Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Under the Influence, Drum Theatre, Plymouth

Review: Under the Influence, Drum Theatre, Plymouth

Published on Culture Wars, 19.06.2009

Over the past two years, Ontroerend Goed have done a fair amount to popularise unapologetically experimental theatre in the UK. Their work is bold and brash, colourful, sensory and often bravely structured. Yet it manages to be both accessible and comprehensible without becoming one-dimensional. Their previous two pieces, The Smile Off Your Face and Once and For All…, speak in slogans rather than insinuations and maintain both a density of thought and a rigorous interrogation of form. However, while Under The Influence employs the same pandemic of technicolour, it lets itself down by thinking in black and white.

Here, Ontroerend Goed invite us to a party. Seated around the skirting boards of a flat-pack plastic bungalow – temporary, fragile and abstract – we witness visions of excess up close and impersonal. The rules of performance are simple: Lose yourself (but keep control); Drink the beer; Fake the drugs. Then, accompanied by the thump and grind of electronica, a post-Skins instant rave erupts. Glassy-eyed young things, in various states of undress and excess, bounce off the walls, the music and each other.

At times it seems the most sensible thing in the world, at others, utterly insane. Dances repeat until they reduce to inexorable twitches, bodies are groped and voices screech until they dissolve into croaks. Yet, almost strapped into our seats, it all seems so distant. There is no impulse to join in, nor is there the urge to lose oneself in the visual plethora of partygoers. Even when we are activated by the performers – perhaps with a lap-dance of sorts, a question asked or a soft kiss on the cheek – our response seems not to matter. It all just happens and we just happen to be there.

However, this is not a show concerned only with the highs and lows of hedonism. After one final, final song – the unnecessary, jaded extra intended to resuscitate proceedings, but inevitably proving its overdose – we are split up and lead through the Theatre Royal’s winding intestines by different performers. In some private space or other, each performer explains the process and persona of their performance to their collected audience.

The aim, of course, is to reveal the pretence involved, but the trouble is that the simulated party never abandons its own fakeness. It feels too choreographed to become infectiously real. Its wildness seems too forced; its recklessness, too stage-managed; its ebb and flow, too inorganic. Worse still, the supposed authenticity of the second half is similarly undermined by the constraints of its semi-fixed texts. Performers bludgeon emerging conversations back to topic, to the safety of script. Where it sees itself as truth and falsity or pretence and authenticity, it reveals itself to be a constant, curious mixture of both simultaneously.

All in all, it feels rushed, as if the surface idea has not been fully cross-examined. Undoubtedly there is huge potential, but as it stands the structure and concept are willing, but the life and soul is not.

Photograph: Ontroerend Goed

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