Monday, July 14, 2014

'Yve Blake & Co: Then' at the Soho Theatre, 13 July 2014

 Picking the whole damn human condition as the topic for your one woman show takes guts. Yve Blake is stepping into the ring with an 800lb gorilla of a subject as an opponent, sending us on an hour's trip from childhood to death with stops along the way at teenage angst, middle-aged depression and senility. How do you even begin to condense all this down? How can you possibly represent the full spectrum of human experience?

The genesis of the show was a digital confessional that Blake set up; an website where people are quizzed as to their past selves.  Who did you think you were in the past?  What did you want to be?  What were you scared of? What would you say to your past self?  Nattering on about yourself is a great boost for the ego, and soon she'd amassed responses from all over the world, people of all ages outlining experiences of life.  The resulting data is a soup of happiness, fear, nostalgia, embarrassment and regret - and Blake has rolled up her sleeves and pummelled this into a smooth, streamlined hour of songs, visuals and gags.

First things first - Yve Blake is an astonishingly energetic performer.  She moves with a loose-limbed gangliness, every motion she makes calculated for maximum effect.  Another string to her bow is an enviable comedy rubberface, which gives the impression that we're watching a person who's stepped out of a cartoon.  Even better, she knows precisely how command the performance space, her stage persona at both pleasant and slightly intimidating.  It feels like every single person in the audience gets a full dose of her laserbeam stare as she drags us into her world, dismantling the barriers between us.

It's impossible to be presented with the questions Blake asks and not immediately formulate your own responses to them. There's no direct audience participation, but the core reason the show works is that you hear these stories and spot your own thoughts, fears and emotions buried within them.  The upshot of that is that this is less a process of gaining new understanding and more a process of reinforcing what you already believe to be true.

It's a sick joke that the more we hear other people's unique insights into the world, the more we realise that people aren't unique at all.  From childhood on up we quickly understand that while we (for example) might have thought we were the only person to believe they were literally an alien as a child, there's multitudes that thought the exact same thing.  Even when we fiercely assert ourselves as individuals in adolescence we're just adopting another set of pre-worn second hand social signifiers.  Then, when we reach middle-age with a couple of kids in tow everyone bleats about how kids are the most important thing ever, followed by the quick onset of depression, followed by our bodies falling apart before we finally lapsing into senile incoherence as our brains trickle out of our ears.  Then we pop it.

As the show progressed these realisations gave me cold shivers.  After all, the illusion of individuality is one of those things it's best not to think too much about unless you're after existential sleepless nights and being fed it full force through high energy comedy is a bit unsettling. What's worse is that Then never even tries to assign any kind of meaning to the emotions and experiences we're all but forced to experience here.  Now, I don't expect Blake to present us with the Meaning of Life but I was quickly craving a bit of philosophic gristle to chew on.

The lack of depth means the show often teeters on the edge of Saccharine Precipice. For example, an early sequence where we hear cute stories about children is eerily reminiscent of Kids Say the Darndest Things. Similarly cloying is a section where parents explain the "new heights of emotion" they feel at the birth of their children.  I can't deny that these are important aspects of being human, but the lack of any real examination or reflection is a symptom of a lack of curiosity.  Rather than attempted to understand why, things just are.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of sentimentality and for most of the show Blake just about successfully wobbles down the tightrope, balancing it all with touches of wry humour. Unfortunately towards the end the show goes full-on mawkish - with a straight up painful song about caring for your dying mother as she succumbs to dementia and forgets who you are. As we watch increasingly blurred video footage of a child playing on a beach there may as well have been a big flashing neon sign: "CRY NOW" - the dramatic equivalent of running through the audience holding freshly cut onions.

Ladling it on this thick is a bit much; the overt emotional manipulation curdling some of the goodwill Blake had built up.  I've got no beef with a show that wants to make an audience sad, but forcing us to imagine our mothers dying horribly in an effort to wring a couple of tears out of us is misery as pornography.  If it was in aid of underlining something genuinely profound about the human condition there'd maybe be an argument - but this is about as meaningful as a Hallmark condolences card.

I don't want to sound like I'm too down on this show - it's an entertaining, imaginative and concise. Yve Blake is an instantly charismatic and obviously smart as hell artist - shows like this and people like her are why I like to write.  Most people will enjoy the hell out of Then, but personally, though I appreciate the skill and effort that's gone into its creation, it's not quite my cup of tea.

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