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Small Talk
Published on Sunday, 13 May 2012

4 stars

The Nightingale (venue website)
Dance and Physical Theatre
10 May, 7:00pm-8:00pm; 11, 13-14 May, 8:30pm-9:30pm; 12 May, 4:30pm-5:30pm, 8:30pm-9:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.

The defining idea of Small Talk is remarkably simple, yet remarkably powerful too.  Through headphones, performer Antonia Grove listens to a Hollywood actress’s words – and repeats, verbatim but with her own intonation, the monologue in her ears.  She dances, too, transforming her body at the same time as her voice, and she sometimes sings along with music that only she can hear.  All the while, we’re listening to a separate soundscape… which complements (or occasionally contradicts) the spoken words.

But that dry description really doesn’t capture the essence of this unusual work, filled with juxtapositions and contrasts by chorographer Wendy Houstoun.  Often, there’s a striking and meaningful mismatch between the words and the dance.  Occasionally, there’s a visual pun.  And sometimes, there’s a sense of rebuke for the original speaker – a reference to how vacuous their showbiz statements really are.  Was that the intent, I wonder, or is it a connection I’ve made in my own mind?

There are also more straightforward modern dance pieces, which – though I’m hardly an expert in this area – I admired a great deal.  The first pictures a girl in a club, shedding her inhibitions but not entirely losing her elegance, before ultimately falling into an alcohol-fuelled trance.  And there’s a second piece, which I have to admit I just didn’t “get”… but, never mind, I still enjoyed watching the tumultuous, sharply-defined movement.

The vignettes were both witty and striking; but I struggled to link them together as a whole.  I picked up a hint of a deeper theme – something about becoming a different person, and being careful what you wish for – but the real insights eluded me.  When it came to the oddly beautiful sung finale, I had a satisfying sense of completion… but I wasn’t sure exactly whose story was coming to a close.

My main concern is that this piece is inherently quite difficult to approach, and some directorial decisions have made it even less accessible.  The ostentatiously casual opening (wandering onto the stage, chatting with the tech guy) did little to set me at ease, and the lackadaisical conclusion was disconcerting too, even though it eventually turns into one of the most inspired endings I’ve seen for years.  The meditative pauses between early pieces create yet more sense of distance… and there is, I’m afraid, that ultimate cliché of the avant-garde, a clown’s nose.

But it would be a pity if these details turn anyone off – because this is actually a show that’s easy to get into, and easy to enjoy.  Perhaps, now I think about it, I was trying too hard.  Perhaps there’s no need to search for a deeper message; perhaps the contradictions have all the meaning we need.  As the programme notes disarmingly ask: who knows?

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.