Giant ants and Cold War paranoia are the jumping-off point for Stewart Laing and Pamela Carter’s latest, which uses 1950’s classic creature feature Them! to energetically interrogate the concept of ‘change’ and the our individual and collective responses to it, pulling and twisting the theatrical form into some unexpected shapes along the way.
Despite sharing a title, Laing’s Them! is not a straightforward reboot of the giant ant infested sci-fi melodrama. Instead, much like Laing and Carter’s kaleidoscopic Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, this is a show about the making of a show, complete with aggressively optimistic Australian host Kiruna Stamell (playing herself, the effervescent nucleus of this bonkers production) a live camera feed, a house band and an unruly gaggle of unexpected guests.
And the first guest? Of course, it’s Scottish Theatre director Stewart Laing, being grilled about his upcoming (fictional) re-hash of the B-movie classic. At least, he’s Stewart Laing for the first ten minutes– until he gets bored by Kiruna’s probing questions and kicks off a domino effect by swapping himself out for the younger, more PR-friendly Ross Mann, who takes Laing’s place on the couch and his place as The Director.
From this first twist, the concept of the movie, the chat show and eventually the theatre experience itself shifts beyond recognition, and our hopelessly hopeful host gets pushed closer and closer to her breaking point. Genres are shattered, actors become their characters, ants become human, fourth walls are broken, roles are reversed, humans become other humans and on and on until eventually even the concept of ‘audience’ is abandoned, and we’re invited to join the cast on a sweaty nightclub dance floor before being spat out into stark white reality to ponder an installation of 150,000 oblivious, hard-working leaf-cutter ants while downing a free dram of whisky.
Like all of Laing and Carter’s productions, Them! is a uproarious experiment in intellectual and theatrical fearlessness. Carter’s writing is as insightful, evocative and cuttingly witty as ever, and the cast are clearly having a great time bringing her cheerily problematic characters to life. The aggressive conflict between tradition and progress permeates every detail: from Prof (an endearingly obnoxious Zachary Hing) and The Director’s near-fisticuffs; to Kiruna’s affecting solo number (meant to be a duet), to the identity-erasing matching tracksuits worn by every member of the cast. For an hour and a half, Laing presents us with a reality and re-boots it more often than the DC expanded universe.
The point seems to be that change is inevitable. Change is a huge amorphous thing that has always happened and will always happen and we are ants in relation to it. May as well dance, eh?
The problem is, with change as a constant, we the audience have very little to invest in. On stage as in life. Unlike …Justified Sinner, which placed the delicate, fallible character of Paul Bright and his combusting creative team at its centre, or the awful, brilliant trio of characters at the heart of Slope, Them! seems oddly devoid of heart. In fact, the show’s final change – spewing us from the sensory assault of the nightclub into the stark room full of anonymous scurrying ants – feels actively heartless.
Of course, Laing probably pre-empted this feeling too. As Prof says indignantly to The Director: real life doesn’t deal in happy endings. The answers to all our questions are not presented with a neat bow on top, and we’d be childish to expect this. Certainly, Laing’s production offers more questions than it does answers and that intellectual courage has to be admired. But in a difficult climate like the one we’re living through, where helplessness seems endemic, now seems an odd moment to remind us of our smallness.
Them! plays at Tramway Glasgow until 6 July. More information here.