Phillip is good at being invisible. The meek hero of Antler Theatre’s new show is the sort of man who melts into the background, ignored by colleagues and looked through on the street. He speaks and no one hears. Working as a copywriter in an advertising agency, shuffling words around day after day, the one thing he can’t sell is himself.
If I Were Me looks at identity in a society obsessed with the individual. As capitalism extends its grubby fingers further and further, even people are brands now, and Brand Phillip could do with an overhaul. He’s the Aldi knock-off to his peers’ premium labels, and he knows it. Every last stutter and shuffle of Nasi Voutsas’s performance as Phillip screams awkwardness, depicting a man whose only way of fitting in is by fading away.
That’s until he’s inspired by agency boss Trevor, a self-regarding fountain of motivation-speak. “This is your chance to distinctify,” he earnestly booms to a conference full of would-be personal brands, smacking tennis balls into the audience as he proclaims, “we are appointing you the CEO of You Inc.” The satire – unlike the tennis balls – is right on target. Channelling the swagger of The Boss, Phillip breaks into a storming rendition of “Dancing in the Dark”, distinctifying via Springsteen. He’s finally found himself. Or has he?
Phillip might be the focus, but in Antler Theatre’s surreal universe everyone is performing their identity in one way or another. At work, colleagues frantically cover up their foibles, their armour of self-assurance barely concealing anxiety and doubt. A mysterious stranger begins to imitate Phillip, adopting another identity in the absence of one of her own. Even Trevor’s seemingly indestructible confidence is threatened by the (literal) baggage he trundles around with him everywhere. We’re all pretending, but what for?
Answers aren’t forthcoming. As with their eye-catching 2013 show Where the White Stops, Antler Theatre’s ideas are still more visual than conceptual. Surreal physical comedy remains the company’s forte, in evidence right from the brilliant opening sequence. Their style, though, has become more audacious, backed up by a fantastically apt soundtrack. As Phillip transforms into everything he once endearingly contrasted with, multiplying cut-outs of his figure flood the stage, rotating selves nightmarishly crowding around him. The final scene, meanwhile, stages identity breakdown with vivid strangeness.
But as gorgeously bizarre as such moments are, they don’t quite hang together. More a collection of skits than an extended meditation on its theme, If I Were Me has some of the same identity problems as its protagonist. Still, though, I can’t wait to see the next version of itself that Antler Theatre transforms into.