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Brighton Fringe 2021

Low Down

Written by Timothy Coakley and directed by Margot Jobbins and Four Tails Company. Who also provided Props Video and Set Design. Technical, sound and lighting: Tom Jobbins, Stage manager: Pat Bryant. Till June 21st.


In the early 1980s an Arena film on BBC2 portrayed the last British Dadaist, a solitary moustachio’d curmudgeon phoning up random numbers to annunciate: ‘Dada Dada Dada zug zug zug boom boom boom’ and would now have been arrested as a terrorist. Which would have cheered him up. Daubing in white on a wall: ‘Dada is alive today’ he sat above it in a hat. No-one noticed. He seemed the last of a sad species carrying his zoo with him. He might almost have been a Flanders and Swann Gnu. Or an abandoned installation by Gilbert and George. Both these sets of artists at least worked in pairs.

It’s not exactly for Dad’s Day, Dada. It could have been Mama or something else, we’re told, but the name stuck. Welcome to the most ambitious production from Four Tails Company, and one of the most ambitious this side of the Fringe. All you might have been afraid to ask.

As we’re told Cabaret Voltaire was a scandalous, scabrous nightclub in 1916 Zurich run by the soi-disant Dadaists – well in February 1916 they didn’t know they were DADA, and at this point they just discovered their name after deep contemplation. Two women and two men, mirrored here by actors, were led by Tristan Tzara. And yes if you know Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties, you’ll know Tzara and his just-defunct cabaret (it’s early 1917 in Stoppard’s work) are to the side of it,

Since Dada was avowedly Anti-art, anti practically everything else, they set out to satirise and dynamite civilisation as we know it, itself busy dynamiting 20 million lives for the sake of – itself. Or as Switzerland knew it. No cuckoo clocks were harmed in the making of Dada, perhaps an oversight.

So Dada remained profoundly anti-war in a nation that was neutral and meant its protagonists were safe. Profoundly European, not personally affected, this quartet felt their human responsibility and it’s that curious tenderness at the heart of their project, as well as their anger, that’s so worth exploring.

Despite that solitary moustache-laden mister, their influence lingers on, most riotously in Monty Python which adds artwork from Dada’s successors the Surrealists. There’s vibrant costumes with black clothing predominant, vizors, mauve tutus, red hats, mock-striptease, poetry (and there’s a shocker), twists, explosions, raucous chorales, a jerkily mechanistic ballet (Ferdinand Léger’s paintings as backdrop comes to mind, choreographed by Nijinska); a play-within-a-play and skirling laughter.

Mayhem at the Cabaret Voltaire is written by Timothy Coakley and directed and produced by Margot Jobbins, with Technical – video, sound and lighting by Tom Jobbins. It’s a fantastically packed 47 minutes (I’ve been told 50 is often nearer the mark) but here unlike some shows being 15 minutes too long, you feel this one should either let more air in or cut down the wealth of terrific turns and serious assaults on sensibility on show here. After the confrontational opening, a marching on and off, and some other signals of ‘this is not a show’ we get the cabaret proper.

To the accompaniment of a video – a superbly crisp adjunct – we get a brief history of the Cabaret at least over nine months, and the anti-war gestures Dada stood for. There’s a slither of routines some of which the quartet nail beautifully, some of which aren’t yet tight enough. It’s important if you portray chaos to do so precisely, because it’s the illusion of anti-art being an illusion of anti-art we’re presented with. It takes art. Lucidity’s always a watchword when dealing with the precise deregulation of the senses as Rimbaud knew (and Tzara knew Rimbaud). But the energy’s infectious, there’s never a dull moment till it gets a little repetitive, briefly two-thirds through; and the ensemble deserve praise for their utter commitment.

The mode of ballet – one misses full movement direction at this point – is gesturally Isadore Duncan, with those jutting hand signals and other verticals that found fulfilment in popular flapper and other dances post-war.

At its heart is a beautifully poised, wittily anachronous enactment of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, written in August 1917, and revised by his lover Siegfried Sassoon. Of course it was unknown to Dada. There were some anti-war poems in German though these are more obscure, and poets like Berthold Brecht and Hans or Jean Arp (Alsatian Swiss, a major sculptor and major poet) came into their own afterwards. The poise and indeed the ‘patient minds’, as the poem has it, of the cast as they venturi their energy into  a slow sarabande of loss is cleanly dispatched and moving. ‘And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds’ is realised as you might expect, with aching mime.

Of the performers, Chris Gates’ Hugo Ball is the introductory performer: here the proprietor who lets Tzara and Co a room at the back of his premises to explore their version of cabaret and lives to regret it. Neatly parsonic, often an advantage in such mock-serious roles, Gates like others here needs to separate an introductory voice from his alter ego in the Cabaret itself.  Where he’s more at home.

Liam Murray Scott’s splendidly confident as Tristan Tzara and has the chops for the part. He’s ideally cast too. He has projection and a strong colourful voice with great potential for many roles embodying an aureate brightness all his own. Again it would be good if he could modulate himself. He needs a narrational and a performer self, and strong as his voice is, needs to vary it just a little.

Char Brockes’ youthful Emmy Hennings is more quizzical more fully at home in the sheer cabaret, with a high voice used to great contrasting effect with the last actor here. Her acting crisp and selfless, she comes more from the inside of her role.

Charlotte Tayler’s always impressive and knows exactly how to vary voice pitch and poise, a fine complement to Brockes – the two of them counterpoint each other’s personas really well. Tayler like Brockes is a confident mover. Her Hannah Hoch has a touch of depth and fire; again she’s an inhabited character given a spark when there’s virtually no time for it.

Mayhem At The Cabaret Voltaire is potentially a terrific show, though further rehearsal – it needs far longer for this than most fringe shows – will bring it to the standard needed to render it outstanding: which in a piece like this is essential. Tom Jobbins has delivered an evocative and ideal video, and the touch of credits at the end brought a closure the actual show – with its deliberate dishevelled ending, not quite crisp enough – didn’t quite manage.  Margot Jobbins has clearly worked terrifically hard and it’s good to see her at full stretch like this, in a production that could win plaudits.

If you care for the Dada moment and its telling here, which is uniquely chronicled, you’ll want the best for this show and its team.  It’ll be fulfilling to see them return at full tilt to knock us off our cuckoos.