Conker Group’s piece Political Me: Apology Songs comes with a slightly problematic set of contexts. It’s performed as part of a festival, Sprint, but it’s also signposted as a piece still in development, one that welcomes feedback of all kinds. It’s a situation that makes obvious some of the problems with the production model so often employed: with devising happening over a long period of time, in patches, it’s often possible to end up with a piece that’s forty – five minutes long but still a sketch, ready to be programmed into a festival but still fit for a scratch night. That is not to say this is the only work in progress piece taking part in this year’s Sprint. But with the festival not having a section devoted to works-in- progress, it fills the same space as projects that have found their final form.
This long introduction is not here to question Sprint‘s curatorial process or decisions – but rather to frame the text that follows. Writing critically about a performance means taking into account the context of the piece – in this case, that its authors don’t consider it a done deal, and in fact put it forward as a proposal that’s bound to change. Which poses a question – how can we respond, critically and publicly, to a work in progress?
To the show. As the title might suggest, Political Me merges two of performance art’s darling obsessions – politics and autobiography – through the story of Tara Robinson, the show’s creator, who has taken quite a few years, and on a specific night, quite a few drinks, to admit she shies away from politics for the fear of sounding stupid. Having spent most of her life not concerned with politics at all, and on occasion refusing point blank to engage with it, she’s worked her way to a middle ground that most of us inhabit – taking part in a tuition fee protest one day, and fantasizing what it would be like to be a cat on the following. Her story is presented through a series of songs, mostly pop singles with new, politics-induces lyrics, and features the best friend who helped her come out of the political closet on the keyboards, as well as several alter egos.
Where the ‘work in progress’ element of this performance really comes into vision is in the clutter it creates. This clutter is perhaps most obvious in the sheer number of performers that take part and props that are moved around the stage with not much of a reason. What starts as an intimate piece, with just two performers, quickly turns into five people on a small stage – fighting for actual and metaphorical space. They alter between being a symbol of politics, friends, and versions of Robinson herself, but these changes are so quick and unregulated they end up burdening the piece. The same happens with helium balloons and unassorted pairs of shoes scattered everywhere – what is initially a clear and potent if perhaps obvious sign of growing up, developing, and changing, soon becomes a source of pressure for the cast, so they move them frantically around as if to justify their presence. It seems that what Political Me could really benefit from is taking a couple of deep breaths. Quantity (of people and objects) does not equal excitement or content. As it stands now, Conker Group have a decision to make – will they downsize, make this a small-scale, almost-solo that uses the lead persona as its main bait, or will they expand on their production needs, occupy bigger stages and, most importantly, figure out why their show needs all those people and shoes, other than to hide behind the numbers.
Downsizing might not be the worst option – as Robinson’s undoubted charm is one of this performance’s anchors. While there’s considerable doubt over whether she was ever really as clueless about politics as the piece claims, her story has a potential to overcome some of the perils political theatre often faces. In admitting she holds no firm political ground, Robinson avoids the trap of seeming didactic and prescriptive. In presenting herself as a performance-maker with no strong political views she scratches upon a touchy issue of ambiguous, socially phlegmatic artists. Finally, in offering this admission in theatre’s most profitable format, musical, she also manages to half subvert both West End and the very notion of making political work – as if to underline that, like it or not, everything is much more accessible when presented with a sizable amount of cheery tunes, glitter and choreographies.
The main issue with this stage in the development of Political Me however, is that while it offers a very clear and amusing narrative, it still does next to nothing to deal with a major pitfall of many autobiographical pieces: it’s about little else other than Robinson. Because the political events she covers are not current and because they are only dealt with anecdotally, rather than phenomenologically, there’s a danger of turning MP’s expenses, tuition fees and Peter Mandeleson into an excuse for the author to talk about herself. There’s not much indication this performance will turn into a deliberation of young people’s detachment from politics; self-centeredness goes as far as treating 7/7/ as something Robinson is not actively involved in, for the whole of two seconds. Once again it seems like some slowing down might be needed – in rushing to cover her not too drastic progress from ‘meh’ to ‘oh, that’s horrid’ reactions to political events, all the while running from one funny song to another, Robinson – at least for the time being – misses out on a chance to figure out what it is that’s so alienating in those boring, serious events that inevitably influence our day to day lives.