Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre

Posted: April 17th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre, March 15, 2024

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, The Last Supper
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: The Last Supper (photo © Rosie Powell)

There was an immediate incongruity on entering the Battersea Arts Centre Council Chamber of hearing Rosie Ridgeway’s sound design of a sacred a cappella voice and seeing Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s stage furniture of industrial ventilation ducting coiled in various lengths under Nao Nagai’s lighting. It is the setting for Figs in Wigs’ rather desolate opening scene – Chapter Zero – for Big Finish, an irreverent yet trenchant commentary in seven chapters (acts) on the links between the dire state of the arts in this country, the sinking of the Titanic and the extinction of the species. Like a good satirical cartoon, we are invited to consider in exaggerated detail the all-too-visible effects on the arts and the natural environment of an unspecified yet widely understood cause. And it felt as if the audience was there in the Council Chamber — itself the seat of a former political body that once had a key role in the birth of the suffragette and labour movements — to relish seeing on stage a reflection of what they already know exists so they could laugh at their own collective misfortune.

There are two parallel layers in Big Finish: one looks outwards at what the five performers — Ray Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots — call the ‘shit show’ that is our arts environment, while the other looks inwards at their colourfully irreverent ruminations. As each successive chapter unpeels their perceptions and frustrations, one self-deprecatory slur at a time, the two layers naturally merge.

Figs in Wigs come to the rather bleak conclusion in Chapter Zero that if the great ship of the arts in this country is sinking, any grants are little more than publicly funded life jackets. It may seem ungrateful to lambaste the state of the arts when a little logo on the program indicates that Big Finish was supported using public funding by Arts Council England. Figs in Wigs did indeed get some money from ACE for the R&D phase of Big Finish but their application for funding the show was turned down. It’s an odd way to use public funds to encourage artists to get to the starting line and then disqualify them for the race, especially when ACE’s printed logo on the performance program suggests otherwise. Fortunately, there are two other logos on the program — Wandsworth Council and Bloomberg Philanthropies — that hopefully represent some alleviation in the funding shortfall.*

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Chapter 1
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: Evolution (photo © Rosie Powell)

With its dogged determination that the show will still go on, Big Finish takes only two short opening chapters to offer a concise social and geological history of evolution, starting with a time when days had only four hours of light and ‘the earth was full of idiots’. A golf cart enters the stage driven by a dinosaur with four reptilian passengers. They deliver sand in bags and spread it neatly into a circle with rakes. With a heightened sense of mixed metaphor, we are reminded about our proclivity for burying our heads in the sand and that time is running out. Chapter Two segues effortlessly into what is called ‘The Survivors’, notably the crab’s ability to adapt to changing environments over millennia. It’s also an opportunity for the first dance, a hip-swinging crustacean side-step. In Chapter Three there’s an ode to human competitive practice as a game of musical towels on the beach, and a celebration of chance in a lottery game as a sly reminder that the Arts Council is part funded by the national lottery. The effects of water pollution on the manufacture of soft ice cream is parodied in a Mr. Whiffy portaloo, followed in Chapter Four by the Last Supper — the swansong, the big finish — with successive toasts to over-inflated egos, artistic mediocrity and analogies to predatorial insects. Chapter Five is a delightful last will and testament, before the apotheosis in Chapter 6 in which a string quintet sitting on their reinforced coattails plays on as the ship sinks in the soap suds.

Figs in Wigs, The String , Big Finish
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: The String Quintet (photo © Rosie Powell)

The ideas in Big Finish may be expressed with blinding clarity but they are deliberately dressed in an aesthetic of amateur improvisation. It might look as if the production was pulled together using any and every available material, but there is a sophistication in this underhand aesthetic — thanks in part to Gammon’s costumes and Porter’s wigs and makeup — that belies the self-deprecatory tone of the texts. We are drawn into the ideas precisely because of Figs in Wigs’ deliciously performative improvisation. The aesthetic disrupts the message without masking the seething rage that produced it.

*Big Finish has been commissioned by BAC, Home, Cambridge Junction and Jerwood Arts.

