Brighton Festival 2014
Gym Party is an energetic, playful piece about the drive to win at all costs. Think The Hunger Games crossed with some awful schoolyard cruelty via Britain’s Got Talent and loud, garish kids TV and you get the picture.
Three performers Chris, Jess and Ira, wear tiny white sports outfits and lurid comedy wigs. They each stand beneath a neon sign that matches each wig and spells out their names. There are a few other objects scattered about the place but the environment is otherwise bare. What follows is initially light hearted, eventually brutal and torturous but always in the spirit of gaming and play. Think The Hunger Games crossed with some awful schoolyard cruelty via Britain’s Got Talent and loud, garish kids TV and you get the picture.
The competitors inhabit a fame / beauty / wealth obsessed world, full of aspiration that seems at odds with their gangly ordinariness.
Made In China are a young company with quite a lot of buzz around them at the moment. I have been aware of them for some time, though Gym Party is the first of their works I have seen, so placing it in context is tricky. The piece faces us directly in a style that is flattened out and anti-poetic. There is a use of direct address that might be aggressive (eyeballing, pointing and naming) if it weren’t pulled off with such playfulness. This is interspersed with lo-fi gameshow style competitions that pit the characters against each other in an ever increasing rhythm of desperation. Who can get the most marshmallows in their mouth; who can do the longest head stand – for example.
We are cajoled into being part of the problem; having an opinion. We are asked to vote. Who do we think is the richest? Who do we think is the most attractive? Who would we rescue from certain death? The losers take turns to tear each other apart psychologically, whilst the winner gets to sit in the audience and enjoy their favourite theme tune: Azalea Bank’s ‘212’ or Kanye West’s ‘I am a God’.
It is never horrific. It is far too silly to be horrific, but it gets more brutal as we roll onwards and leaves a little bruise on my heart afterwards.
I’m not sure if this is because I have watched a piece about people tearing each other to bits or if it is a different kind of ache – a kind of existential one. Possibly both.
It is a very literal conceit and literal delivery – its genealogy owes more to live art traditions, games shows and theatre sports, than it does to theatre. I found myself wondering where the piece could go, having announced it’s intentions so unambiguously within the first 5 minutes and then doing exactly what it said on the tin. The absence of metaphor and suggestion left a little bit of a hole in the experience for me – though I am aware this is a personal taste thing and stylistic choice.
It was good. It was well done. The performers were engaging. I really enjoyed the energy of it and felt its subject matter was relevant and delivered with punch. Would I recommend it as an experience? Yes I would. It is fun, entertaining and gently confronting. Would I add a disclaimer of any kind? Only that I was feeling around for the heart in it and what I sensed, behind the neon and the games, was an existential vacuum, a coldness. Perhaps that crushing emptiness is exactly what this kind of aggressive competitiveness does to us in the end…