Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Gym Party, Battersea Arts Centre

Review: Gym Party, Battersea Arts Centre

All the world’s a sports field, according to the theatre company Made In China, and all the men and women, merely players. This devised piece, the company’s fourth full-length work, suggests that competition creeps into everything we do, be it work, play, or – less obviously and less comfortably – love and happiness. Their big question is whether that’s the result of nature or nurture.

Three performers, dressed in gym whites and coloured wigs (they look, honest to God, like oompa loompas), compete in a series of contests. There are childish party games: marshmallows crammed in the mouth, jellybeans caught on the person. There are public votes: most attractive, best childhood and so on. Winners get points. Losers get punished: a bout of self-flagellation, say, or a firm punch to the gut. Blood start to trickle from their nostrils, disconcertingly unacknowledged.

Interspersed between these games are a series of texts: personal testimonies about their own relationship to competition and vote canvassing election speeches. Mostly, though, they’re constantly at odds to reaffirm that everything they do, they do for us, their audience. They compete for our entertainment.

Look, it’s all perfectly watchable. Add a sprinkling of competition and anything becomes a passable spectator sport; even the long jump. Sometimes it’s cruelly hilarious and sometimes faintly ludicrous. Occasionally, it even makes you squirm, particularly when you’re forced into judgement (a task that, despite awkwardness, remains a guilty pleasure.)

But do you really come away with fresh insights into the nature of competition? Sadly not. You get the odd flash of revelation: for example, a long-forgotten sense that romance was once a matter of ranking (call it the race to a bottom). How does that affect the way we view love today? Can competition infiltrate even that? Does it corrupt it?

The thing is you get it very quickly: our lives are geared around competition, which means for every winner there’s a loser, which is a real shame. Occasionally, it attempts to pick that apart: it’s good to try, to aim to be the best that you can be, but must that come at someone else’s expense? Necessarily so? Mostly though, the subject is left floaty and vague. Competition, boo. Capitalism, boo. Why can’t we all just get along?

However, Gym Party’s real problems lie in its tangled roots. We watch three people playing real games – really competing, sure – but pretending that something significant is at stake. We know, deep down, that they’ve signed up for these games, no matter how foolish they appear. We know, too, that they’re happy to take the prescribed punishments. Elsewhere, Made In China have used their exhaustive energy and excess to stand for something – usually as a stark visualisation of consumerism. Here, though it stands for itself and so becomes self-defeating. Besides we ultimately see that the game’s structure – whereby the final round is worth more points than the rest combined – is designed to deliver a clear winner and instantly makes everything that came before it redundant.

Zoom out further still, though, and the whole becomes even more problematic. For, while Tim Cowbury’s texts pay lip service to the labour exchange involved in the performance transaction, Gym Party still sits firmly within the very competitive marketplace it sets out to critique. Battersea Arts Centre is a long way from the West End, but it’s hardly a model of producing that opts out of any sort of competition. Context, I’m afraid, is all and, on this occasion, it rather reveals the hollowness of the rhetoric.

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