Reviews Published 27 October 2021

Review: Last Gasp – Recalibration by Split Britches at Barbican

How to write a review: Brendan Macdonald drafts some instructions for writing about Split Britches’ latest performance.

Brendan Macdonald

Split Britches

How to Write a Review of Last Gasp: A Recalibration

First things first. File your review before the show closes. Your job is to tell people what to go and see, not to let the performance percolate through your brain. No point, either. Whatever you do, don’t forget this rule. You idiot.

Reference specifics about the show. This will help your audience understand what you’re talking about. Explain that it’s a hybrid of digital and live performance. Question what you mean by ‘live’ here. Clarify, if you can.

Imagine what it would be like to perform, for the last time. Question what ‘last time’ means here. Imagine how you would perform dying on stage. Your last gasp.

But please stay on task. This isn’t about you.

Give a bit of background about the show, about how the ‘recalibration’ in the title alludes to a work made and remade according to the changing parameters of performance during the pandemic. Explain how the show is an episodic collection that is almost, but crucially not, two separate shows. Mention Morgan Thorson’s choreography, because it’s just popped into your head: abuzz, unstable, conductorly.

Use adjectives.

The punchier, the better. Like this:

Punchy adjective 1.

Punchier adjective 2.

Punchiest adjective 3.

But don’t overdo it otherwise you might end up with cheap-sounding taglines. Unless you want that.

Imagine the taglines they might use. They might quote you! With your name underneath. Well, not your name, your publication’s name. But you’re there too, somewhere, somewhere in the audience, aren’t you?

I’ll repeat myself. This isn’t about you, you narcissist.

Mention the performers and writers! Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. Admit you love their work. Extol considered praise.

Educate yourself on the story of Narcissus and Echo. Remember how Shaw appears in digital form on various objects around the stage. A reflection, perhaps? Credit Nao Nagai for the wildly impressive visual projections.

Look to Shaw again, and how she monologues about herself, about her idols, about Johnnie Ray. More reflections in rippling waters.

But remember too how you can hear Weaver’s voice in the background, prompting Shaw her lines as she goes. Think about Echo. Remind yourself of Split Britches’ other show, RUFF, where Shaw explains what it felt like to have a stroke, and how it’s affected how she performs.

Remain on task. Re-view.

Recall Weaver onstage in a raincoat. Worry about the flood. Worry about impending emergencies. Laugh about that time you argued with yourself (or was it someone else) about whether or not to bring a raincoat at the sight of an ominous forecast. You didn’t know whether it would mean you’d feel prepared or feel burdened by preparation. Criticize yourself. Of course it can mean both?

Be grateful there was no flood onstage.

Talk about Weaver’s ‘micro dance essays’ which respond to instructional surtitles (eg. ‘How to Set a Table in an Emergency’ and ‘How to Survive a Loss’). Unpack what ‘micro dance essays’ means. Do you know? You know you laughed. You think you may have imagined your right thumb laughing too. Or perhaps it was a twinge of pain, a teeny cry in protest after too much micro-swiping and tapping through ‘how to’ infographics. A little work-related injury in your quest to ‘do the work’. Laugh again and micro-dance away, your thumb tapping again, this time at the keyboard.

You’re sure you remember your boyfriend laughing, especially at Weaver’s episode/essay/dance on ‘How to Have the Last Word’. Between the two of you, you relished in the fizzing knowledge that you are each connoisseurs of that dance. No need to look at each other to confirm the steps.

And you wonder if, after forty years of working together, Weaver and Shaw need to look at each other at all. You try to recall if they did, if they do. You ponder if they will look at each other again on stage, or if this is, indeed, their last show. Question what ‘last show’ means here. Think again about Narcissus and Echo. Think about prizes. Think about winning prizes. What would your speech be? Where would you look? Think about someone else winning instead. Where would you look then?

Take the time to think about looking, and how on video calls the camera is not where we think it ought to be.

Do not, under any circumstances, either prove or refute that you know or do not know what the show is about. Instead, concoct a full-length interview in your head where you sit with Weaver on low-lying furniture and ask questions about chemistry (the labcoat kind not the personal kind), apiary upkeep and Dorothea Tanning’s childhood. Make sure her answers are comprehensive, encyclopaedic, and in full sentences. As a performer, she should be capable of responding to all of these things. Imagine Shaw, chiming in too.

Remember what Weaver asks at the beginning of the play.

‘What if we didn’t know?’

Do not take it for a hypothetical. Sit in unknowing.

But not longer than a day or so. You have a review to write and it can’t be late.

For more about Split Britches’ work, visit their website or listen to Jen Harvie’s podcast interview with the duo


Brendan Macdonald is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Last Gasp – Recalibration by Split Britches at Barbican Show Info

Directed by Lois Weaver

Written by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver

Cast includes Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver



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