[Review:] CAMP, The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London.
I should note before starting this review that my views on this performance do not seem to reflect those of the vast majority of the audience members. Having studied a countless array of audiences, though, I do believe this is because of the mode of performance that the play alludes to and the recognisable performativity of mainstream LGBT+ culture, particularly the pervasive and liberating performativity of the letter G.
I believe this play set out to achieve a lot more than its execution permitted it to, and the biggest problem with it, as seems to be the biggest problem with a huge amount of theatre at the moment, was its style. In the play’s overture as the audience settle, the three performers, Fizz Waller (playing Mary), Camille Willhem (playing Becky) and Nicholas Marrast-Lewis (playing Felix), are scattered across the stage filling out forms on clipboards, rather mimetically at that; fast-forward to the first scene, and the characters are interacting with one another in closed dialogue about how excited/nervous/indifferent they are about participating in a camp; fast-forward a little more and they’re quizzing the audience on LGBT history; closed dialogue again; asking the audience to vogue... This play seriously needs to address the function of its audience, how performers address them and for what reasons. It would make PERFECT sense for this play to present its audience with problems and conflicts in a mimetic style of theatre, only to interrupt this sporadically, making the mode didactic, instead, to quiz the audience on issues relative to those raised in the scenes they have just watched. This does not have to be a direct “What do you think ___ should have done in this situation?” because if done seriously, that would be drab and taxing, but could be done in a more covert, indirect and, overall, clever manner. Such questions about LGBT+ history could then be relevant to the rest of the performance and its characters, rather than proliferating its own, distinctive, self-contained list.
However, these characters would then need a modal readjustment, too, for they would have to be representational rather than simulative. By this, I mean that the loveable but utterly needless aspects of these characters — e.g. Mary’s love affair with a vicar (more on that later) — should give way to a more realistic tension or issue experienced by the community, Mary’s affair being awfully hyperbolic. I do believe this was attempted in early scenes where a [pitifully dull] conflict emerges between Becky and Felix about Becky’s bisexuality. But the content needs to be a lot deeper than this if it is to inspire or be remotely progressive in any way whatsoever. “I’m bisexual. Bisexuality is a thing.” “No, it’s not. You can’t be.” This is a very fruitless discourse that doesn’t seem to take off or go anywhere.
This stimulative/representational/didactic triangle is a huge issue for this performance. It is not at all sure of itself. Is it attempting to raise awareness? Or to politicise LGBT+ issues? Is it a way of helping others through their sexuality? Is it simply a realm of escapism to encounter humorous and captivating characters? It would seem as though the performance is attempting to be all of these at once, which would be impossible to successfully achieve unless strategically and intelligently structured in a manner that presents clear problems, resolves them with its audience and then gratifies and rewards them. Perhaps this latter was the intention with presenting its audience with the gay card. There are such little Easter eggs throughout this performance which suggest to me that the play is somewhat heading in the right direction, that its intentions are there, but it needs a serious structural reconfiguration and to completely readdress its mode and style but also its objectives, desires and intentions.
I have said that the issues deliberated in this performance are rather fruitless, but I feel this is quite an understatement. Instead, they are extremely vapid in my opinion. This play has an extreme focus on sexuality yet the only sexualities addressed are the neo-traditional: heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. It confuses me that, with their frequent references to other motions in the LGBT community, such as gender fluidity, that the performers did not address any others — queerness, pansexuality and asexuality being the next most obvious. Yet, the focus was primarily on male homosexuality and female bisexuality. There was very little said about lesbianism, and what was said was disguised under Waller's idiosyncratic, melodramatic and, above all, simulative characterisation type, making it fruitless once again. In fact, women’s sexuality remains highly vague in this performance, as ironic as that is with two-thirds of the cast being female.
But then what is a “woman”? Gender and expressions of gender (other than, again, the mainstream — in this case, voguing) are not deliberated at all, either. In fact, atypical gender representations are actually quite disparaging in this play, the message in the quiz scene, in particular, being that dressing up as the opposite sex in history, regardless of sociocultural, economic, status-related, etc. issues, denotes gender fluidity or transsexuality. This is not the case, as wishful for evidence the cast may be.
