If Only…! – Reviewed

Taking place on the  anniversary of the Bluecoat’s reopening, C James Fagan reflects on the most recent If Only…!

Last weekend saw the fifth anniversary of the reopening of the Bluecoat which, fact fans, is the wooden anniversary. To mark five years of the rebooted Bluecoat the If Only…! crew have elected to celebrate by putting on a series of performances and interventions. Though when I arrive at the appointed time there seems very little of what you’d call a celebratory atmosphere.

After a quick glance at a timetable and a chat with one of the information assistants it seems I’m an hour early, and as there’s very little happening, I kill time. I find myself outside the performance space, there aren’t many people about and little indication that there’s something going on other than another timetable pinned to the wall, starkly announcing, ‘1pm: Up and Down’. Soon, we determined few are let in; it’s near black inside, I fumble around eventually finding a chair, noticing in the darkness that there are three bodies in the middle of the space.

“Beginning to spin, the balloons respond to centrifugal forces”

Performers are dressed in lab coats and tied to balloons, the music starts and they began to roll across the floor, in a manner evoking weightlessness. The trio stands, centring themselves amongst bouncing balloons. Beginning to spin, the balloons respond to centrifugal forces. This action, combined with the lab coats, suggests some kind of experiment. The piece has an odd delicacy, but feels very slight and brief; I discover later that this is a piece in development. The trio leave the stage and we’re left, quite literally, in the dark.

It feels like a very cautious start to the day; I’m now kind of hovering around The Bluecoat’s hub space, trying to figure out what happens next. A good part of this day may be spent waiting – giving me time to write this and construct mental graphs regarding time spent waiting against time watching performances. I notice Mandy Romero (an If Only…! regular) has arrived and is setting up a table. Looking around to see if I’m missing out on any impromptu performances, I find I’m not.

I head over to Romero’s table, where she is creating a ‘Wrapping Performance’, wherein members of the public are invited to wrap instructions to be acted out later. It’s an intriguing Fluxus-esque idea, and I wonder how it will work. Then it’s back to the performance space, gathered for Mary Pearson’s Wooden Anniversary Toast; it’s a spare turnout, giving the whole thing an intimate feel. Mary delivers a suitably stilled speech, which like most of the toasts or public speeches I’ve heard, has that curious quality of saying something while trying to sidestep all those little secrets and honest feelings.

I begin to develop the sense that this day is comprised of good individual performances, followed by a lot of listless wonderings in-between. No sense of momentum, of a need to see the next performance, or to be at a certain place to see what’s going to happen. It’s back to the hub space where there is now a performer cellotaping balloons to one of the windows. What’s more unexpected is a repeat performance of Pearson’s toast, which finds its natural home in the noise of the hub.

“At this moment there is a sense of excitement, a sense of surprise”

I skip a repeat performance of Up and Down in favour of eating. Returning, I’m in time to see the pass the parcel performance, as the people sitting in the Hub are drawn into the game. As it progresses and the performers attempt to act upon the instructions held within the layers of gaudy paper, they begin to draw the attention of passers-by. At this moment there is a sense of excitement, a sense of surprise; it doesn’t last long as the game is stopped so it can carry on back up in the performance space.

While the game is suspended, improv group Leopard in my Bedroom can play. They go through the expected improv sounds: all skittish notes bounced around, along with squeaking brass. Eventually the performers appear at the edges of the space and restart their game of pass the parcel. Maybe it’s because we’re now in the more ‘official’ black box theatre space, but a sense of playfulness has been lost. There is a point where the performers seem to become fatigued by the whole process; I too have become fatigued by this game, which has been stretched beyond interest.

Eventually a climax of sorts happens. Or rather it seems to collapse, as problems arise from the attempted opening of ‘bubbles’; it’s farcical but adds an unusual sense of levity to what felt like quite a self-important half hour. Eventually bottles are opened, bubbles are blown and the piece is over. The stage is quickly cleared for another performance of Up and Down marking the end of the day.

It’s over and I’m left feeling, feeling what? I’m kind of glad – at times this felt like an endurance test. Though individuals have been engaging, as a part of this thing called an audience, I found the time spent waiting for something to happen threaten to overwhelm the almost delicate performances. Also, throughout the day, I kept wondering why this couldn’t be condensed into a couple of hours; looking back I wonder if the three performances where enough to justify the dedication of a whole afternoon.

This is more a criticism of the format than anything else. As a whole, I wasn’t sure whether this was an actual event, or a showcase of works in progress and in comparison to previous If Only’s. Sadly, there was a lack of a cohesive theme and the sense of excitement provided by their usual gathering of talents.

C James Fagan

Image courtesy Philip Jeck

Posted on 19/03/2013 by thedoublenegative