Monday, February 20, 2017

Review: 'This is Not Culturally Significant' at Vault Festival, 18th February 2017

This is Not Culturally Significant by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

It's always nice being a theatre critic when family comes to visit from out of town. Turning up at the press desk to get your name ticked off a special list, having a couple of complimentary drinks and settling down to whatever it is you've signed up to write about that night - it's a good look. So, when I got invited to This is Not Culturally Significant on the same weekend my Dad was in town, I snapped up a couple of comp tickets.

I didn't do any research into what the show was - I just liked the title. It's a sentiment that's run through my head during countless half-baked conceptual snoozefests with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. Plus, hey, it's the Vault Festival. Not only is the venue dead cool but the shows are only about an hour long, even if something's rubbish it won't be rubbish for long.

In retrospect I maybe should have done a tiny bit of research: the confluence of all the above left me sat next to my Dad as we watched a butt-naked man with his legs spread, rhythmically manipulating his cock while girlishly squealing "oh my god my pussy is soooo wet!" Ah right. It's one of those shows.

Said cock-manipulator is Adam Scott-Rowley, founder of Out of Spite Theatre. The company's mission statement is to create "confrontational, unsettling and high-intensity theatre". Mission accomplished.

This is Not Culturally Significant introduces us to a dizzyingly fast-paced gallery of grotesques: Scott-Rowley shuffles between characters like a magician with a deck of cards, presenting us with an abused housewife, her ramrod-straight bastard of a husband, an American porn star, a sadistic Oxford don, a homeless junkie and several more besides. Each of these roles has their own particular body language and voice, and are cycled between at breakneck speed.

Very quickly the nudity justifies itself. I've seen many shows and performance art pieces with full frontal nudity before, and there's always a risk that it becomes the centre of the show. Here it allows Scott-Rowley to crank up his chameleonic abilities and vividly bringing each character to life. It also brings a subtle element of danger and unpredictability to the show - with his dick bouncing around nothing seems outside the realm of possibilities. 

The nudity also levels the social playing field between the characters, blurring the distinctions between a snooty Professor and crack-addled homeless lady. The fast pace of the show blurs the lines between these personalities, exposing life as a tightly woven tapestry of furtive orgasm, fetishistic pleasure and sexual debasement. It's a somewhat nihilistic world that leaves an acid tang in the mouth - but it's also all too plausible.

Having now done a bit of research I've learned that this show's previous (well-received) run at the Edinburgh Festival was fully clothed. It's difficult to imagine - the full frontal nudity so central to the show that it wouldn't be half as good without it.

That said, Scott-Rowley quickly proves not only a talented physical contortionist but possessed of a puckish rubberface and an acrobatic voice. He's particularly great at flipping a switch and descending into diabolical malevolence, his eyes flickering with a psychotic Gerald Scarfe glint. There's also something undeniably Rowan Atkinson-ish to the wheedle in his voice and the demented narcissism with which his characters prevent themselves.

This is Not Culturally Significant is a serious breath of theatrical fresh air. The Vault Festival is riddled with sentimental and self-centred journeys of discovery through fatherhood, mental illness or whatever - but this whips through these dusty tunnels like a nuclear blast wave, making damn near everything else look staid and tame by comparison. 

On top of that it's also funny as hell. I liked it. The audience liked it. My Dad loved it. It's finished at the Vaults now, but if (when?) it returns to the London stage make a bee-line for that ticket desk.

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