Then there comes the issue of expressions of sexuality, presented somewhat stereotypically in this performance through promiscuity and adultery. This leads me back to Mary’s love affair where the message is that cheating is acceptable and comedic if it is to discover one’s true sexuality. Felix’s promiscuity is slightly counteracted by his hesitancy to act upon his homosexual desires or sexual habitudes, yet this remains another fruitless Easter egg, for it is not addressed as to why this is the case. There is the argument of his seemingly counterintuitive identity as a “top twink”, but this does not justify his hesitancy, only a frustration.
I wonder if the cast felt it was not in their capacity or their right to talk about other categories of the LGBT+ community. This is not the case. More voices on the issues of the community can only ultimately benefit it. Besides, this is not about challenging the reality of these individuals but, instead, the existing perceptions of them. Believing that the so-called “majority” or the “average” will not understand limits any likelihood of change, being that it is these very groups that, after having understood, are the only ones who will change anything politically.
Didactic modes and politics aside, this is definitely a play of comedic value, and the premise of a gay camp attended to achieve one’s gay card at graduation is a pride-invoking, subversive and endearing premise. However, I feel that most of the play’s energy and likability teetered around the character of Mary. Whilst Becky’s character remained, overall, unchaining and difficult to engage with — due to her vast emotional unavailability — and whilst Felix’s character slowly began to take off towards the latter part of the performance, it was clear that the writer had a certain favouritism which benefitted the character of Mary. Mary was the richest character of the trio, having clear desires and sub-objectives and a clearer backstory and personality, as evidenced by the number of laughs she received vs the others. Her ad-libs were also very humorous and well-tailored to the moments which demanded them (the main door being unintentionally locked, or bold statements from the audience in interactive scenes, etc.).
This brings me on to characterisation. Having the strongest character but also multiroling, Waller was definitely the most transformative and energised of the three, and her characterisation was utterly engaging and endearing. However, character changes could have been smoother and less conspicuous. It would have been just as humorous to see her reenter the stage as the teacher, instead. As for Marrast-Lewis and Willhem, their performance was very monotone, though I would say that this was partially due to the writing. When coming out of character for the quizzing/voguing or when Marrast-Lewis pretends to be a teacher and Willhem one of Felix's mothers, there is also extremely little change in character/persona. Whenever the audience is interacted by any of these performers, however, there is a massive tendency with all of them to come out of character. This disrupts not only the momentum of the play and its text but provides it with a different and (creatively speaking) self-unaware mood.
The concept of a camp, again very subversive, is a positive and fun one. However, there is very little comprehensibility offered in this play as to what the camp actually is and why it is so important. It is first made out to be more of a summer camp where one discovers, explores and defines one’s own sexuality; but then it is made out to be some kind of education establishment where one has to prove one’s knowledge of the LGBT+ community and will also be quizzed on it. Metacognitively, these do loosely relate in some way, but how they are both specifically utilised together in this camp is not explained. And what has all of this got to do with yoga?
When Cher enters, this is when it becomes exceedingly ridiculous for me. Such an unnecessary and overvalued part of the performance. I understand how important her role is as a gay idol, but why is she giving a speech at the camp? And why does this have little to no effect on the characters? Again, my problem with this is style. Fourth wall broken, audience members on stage, hyperbolic and metatheatrical celebrity representation, structural pitfall where the narrative is interrupted and the plot does not suffer or progress from it — all of these reasons make it a sore standout of a scene. For Becky’s only reaction to this to be to state “Classic camp!” really bothers me. You have not depicted enough the identity of the camp to be able to say that. The audience cannot understand what that means, how ordinary a random speech from Cher is in this camp.
Finally, a little note on the gay card. Whilst it speaks for itself as a reward and is quirky and relatable enough to be left unexplained, whilst also giving the audience a very cute and rather prideful souvenir, it should still be explained as to why it is so important to the characters.
To summarise, this performance has an interesting ground, yet it is highly convoluted and loses itself to its unstable style and mood types. Its sociopolitical value is very low, being that the [very few] discourses it gives the floor to are so very basic and repetitional. Where this play does succeed, however, is in its campy and particular comedy.
A lot of editing is required.