Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 20 November 2014

Hoke’s Bluff

Shoreditch Town Hall ⋄ 18th - 29th Novmber 2014

We can only hope.

William Drew

I was born in the USA. I only lived there for two years as a child and since then my trips there have been brief and to big cities and on the East and West coasts that are in no way representative of what you might call Middle America. Even when I use that term, I don’t even mean the Middle America that most Americans mean. Nothing that specific.  What I mean is a kind of generic small town, where people have well kept lawns and white picket fences and they say “howdy” to their neighbour as they stroll out of a morning, cup o’joe in hand to take in the fresh fall freeze.  I mean the British view of Middle America, an outsider’s view.

A couple of years ago, I was in Montreal and took the train down to New York City, through the Adirondack Mountains. Before arriving at the relatively bustling Albany, we passed through towns with names like Saratoga Springs, Schenactady and Glenns Falls. As we approached the big city, there was Poughkeepsie, Yonkers and Wappingers Falls. I saw these places fly by out of the train window. From what I could see, they fulfilled the image in my mind’s eye of small town America. This image is pretty solid and it is derived almost entirely from TV and film. I feel like I know that town pretty well but I’ve never been there. In particular, I feel like I know what it’s like to go to high school in that town, about the sports stars, the coach, the cheerleaders. I know about the desire to get out. I know about this because I’ve seen it time and time again on the screen but always at a distance, like that train window zooming past.

Hoke’s Bluff is one of these towns, in the sense that it lives in the imagination through the filter of movies and TV. At one point, Gemma Paintin, as the Coach, starts to list off names of towns much like the ones on my train journey. It’s deeply evocative, nostalgic for places we’ve never even been to. The world is conjured on stage by the brightly colored Americana of flags, banners and sports uniforms. Most importantly, it’s the home of the Hoke’s Bluff Wildcats.

As we take our seats, James Stenhouse is wearing a full wild cat mascot costume and exalting the audience to cheer and wave their flags. Like in their earlier piece Frontman, there’s an aesthetic investigation of the most overblown aspects of performance. Even if with an enthusiastic audience, there’s something pathetic and ridiculous about shooting t-shirts into a crowd of fifty. There’s an awkwardness about how we should behave in the face of this. Do we need to try harder to act as if there are more of us? Should we make more noise? Would that make the performers feel better? How can we help?

Changing from the wild cat costume into a sports kit and baseball cap, Stenhouse addresses us as if giving a team pep talk. It’s a mixture of practical tactical advice and a more holistic approach to life. One of his refrains is to keep your eyes off the scoreboard. There’s a sincerity to the speech that again creates a sense of awkwardness. At times it feels deeply trite and clichéd. Some of the audience snigger. The story continues like a read-through of a movie script we’re not seeing. We are introduced to Tyler, the Wildcats’ star player, and Connie, his cheerleader girlfriend. The actual sport being played changes constantly from line to line. Tyler leaves a party and drives up to a cliff overlooking the town with his friend. He is having a kind of existential crisis which is affecting his game and, without him, the Wildcats don’t have a hope of winning this season.

You keep on expecting the narrative to deviate from the formula of the US high school sports movie, for the characters to suddenly realise how ridiculous it is to be placing all their hopes and dreams on their success on the sports field. At the very least, surely we’re going to meet some oddballs, rebels or geeks to balance out the crisis of the school sports star. We’ve got Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez so where’s Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall? Action Hero’s decision to keep the focus squarely on the characters that might be dismissed as straight, boring or mindless actually confounds expectations though not in the way you might expect.

They are also presenting this narrative in a context where we might expect a degree of irony, some gentle mocking of this apparently parochial aspect of America. It’s a world that we are familiar with through movies, of course, but we’re also used to seeing it destroyed both in real life news stories and through horror’s obsession with small town teenagers. The cheerleader and the jock are frequently the first to be slashed to death by the bitter and twisted sociopath. The world of Hoke’s Bluff and these characters aren’t sent up or destroyed. Instead, Stenhouse and Paintin have chosen to take their hopes and priorities seriously and to present them without the archness that would have been easy to fall into. They may not go on to be superstars but they have their moment of glory. If we can look at that moment and recognise it as a cliché, does that mean it could never happen? Maybe, just maybe, not.

Action Hero’s James Stenhouse on cynicism and generosity.

Review of Action Hero’s Watch Me Fall. 

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William Drew

William Drew is a writer, narrative designer and dramaturg based in Brighton. He makes work at the intersection between live performance and gaming as Venice as a Dolphin and a Coney Associate. He is Associate Dramaturg of New Perspectives in Nottingham. He spent several years working in the Royal Court Theatre’s International and Literary Departments and has been a script reader for the National Theatre, Hampstead and Traverse Theatres. You can find out more about his work here: http://www.williamdrew.work

Hoke’s Bluff Show Info


Produced by China Plate

Written by Action Hero (Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse)

Cast includes Action Hero with Laura Dannequin

Link http://shoreditchtownhall.com/

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