Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Splat!, Barbican Centre

Review: Splat!, Barbican Centre

What a load of old tropes. Splat! shows us Disney princesses, Fame dancers and Baywatch cozzies. Its women are green-faced witches and doe-eyed ingénues, mothers and strippers. They cook, they clean and they girate. Yet, it’s performative techniques look just as old hat. There are the sexed-up fake deaths and the cutesy animal costumes. There are problematic pop songs on repeat and a female body strung up like meat. There’s (faux) viscera. There’s (faux) vomit. There’s (real) piss. Check. Check. And check again.

The question, then, is whether The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein (and we’ll come back to that moniker) is setting up against the objectification of women outright or rather concerned with art’s failure to actually alter that state of affairs. If the latter, of course, she gets the former by proxy, for you can’t really flag up the ineffectiveness of artistic protest against something without also highlighting the very persistence of the thing itself.

And yet, for all its righteous irony over these pop cultural role models, Splat! feels too earnest to be taken as artistic critique. The Famous LBH’s performance register – bossing her subsidiary cast and her crew about the stage, rattling off a list of the costs and fees she’s incurred in making the piece, her willingness to get down and dirty – reads like a straightfaced protest. When she urinates against a performer’s leg, she cocks her leg without cocking us a wink. When she sticks a test tube full of tomato juice into her vagina, letting the contents spill out, she doesn’t undermine the gesture. Slashing tomatoey water balloons against a knife attached to her groin, she’s aggressive and ardent, not flirtatious or clownish. If anything, since her references are wide-ranging (Carolee Schneeman jostles with Ann Liv Young), it must be considered an homage of sorts. Or perhaps a survey – one that tries to collate every possible tactic against every possible problem.

Splat! fails to convince. It replicates body-political vocabularies that must once have felt radical and confrontational, but now look rather tired and polite. Indeed, the vulgar, visceral acts in Splat! are spun into aesthetically pleasing spectacles. It’s not just that the shock has worn off. These are positively beautiful; elegantly inelegant, artfully crass. The red coating of tomato puree – not the usual ketchup, a choice that TFLBH flags in performance  – combines perfectly with her white costume as she hangs upside-down eating a burger. Later her rollerskates, cuddly doe costume and urine combo just works. It looks as a great as her graceful and po-faced en pointe routine delivered as an interlude.

Look around at the audience, at who this event is reaching, and it’s the usual live art crowd; those that like this aesthetic and who, generally speaking, aren’t really the primary target of her protest. In which case, what exactly is TFLBH achieving beyond preaching to the choir? There’s no nuance here, just easy targets and, try as she might, TFLBH never manages to achieve ugliness, to invert the sexualisation imposed. Splat!’s too well-lit for that, too well stage-managed, too slick.

Perhaps that’s the point. After all, there’s the question of that name: The Famous… Already Barri Holstein has integrated herself into (and against) a vapid celebrity culture – another soft target that we’re hardly like to endorse – and, with that ‘the,’ somehow objectified herself. That decision shows the pre-dominance of those patriarchal, capitalist modes; try as she might to escape it, everything TFLBH remains glossed and sexualised. If Splat! fails, it fails because there’s too much to oppose and too little left with which to oppose it.

It’s only at the end of Splat! that she gets beyond the old tropes, lying prostrate on the floor, still bloodied, still tomatoed, singing Leona Lewis’s Happy on repeat as her ‘woodland creatures,’ her backing dancers in various states of undress gambol about the stage. It’s a gorgeous moment – uplifting and absurd, utopian and mocking – that might carry a call to continual arms within. Here, the idol that is The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein has been (almost) slain – or rather (almost) sacrificed herself – and thus set those around her free. Most of all, though, it’s hers and it’s fresh and it’s funny; qualities too often lacking in the rest of Splat! “Play it again,” she cries, as she’s dragged slowly off stage and the curtain falls.

Photograph: Jon Cartwright

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