If Only…!

Review in Issue 24-1 | Spring 2012

Tim Jeeves makes parole and visits the Bluecoat for a night of multifaceted performance.

With four busy nights of performance strung over the winter and spring of 2011/12 and a two-day festival this coming April, If Only…! is a season of performance at Liverpool’s Bluecoat curated with an emphasis on diversity of form. Last seen at the Bluecoat in 2010, If Only…! acts as a conduit for a variety of different artforms that are often marginalised (new music, improvised dance, live art, etcetera), the rationale behind the nights being that bringing these forms together with a dash of more broadly popular performance will introduce audiences to work that lies outside their usual interests. And, of course, the hope is to create an event that exists as more than the sum of its parts.

Presented under the theme ‘If Only…! On Parole’, the season’s opening night contextualised the work it presented in relation to authority, be that the playful commentary of Arts Council evaluation (with absurd cataloguing of everything in the space, a deliberately intrusive audience feedback form and a reminder of what else your £2.50 entrance could have been spent on), or the dour looking security guards and tent that (literally) occupy the stage when we enter. Nevertheless, behind such frivolity, there was a gentle reminder that, with the Bluecoat’s live programme on hold and under review as of April 2011, there is a particular interest in any externally funded events that do take place in the building.

Much of the work presented featured an element of music, though aside from this, the only other constant of note was perhaps the ongoing diversification in the pieces presented.

Beginning with a live video feed of newspaper manipulation from Anthony Cairns and our two compere curators for the evening (Rachel Sweeney and Mary Pearson), we immediately encounter something unsettling as meaning and aesthetic play cat and mouse with each other. Disquieting and at times awkward, the three figures absorbed in this selfpreoccupied act develop a restless metaphor for the way events and their reporting in the press never settle into a cohesive entity, free from interference.

With an act this unstable, the end could only come violently; the two security guards, present throughout, eventually grow tired of the inward gaze of the performers and, after pushing, kicking and pulling the tent from the stage, produce a guitar and microphone and regale us with a number of cover versions of songs by Joni Mitchell and the like. Though well performed, and with each song charmingly introduced, something perhaps a little concerning lurks in this lighthearted twist of the evacuation of a tent city. The violence of such evictions can easily be forgotten when played for laughs in this manner, and though there is a convincing argument to be made for making light of the overly sombre, this manipulation of the protest aesthetic may have missed the mark a little.

There then followed the first of numerous appearances of Graculus, a free jazz / new music duo that featured a cello played with both a hand fan and electric toothbrush, taking the evening into yet another dimension (one half of this musical twosome, Phil Hargreaves, was the third of the evening’s curators).

As was the case in the previous If Only…! season, the performances were not limited to the venue’s ordinary spaces. After the interval, Anna Frisch presented My Polar Disorder in the corridor outside the restaurant; not the best location perhaps in terms of sight lines, though with a pole-dancing Minnie Mouse gyrating to blues riffs, certain niche preferences were bound to be met. The clash of symbolism was striking as the darling of childhood capitalism met new feminism and sexual provocation.

‘Punk’ is a tricky adjective – it conjures up something forty years old and images of John Lydon advertising butter – but nevertheless the energy in Mark Greenwood’s emphatic performance as the frontman of the band Eyes begs for such labelling. The raw poetry in his found lyrics was hurled at the audience, while animation from Agnes Hay provided a wonderful backdrop, her mindless mechanised world of marching monochromatic figures providing the perfect contrast to the violence in Greenwood’s performance.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening came with Noel Perkins’ magic act however. Incredibly simple, the piece consisted of simply sawing off various lengths of table leg whilst his glamorous assistant lay on top. Nevertheless, the threat of collapse was skilfully managed by both magician and assistant to form a narrative of danger and relief. The labour of sawing proved to be as engaging to watch as only another’s discomfort can be, and in the sculptural image that resulted – as the assistant and Perkins propped themselves up on the dismembered table parts – they had created something beautiful to witness.

Graculus returned throughout the second half of the night, before providing accompaniment to the final act, Linda Wilton’s tango demonstrations. Emphatically not your typical artist of the artistic vanguard, Wilton is of an age and bearing that suggests something more earthy. And it is from this contrast that the strength of her act came; there was a simplicity to the honesty of her and her partner as they performed their dances on the stage, a slight discomfort even that was endearing to behold.

With such diversity of acts, it was perhaps inevitable that – to any one individual’s taste – there would be some works that were more successful than others. From this reviewer’s perspective, perhaps the night could have been improved if there had been more moments like Noel Perkins’ magic act – where straightforward performance was presented without accompaniment from video or music – but such disagreement and questioning is an essential part of If Only’s aspiration. (With the focus on diversity, if all the work was to everyone’s taste, then the question would have to be asked if the work presented was diverse enough.) So perfect the night was not, though without doubt, as Rachel Sweeney’s compere announced at the end of the evening, ‘Parole has been granted’. On completion of the review of their performance and literature programme, it will be interesting to see if the Bluecoat agrees…

Tim Jeeves was at the Bluecoat, Liverpool on 1 December 2011 for the first night of the If Only…! season. The programme includes three more nights of performance 12 January, 16 February and 15 March 2012, followed by a two-day festival in April 2012. www.thebluecoat.org.uk

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Issue 24-1
p. 40 - 41