Five Tins and a Matter of Time is a request show. With your ticket you are given a slip of paper, upon which you are asked to write ‘what you would like to see’. As you walk into the space, Barry McStay places your written requests into a hat. Seiriol Davies is at the keyboard, offering to play any song you shout out. Unfortunately he will sing the lyrics to the same two repeating chords, regardless of the tune. When it comes to requests, what you want and what you get are already being distinguished.
Taking a room of eighty-odd audience members, asking for requests, and then trying to make everyone happy is a futile endeavour, even for the greatest performers. But Seiriol’s eponymous singer and gag-man seems to be performing primarily for himself. Barry, his shyly smiling straight man, wants to show us his card tricks. Unfortunately he’s trapped in one corner because his mic lead is wrapped around a post. Moreover, real-life Barry McStay was rapidly introduced to the project for this NOW ’15 Festival run at the Yard Theatre, with about 10 days to prepare and rehearse.
The audience are positioned as residents of a nursing home – more by the show’s blurb than by anything that our entertainers Seiriol and Barry actually say. The inevitable disappointment that comes when they start drawing out and attempting to fulfil our requests, is simultaneously the theoretical success and the practical hurdle of this piece. You can’t give the residents of a nursing home what they want because no one can, and so the failure is an honest one, but as audiences we constantly demand to be satisfied. Some requests (‘sing a song’, ‘tell a story’) are beautifully, wonderfully prepared, with funny and adaptive performances from both entertainers, but others are dismissed entirely. My own request is never drawn, even apologetically as one they ‘didn’t get to’.
And although some of the requests completed are definitely from the audience, we start to wonder if some are pre-written, pre-selected, prepared. We’re powerless to know. Seiriol and Barry could be giving us what they have, rather than what we wanted. It doesn’t take long before you’re highly suspicious of them. But there’s no one to entertain you otherwise. The biscuit tins are passed around, and the songs and the jokes continue. We have nothing outside of them to hold onto. In this context, our heart goes out to Barry, or at least his eponymous character, who seems to have taken on this role to be close to his infirm grandmother. But at the same time, we see this entertainment act – and his role in it – as a deflection, a hollow gesture, an intimacy placebo.
Developed in collaboration with Age UK and members of the local senior community and devised by the company, The Conker Group‘s Five Tins and a Matter of Time is an issue-driven performance which produces sophisticated questions about entertainment, what we need, and what we ask for. It arouses those questions through the noble failure of its entertainers, never fully breaking from the variety show format to tell us what we should be thinking. Its withholding nature is its strength, but there could be more clarity in the set up – establishing the relationship between Barry and Seiriol and us, which in the performance I saw, didn’t really get communicated even in the performers’ patter.
I didn’t get to see the ‘dog fight’ that I asked for, but I didn’t need one. I wondered what song I’d like to hear if I hadn’t seen any my family for weeks, what kind of story I’d like to lose myself in. I thought about how wonderful watching a good juggler can be. Even a middling juggler. Even just someone trying to entertain.