Underground performance artist Penny Arcade’s solo show is, at its heart, a lacerating rant against conformity. She takes aim at everything from gentrification to advertising, social media to Sex and the City, her views filtered through her own hard-fought battles and a lifetime’s experience of being an outsider.
In a piece she wrote and conceived herself (co-directed and designed by long-time collaborator Steve Zehentner) Arcade is a tremendously personable performer: outspoken and unapologetic, but also warm, witty and engaging, and possessed of an energy many women half her age would struggle to keep up with. She literally bounces up and down, striking poses on an otherwise empty stage as she presents her polemic. While much of her wrath is aimed at the commercialisation of her adopted city of New York – polished into a saleable commodity and a theme park for rich people and tourists – she wins over the Brighton audience with plenty of local references, taking (admittedly easy) pot shots at hen parties and property prices.
While always entertaining, occasionally she’s so sure of her arguments she veers into hectoring, and at times it can come across a bit like an extended episode of Grumpy Old Women. Certainly, not all of her arguments are convincing. Her views on biology – presented as if they unassailable – boil down to ‘women need protection, men need sex’, and the ‘it’s all about loving yourself’ conclusion feels plucked from a self-help book. Her ideas on queerness and otherness feel almost curmudgeonly – that being queer not only historically cast one into the margins of society, but that it should; that to be queer is to inherit a duty to be an agitator against the norm. This feels like an awfully big burden to put on one portion of society; surely not everyone who is gay wants to run away to Berlin to be an alternative cabaret artist – maybe they just want the freedom to be an English teacher in the town they grew up in without being branded a pervert or risk getting their head kicked in at the bus stop. And given how much suffering has been caused by LGBT people being alienated from their families (which is of course still, in many places, a huge issue), it’s hard to feel the idea of gay kids being comfortable coming out to their parents deserves the scorn she throws at it.
Likewise, she has little time for millennials and the culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings (she blames the parents). And while she makes some valid points (and gets plenty of laughs in front of an audience that leans heavily to the mature), she makes little effort to understand the cultural, social and economic reasons that such behaviour has flourished.
Still, when she’s on form, she is very funny, and in the main she deftly anticipates and counters potential objections. Her attacks on gentrification are not about resisting change, she explains, but about protesting the current wave of ultra-gentrification, that is akin to colonisation – that’s not about living alongside the culture (or neighbourhood) the rich people are moving into, but obliterating it. Anyone who has ever seen a treasured arts venue turned into luxury flats or a Starbucks will find it difficult to disagree.
It’s also not about nostalgia: one of the most effective segments of the show is when she walks us through the decades, explaining why she doesn’t miss any of them – from the hidden violence of the flower power 60s to the devastation of AIDS in the 80s, she was happy to see them all go. In the end, that’s what elevates this from being simply an extended (if enjoyable) moan: no one can accuse Arcade of having come to her opinions easily. She’s earned the right to our attention, and she doesn’t waste it.
Longing Lasts Longer was on as part of Brighton Festival 2016. For more information, click here.