I walk into the performance space of Bedlam Theatre where a boy and a girl are cheerfully greeting the audience. Dressed in black and white trousers, shirts and braces, with white facepaint and black lips, their demeanour is hospitable and endearing, like mimes who are excitedly talking to people for the first time. A man sits onstage behind an assortment of musical instruments, smiling in silence. The boy and girl tell audience members where to sit: ‘You three are Standards so you’ll sit in the stalls here!’ In what seems to be a random method of selection, the boy upgrades three people to become Elites. The second chosen Elite is given the ability to choose the third and final person to be elevated to this prestige, and he chooses lucky ol’ me!
The three of us Elites are shepherded onto the stage and are given silver, cushioned chairs, placed upstage, facing outwards to the audience. Once sat, we are given gold Christmas cracker crowns and blue light-up thumbs to wear. Once both classes of audience are seated, the performers greet us Elites very enthusiastically, reiterating how happy they are to have us here. Then, the Standards are given a simple, monotone ‘Welcome’. From this point on, us Elites are pampered, and given authority to decide the direction of the story at key points throughout the piece, by using our light-up thumbs to signal our choice between two options, by either raising it into the air or leaving it down.
A disembodied voice echoes through the space, introducing the audience to the performers and instructs the performers to begin the story. The disembodied voice’s main duty seems to be stepping in when there are major moments of conflict, stopping the performance by turning on the house lights and shouting ‘No Conflict!’.
The main narrative thread is a tale of fantasy, following a boy made of clouds from the wealthy Highground. He falls from his home and lands in the poor Lowground. Here, he meets a local girl made from silk in a dodgy pub. The girl helps the boy get back home, climbing upwards from Lowground to Highground, their journey being an obvious metaphor for upward social mobility. The performers use puppets, masks and multi-role playing to bring to life characters full of quirk, such as an arrogant duck, a serious business skunk, and a lawyer with a fish for a head. Meanwhile, the musician sits in his corner and underscores the action with a soundscape of bells, whistles and xylophones. All three performers tell this story with a splendid amount of playfulness, giving the piece an excellent pace and engaging rhythm.
But where the show really shines is in its interactivity – Standard:Elite cleverly explores who, in society, decides what stories are told, by giving this decision to a select few audience members. It confronts the audience with how they behave within systems of power – when a group of Standards were given the chance to usurp us Elites, I became immensely defensive – and playfully prods at a very British avoidance of talking about class.
By ‘No Conflict’ the disembodied voice really means: ‘Let’s all play along so we don’t have to talk about this and fight… which would be awkward.’ This is echoed by the silent music man who pipes up for the first time towards the end with ‘This is why we don’t make shows about class…Everyone just gets upset!’
Featured image: Hidden Track: Standard:Elite. Photo by Rosie Powell