The Dan Daw Show at Battersea Arts Centre

Posted: May 24th, 2022 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Dan Daw Show at Battersea Arts Centre

The Dan Daw Show, Battersea Arts Centre, April 28, 2022

The Dan Daw Show with Dan Daw and Christopher Owen
Dan Daw supported by Christopher Owen in his eponymous show (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

The content of The Dan Daw Show is just what it says on the can. It’s about the 38-year-old self-described crip artist Dan Daw, but not in the sense of what Daw does — as in his previous performances ever since his days in Candoco — but what is done to him. It is a show conceived to observe Daw through the lens of his disability: but whose lens? It is self-evidently autobiographical because Daw is the subject of a series of visceral interventions that hold very little back from what he calls the ‘knife edge’ of his sensory life. In his dead-pan preamble, he lets us know we’re in safe hands: ‘I’ve consented to all of this so you can see me in this way,’ and warns us we will be witnessing ‘suffocation, loud noises and sexy disabled people’. On a more sardonic note, he says this is a story ‘about me wanting to be fucked in a society that fucks the disabled.’ 

I imagine what it must be like to be a dancer with his condition, but this is to miss the obvious: Daw considers himself as a dancer like any other, basing his exploration of movement on his technical ability and his enjoyment of movement on his acute sensation — one of the memorable aspects of the show is seeing Daw’s evident relish in accomplishing everything he sets out to do. ‘This is exactly how I want you to see me; I’m such a messy bitch.’ In as much as what he does is his reaction to what is done to him, the show is choreographed in real time by Christopher Owen (onstage character name KrisX) whose care and empathy make sure Daw is comfortable with the situations in which his undaunted spirit can be challenged. The element of surprise is used throughout — at one point, Owen pulls down Daw’s pants as if in a schoolboy prank to reveal his ‘expensive underwear’. Not everything is easy; Daw suffers from vertigo, which we can see in his first attempt, with Owen’s help, to stand on a table. The tense psychological struggle to overcome his reluctance is palpable, as is his relief at aborting this attempt and acknowledging the scale of the challenge. He succeeds the second time. 

But if this is a show conceived through Daw’s lens, it is also refracted through a non-disabled perspective. It is Daw’s very willingness to adapt to our perspective that turns our notion of disability — and thus the entire show — on its head. I can’t help thinking how I would perform for an audience of disabled people. Would I be as natural as Daw and as unconcerned about difference? As keen to embrace the audience with his candour and to enrich them with his pride in who he is? Or perhaps The Dan Daw Show is only possible because, as he points out in the program, our ableist society is based on the default recognition of non-disabled people.

The performance, directed by Mark Maughan, allows Daw to take full control of the space where his disabled image may otherwise have languished. And it is on the stage that he evidently feels most comfortable. After Owen places his body, from the neck down, inside a black latex vacuum cube and removes the air, Daw says he ‘feels safe and relaxed in here, and for me that’s rare.’ His irreverent humour adds that ‘it feels like an expensive, tax-payer-funded hug.’

Emma Bailey’s stage area in the Council Chamber of Battersea Arts Centre fronts a showman’s booth behind a curtain with Nao Nagai’s vertical bank of lights on either side. The curtain hides stage props but is also a screen on which Owen projects a live scan of Daw’s dragon tattoos. Everything Daw speaks to the audience is projected above the curtain on the wall behind, leaving only his candid dialogue with Owen unheard over Guy Connelly’s sound design. It’s a deliberately low-tech production into which accessibility is carefully integrated as both subject and object.

The Dan Daw Show is a constant double-take between artifice and authenticity, between the construction of the show to display Daw and his uninhibited reaction to its devices. In the final apotheosis Daw emerges from the odyssey of his show as its rightful figurehead, strapped into an inflatable, multi-tentacled dragon form, standing as proudly and as enigmatically as his own tattoos. Connelly’s score gears up to an anthem and as the tentacles fill with air  and pop into place the pride in Daw’s face is a triumph.