How to describe Mmm Hmmm? Verity Standen’s new piece is one of those shows that makes genre seem irrelevant, straddling as it does various musical and theatrical styles. It’s a capella, but not as you’ve heard it before. It’s dance, but not as you’re likely to witness it anywhere else on the Fringe. And it’s most definitely theatre, though quite what makes it theatrical is tricky to pin down.
Three women in different coloured jersey dresses – Standen and fellow performers Ellie Showering and Dominie Hooper – emerge out of the darkness into a small square of light. They are humming, but this is no absent-minded shower tune. This is humming as a precise, perfectible art. And as the show goes on, they wrap their mouths around a stunning array of different sounds, harmonising with frightening accuracy.
Standen’s surprising, ingenious compositions force us to hear the human voice in ways not previously imagined. But it’s the wit that really makes this show and propels it beyond mere a capella concert. Mmm Hmmm forces us to listen again with pricked up ears to the mundane and the everyday, treating automated announcements with the same gravity – or perhaps levity – as love and heartbreak.
There’s little to hold it all together other than the familiar patterns of modern existence, from shopping trips to cups of tea, but each little sequence is a miniature joy. The three performers distribute syllables between them, or conduct an entire exchange in ‘mmms’ and ‘hmms’, or sing through mouthfuls of biscuit. Surprise follows surprise, all delivered with utter charm.
If Mmm Hmmm is surprising, then Hug (running as part of the Forest Fringe programme) is a revelation. It describes itself as an “immersive choral sound bath” and it’s difficult to think of a better way of evoking the unique experience of sitting inside the piece. The audience of 20 is led inside the small space and blindfolded, before Standen’s singers enter and envelope us in their vocals. Later, the embrace becomes literal, as each audience member is enfolded in the arms of a performer.
It’s small and simple, but quite extraordinary. Hugged close by a singer, each note vibrates through your body, making the music a visceral, bodily experience as much as an aural one. But there is more to it than just sensation. Hug is also a strangely cathartic experience, unequivocally illustrating the power that music holds to move us. And in its unseen, anonymous act of intimacy, it contains a heartbreaking comment on the comfort yet impossibility of true closeness.