‘I SHIT YOU NOT. A TOILET OVERFLOWED WITH SHIT ON MY TRAIN AND IT WAS DELAYED BY HALF A FUCKING HOUR.’
– Voice note I sent to my friend whilst sprinting up Shaftesbury avenue on the way to Soho theatre.
It seems fitting that I should be delayed in this manner whilst on the way to see FITTER, with all of its mess, discomfort and orificial focus. Of course, Mary Higgins and Ell Potter’s show was an infinitely more enjoyable experience.
I’m late to Soho theatre (shout out to the excellent front of house team who gave me a glass of water) and I listen to the first seven minutes of the show through the door. It feels familiar so far, dance music and audio clips of interviewees, cheers coming from the audience.
I ponder for a moment whether to even mention their first show HOTTER in this review, which has been an Edinburgh Fringe smash three years in a row, but it feels appropriate in this setting, as FITTER feels like it’s venturing places HOTTER wouldn’t, or couldn’t.
It’s not really a sequel, or even an opposite reaction, but an extension of their work with HOTTER. It’s more difficult, the sections are longer and more drawn out, there’s no dance party at the end. I think this is good. I also admire the decision it took to make this show in the first place. It’s comparatively easy to make and sell a show about self love, and capitalise on what they call ‘the Lizzo effect’ but it’s really difficult to make a show that faces your relationship to masculinity, and tackles your internal struggles and hypocrisies head-on.
More so than other shows I see, it feels personality-led. The show is as much about Ell and Mary as it is about their interviewees. A less talented and charismatic duo wouldn’t have pulled it off. They are undoubtedly a brilliant presence onstage. They’re talented, they’re funny, they write beautifully. They begin the process by saying ‘we don’t have an agenda, we’re just here to listen’ – a doomed promise- as they acknowledge that everything is complicated by desire, they fancy the people they interview, they interview ex-sexual partners, they have preconceptions about what their interviewees will answer.
I think verbatim theatre sometimes has a tendency to try and position itself as impartial. In a kind of lofty, sneering, ‘oh we’re taking the temperature of the nation’ way (cough cough national theatre cough cough) and I like that Mary and Ell insert themselves into the narrative, wrap themselves up in their biases and desires, sprawl out in the mess and cover themselves in contradictions.
I first saw HOTTER at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 when they, and I, were students. They, and I, have grown up, and we’ve known and loved and lost and been hurt. There is a trigger warned section of the show, introduced via voiceover: ‘The trigger warned section of the show is coming up. If you need to step out, go ahead. We’ll come and get you afterwards.’ (Side note is that I really like this approach, more shows should be doing this.)
However, if one part of this show feels like it sits oddly with me, it’s the juxtaposition of the two letters which recount traumatic events, read from inside designer Ruta Irbite’s ‘box of trauma’. One account just feels much heavier than the other, when the words are hanging there in a room. The delivery feels too simple, too direct. I get the sense watching this show that they want to make it – gender, masculinity, everything – simple. They want to work stuff out and make it easier for us to handle. And maybe it just can’t be handled, because it’s an overflowing sack of shit.
The last section is a medley of heartbreak songs. ‘Back to Black’ and ‘Take another little piece of my heart now baby’ are spliced together with interviewees admitting to feeling numb, never crying, boxing themselves up. I feel quite despondent at the end of the piece, because of the physical impact of toxic masculinity: how so many men physically Cannot Cry, putting themselves through physical pain, emotional pain, life or death, in the name of conforming to a masculine ideal. Ell and Mary rock out to those songs which are so unapologetically heart-in-hand, every emotion liberated like a clean wound open to the air. But we’re never allowed to forget the repressed emotion and violent trauma that congeals beneath the surface.
FITTER is on at Soho Theatre till 4th January 2020. More info here.