Dark scenes at the anti-cabaret

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“I will die at the end,” says the frock-coated compere conversationally. “Any questions?” Dead silence, which deepens to tetanised stillness as this anti-cabaret progresses in unsettling leaps and bounds. Nothing is as it seems. Lurex curtains sparkle as 57 varieties of human distress are laid bare. The compere turns out to have been dead all along.

This is not the first time that Joel Pommerat, who writes and directs, has tweaked conventions in his experimental brand of socially engaged theatre. This show has strong similarities with his recent productions Les Marchands and Cet Enfant, for which he scooped major awards: no set characters or protagonists, no narrative or dialogue, extreme mimimalism, the use of crafted monologues that draw us into other people’s suffering or desolation without a whiff of sentimentality.

What’s different is the games Pommerat plays with form. He serves up the visual wallpaper of Saturday night TV, swapping his beloved sombre monochrome for flashy colour spotlights. The trappings prepare us for fake intimacy and easy gratification. But as soon as the performers start their “turns”, a gulf between visual expectations and the subversive power of the spoken word suddenly gapes wide. Existential doubt unfurls to cabaret muzak. A sexy singer fondling the microphone looks the part till she opens her mouth to plead for “an idea to make me dream” and the return of those whose job it is to produce ideas for everyone else. Speech becomes mime, her contorted face freezes but the voice continues to howl in voice-over, “I want my future!”

Pommerat and his excellent team of actors from the Louis Brouillard company evoke a macabre picture of an atomised society. Here, family members are like ships that pass in the night and self-sacrifice in the name of (over)work is the new form of heroism. He manages to tread the difficult dividing line between recognisable polemic and more open-ended allusion that sets imaginations churning. Eric Soyer’s clever design and lighting provide critical discipline, separating the vignettes with crisp black-outs, and playing tricks with our eyes as old and young versions of the same woman alternate on stage.

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