘pasta and meatballs, and before long Buttercup is on her way to a stint on MasterChef…
Assisted only by a 1970s pinny, a hair clip and lashings of mascara (plus a smear of lippy donated by a nice lady in the audience), Wainwright uses his considerable talent for physical theatre to conjure Buttercup in her entirety as she tells us about her journey to fame, that is, from obscurity to ‘real life’. Her stories – winning MasterChef with a dish made from her stillborn baby, being sent down for a stretch for GBH, finding love with a ‘character’ from The Only Way is Essex – are interspersed with impressionistic renderings of John Torode as a potato, Gregg Wallace as a fish and Gordon Ramsey’s multi-directional rage, which burst into the narrative with explosive verisimilitude. Never having watched TOWIE, I’ll admit I had to YouTube Mark and Arg, but the casual misogynist and his fawning sidekick seem spot on, too. Wainwright’s precise observations – enhanced by subtly effective gestural elements – are matched by the quality of the writing and the sheer charm of the performance.
At its heart, of course, the piece makes a serious point about the nation’s obsession with celebrity, and the TV production companies that feed this need to escape into constructed realities. Buttercup appears to have no aspirations bar those foisted upon her by a series of spiky-haired ‘children’ with clipboards and walkie-talkies, and all her knowledge of the world is filtered through the ‘telly box’ (Rodney King is a character off a series called ‘America’, for instance). But it’s clear that contestants on shows such as MasterChef are pushed to greater lengths to create drama out of the most mundane of daily activities, cooking a meal, as potato-man Torode bellows and inflects to imbue basil with increasingly metaphorical importance, so it’s fitting that Buttercup must serve up her first-born in order to rise above the rest. Tellyland is a mirror saturated with colour and the volume turned up to 11; series like TOWIE are GM-life, in a world where people have come to believe they need – even deserve – a stylist, a PA and a VIP pass to the supermarket.
Thank goodness there’s someone like Wainwright, standing in a real room, wearing a real pinny, showing us there’s another way, before the idiot lantern makes bovines of us all.