Care of Adrian Howells

Review in Issue 22-3 | Autumn 2010

Dorothy Max Prior has an intimate encounter of a special kind.

BAC’s festival of one-on-one performance exposed the strengths and weaknesses of this currently popular mode of practice. It’s all down, essentially, to the trust between performer and audience member. As far as I’m concerned, the maestro of the form is Adrian Howells – when the intimate encounter is with Adrian, the trust is absolute.

In his earlier work, Foot Washing for the Sole, you are invited to spend time with Adrian whilst having your feet lovingly attended to. His latest one-on-one piece, The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding (seen at BAC’s One-On-One Festival), ups the ante – inviting the audience member to surrender him or herself to be ‘fully bathed, fed and held in a long embrace’.

Challenging? You know you’re in safe hands, so it doesn’t feel that way. Every stage of the process is carefully thought through. There are a series of ante-rooms: in the first, you sit quietly by yourself and read about the process. You learn that you’ll next go into a room where you will undress, and that you will have swimsuit or shorts available to wear if you wish, or you can choose to be bathed naked. When you’re ready, clad in your bathrobe, you then knock on a door which is answered by Adrian. So finally you come to the bathroom – a beautiful installation piece, womb-red and lit by candlelight, with a freestanding Victorian bathtub, rose petals floating in soapy water, as its centrepiece.

In Foot Washing for the Sole, Adrian’s patter is a key part of the performance; in The Pleasure of Being, he does not speak unless spoken to, so that the focus stays almost completely on the sensory experiences: the sight of the flickering candles, the smell of the oils, the warmth of the water, the touch of the washcloth and towels, the taste of the chocolate in your mouth, and the feel of two strong arms wrapped around you. It is – everything. To be cared for so totally, so intimately – a level of care so rare it hurts.

There have been numerous other artists who have similarly used the actions of physical therapies such as massage and aromatherapy as their palette, but never, in my experience, with such success. For example, Anish Kapoor’s Imagined Monochrome (seen at Brighton Festival, May 2009) takes the form of a head, shoulder and arm massage, enacted by professional masseuses, which you experience whilst lying on a treatment couch in an all-white environment, eyes closed but under a very bright light, with the expectation that you would then experience a whole rainbow of colours through your eyelids. The whole experience feels remarkably un-nurturing, and the masseuses seem uncomfortable in their odd ‘art worker’ role. It is reflecting on what didn’t work in Kapoor’s piece that reveals why Howell’s intimate pieces work so well. The key factor is the actual presence of the artist: Adrian Howells is a highly experienced performer who knows how to ‘hold the space’ perfectly. This is not work that can be set up and walked away from – it is Adrian’s wonderful energy that makes his work what it is.

His sense of how to hold an intimate moment with confidence extends beyond his one-on-one work into other pieces. An Audience With Adrienne, takes the form of a small party, for up to twenty people, in someone’s front room (in this case, in the flat above Brighton’s Nightingale Theatre). The audience are greeted, sat on pink sofas, and offered sweets or ice-lollies. We form teams and create collages from old copies of Take a Break! magazine, and Adrian’s drag alter ego Adrienne entertains us with a few songs and dances, and shows us home-movies of Adrian’s elderly parents reflecting on their son’s childhood. We also get to select autobiographical stories from a menu, and after Adrian/Adrienne has shared a story of, say, a sexual fantasy about a schoolfriend, we are invited to contribute our own stories. Adrian’s perfectly pitched, warm and open performance creates a safe environment for shared intimacies, and people open up readily with their contributions. This of course could be a dangerous slip into a free-for-all, but our capable host/ess stage-manages the whole thing beautifully, moving us on when need be into the next section of this carefully choreographed evening.

It’s the loving care of the small details that make Adrian Howell’s work the experience that it is for audiences: an enriching intimate encounter – one-on-one or otherwise.

BAC’s One-On-One festival took place 6–18 July 2010. www.bac.co.uk

An Audience with Adrienne was seen at The Nightingale Theatre (Brighton Fringe, May 2010). www.nightingaletheatre.co.uk

Presenting Artists
Presenting Festival
Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. Jul 2010

This article in the magazine

Issue 22-3
p. 32