We all know the drill. The contestant runs on stage, talks of their life traumas (cue tears) in a bid for love and success and then demonstrates their abilities in music/dance/juggling. In our world, competition is good and we like to win. But there is someone else involved in that contestant’s ambitions: the people clapping, the people jotting down the different phone-lines. You. In Made in China’s Gym Party, the individual quest for victory is placed within the context of wider society, in a fast-paced show as much about winning, as about the audience.
Chris, Jess and Ira all stand below their name in lights. They explain the rules. This is a competition. They are all friends, and love each other very, very much, but there can only be one winner. Only one name in lights. This information is delivered amongst a taught mess of different tropes of success, from the election speeches of politicians, to having magazine articles dedicated to a celebrity’s fluctuating weight. This purposeful confusion questions a societal obsession with success – all the symbols of it are there, just the reasons behind it are missing.
Underlying this are interactions with the audience, bringing them into the contest; an innocent plea for someone’s name turns into a competition of whose name is nicer. This is brought further into the foreground when later in the show the audience, or “The Group” as Chris prefers to call them, become vital for the competition to work – their participation, and most importantly: their votes. This places the desire to win in contention with a collective; there can only be one winner – yet everyone is necessary for that win. However, there is not space for real response from “The Group”: the moments for interaction are allotted, and the insistence is that you agree. This dulled some potential brilliance, as the audience never really entered the race.
The nastiness of competition is always brimming under the surface, until it fully bursts out through the loser’s physical and psychological forfeits. In one of these, Jess, stripped of the cute sports-day-esque uniform, stands on a box, while Ira cruelly dismantles her appearance. This is made all the more unsettling due to Ira’s wittiness, leaving most of the audience laughing. After this sadistic display, the final round of the competition seems bitter-sweet, and the over-all loser’s punishments seem feeble. Though, the visions of earlier torture definitely stick in your mind.
Made in China make us consider the competitive streak within ourselves, and how this can pollute the wider world. By getting the audience involved the foundational problems of having a society based on individualism are laid bare. However, often this message is yelled at you, and there is no real space to yell back, so the full, theatrical potential of this idea is never quite realized. But what is there is exciting nonetheless, and there is some fucking awesome guitar. Seriously.