In The Coming Storm, Forced Entertainment’s latest offering, some critics saw an even greater self-reflexivity than usual; it was suggested that the show was in some way concerned with the company’s legacy and with deconstructing its familiar dramaturgical strategies. In the new piece from The People Show, an experimental company with a considerably longer history, there seems to be a similar focus. People Show 121: The Detective Show (the sheer accumulation of work indicated by the title alone is quite extraordinary) is as much a reflection on the company’s own techniques and its far-reaching influence as it is a dissection of the much-loved detective genre. It’s less whodunit, more how was it done.
Having been around since the 1960s, it’s hardly surprising that The People Show’s influence has rippled out to countless other theatremakers over the years. Now, however, the company is faced with the strange dilemma of being placed alongside the work it has spawned, much of which has caught up with – if not overtaken – its taste for experiment. As a way of acknowledging and negotiating this, People Show 121 makes no attempt to ignore or overcome the company’s history, which is immediately hinted at on stage by the presence of tireless original member Mark Long. Their techniques are flagged up, exaggerated, even lightly mocked for being hackneyed. As one performer apologetically explains, they are – like so many of the companies who were inspired by them – “just trying the postmodern thing”.
Here, the “postmodern thing” proves to be a knowing deconstruction of both detective narratives and the mechanics of theatre. In the rambling, charmingly chaotic plot, a hapless jobbing actor falls for an Agatha Christie obsessive with a dangerous secret to hide – a secret that soon sees her sprawled out inside the cartoonish chalk outline on the floor. Within the frame of this murder mystery, the structure of the show also manages to support a surreal game of Cluedo, a dancing Poirot and a hilariously hammy Italian waiter, along with plenty of over-the-top mime and some deliberately self-conscious narration.
It’s an intentional shambles, riffing on familiar detective genre tropes to generate laughs, while at the same time nodding to the now popular technique of presenting failure on stage. Performers Long, Gareth Brierley and Fiona Creese bicker between scenes, undermine each other’s performances and at times almost bring the whole piece crashing down around them, only to pick up the fragments of the show and carry on. It’s deliciously silly fun, effectively skewering a tactic of contemporary performance that has now become so prevalent it is danger of congealing into cliché.
Belonging to one of the generations created under the influence of The People Show rather than having direct exposure to the first shocks of its innovative approach, my perspective on this work is inevitably coloured by coming to it through its theatrical progeny. For me, however, the postmodern mickey-taking of People Show 121 – for all its undoubted fun – ultimately lacks any real bite of its own. Instead of offering the sort of bracing, experimental approach that has made them such a force over the years, The People Show attack an aesthetic that is all too familiar.