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paradise dreaming - a city fairytale, by hamfisted - chamberlain square 23/06/2006

simon gray - 2006-06-23, 23:09:18

it's difficult to know where to start with this performance; billed as it was as 'a contemporary performance of shakespeare's a midsummer night's dream', celebrating the wedding of 'helen' and 'dominic'. 

certainly when one arrived at chamberlain square to pick up your ticket (a buttonhole plastic flower) you were given the impression of something promising - if you had seen the setting up of the space in paradise gardens down in front of the conservatoire, you would have seen the potential for something magical. the staging around the chamberlain square fountain was less impressive - but that's ok, because most outdoor performances of amnd i've seen have been minimally staged for the first half; it's all part of that suspension of disbelief, innit? 

in the warm-up before the performance was scheduled to start at 8:30 a number of schoolchildren came in to the space, showing off their circus skills with diabolo, clubs, and unicycle, and did a show comparable with some of my older, hippy, friends. nearer the time a few members of the company started circulating, working to get the audience into our character as wedding guests ("so how do you know the groom, then?"). as a warmup, it was quite good. 

unfortunately, things started to go downhill before the performance proper had even started... 

at around 8:15 the music, by composer and musical director ian chapman, started coming through the pair of speakers either side of the stage. by 8:30, after i'd heard the same four bars of not-particularly-well-executed guitar riff go over and over and over and over again i was losing my initial good mood about the production. 

suddenly, something happenned - we heard the strains of the wedding march start up, and eventually looked behind to see a white rolls royce deliver the bride and groom to us. the wedding party promenaded to the stage, with an enormous train behind the bride's dress which, over the course of getting on for ten minutes (with no dialogue, no other apparent visual action, and four bars of a new incessant riff blasting out of the speakers) was slowly spread out as being the covering for the stage. it was an amusing idea, spoiled by being drawn out like home-made toffee. 

for another five minutes or so (again with no dialogue, action, and the same four bars repeated over & over) the photographer (graeme rose) spent time arranging the wedding party into their photograph. eventually the deed was done, and he revealed himself in a seemingly improvised speech to be puck (or should that have been pcuk in a contemporary setting?), set on making a merry night of mischief. he threw a handful of fairy dust over the father (greg hobbs) of the bride, prompting a change of riff to yet another repeated four bars sounding like a year 7 music class's interpretation of 'spooky' and causing the father to embarrass himself with his improv speech. that out of the way, some more fairy dust was thrown over the mother (sandra hall) of the groom, with the same effect. the bride (rachel priest), suitably upset by the affair, ran off in tears and we were treated to the earlier four bar riff for a while. the groom (paul edwards) looked confused and shouted out "has anybody seen my wife?". it was difficult to resist the temptation to reply "behind you". 

we were then invited, according to the colours of our buttonholes, to follow the flags of the bride and groom down into paradise gardens - one down the spiral staircase in front of the library, the other down the steps outside the conservatoire.

there was no apparent dramatic justification for this, but granted it was quite a clever device to shepherd a large number of people into a smaller space as quickly & efficiently as possible. 

now i had hoped that after this half an hour of scene setting the action would pick up fairly swiftly and we might then get on with the actual play. hope, as they say, springs eternal, and instead there was over ten minutes of watching some musicians, led by a vicar on stilts, parade around and around and around and around the garden doing what i think might have been a year 8's interpretation of 'native american chant'. 

by 9:15, with still nothing having happenned and no sign anything was going to happen in the near future, i'm afraid we decided to cut our losses and go home; on the way down into the gardens we bumped into a friend who had seen the production the night before coming out of the conservatoire, who informed us the second half was even more tediously drawn out than the first. we left wondering whether it was supposed to have been a performance with a defined start and finish, or whether really it was supposed to be an installation which you wander around for five or ten minutes, think "that's very nice", and then go off to the pub. 

birmingham alive! does actually have an editorial policy on bad reviews; we're much less likely to write and publish a bad one than a good one, working on the basis that ultimately they're up there doing it and we're sitting comfortably in the audience risking nothing. the circumstances for publishing a bad review basically are either 'has this poor performance actually taken away the opportunity for somebody else to have done something much better', or 'have people been ripped off by paying good money for rubbish'. 

now, the audience didn't have to pay anything, but the production itself clearly cost a lot of money - certainly thousands. this was money provided by sponsors and out of the public purse, money which could have been spent on some real quality community performing arts work, money which could have been spent on a really good outdoor performance bringing shakespeare to the modern audience. so much obvious potential ended up being so much down the drain. 

according to the back of the programme: "hamfisted! is a birmingham based, experimental arts company that produces live theatre, interactive interventions and visual arts projects, in conventional and unconventional spaces, in professional and community contexts, all with the aim of putting smiles on people's faces". i've seen some excellent community arts work and participated in some not-so-good professional work, but at the end of the day this performance had to be judged on the merits of what was presented - of which there were few. 

'experimental' should not be a synonym for 'unprepared'; 'improvised' should not be a synonym for 'unrehearsed', and 'community' should not be a synonym for 'mediocre'. the point of experimental arts and improvisation is that you spend time honing your craft and skills in smaller-scale workshop environments, and then when you know you can pull off experiments which will work you present to the wider public. when the experiment should obviously never have left the workshop, it gives the whole genre a bad name. i hope the result of this production is not that audiences and funders are put off experimental arts for a long time.

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