Dressed sharply in shining suits, Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Dr Tom ‘Tom Payne’ Payne wait behind the curtain for the show to start. The transparent curtain. Manderson-Galvin plays us a bit of harmonica so we know it’s there, and not surprised by it during the show. It’s a clever deconstruction of theatrical conventions, but once the show starts, everyone (including the performers) struggles to keep up with it.
The show is a huge dose of the willfully obtuse. Its blurb reads that it tackles environmental issues and human agency, but you wouldn’t know that for a good while because the rapid-fire surreal script just gets lost in the first 20 minutes. This is due to the constant jazz played, mumbled delivery, and disjointedness between lines. Lines are so different in content and context from each other that getting a hold on any train of thought is almost impossible. And you get the sense that it’s pretty hard going for the performers as well, as they’re wearing headphones with the script playing, and they have to keep up with that, as well as keep the headphones on.
It eventually settles down into an interview with a man telling us how he crashed a plane in the Arctic, and how he survived the cold and a bear. It’s absorbing in parts, and quite funny. Of course, this story is broken up into a million different tangents, such as how they want to make a TV show that causes inappropriate erections, taking photos with the audience, or trying to sell some of Payne’s wife’s lino prints. My favourite was a segment on what to do if you’re embarrassed that you’ve crashed in the Arctic, and don’t want to put the rescuers to too much trouble. This all deals with the aforementioned agency, and a lot of it is interesting, but so much gets lost in purposely poor delivery and production values that you just want to know more about the bear.
But it’s meant to be frustrating to watch. The performance seems like two friends who kept egging each other on into higher and higher tangents until only they understand it. They don’t forget the audience in the writing process, this is them purposely confusing the audience, dissecting the conventions of theatre and then beating some life back into it. But if the beginning had been a bit slower and clearer, I’m sure the rest of the show would be more effective, because they are strong, if clumsy, performers. I was confused, lost, amused and slightly depressed, but never bored.
Its main problem is that it doesn’t really propose much beyond our discomfort. Scene changes are accompanied by the same long tune, and when you can see all they are doing through the transparent curtain is having a quick drink then waiting for the music to stop, it’s easy to be dissatisfied. Plenty of shock boxes are ticked: insulting the audience, making them hold ice, nudity, the Holocaust, screaming, staring eyes. They dare the audience to walk out at some points, and looking round you could see a good few were considering it.
Baby’s a brave show. The performers are charming and unsettling and it may very well have been too obtuse in it’s humour for me, but it’s too fast with anything it’s trying to say to have any impact. I’m not sure of how much of it is on purpose, and how much of what’s wrong is just wrong. I had a very good time. But it’s not a very good show. But I’d still see it again.