Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Posted: October 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Antonia Grove, Small Talk, directed by Wendy Houstoun, Soho Theatre, October 2

It was an inspired decision for Antonia Grove to hitch her star to that of Wendy Houstoun. An original ten-minute sketch of Small Talk was worked out by the two of them in 2010, and the version performed at the Soho Theatre upstairs last week evolved from that sketch. If anyone can get a grip on a mercurial, conflicted, miasma of a personality and create from it a compelling piece of theatre that makes us laugh while keeping us unsettled, it is Houstoun. This is not one of her own solos she has adapted for someone else; she has got under Grove’s skin, into her psyche and coaxed out something that is not a portrayal, nor a story, but Grove as you will never be able to know her. Houstoun says of the work that it ‘hovers around the territory of theatre but it sidesteps character and motivation and instead pushes for an immediacy that I often feel is missing from acting.’ Grove sees her role more from the performer’s perspective: ‘The woman, the women, they are all me and they are not me. They are themselves and they are not themselves. They know something and they don’t know anything.’ Small Talk is the confluence of these two complementary ideas.

Grove’s first line of defence for her many personae is a line of disguises. She begins in neutral territory, arranging her props and costume changes on a table to the side of the stage. She pulls out a chair into the centre of the room and wanders back to her table. She puts on earphones and a pair of high heels, checks her phone and takes off her tracksuit top to reveal a slinky mini dress. Attractive and voluptuous, the starlet Grove nonchalantly wanders out to her seat. She looks out at us but doesn’t see us. It is as if we are looking at her through a two-way mirror. Her eyes are very dark and piercing, or would be if they were brought into focus. Instead they seem to stare into the indeterminate foreground that stops just where the audience starts. Instead of looking out from her face, her eyes seem to be drilling back in, trying to get their bearings, trying to find out who is in control. We in the audience are wondering, too.

A self-help relaxation tape is playing. Allow your mind to relax and sink deeper into this place…even deeper…you are in an open body position, legs uncrossed (she crosses them). Just breathe in and let it out. Grove closes her eyes and smiles enigmatically. With her iPod she selects some breathing music. Her voice cuts through it with a nasal American accent, giving us a movie scenario about sweet young American school girls being caught up in a European torture ring, and dying in horrible ways, delivered in a tabloid-dispassionate way. ‘We create whatever we want to be…Lauren lives in the moment…Heather is such a good actress…’ As her small talk threads through self-help, self-realisation and self-delusion in a flawless continuum, she crosses and uncrosses her legs as if they are somebody else’s, slips off the lip of the chair and recovers, in one long, slinky move. She shakes out her hair, laughing self-consciously and steps behind her chair, keeping her gaze on the imaginary screen between us. ‘Exelle seems very innocent, but she knows how to get what she wants…’ Grove dips down as if her legs give way, keeping the small talk going as her mercurial body recovers its glittery poise. Sitting down again, she blows away a strand of hair from her face, traces her finger down the front of her chest, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She continues the scenario about fighting mutants, ‘rocking them and killing them,’ she laughs, opening her eyes and closing them again. She changes to a motivational tape and moves the chair to the side. What do you want to become? Who do you want to become? You have the power to change… She changes shoes, another pair of sexy high heels. She puts on a tiara and takes a single rose stem, poses at the back of the stage, a camera without a film. A new persona emerges, and more small talk to camouflage it. She steps forward like a model, over-crossing each step but slowly, balancing unsteadily on each forward movement. ‘I guess I’m shallow,’ she concludes. ‘I think I’m kind of a chicken actress.’ Her eyes are glaring (and she can glare convincingly), as she picks off rose petals distractedly, speeding up, madly dismembering the stem and discarding the remains at the feet of the front row. Nobody dares touch it.

She sidles to the microphone and sings. ‘Some say I’m a devil, some say I’m an angel, but I’m just a girl in trouble’, her voice a crevice of vulnerability from an emotionally turbulent soul. She throws off her shoes and the tiara and puts on another disguise, taking the time to get ready. Grove takes a sip of a drink and dances a spin to the appropriately named Foggy Notion by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers before downing another shot, losing herself in uncontrolled laughter when she is already lost. Her wig unseats during the turbulent dance, and she adjusts it back in place. We hear the same warning shots as in Houstoun’s own 50 Acts, though here they miss their mark; Grove seems unaware of any danger. Status Quo plays Down Down as the tape continues: And you allow yourself to drift down to this warm comfortable and safe place. Down deeper, letting go, down deeper. She crouches on the balls of her feet and pushes her knees forward slowly to the ground, then bends back revealing quite obliviously her black trunks and smooth legs. She rolls over and lies exhausted. Time for a change of persona. Taking off her wig, she puts on a cowboy shirt, and replaces the short wig for a long one. Donning a leather jacket she stands at the microphone. ‘Funny comes from smart…accidental funny comes from not so smart.’ She tells a crap wedding story she alone finds funny, her eyes looking around, mouth in a grimace. We hear a lot of people laughing, but she is not; her eyes are lost and sad while the mellifluous female self-help voice assures her she is on her way to being able to make other people laugh. Grove steps into the shadows away from us and turns back to reveal a large red clown nose. Good, says the voice. She begins to clown around with crazy moves while the woman’s voice continues to encourage her. Her mouth is in a grimace, then a smile, going through the motions of a twitching guitarist, a crazed rock and roll musician. Punching the air, jumping, bouncing, her wig falling over her nose, she throws off her jacket, and her wig follows. More taped laughter. Another shot rings out; Grove grinds to a halt and puts her wig back on, taking stock. Over at the table she opens a beer and drinks it. At last you love your life. Notice how your outlook on life is enhanced. You are calm (as she drinks a beer). You are working towards the person you were always meant to be. The new you.

Grove puts on her cowboy boots and hat and sings beautifully accompanied by a toy xylophone. The song is interlaced with the other voice. Grove seems to be herself when she sings, but the voice talks of ‘leaving everybody permanently’. We are not sure who she means by everybody. The many personae, perhaps. One marvels that Grove can inhabit them all so convincingly. Perhaps she will be left with herself. Perhaps not. She puts on her jacket, gathers all her accessories, her shoes and tiara into a plastic bag. ‘I want to say thank you to so many people…I’m just trying to matter… I’m just trying to make work that means something to people.’

It is a stunning performance from Grove; for more performance dates, see her website. And if there is any doubt about Houstoun’s ability to make work that means something to people, she was the dramaturge for h2dance’s Duet that recently won the audience vote to participate in The Place Prize final; her Imperfect Storm (based on The Tempest) for Candoco can be seen next week at the Laban Theatre, and her own solo, 50 Acts, is at Dance Umbrella this Friday and Sunday.