I want to go back next week.
A smile and a laugh (yes, a solitary chuckle) rises from absolutely nowhere (aka my larynx) on the chillingly empty Friday night road outside Southwark Theatre. I too want to be irreverent and in my pants and jump from scene to scene with no care for external logic or explaining myself. What have these People Show people done to me? They even made me want to not understand French so that I could more easily understand the bad French they use for the first third of the show, and laugh at it at the same time as the other – presumably English – people. The apocryphal alchemy of the stage. This be théâtre!
People Show have been pushing and prodding at life since 1966, from beyond the norms and establishment of British theatre. This 137th show is as tricky and as whole as I had hoped it would be. In the spirit of irreverence and not explaining oneself, here’s a small eddy in this review to consider how not review this show:
New theatre has to be Urgent. And Contemporary. And very Clearly about Here and about Us. Probably also about London. Or at least a City. And it has Young People. It has a Plot. Beginning. Middle. End. And it has to be Overtly Political. Damn It. Why am I here watching a series of somethings happen fast and with a brass band? Why is this puppet lady at the bar lip-syncing to La Mer? Why are these men still here? What is the point? This would never get funded. Is this important?
Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong. Ok, onwards.
Here’s the truth. I felt like a wild-eyed child, riveted by strange life happening – fumbling to open a box with no apparent seams – baffled by how structure hangs together on nothing more substantial than cigarette smoke and fake rain. In People Show 137 I see myself. I see my grandparents. I see the past. I see home. I see things familiar. And a green laser on a tennis ball, which I had never laid eyes on in my life.
At a small café Emil orders two black coffees and a croissant (for lack of a camembert). “Demain n’existe pas. Donne moi un croissant”. Crisp specificity turns from puzzling to profound, and back again. And so it will be for the rest of God Knows How Many. Brilliant barren nothingness. My notes say “enthralling tbh”. Which, sums it up. Such casual profundity I have never seen. Gorgeous bullshit smuggling gold. Playfulness quite unlike much theatre today. As the sketches and scenes slide past us, it never loses its way, masterfully balancing the unpredictable with the recurring.
Performers Emil Wolk, George Khan, Mark Long and Bill Palmer observe each other with the anticipatory gaze of improvising musicians (which, as demonstrated throughout, they are too). Their bodies, and the scenes, move in precise rhythms, to an ever-changing beat that only they can hear.
Ideas and objects resurface in unexpected scenes, strung together with all the logic and startling imagery of a surrealist dream. A wooden cross which Emil holds while Dramatic Acting™ wearing only a white cloth returns later as a deadly blade. A copy of Le Monde, snatched by the grim figure of Mark Long in a wet mac at the start resurfaces in a train carriage. Items, sentences and ideas perpetually wash up back on the same desolate shore. This café truly does feel like the end of the earth. Uncanny familiar from which nothing with any weight can escape.
These images don’t only linger in the mind because of their strangeness. The thematic undercurrent of dashed potential, aged bodies and time running out, propels the show, and our imaginations. Fixating on long past achievements. Thinking that you may as well smoke because you’ll be dead before cigarettes have time to kill you. How long can you work with the same people before relationships irreparably fray? It’s all very sad and delivered in contrasting tones that make it also very funny. Threat becomes a pronouncement as Emil says, “I’m dead meat”, and becomes so, prostrate in a red suit on the floor.
People Show is essential. They own this lane of theatre. Pressing against us, and then standing at a huge distance, aloofly asking us to question what we value in art. What is a ‘proper actor’? What do you do when your signature skill is no longer something your body can manage? For how long can you make a living as an artist in experimental theatre? What will we do with these questions once we step outside?
The crash of waves and another thought washes up, just as tricky, and just as essential. (And just as intentional.)
Emil takes a white handkerchief and stuffs it artfully into his fist. This simple acts sets up yet another potential, and for a second we’re sucked into believing that a dove will fly out of his hand. We, like them, will the trick to work even though we know it is impossible. The disappointment hits. So we do the only thing we can, as audience, and as actors, we imagine the dove. And somehow that’s more powerful than if it were really there.
Then I notice that the small puppet woman at the bar has crab claws.
Another wave retreats. And another wave crashes in. Such is life. And such, I hope, theatre will continue to be. We need more of this playful subversion. Maybe, for British theatre’s sake, now more than ever.
People Show 137: God Knows How Many is on at Southwark Playhouse till 29th February. More info here.