Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Thrill of It All, Riverside Studios

Review: The Thrill of It All, Riverside Studios

“We’re going to take you on an adventure,” intones an impish woman in a sequinned dress, “with a capital A.” Her voice is a squeak, manipulated by her microphone so that it fizzes with over-excitement. It seems like the room has been pumped with a cocktail of helium and laughing gas. This, she explains, is going to be fun. As in capital letters, ten feet high, flashing in beautiful neon fun. Not just fun, but fun exclamation mark exclamation mark smiley face.

As always with Forced Entertainment’s work, the foremost story is that of the show itself. Here, it is a show desperate to do its utmost; one that sets itself such high ambitions that – if all goes to plan – there’ll be no point in playing it again tomorrow. Of course, that show buckles under its own pressure. Orchestrated fun is no fun at all and its not long before the cracks become fissures become chasms. The more it breaks, the harder they try; the harder they try, the more it breaks and so on until a brawl has erupted and the show as intended is more or less forgotten. It swallows itself like a white dwarf become black hole.

For the most part, it feels like a working men’s club cabaret in the land before time. The troupe seem a Neanderthal display team. Their wigs – identical black mop-tops for the boys, blonde for the girls – are dishevelled and askew, ungroomed despite the crass glitz of their costumes. Spangled dresses sit unsubtly above red leather boots. Cream blazers collide with bright red shirts and snakeskin boots. Behind them is a clump of fake palm trees, awkwardly fashioned from felt and crepe paper. Its Tropicana via Tesco’s Value: a very everyday exoticism.

The early hedonism – implicit in a title that evokes both cravings and overdose – is presented with a certain primitive edge. It is born of animal urges and the simple sensory delights of being alive. There is no thought of later, of the bigger picture, the whole, only now, here, this, me.

Where the women are light, ticklish and flirtatious, the men are flat-footed and heavy: their distorted voices are deep and woozy. One sex quick-witted, sensible and very much in charge; the other lurching and lumbering, drowsily confessing sentimental meanderings. Where the women ponder the ‘Big Questions’, the men profess love to random, assorted audience members, all the while competing, upstaging and outdoing one another.

And they all dance, terribly, to a mix-tape’s worth of Japanese lounge music, crooning fifties pop that remains resolutely cheerful.

To paraphase Eric Morecambe, they’ve got all the right moves, but not necessarily in the right order. Tim Etchells manages the mangled routines with a sharp eye for frayed edges. Each follows the same choreography – a jazz hand here, a hop and a step there – but it can’t coalesce. Symmetry is beyond them. Each wears his or her own gait too strongly. Some sashay, others goosestep. High kicks hit different heights, one or two barely making it above the ankles. Occasionally, they veer too close to one another: half-colliding, half-emergency-stopping.

And all the while, each wears an expression of intense concentration – making their shoddy achievements all the more absurd. Eyes dart with uncertainty, looking to other performers for confirmation and to us for affirmation. Fixed smiles cause facial cramps and, before long, fade into grimaces.

In all this, we get what we have come to expect of Forced Entertainment: well-choreographed collapse of the theatrical event. But, more so than much of their work, The Thrill of It All resonates with the world beyond the stage. It packs a significant political punch as well.

It comes in the decay of a thrill-seeking boom that implodes. The happy families of the first half, clumped on a sofa as if guests on a chat show, end up bickering and brawling. In their attempts at hedonism and immediate gratification, the need for increasing pleasure, the party gets punctured. Early on, they list a series of dreamy desires. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” they repeat, “if taps ran with lemonade.” Or if men’s sweat tasted of candyfloss rather than old socks. Or if heroin wasn’t addictive. This is care-free thinking, imagining a state of affairs that – as the repeated formula makes clear – absolutely isn’t the case. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” you can imagine them offering, “if booms were never again followed by busts.”

But, of course, that bust inevitably comes. Eventually one man, Jerry, stands barking orders at another, Tom, who has previously admitted that he’s rather down in the mouth tonight and might be better off calling it quits. Instead, he’s stood centre stage being forced to extract laughter from us by naming fruits and falling flatter and flatter. The resultant rebukes sprout bouts of fisticuffs. After a while, everyone’s involved and the initial dispute is forgotten. It’s like a stag weekend in its final throngs. Sluggish punches miss their targets. Bodies grapple to keep the peace. It’s not fun any more.

And from there, the question of recovery looms into view: how, you think, does this regain its momentum, its joie de vivre? Until, from behind a miniature drum kit, a voice pipes up with ominous familiarity. “After all,” it says, “we’re all in this together aren’t we?”

Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

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