Visiting friends in darkest North East Somerset at the weekend, we all went into Bath on Saturday afternoon to experience the Christmas Market and the lolz. We didn’t discover the lesser-spotted Rees-Mogg, but we did find the Ustinov Studio, tucked at the back of the Theatre Royal. I haven’t been to the Theatre Royal Bath since October 1976 when I accompanied the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to a performance of the dubious and long-forgotten sex comedy, The Earl and The Pussycat, starring Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray. If you are old enough to remember Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, then I’m sure you can just imagine quite how on point that sex comedy was.
And so it was that five of us took our seats for the 1 hour 40 minutes, no interval (sigh) performance of ¡Showmanism!, a transubstantial pageant, according to the programme, whatever that might mean. Curated, devised and performed by Dickie Beau, inspired by conversations with Rupert Christiansen. Devised, performed and inspired, I understand; but curated, in terms of a theatrical performance, is a new one on me. I just wondered if it was beginning to feel a little big for its boots even before it started, but let’s consider all the good aspects first.
You’ve got to hand it to Monsieur Beau; his is a performance unlike any other you’re likely to have seen. He lip-synchs to a series of recordings with famous (and some not quite so famous) characters from the theatre world, and technically he’s unsurpassable. The only other time I’ve seen lip-synching on stage was by drag artist Karen from Finance at the Edinburgh Fringe, but Our Dickie knocks Our Karen into a cocked hat. It’s a quite extraordinary feat. Every nuance, every hesitation on the part of the original interview, every laugh, every verbal tic is captured immaculately and precisely in a stunning tour-de-force of a performance. Visually, too, there’s a lot for the eyes to feast on. Beautiful, evocative lighting from Marty Langthorne creates its own narrative as it leads the audience to concentrate on individual items within Justin Nardella’s busy but sensible set. A shovel, a spaceman’s helmet, Yorick’s skull and a buried sword are just some of the random items that help play a part in the show.
But it’s this very randomness that eventually starts to get on your nerves (well, it got on mine). There didn’t seem much to connect the reminiscences of Sir Ian McKellen and Spitting Image’s Steve Nallon, let alone all the other vocal conversational recordings, with why Mr Beau was standing there, on the stage of the Ustinov Studio, in his white undies, virtually regurgitating the words of others. There’s no doubt it’s very clever, but, basically, and I make no apologies for this, I didn’t really get it.
To be honest, there was a clue before the show started that it might be more about style than substance. The upside down exclamation mark that starts the show’s title, ¡Showmanism!, is primarily used as a grammatical convention in Spanish. This, however, isn’t a Spanish show. There aren’t even any Spaniards in the recordings. I sense that the upside down exclamation mark is there to make the title stand out; to attract our attention and signify that this show is a bit ¡different! or ¡quirky! but without any real explanation as to why. It looks, sounds, feels superb; but delve down into the words you’re hearing, and I don’t think there’s very much there to keep you entertained for over an hour and half. Sure, there were some diverting passages, and some elements relating to the creative process itself, which is often a treasure trove of delight. But I couldn’t help but feel that the discussions themselves were somewhat small scale, and not overly revealing.
For all its attack, I got rather bored at times, which is one of the cardinal sins of theatre. However, I do value the effort behind a brave failure and there’s no question that it’s an original piece of experimental theatre, which must be applauded. I reckon it split the audience 50:50 between those who found it thrilling and exciting and those who found it pretentious and tedious; and to be fair, the truth is probably somewhere between the two. But Mr Beau is one helluva performer, and no mistake.
Production photos by Sarah Ainslie