Not-So-Super Furry Animals

Feature in Issue 15-3 | Autumn 2003

Where has all the street theatre gone? Dorothy Max Prior reports on the Streets of Brighton festival and showcase…

In the recently published Street Arts - A User’s Guide, Richie Smith of Desperate Men rails against the prevalence of ‘walkabout’ with its ‘mind-numbing plethora of costumed idiots’ – and at the Streets of Brighton showcase it is hard to disagree. There were far, far too many mediocre two-handers strutting their stuff. I am especially bored with furry animals and silver aliens.

The few static shows that I saw were either disappointing or familiar old favourites: there seemed to be little that was both new and interesting. Perhaps there was something wonderful going on just around the corner that I missed? That is always one’s fear at these showcase festivals…

Of the commissions, Clowns Anonymous’ Some Like it Hotter unfortunately failed to transfer the excellent Evening with Marilyn cabaret evening into a credible outdoor show. Helen Kane was her usual adorable self as Marilyn, but the reliance on a tame re-working of the film narrative fell flat and the two male musicians were way short of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in cross-dressing charm and humour.

Another commission, from Invisible Men, was not so much a brand-new show as an evolution of the old one – although that was fine by me as they do what they do so well. The familiar part of their routine is an eternal setting up for the show – with hilarious mimicry of passers-by, from cap-wearing old men to mobile-wielding youth. (‘But how do they have all the right props?’ Asks my son… That’s the magic of it all!) Fab new bits include a number of vignettes to challenge the politically correct, including a chimp-beating incident (don’t worry, only a toy) and a steel-toothed child-catcher trap primed with a packet of crisps.

I was trying to stick to my self-imposed brief to see UK work in the daytime showcase, but found myself distracted by a little goody from German company Charlatan Allee, whose All’s Well That Entes Well show is built around two clap-happy drivers of a near-wrecked Citroen. Would-be travelling companions are bribed with cigarettes and champagne, and the car veers dangerously towards the audience, screeching to a halt with back-firing blasts and puffs of smoke, just inches from delighted small children. What both of the above companies share is the confidence to push boundaries and an ability to play the audience for every last laugh.

These qualities were shared by Aqueous Humour’s The Sky Muffins, one of the few walkabout companies who made a real impact. Five performers of various sexes and sizes (dressed in Barbie pink air-hostess outfits and with enough slap and hairspray to keep Superdrug in annual profit) took to the streets with a determination to cause havoc. Moving with ease as a pack, their encounters with the public were totally remorseless and hilarious. They invaded cafes to crowd around supposed celebrities, chased a gorgeous pair of legs down the road and halted the traffic with imperious hand-signals in order to flirt outrageously with car drivers they took a fancy to – any sort of response encouraging ever more outrageous behaviour.

A quieter and more gentle walkabout that worked came from Brink of Distinction whose The guide to poise and perfection is a pretty piece sitting between fashion and mobile sculpture – three lovely ladies, in wobbling and swaying dresses straight from a Fellini film or Schiaparelli catwalk, walk decorously along, offering jellies to passers-by. That’s all – it’s simple but lovely.

The evening programme was far more interesting than the daytime showcase. I enjoyed Boilerhouse’s Sister Sister, a story of love, hate and sibling rivalry played out as a sporting contest enacted on twin towers linked by a screen. Good quality aerial skills, excellent film and a clever use of colour to express diametrically opposed stances all helped to create a show that had a strong visual identity, although in need of more work – the dramatic structure is weak and some scenes are slow. The use of audience participation (as cheerleaders and champions) is something that could be a major feature of the piece given its subject matter, but in Brighton was timid and under-developed.

The Firemen are a personal project of Red Earth’s Simon Pascoe. Dogged by a sound failure that eliminated the planned full-on musical finale, the merry team of firemen-cum-arsonists nevertheless had fun setting fire to everything in sight (including, it was rumoured, the poor old West Pier, which suffered from another fiery outbreak later that Saturday night). They were followed by Emergency Exit Arts’ Runga Rung, but due to a bizarre decision to lock in the Firemen’s audience behind cordons, I was unable to see very much of it until the static film, dance and music Bollywood extravaganza at the end, although I did catch a glimpse of the famous big tin elephant as it weaved its way along the seafront.

Other evening highlights included Company:Collisions (whose excellent dance-theatre version of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Steadfast Tin Soldier’ was a Streets of Brighton commission), Radiator (who were mentored for their Dreams and Demons surreal fairground project by aforementioned Simon Pascoe) and IOU’s darkly demented promenade show Tattoo (all of which were reviewed in Total Theatre 15/2).

Street Arts – A User’s Guide is available from ISAN, price £8. E-mail mail@streetartsnetwork.org.uk or phone 020 7633 9330.