While we’re waiting to head into the theatre for Mary Pearson’s one-woman show, the performance artist gathers us around and questions us about our health, our love lives, our five-year plans. Did you tick anything off the to-do list today? Did you call your mother? Did you drink enough water? As a way to get us pondering on the tiny ways in which we can fail on a daily basis, it’s a neat introduction to Pearson’s show, in which she explores the myriad opportunities for disappointment in a culture that inflates our romantic expectations and sets the bar of physical beauty impossibly high. ‘And on your way in,’ she adds as we shuffle to our seats, ‘reach into the flower pot by the door and take a bean for every desire you have yet to fulfill…’
By turns dazzling, vulnerable, hilarious and tender, Pearson scatters before us a cut-up mish-mash of images, sounds and ideas that touch on feminist theory, bittersweet confession and cultural critique, all expressed with a strikingly eloquent physicality and irrepressible charm. Costumed in ‘body-control’ underwear, a bikini and a glittering cocktail dress, she collides recollections of mismatched relationships – ‘we sang karaoke for four hours to avoid talking about it’ – with positive-thinking fluff-speak, personal sales pitches and songs, both sung and mimed. She immerses herself in a huge pile of beans – all those unfulfilled desires? – sweeping them into a heart, a catwalk runway, an arena inside which she writhes and contorts while male ‘volunteers’ from the audience, wearing cowboy hats, spray her with water and waft her with pink-feathered fans. We watch transfixed – a little uncomfortable, a little perplexed – until Pearson’s laconic drawl announces the thoughts that have begun to creep into consciousness: ‘what is she doing? This is so pretentious. She is such an exhibitionist, a narcissist even…’
Failure is at its most successful – and insightful – when Pearson gives maximum space to her comedy chops to pierce the bloated bubble of celebrity-endorsed ideals of femininity: crooning her attributes while sitting open-legged in a thigh-split sequin-fest, a loop station repeating ‘shiny, shiny teeth’; binding herself immobile with bows of shiny pink fabric, in a pink wig and an eye-patch, while singing Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will be Forever)’. Sections that work less well include the straight retelling – after it’s already been tantalisingly revealed by degrees – of that doomed romance; and although a beauty pageant-style litany of tips for being successful in life and love lampoons the banal emptiness of the positive-thinking gurus and the sheer impossibility of what they advise (thereby perpetuating the sense of failure), the morphing into a scrunch-faced stooper to deliver the voice of feminist theory makes less comfortable viewing, even though the transformation itself is masterly.
A little unstructured, perhaps a little too long, Failure is ultimately a success due to Pearson’s incredible presence. She utterly owns the space; whether sliding around on her hill of beans or stalking the stage in vertiginous heels, she commands your total attention, and rewards it wholeheartedly. I can’t wait to see what she does next.