The concept behind Figs in Wigs’ show is all there in the name. Recycling the discarded remnants of performance, Leftovers reconsiders what we throw away, a vital concern in a society of ever more disposable commodities. It also begs questions of performance itself, particularly its supposedly ephemeral qualities, the enshrined sanctity of the rehearsal room, and the often seemingly arbitrary assigning of value to art. If the offcuts are not simply left to disappear, if the performative moment is reinhabited and the first instincts of the making process returned to and questioned, what happens then?
The answer to that question, if Figs in Wigs are anything to go by, is playful, sharp, self-aware and bloody funny. Framing an unfinished dance routine within the context of a world record attempt, the combined effect sits somewhere in the mould of the strained, deliberately repetitive performance aesthetic honed by Forced Entertainment, whose inevitable influence shows ghostly traces in this work. Instead of the ghoulish clown paint of Quizoola or the rigor mortis grins of First Night, Figs in Wigs’ six female performers wear elaborately colourful flourishes of make-up – the garish mask of Saturday night entertainment on acid, strikingly contrasted with the performers’ unwaveringly deadpan expressions. No toothy smiles here.
One by one, for no apparent reason, the six women are attempting to break a bizarre world record set by performance artist Matt Hand for the greatest number of peas eaten with a toothpick in three minutes. Providing the backdrop for these successive attempts is Figs in Wigs’ incomplete, recycled dance routine, performed by the orange tracksuit-clad company in a series of hilarious variations to Neon Neon’s brilliant but fatally catchy ‘Raquel’. The record itself is of the seemingly pointless breed that regularly populates the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, making Matt Hand’s point that everyone can be good at something. It’s a gesture that undermines the entire ethos of high art and that in being adopted by Figs in Wigs acquires another layer of questioning. Is this art or competition – or both? What exactly is at stake? Are Figs in Wigs commenting not only on the strange competitiveness of the record attempt itself, but also on its appropriation as a piece of art?
Of course, none of the performers succeed in their attempts. This is a piece with failure built into its very structure, following a clear and recognisable lineage in contemporary theatre and performance. Yet the failure invoked here is double; Figs in Wigs are not just occupying the territory of companies like Forced Entertainment, exploring those moments when the theatrical machine breaks down, but also dipping a toe into the pool of TV talent contests and gameshows predicated on the humiliation of their participants. Competition seems deliberately cited as a form of popular entertainment, with the echo of The X Factor never far away.
The elements of both competition and pop culture that it shares with Leftovers make Made in China’s Gym Party, currently still a work-in-progress, an intriguing comparison. The surreal landscape of this new show is one in which winning is deadly serious. Performers Jess Latowicki, Christopher Brett Bailey and Ira Brand, all wearing brightly coloured wigs and the kind of shorts and T-shirts usually confined to school PE lessons, are locked in a grim battle to the death – a competition garnished with smiles but smeared in blood. Through a series of pointedly silly contests, they are out to prove who is the best, never forgetting that it’s all for the benefit of the audience’s entertainment. As they stare out and unsettlingly tell us, “this is for you”.
At the moment the show is largely structured around contests and monologues, the former employing a brutally competitive kind of clowning, while the latter veer between the acerbically hilarious and the unflinchingly bleak. At one end of the scale, the three performers are stuffing their mouths with marshmallows while the audience breathlessly guffaw; at the other, Ira stands almost naked under a spotlight while Chris speaks from the shadows, mercilessly attacking her every physical flaw. At its best, this jolting tonal variation is provocatively uncomfortable, though at this stage in development some of the gear shifts still feel unintentionally clunky.
Unsurprisingly, there remain issues to work through as the piece develops, but for the most part these ask intriguing questions. A long monologue about winning delivered by Jess, for instance, satirically blends the competitive slogans of the playing field, the cutthroat logic of capitalism and the “aspiration nation” language of the current government, creating an aggressive verbal soup of faux-motivational rhetoric. While this currently feels a little confused, the mix of elements sometimes slipping through Jess’s grasp, it suggests something interesting and possibly incisive about the impulse that drives all these different forms of “winning” in our society. Likewise, the piece’s evident desire to address the theatrical contract is not yet smoothly woven into the structure of the show, but when it is it could ask troubling questions of our own complicity and enjoyment.
Despite their promise, where both Gym Party and Leftovers become potentially problematic is in their insistent, relentless use of irony. This is in part a problem of inherited vocabularies; the shadow of Forced Entertainment – a clear reference point for both Figs in Wigs and Made in China – once again jumps to mind. It should first be said that both shows are brilliantly funny, but there is a concern that the arch humour blunts the sharpness of the thinking that has evidently gone into the two pieces. There is undeniable satisfaction in theatre that knowingly plays with its frame, but when everything is treated with suspicion there is the danger that nothing is ever really addressed or risked. If every statement can be immediately undermined, is it really possible to say anything?