Once Upon a Time there was a performance artist named Bryony Kimmings. She made shows about catching STI’s and getting poleaxed on cheap vodka and about being a woman and about being an artist. And they were good, and they were funny, and they made good points even though some of the points seemed a bit pointless unless you were in fact Bryony Kimmings, but she was a bloody engaging performer so it didn’t matter very much. Then last year Bryony started a new project with her niece Taylor Houchen, and that’s when something magical happened.
Byrony’s new project was creating a new kind of role model for Taylor and people like Taylor, and she let Taylor put all the ideas in. The new role model was Catherine Bennett, a pop-star archaeologist with sensible shoes (because she’s clumsy) and a pair of boxing gloves slung over her shoulders for when she practises martial arts. She explained all about this in a show called Credible, Likeable Superstar Role-Model, which was the best thing Bryony had ever made and also one of the best things that was on in the theatre for the whole of 2013. In fact it’s hard to think of anything quite as generally brilliant as Catherine Bennett last year at all. It was brave, dangerous, smart and genuine – a project that should have been so easy to criticise delivered so perfectly and humbly that it was almost above criticism.
In that show Bryony told the audience a secret that she didn’t want Taylor to hear – that she knew Catherine Bennett would never really be famous, that she knew she was lying to her on some level, and that one day Taylor would realise that. It was heart-breakingly sad, mostly because it seemed pretty true. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why That Catherine Bennett show, for all of its occasional fuck-ups, is inclined to make your heart soar. Because for a brief moment, for a bunch of kids and their parents, Catherine Bennett gets to be the pop star she was built to be – the kind of pop star who pauses mid-gig to help a seven year old girl identify a Mammoth’s Tooth. And that’s amazing.
In a way the show’s a bit like Credible, Likeable… but for younger ones, but in a way it’s not like that at all, because that implies that the edges have been smoothed away, and that’s not really the case. There may be more audience interactivity and a softer tone, but this is still performance art in all its messiness and vitality, the first experience most of the kids in the audience will have had of it – and what a thrilling and eye-widening one it is.
The story of Bennett’s creation is described within a narrative of self-belief and self-determination that explicitly resists the expectations placed on children in terms of their tastes, their interests and their willingness to follow rather than lead. The ‘impossible’ goal of getting Catherine Bennett onto Radio 1 is placed in the context of larger ‘impossible’ goals and the women who have set out to achieve them. In a beautiful moment of calm, the life of Emmeline Pankhurst becomes a bedtime story as Taylor drifts off to sleep.
Catherine Bennett’s feminism, the feminism of the entire show, is wide-ranging and inclusive. It dances in glittering tiaras and practises martial arts. It allows Taylor to choose words such as ‘Traditional’ to describe her ultimate role model, finding the positivity in a word that can sound retrogressive. It is catholic, not neutral, defiant but non-dogmatic. Above all it is approachable for its young audience without talking down to them. Even the smaller children, probably a bit young for the show, seemed rapt by the end.
If children leave with a greater respect for their power to put their back to the world and roll it around a little, adults get their own take-home. By offering an alternative, Bennett makes the lack of alternatives, the monotonal callousness of the material fed to children and festooned across the country feel all but unforgiveable. There’s a rage here, and it simmers to the surface at one point where Bennett asks the audience to suggest a form of dance to perform during the middle eight of ‘Animal Kingdom’ and several utter cunts bellow ‘Twerking’ – for a moment Bennett’s gone and Bryony’s back, and she looks pissed. It takes her several seconds to regain her composure, it seems to throw her off, and so it should. It’s that casual, grown-up, snickering approach to objectification that feels like everything this brilliant show is working against. Anyway, they settle on Riverdance, which is the first time I’ve ever been glad to see it.
Whether you see this or Credible, Likeable… probably depends on whether you have kids in tow, but whichever channel you choose to tune in to Catherine Bennett, you’ll feel clearer, angrier, hopefuller, betterer for it.
Even if there’s no Happy Ever After just yet.