I’m not sure what ‘hope’ means to me. It’s not a word I have a direct association with – this language is, after all, not my own – or perhaps it is not one I have embodied enough to have immediate emotional resonances around such loaded words, words like ‘hope’. Perhaps I associate it with communities and collectives rather than individuals; I don’t associate it with progress but with change, and I wonder what fractures must occur to make it present as a dominant, shared feeling. I’ve always found Tim Crouch’s work full of it, be it the hope of repair and reaction in The Author, or that of transpositions and transplants in England. At times, hope is reactionary in his work; it’s a playful fuel that lingers through the layers of these theatrical texts dense with metaphor, reality and a lot of shaky ground and hard questions.
What happens to hope at the end of the evening has a lot of that; it has hard questions (though no question mark), nostalgia, formal play, interventions, narrative and a lot of humanity. That’s something that I’ve noticed about every Crouch show- it might throw you off or away or call you back, or it might layer you with memories that are going to stick to you for so long you’ll try to peel them off, or throw some things at you in a sensitive, dense way that you’ll be working for a good while to even work out what your own starting point is.
Crouch plays Andy Smith’s mate; they haven’t seen each other in a long time. Crouch is not really Crouch, but a bloke who swears and drinks a lot, who’s keen on action, and has just come back from an anti-fascist protest in Bolton. Smith sort of plays himself, or at least the character is more openly inspired by his actual life. A lecturer thinking about temperance and good measure and theatre politics. They’re in Smith’s living room – slowly put together in bits and pieces that Crouch brings from offstage – spending an evening together. We’re there too; we greet each other at the onset whilst we wait for the set to become more realistic. We’re there at the end, when we think about Living Theatre’s ‘Paradise Now’, and wonder what action we might want to take. The misunderstandings of who is who and what is what are deliberate, but they also work much better with the nuance of acquaintance. In this interplay, correlations can be made, at times explicit and at others hidden away. In the framework of a play about two friends, metaphors and problems are teased out, played against the duality of the stage, ghosted by formal struggles.
What happens… is also a hard show, at least I found it so. It’s a show about two mates, about theatre, about being in a room together, and about who makes the distinctions and the rules, and what they might mean. It’s a show about how we perceive and what we take for granted, but also one about time, and friendship, and opposing, irreconcilable and perfectly understandable view points. In that way, it’s a show about too many things, despite its sophisticated and reduced dramatic premise. In its juxtapositions, it comes across as not quite relaxed enough about these ambiguities and loopholes. I found it most intriguing when Crouch loosened up, when he met his character half-way, when the conversation didn’t quite gel and it slipped by and set loose somewhat. That’s because it was those moments when what happens… committed and then critiqued its own form; when it set about to consider questions of description, representation and action within both a dramatic and formal remit. That’s when to me, those questions became clearer, more palpable, more tangible.
The recurring notions of position and representation seem to hinge on a particular aspect of Crouch’s character and what he sees and experiences. He’s back from joining an anti-fascist protest and now he can’t help but feel threatened by the group of kids that keep crowding outside Smith’s house with their footballs and their attitude. This sense of resistance and fear creeps uncomfortably through the show; it’s the pinnacle that keeps the relationship between the two packed with tension, and it’s the musical note that keeps changing in the production. This means that at times, the show is incredibly sharp in the questions it touches upon, throwing fear and hope together in a cauldron that simmers rather than explodes (I think the explosion happened in The Author, maybe).
What happens…is undoubtedly a show whose skeleton is incredibly strong, whose muscle is well built, but somehow, the blood doesn’t quite flow, despite everything being there, right there onstage and perhaps, in the audience too. Of course, what happens… is undeniably self-aware, considerate, and the result of a process that’s integral to theatre moving forward. Self-aware in the sense that the two friends brought together by nostalgia and separated by their distinctly different perspectives on meaning making, collectivity and action might easily be pinned down to theatrical tropes that have been fighting and going at each other and occasionally meeting in the same living room for a while, and Crouch and Smith might be wondering what’s the answer, or perhaps, what is exactly the tension here. Fascism seems to have a lot to do with it, and so do we, the audience.
What I am interested in, though, is whether I would have felt any different seeing Sue Maclaine perform A Smith’s role, and why the show left me feeling – at times – like I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and why this might be problematic when I think about the politics of theatre in general. Because evidently, what happens… is a political show. It teases out a range of questions that revolve around issues of presentation, of collectivity and of action. It does so precisely from two positions that at times feel like disguises, but they also work to provide dramaturgical standing to these formal questions. Theatre doesn’t always benefit from this discourse of informed authority; yet in its multiple authorship, its sophisticated structure and its navigation of collective questions of action and representation, what happens…remains a beautiful piece of work with an open ended question.