@ The Old Fire Station
This month Sabotage had the chance to catch two upcoming spoken word shows by two of Oxford’s foremost poetic talents. Both were excellently feminist and political, touching on social issues that effect pretty much all women (and many men, for that matter), and both explored their chosen themes with depth and insight. Here’s what Sabotage thought.
This piece took the form of a full hour long poem, exploring the life of Evie (a relatable and beleaguered everywoman, hence the name) in a version of reality called the Calorie Galaxy.
Tina’s language expertly captures the viciousness of policing peoples’ weight (both internally and externally) so perceptively that it should possibly come with a trigger warning (as many blogs relating to calorie counting do). Indeed, the language is gorgeous throughout, especially in its descriptions of characters, while the language used to describe food throughout is alternately sumptuous (about cupcakes) and depressing (about celery). Only the occasional line falls flat and undercuts the effectiveness of the writing, such as ‘[you] feel guilty as a rapist if you eat a single biscuit’, which seems to make an unnecessary joke of a serious issue for a cheap payoff.
Tina’s performance is also good, whether as too-good-to-be-true Perfectionetta (Evie’s sister) with her tone all clipped and fragile; or in her Aunt Gloria’s impassioned eulogy to the messiness of life; and always as the harassed Evie: hounded on all sides by voices telling her how to live her life. Tina’s tone and delivery convey all this with aplomb, and her performance of the claustrophobic vaudeville of Perfectionetta’s TV-show towards the end is especially good (in a terror-inducing way). My only criticism would be that occasionally this slips and the characters end up sounding a bit too similar.
It’s full of fantastic world-building in the best traditions of speculative fiction and sci-fi. Tina evokes a world that is decidedly different, where the differences are both beautifully drawn and serve to expertly highlight issues within our own world. This is a world where every citizen must weight themselves daily (and are reminded by implants), where the inhabitants’ wages (‘you are 10,000 calories overdrawn’) and importance in society is determined by their weight and image. It’s a world where people are obsessed with food to the point that it is fetishised, cupcakes created by ‘sugarcane wizards … and warlocks of extreme pastry’ and admired as art, and you can get talking diet-books. Sedeholm uses the device of the Calorie Galaxy as a distancing effect to hold up a mirror to our own society’s views on food, weight, beauty and how insidiously people’s attitudes towards those things can be distorted by media and societal expectations.
Where the show falls down is that it seems almost trapped in the very judgemental attitudes it is so effectively railing against. There are references to models having eyes that ‘bely a certain emptiness’, while Perfectionetta is constantly criticised (both implicitly and explicitly) for embracing the values of the Calorie Galaxy. And while, of course, her attitudes towards weight/image are unhealthy (having a tummy tuck as part of her c-section, needing drugs to maintain her lifestyle of glamour and dieting), the show might seem less at odds with itself if it addressed how the society of the Calorie Galaxy makes its inhabitants judgmental and unpleasant, rather than judging them for being so. It seems that the only way Tina could advocate a balanced attitude towards food (expressed in Gloria’s sage advice of ‘eat when you’re a bit hungry and stop when you’re a bit full’) is by decrying other characters’ choices as bad, trading one prescriptive overbearing outlook for another (albeit a much healthier one).
Ultimately, this is a rare find: a show that is both entertaining and important; attitudes towards food/weight/image contribute massively towards many peoples’ unhappiness, and it’s great to see a show tackling this. But while it brilliantly shows the importance of making your own life choices (as Gloria’s ace final speech points out), it fails on its own terms by judging people who make another choice (e.g. anyone who might consider dieting or cosmetic surgery).
The language, performance and world building have such quality that this could be easily a 4-star show. However, the way the writing seems to undercut its own point means I must regretfully award:
Star Rating: 3/5
I had seen an earlier version of this at The Dogstar, and even then was amazed by how polished the show seemed to be. Ayrton’s show plays with lyrical storytelling, with a discussion of the origin of fairy tales wrapped in music. With each set piece, she introduces the concepts with a brief, personable precis that doesn’t bog the poems down but instead gives enough context for them to shine.
In case any of you were planning to take your children to see this (though why you’d want to make them cry, I can only imagine), it’s not really a children’s show; the themes are universal in those who have lived a little. Her ‘Let me be Lost’ is a nice take on modern life and the roles given to us and the ones we struggle to live up to, especially as women (“herbal tea and tequila.. both taste of defeat”). In framing it as a semi-confession that is half admitted lest they give it away “in their sleep” works well: the desire to sometimes be carried can be tempting. ‘Bonfire Juice’ is another one that deals with modern reality, with the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong stirring memories of a past relationship and a holiday in the country, with Agas and whiskey once the milk’s run out. The repeated “do you remember…” keeps to the theme that stories are highly personal, fragile things to be passed down.
With the introduction of printing presses and an emerging cultural hegemony, stories become authored, mainly by white, Western men. With a rendition of Anderson’s The Shepherdess and the Sweep, Ayrton does discuss the patriarchy’s lack of decent roles for women or respect for their agency, but not in a didactic way that might detract from the flow of the show.
Ayrton has a beautiful singing voice, and it’s used well: Disney’s ‘Trust in Me’, becomes a surprisingly sultry, quiet coercion that you’d willingly give into. Similarly, my favourite piece, ‘The Nightingale’, has a really lovely sung refrain breaking up the story of a woman who falls in love with a knight other than her husband, spending the nights on adjacent balconies talking until they are caught, with violent consequences. She has a good voice, clear and emotive, well suited to her medium.
A cautionary tale for our time, ‘Tarquin’ learns not to be pedantic and correct demons, even if they think Battersea Park is the Ark they, the “frozen chosen” were to protect. The story is fluidly told, with a haunting melody played to complement the two voices in a childlike standoff.
She finishes with two stories: one written to be drafts of the most “perfect, right on, brilliant, hilarious story ever”, of a girl who makes it rain when she’s told she can’t do something, a delightful dragon, a slightly useless prince, and a typical fairy-tale feudal system. The story is tongue and cheek and very entertaining. To close, a piece crowd-sourced by the audience doing an exquisite corpse style version – which has been a delight every time I’ve seen it done.
The show is fabulous, with a strong narrative running through it and compelling set pieces. If you’re interested in stories and the power of narrative, then this is a must see.
Star Rating: 5/5