House parties suck. I’m sorry but they do. They’re one of a growing list of activities that as I stop being young-young and start being old-young that I’m super glad not to have to pretend I enjoy anymore. Instead, I can settle quietly into a life where ‘a night out’ means ‘watching Clod Ensemble perform their new work at the Southbank Centre’ while sitting next to a human being whose company I actually find tolerable.*
On The High Road captures the claustrophobic oddness of a house party. The entire 55-minute piece takes places within the confines of a white-walled house that’s conspicuously small compared to the people inhabiting it. Black-clad performers wearing pointy party hats lounge about the space in a tableau that echoes the drugged fairy tale world of Edward Burne-Jones’ The Legend of Briar Rose. Occasionally, they sleepers move position or make half-hearted attempts to rouse themselves before flopping back down again like a jelly cat toy. Then, three new people show up. The newbies have little black Fez-like hats and the pointy-hatted crew eye them suspiciously before launching into a complex series of movements and interactions in and around the cramped space.
You could read the entire set up as a metaphor for what happens when a new set of people bearing a visual difference to another set of people enter into a place. That aspect to the work almost certainly is there on some level. However, Clod Ensemble excel at examining human behaviour on a microcosmic level as much as a macrocosmic one. Their previous promenade piece, Under Glass, placed dancers beneath or inside of transparent panes, uncomfortably transforming the performers into specimens and the theatre into a living Hunterian Museum. And this new work is perhaps best understood in a similar way, in that it’s as interested in how individual muscles flex, bodies move and relationships form as it is with the wider picture of choreographed group behaviour.
Often, it’s the small interactions between performers or the sudden introduction of a different version of dance that produces the most interesting moments. For example, when the three Fez hat wearers sit in a prim line as if they’re at the side of a 1950s tea dance. Two of them take turns to briefly dance with a pointy hat male dancer while the third performs the role of kill-joy matron, curtailing their dancing and then reshuffling the seating formation to temporarily oust the one who recently went to dance. It’s one of those brief portrayals of behaviour that you suspect has happened all over the world in all different cultures in all different time periods. The stroppy third blatantly wants to be the one chosen to dance, but instead she jealously polices her mates’ fun.
Perhaps because the company have such a good awareness of physical communication, the three brief sections of song (moving from a sinuous melancholic solo through to vintage cabaret and finishing with a throaty Celtic ballad) work the least well. Their addition into the piece feels too definitive, like these segments are working the hardest to force a narrative onto a work that is otherwise perfectly content to be ambiguous. But then again, whoever did agree on what music to put on at a house party.
* more than tolerable. Reader, I married him.
On the High Road was on at Southbank Centre from 24th-25th April. It tours to Cast, Doncaster on 8th May, New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth on May 15th-16th and Oxford Playhouse on 20 & 21st May 2019. More info on Clod Ensemble’s work here.