It occurs to me, as I slide a spiked knuckleduster onto my hand, that I am possibly not the target audience for a production about cuddling. Then again, as someone who has mined deep her own singledom for material and written extensively about loneliness, maybe I am exactly the kind of person it hopes to attract. Maybe it’s just coincidence that I choose to attend such a fluffy-sounding show adorned with fistfuls of sharp, easily-weaponised designer rings, or maybe I am really worried about being hugged by strangers, when that is actually what I am most in need of.
Because, according to this devised piece by new North East company Circ Motif, the root of many of mankind’s ills is physical disconnection. We are starved of the chemicals that human contact brings, and that is making us lonely, depressed and anxious. This new show – which is still in development – attempts to examine why that is, and how we can fix it.
We are told, at the start, by our genial host Hannah Thompson – creative director and co-founder of Circ Motif – that things may go wrong. Not to panic if the acrobats get too close to the audience, and that we should probably leave if we are freaked out by the sight of eggs. This is a safe space, we are assured – a statement we’ll come back to – a place to explore the most basic of human needs.
Grounded in some thinly sketched science, we are walked through the evolutionary purpose of touch and hormones. The piece is broken down into a series of segments – attachment, loneliness, trust. How does touch affect each of them?
A mix of skilled acrobatics, bespoke music, dance and physical comedy is used deftly to explore these themes, and the action is laced with enough humour to stop it getting too ponderous. Thompson mixes her physical expressiveness with a gloriously deadpan wit that is shared by musician Josef Edwards (a scene where he stops and takes a call mid-show is particularly funny). Simona Yovcheva is a talented dancer, while Ross Taylor’s acrobatics literally draw gasps.
Although at times broadly drawn, the piece has some really sharp moments. Thompson talks about how people sublimate their needs by attachment to inanimate objects as Taylor proves our tendency to anthropomorphise by dismembering a teddy bear, to audible groans of protest from the audience at the poor thing’s fate. The loneliness segment is genuinely affecting and the acrobatics particularly impressive.
Most of the shortcomings are forgivable in a show developed in such a short time period (it was devised in five days, under a summer scheme by neighbouring venue Dance City that gives creatives free use of a space for the development of a piece), but they would do well to be addressed before taking it to a bigger audience.
While the intimacy of the studio space at Alphabetti is well-suited to the material, it brings its own problems. A production with a lot of floorwork performed in a venue that has neither a raised stage nor staggered seating inevitably has sightline issues, making much of the action invisible to anyone not in the front row. I was often reduced to trying to glean meaning from a waving arm or raised leg glimpsed through the shoulders of the people in front of me, and the segment titles, propped up on a chair, were too often hard to see.
The question of audience care in such a literally hands on show is also a thorny one. Before the performance begins, we are asked to put our names in a hat. Some sleight of hand means I avoid this – no rookie, me. But later (during the aforementioned egg segment, which is otherwise delightfully slapstick) a ‘volunteer’s’ name is drawn from a hat. As I watch a woman blindfolded and lain down on the floor as Taylor performs tricks above her, I’m actively uncomfortable. Maybe I’m projecting my own discomfort, or being oversensitive in the wake of recent discussions about how we should adapt audience participation in a #MeToo world – the woman herself seems game enough – but surely if you claim your performance is a ‘safe space’, there needs to be an opt-out for such involvement at the start, not when the spotlight is on and peer pressure might make someone feel they have to play along in the name of not being a spoilsport.
These easily-mended quibbles aside, Cuddling marks Circ Motif as a company to watch – subtle in its cleverness, and with surprising depth to its silliness. The piece ends on a triumphant note: a group hug, with the whole audience invited on stage to join in, an invitation that is accepted by almost everyone, albeit with varying degrees of hesitation. I consider, briefly, getting up there myself, since everyone else seems to be enjoying it. Perhaps it will be transformative, or at the very least comforting. But more likely I will snag my rings on the clothes of some unsuspecting stranger and turn the whole evening into an entirely different and far more awkward kind of show, so in the end I demur. Still, this compact little production has wormed its way under my skin, so while I may leave with my spikes intact, perhaps my edges have been a little softened.
The Art of cuddling was performed at Alphabetti Theatre. Click here for more details.