1 October 2019.
Contact Theatre, Manchester at STUN Studios.
What does success look like? Buying a house? Getting married? Having a baby? Contact Young Company’s new show Baby Fever grew out of an exploration of the value and relevance of those traditional milestones for a younger generation. How healthy are they as goals to structure your life around? The answer unsurprisingly seems to be not very.
Although the show’s title alludes to an obsession with one of those traditional indicators of adulthood, the work itself has travelled some distance since the company’s initial discussions, and you’d be hard-pressed to glean its origins from the resulting performance.
What has emerged is something with a slightly different, more subtle, focus, and it speaks of a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and alienation. ‘What is the value of life?‘ is the key theme of this year’s SICK! Festival (of which the show is a part), and the young company ask that question within the context of a world in which they no longer have any trust.
Developed in collaboration with Amsterdam’s Theater DEGASTEN, this is a story in three chapters, each with its own style. Chapter One is the most direct, comprising a sequence of individual monologues. Delivered to the audience, who are standing in the middle of the performance area, by individual performers gazing out from atop a series of benches that surround the perimeter. Their words testify to feelings of anger, disappointment, pessimism and fear, but beneath it all, there is a simmering sense of mistrust bordering at times on paranoia.
Feelings of powerless and exclusion (especially over recent political votes), and despair in the face of a climate emergency and mass species extinction are powerfully expressed, but familiar. What’s more surprising is how feelings of mistrust have shaped their perspectives on so much of the world around them. One monologue focuses on frustration with the bureaucracy of healthcare, its lack of focus on the individual and an obsession with pharmaceutical solutions, resulting in a sense of total disconnect with ‘your beloved NHS‘. Even a seemingly simple act such as drinking water is viewed through multi-layered narratives of exploitation, commodification and colonisation.
Their perspectives are knotty, sceptical, and dispiriting, and while the transparent sheeting we are stood upon may be there to protect the surface beneath, it also feels disorientating, as if we are paddling in a sea of polluting plastic. Just above our heads, the lights are big, and bright, and unforgiving, and the room is uncomfortably hot. Where do we go from here?
After all those words, ideas and thoughts, the performers fall silent. Some sort of order seems to be restored with the audience asked to sit on the benches and the company spread out across the stage. Yet, the messaging is more abstract. The floor is now covered in paper. Eyes firmly shut, the performers move slowly around the space, the only sound is from the cautious shuffling of their bare feet. Sometimes there is music, sometimes not, occasionally they coordinate their breathing.
It’s a beautiful sequence, hypnotic even. As they move around, the performers are careful of one another, gentle and tentative when they make contact. Even apart, and unable to see, their movements subtly mirror each other, and ripple around the space. Gradually they cluster together, and relax, comfortable in each others company. As the time comes to open their eyes, it takes on the air of a ritual. Standing tall, the performers symbolically brush down their bodies as if they have shed a layer of skin, swept away bad energy.
Chapter Two concludes within its allotted time. I know this because we’re told how long each section will last before it begins. Simple instructions are given and a few words said about what will be happening, nothing excessive, just a brief reminder that there is structure and form. There’s a similar sparseness to the staging, a square performance area with plastic flooring rolled away to reveal a layer of paper underneath, and then strips of carpet laid down on top of that for Chapter Three. It’s uncluttered, with simple lines – a space for clarity.
DJ Lovesupreme’s textured soundscape is the show’s only luxury item, sensitively mixing in distant refrains, sudden disembodied voices, insistent beats, and at one point a dreamy intervention from Nina Simone.
That final chapter… Well, there will be many, many different versions. Each performer creates a space for themselves and invites an audience member to join them in it. The stage becomes a hive of interactions – some requiring quiet observation, others involving dialogue. There is shouting, smiling, accounts of obsessive behaviours, unfinished sentences, and what seems like an exorcism – and there is more – a variety of experiences, rich with possibilities.
However you choose to view the three chapters, they depict a journey. Positions shift – the young company are initially on the outside looking in, then take ownership of the space, and finally invite the audience back in to share the space on their terms. It becomes more confident artistically, evolving from reading words aloud, through collective movement, to one-on-one interactive performance. It’s a show that wears its inner workings on its sleeve, as if the process of development has itself been in some way therapeutic. There’s a sense of moving on – from feeling isolated, to exploring trust, and then making a connection with others – no longer stuck, but busy, active.
Baby Fever is admirably ambitious, using spoken word as a starting point rather than clinging to it as a lot of work with young performers is often inclined to. That willingness to experiment, delivers a genuinely engaging theatrical experience, something that fascinatingly shifts shape while maintaining a clear and focused direction of travel.
In keeping with the show’s elegant and unshowy aesthetic, there’s no big finish, no fireworks or magic formula. Just some words from Kid Cudi, a hopeful epilogue.
“I’m living my life as if I got powers, And tonight I feel immortal“.