[Review:] EXCEPTIONAL PROMISE, Bush Studio Theatre, London.

Before writing this review, I shall note that this performance is one of a short series where its host and its outcome change every night. Therefore, this review, considering the performance of 13th June 2019, cannot speak conclusively of the series in its entirety but only of its structural and performative specificities.

The guest host of this night, Brian Lobel, was superb; his comedic timing was perfect, and his energy was boundless. Lobel definitely made this a night to remember and added flavour and vitality to the performance. However, his stumbling over the text became quite frequent, and the excuse, “I’m just so excited”, became rather overused and aggravating over time. Similarly, the energy of the performance was enabled to drop at various times due to his inaction; for instance, the long, vapid silences as he writes icons down on a whiteboard for contestants to guess. Moments like these should have been amped with suspenseful/quirky music to keep the energy going or something of that nature.

As for the other performers, Emily Aboud, Bisola Alabi and Salome Wagaine, who were also the creatives behind Exceptional Promise, I felt that more opportunities to show and exude personality should have been provided, particularly given that their personalities are the main dictators of the result of the performance where audience members must choose their favourite contestant. Nothing particularly worth mentioning stood out about these performers, but all were sufficiently energised and engaged with the content and material of the performance well, especially Emily Aboud.

This performance aimed to depict the lack of security non-British citizens face daily in Britain when seeking and ascertaining residence in this country. This aim was not by any means successful. Using the format of a gameshow to express poignant sociopolitical issues is an intriguing and positively estranging premise, enabling spectators to view a hard-hitting subject through self-reflective, rose-tinted colonialist eyes. By normalising, naturalising and glorifying society’s dark ills, spectators are permitted to recognise the corruption behind and the significance and pertinence of these hard-hitting issues. In this performance, however, these issues featured very little, which is odd given their supposed importance. I believe that this performance suffered from a vast lack of research, minimising the sociopolitical voice which so apparently forges and perforates the performance’s subject matter, and accentuating a pleasing and harmless gameshow. The performance, though enjoyable, hence felt rather fruitless and did the opposite to what it intended to do; its upbeat tone enabled the pressing issues to pass subtly past identification and to figure, instead of as the heart and the message of the performance, as an undertone or one of just many underlying sub-themes. The issue at hand became, instead, a means to an end of comedy and entertainment…

A mere mentioning of ‘Article 21’ or how bad Lunar House is was not enough to convey any political aims. To me, this just seemed as though yet another reflection of the predominant theme of housing — and housing alone. Other themes of inequality were used in a similar way, most notably in Emily’s “plea” where she includes her homosexuality as a reason for the audience to vote for her, claiming that it is unsafe for her to live in other countries as a homosexual. This is, yet again, a surefire way to both discredit and overplay real social issues and should be carefully reconsidered. It is most regressive to use one’s homosexuality to gain pity or to produce comedy, as in this performance.

This imbalance of clarity and matter was not only reflected in synopses and descriptions of the performance but also in the set which was rather simple in its topography and design. Not only did the overly ostentatious drapes of silver tinsel not cohere visually with the golden ladders and houses, the cottonwool clouds and the black flat-screen TV, but the buzzers were not connected well at all to the tech and often made for awkward pauses where performers either doubted themselves or kept pressing them in the hopes a sound would arise. This dropped the energy quite regularly and minimised the effect of that all-pervasive gameshow style. The rent bench, though obviously an area for the eliminated, was introduced very weakly and seemed incoherent with the performance. Contestants could have simply left the performance space altogether, and the effect would have been exactly the same. The reasons for which contestants remained on stage — and conferred with the host at random intervals — was perplexing to me. I should also probably note that keeping the “property ladder” and the “dream house” so close to the lighting, especially being made with cotton wool, seems like quite a fire hazard to me, though I do not wish to discredit the risk assessments done for this performance.

On the topic of tech, the technical aspects were overly complex and again rather fallible in their coherence. The different-colour spots on the contestants was overkill and unnecessary but also rather invisible given the natural wash on the stage. Towards the end of the performance, just after “The Plea”, these were the only lights on stage, and their sombre intensity made it very difficult to see the performers. Sound cues were few and far between until the middle-end of the performance where they were used repeatedly and emphatically. This lack of consistency amplified the absence of texture in this performance. As previously noted, tech rarely matched up with buzzers, dialogue and other elements of this performance. Especially with improvisational work, unless precision and timekeeping is perfect, it is imperative — and much more effective — that all tech cues be minimal. Often, tech should be used solely to accentuate existing elements of the performance or of the dramatic text, and rarely to add its own texture and energy to these, both for the performance’s and the tech operator’s benefit.

The role and function of audience participation in this performance should be strictly reconsidered. Whilst Lobel’s constant interaction with audience members — especially one in particular to whom he offered a drink of champagne — invited audience participation distinctly and effectively, it is imperative to have control over one’s audience, to keep them tame but also to indicate their role emphatically. There were many moments during the performance where spectators shouted out when they were not supposed or where they quite boldly stated their disapproval or confusion with an element of the performance — which, it should be noted, happened increasingly throughout. A threat to subtract points if audience members call out the answers is not enough to elucidate their exact role. Just how ineffective and unclear this participation was was demonstrated in moments, particularly towards the end, where audience votes and opinions dictated the outcome of the performance. These moments were clamorous and loud, and for a performance seemingly depending on audience vote, a more effective way to ascertain the majority’s leanings should be devised. The constant audience interaction also subtracted severely from the action and momentum of the performance regularly.

I shall end this review on a severe note. To encourage themes of animal abuse or extermination of creatures is vile, revolting and unethical. The structure of the specific round wherein contestants are to recount a horror story at a previous address and for which I imagine that the so-called improvisation has been pre-planned, quite naturally implies a lean towards such themes, as accentuated in the end of the performance where pest control is offered to the final losing contestant and by the host’s coercing the audience members to contribute similar stories. This structure and its implications should be sharply reconsidered, and hosts should be better briefed on what themes are acceptable and how far they can stray off of the script. It is not effective, entertaining or challenging to speak of such matters without thorough subversion, satire or self-referential correction. It is not the job of theatre to regress sociopolitical matters and ideologies or to promote immoral and negative anthropocentric activity but to challenge, to critique, to rectify and to ameliorate society’s ills.

“A very inadequate and incomplete performance failing to meet its objectives or to find its feet, however comical it may be.”

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