Edinburgh Fringe 2013
ReviewEver since seeing a scratch of We Hope that You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?) at BAC way back in 2011, I’ve been interested in Made in China (Tim Cowbury and Jessica Latowicki). Their work has a manic quality, like animals with bared teeth; there is a sense of danger that’s difficult to find, even in the experimental theatre scene. These aren’t people who are cutting themselves to get a rise out of us, or masturbating on stage to be controversial, there’s a point to everything they do – every game and move justified by the subject of their interest. In this case, competition and winning. Gym Party consists, primarily, as a game-show-style competition in which the three participants (Chris, Jess, and Jen) vie for points in an effort to get their names (individually) up in lights.
The audience are invited into the action through easy methods of semi-anonymous feedback (clapping, raising our hands, etc). There is never a fourth wall, though, so it’s impossible to forget that we are just as much on display as the performers are. We are called on by name, asked about our responses, and continually reminded that ‘they’ are aware of ‘us’. The cast are genuine, relatable, and sympathetic, though there is always the chance that they could be lying to us. This risk (that we might be rooting for the wrong player) is offset by the (apparently) low stakes – we’re playing for disposable rewards, every day is a new opportunity for success, and the penalties faced by the losers are (mostly) harmless, aren’t they?
Gym Party put me in mind of the lecture on opportunity cost from a college course in economics I took (many) years ago. It’s all about mutual exclusivity, and how even the most innocent of interactions can be boiled down to a prehistoric need to get ahead. We’re reminded that, in a society where excess is the norm, we no longer need kill or be killed. But of course those evolutionary ghosts still haunt us, and just beneath a thin veneer of polite social gloss, the hungry animals still prowl. Like the famous Milgram experiment in social psychology from the nineteen seventies, Gym Party challenges us to wield absolute authority and pits us vicariously against one another.
It’s a strange combination of force and tension – We are continually defined as a group, as a body, as a consensus, but within that cohesion (or because of it) we are made separate. It’s only from within a seething mass of bodies that one can be raised up. And like the crowd-surfer at a sold out concert, it is the winners who have the best view; who are most visible. We aspire to be them, to have their success and the benefits that go with it – Gym Party separates the concept of winning from any tangible fruits and focuses on the concept as an abstract.
There are no technical marvels here – no sleight of hand to wow the tourists. Gym Party isn’t about any of that. Music blares, sometimes too loud, cutting off abruptly. Too quiet off-stage speech provides commentary, and the on stage microphones didn’t work at all (opening night technical bugs) but none of that mattered. This show is (secretly) all about what happens inside the audience member’s head. It hunts us all down (velociraptor-style) and gets inside, rummages around, and leaves a shifted perspective behind. We entered the room as small bunches of spectators, separate but unified clumps of humans, and we were homogenized into one body during the performance, but walking out we were utterly alone. The sky was grey and the wind was biting on the walk to the pub after.