Thursday 21st September at West Yorkshire Playhouse
So. It finally happened. In seeing Two Man Show, commissioned by Soho Theatre and Northern Stage, I have finally seen that kind of fringe show which graces a great meme or features as an easy target in a sitcom… it might well be a work of genius, but it might also be a bunch of bonkers ideas chucked into a melting pot of feminist theatre trends. I left the theatre grinning, precisely because this show is so divisive for me – one part of my brain loved its raw fearlessness and the other was still puzzled by the possible meaning. I’m still not certain how I feel about it if I’m completely honest… the visuals are striking, vocals are heavenly, rock voices powerful and narrative has…snatches of brilliance? One thing is for sure though: it is a show that is whacky in every respect – a kaleidoscopic array of crazy costumes, nude dancing, screaming into microphones and adding a little metatheatre to boot. But the montage of moments is so disjointed that it fails to deliver any lasting clarity, which, according to the closing scenes, might be the whole point – and after all, we were reminded from the beginning that we could always ‘Google it after’…
We open with the entrance of three women – Abbie Greenland and Helen Goalen, our leads, and Becky Wilkie, supporting – dressed in what can only be described as whacky modern takes on the garb of goddesses. They deliver a gorgeous harmony, huddled together like Macbeth’s prophetic witches, before dispersing to tell the tale of how the current patriarchy came to be. So the beautiful vocals are abruptly switched for a mic which transforms voices into some kind of other worldly chipmunk and the three take turns to assure us that they know everything before proceeding to tell us everything they know. The tale they tell is engaging and funny, boasting a well written script from leads Greenland and Goalen to kick things off and from there we move into the narrative of two brothers, Dan and John – clarified only by the names and the demeanours. They later don boxer shorts, managing to demonstrate that topless women can convince us to ignore bare breasts on show when playing men. The nudity mentioned in the blurb features heavily in the show, with the cast in various states of undress as they manically or gracefully dance – impressing with their strength and forcing laughter from us as they purposely capture the free jiggling of the unclothed female with striking choreography. One particularly effective moment of exposure is the positioning of the nude, with one actor playing the sculptor and the other the model, manipulated into recognisable visions of masculinity and femininity which transformed both face and body as a depiction of power and manipulation.
At intervals, the exchanges between the men are interrupted by song and dance. Don’t be fooled by that flippant initial description though, because the song and dance featured in Two Man Show are mind bogglingly energetic and shift between graceful ballet to modern and tribal dancing. Amidst these chaotic sights and sounds offered by the heavily present musical interludes, scenes are played out between the two brothers struggling to navigate a trying time in their lives while juggling their precarious relationship with each other, as well as others in their lives. The pair are a vehicle to display those stereotypical notions of masculinity; emotionally removed, physically competitive and speaking at crossed purposes while trying to appear uncaring. Like the castrated bulls described in the opening monologues, the pair are emotionally neutored to make them more capable of living life as a man in a world where they apparently have all the power, even when they feel powerless in the face of immediate circumstances. There are hints at complexity in the way one of the pair does a 180 on a big recent decison and invites laughter as he encourages his brother to ask for details while feigning relutance to tell.
But it isn’t until the performance begins to head towards blackout that the value of their inclusion in the show is revealed. Easy target John won’t go back in his box and becomes a part of Abbi, who proceeds to deliver a shatteringly brilliant tirade about ‘man-woman’; the female considered masculine and fake if she is forceful and rejects the desired features of a woman. The tirade is fantastically written and marks a clear high point of the piece as it eviscerates the double standards of what makes a man manly and a woman an an unnatural fake. Once the revelation is out on the table, the performance begins to take a new shape in restrospect as we suddenly begin to see more connections between the montage moments. Some of the content seems to remain as an in-joke of the cast though, as if they just wanted to see what they could get away with doing, but regardless, it’s an impressive work of irreverent psychoanalytical anarchy.
Helen in turn provides justification for the more stereotypical woman, who wants to wear pink and feel protected by a big strong male – there’s a heavy suggestion of sarcasm during this monologue though, so like much of this show, they seem to want you to draw your own conclusions about pretty much everything. Another ambiguous aspect is the argument about language being a tool of the patriarchy. The altercation seems to offer up concepts of language and communication for scrutiny; notions of words cannot be shared by all as we interpret language through life experience. As language is therefore at times insufficient to communicate a person’s thoughts, feelings and opinions, dance and song can provide wordless meaning – particularly for those feeling silenced. There’s truth hibernating in Helen’s points, but Abbi offers the voice of audience members like myself, who can’t take such convoluted notions of oppression without a considerable pinch of salt – she calls into question the chaotic combination of elements across the piece and demands ‘what’s the point?’ Having the pair land on either side of an interesting idea about language and autonomy is great – I’m just unsure about the intentions in terms of the message they seek to deliver – and so we’re back again to this idea that everything and nothing might matter on this merry-go-round of madcap talent.
For me, it’s all well and good to have the cast merge art forms and cross the line between fiction and reality to explore ideas of what it is to be male or female, but so many elements intertwining makes the show hard work to navigate at times. Don’t get me wrong, it’s never less than captivating and it does entertain with its merging of art forms, but the the ideas felt vague to me despite the evident talent and sparkling strengths – perhaps I’m just not high brow enough for such wordless art complimenting naturalistic moments of domestic friction! While the final scenes can declare themselves to give method to the sheer madness preceding it, Two Man Show remains a concoction of the weird and the wonderful which raises more questions than it answers and sends the brain into overdrive with its structural salsa dancing. For now, that’s my opinion – but I’m content with the knowledge that I may have to revise this because I suddenly have a Two Part Brain currently arm wrestling over all this. Should you see it? If you want to think hard and be amazed, absolutely. If you only see one show like this in your life, make it this one – it’s like a firecracker in a glass ceilinged spacecraft.
You can catch Two Man Show at West Yorkshire Playhouse (tickets here) until 22nd September and on tour thereafter.