I like extremely specific evolutionary niches. My favourite of these is the famous one: the bluetits who, during the years when we still had milk delivered to our doors in foil top bottles, learned to peck their way through the foil so that they could drink the milk. It was a small, precise adaptation of natural behaviour, tied to a time and place. I feel for the bluetits of today, to have missed out on this golden age.
Often Onstage by Figs in Wigs strikes me in the same way. It exists in a very specific evolutionary niche: jokes about being a performer, about performing, about making work and making art and making money, played to an audience who have to be sufficiently au fait with the world of performance to find it as funny as they do (and believe me, they rollicked). Colourful, irreverent and unashamedly daft, its humour has developed as a precise, highly specific piece of observational comedy. It almost feels like a private show for people in the know, and certainly there’s an intimate and friendly quality to the laughter it provokes.
Opening at the end of a mysterious show – a masterful send-up of a Globe end-of-play jig – the Figs thank their audience in a parody of the thespian curtain call so tonally accurate that it edges into high camp. They leave the stage in their Elizabethan gear (paper ruffs and all) and return in green velour bodysuits, for the set-up and tech rehearsal of another show.
This set-up sees the Figs acting bawdy, ostentatiously and seemingly unaware of the audience they so warmly thanked a few minutes earlier. One unselfconsciously asks the room whether she has time for a poo before the show starts, which engenders some pretty intense debate. There is, once again, a sense that the audience understand what tech rehearsals look like, and that they understand the construction of the jokes in front of them. In fact, my companion for the evening, himself a performer, actually laughed at some of the jokes, which is something I have been trying to get him to do to my jokes for years.
After the Green Velour show, as I’m calling it, is set up, Often Onstage becomes the presentation of a piece, rather than a meta-piece. The Green Velour show turns out to be a gig the unfortunate Figs have seemingly taken on to pay the bills: a sort of motivational presentation for an unknown corporation, complete with #inspirational aphorisms and voiceovers. It is crammed with stuff, with green wigs, dry ice, deliberately clumsy synchronised dancing, video projections, glowing bum bags… but it is also, like all the best corporate tomfoolery, remarkably content-free.
The inner mechanisms of the show – Figs changing behind the scenes, adjusting wedgies, fiddling with cue cards – are left visible even while the Green Velour show is being performed, leaving the audience occupying the strange position of audience typical and audience voyeuristic. The jolly, sloppy dancing, while speaking to the artificial atmosphere of the powerful businesswoman, with martial marches and energetic stomps, also quietly evokes a sense of moving into and out of a performance space which apparently expands and contracts, so that the behind-the-scenes is occasionally thrust into the limelight.
Rounding off Often Onstage is the pièce de résistance, a Backstreet Boys tribute act that flawlessly merges their particular brand of pitch-perfect mimicry and humorously questionable dancing. As with the green velour motivation, the tribute act has clearly come about because the Figs can’t just make money from occasional Shakespearian gigs, but (as a voiceover notes) the tribute act has taken over their lives, and they can no longer distinguish the performance from the lived experience. A fitting note to wave their audience out on.
Figs in Wigs were performing at the Battersea Arts Centre. For more information, click here.