At the end of the new musical The Commitments, the audiences are almost aggressively told to stand up and dance along to the rendition of ‘Mustang Sally’ taking place on stage. If we oblige, it’s only because there may be someone else stood in front blocking our view and it could be awkward to stay seated. But there’s something about it’s happy-clappy optimism which makes you feel empty and depressed.
Just around the corner at the Soho Theatre, however, Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model effortlessly manages to get a hundred adults to do an animal dance, and contrary to its heartbreaking, tear-inducing final note, leaves you optimistic that you can go out into the “real world” and change it.
Even those of us who didn’t see the show in Edinburgh have probably experienced Catherine Bennett in some way by now; after the incessant chatter, praise and debate the show caused in August, I didn’t waste a moment in looking up the project and listening to the catchy pop songs. Bennett is an alter ego created by Kimmings with her nine-year old niece Taylor (who also appears on stage and acts as the singer’s manager) in an attempt to provide a credible, likeable, superstar role model by tapping into present structures of fame and celebrity in an attempt to subvert it from the inside. Bennett is not perfect, Kimmings admits (“She’s a bit weird”), but her decision to sing songs about apathy, friendship and the future and her refusal to give into hypersexualisation provides at least some groundwork for a discussion with younger generations about feminism.
Intriguingly, the show itself doesn’t actually introduce said role model until towards the end of its sixty minute running time. Following a loose three-act structure, we are initially introduced to Taylor and Bryony, including their opinions of one another and a bit of background information, before then opening up to a discussion of age, boundaries and – by representing Taylor as without sight and hearing – the problems thrown up by mollycoddling. The final ‘act’ then introduces Bennett and the project that surrounds her, moving from joyous dance routine to a searing emotional climax. To my mind, within this hidden three-act structure lies the show’s success, engaging you on what seems to be a purely intellectual level whilst burrowing its way into the depths of your heart, finally ripping your guts open as you watch Kimmings look on, half-proud half-despairing, as her niece boogies along to Jessie J.
This subversion is a theme which runs throughout as Kimmings and Taylor find ways of using systems and structures against themselves. David Curtis-Ring’s set, for example, evokes a fairytale woodland clearing, introducing a sense of magic to proceedings to offer that little bit of hope. Similarly, they change from “Victorian boys” to knights in shining (read: glittering) armour to princesses in the vein of Catherine the Great, seizing narrative by the scruff of its neck to open up its raw potential. Even grinding club music and Katy Perry’s brand of ‘bubblegum pop’ are appropriated for their own ends, with Tom Parkinson’s music shifting the way such branding is viewed so that we may also subvert and create in our own lives.
Looking at the published script of the piece, the preponderance of stage directions points towards a focus on action just as much as spoken text, which is ultimately the message Kimmings leaves us with at the show’s close. We can talk all we like about feminism and “what’s to be done,” but we won’t witness any change until we teach Taylor and other members of her generation that “her voice is valued and she has the power to change the world if she wants to”. Catherine Bennett is the embodiment of this ethos, taking control of the world around her one step at a time in the hope that we will all become empowered enough to be genuinely better people.