[Review:] CONNIE WOOKEY: DENIED UNDER SECTION 221(g)…, The Bunker Theatre, London.
The full title of this performance is: Connie Wookey: Denied Under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
I will start rather enigmatically by stating that I have mixed feelings about this show. Whilst, overall, I enjoyed it, I found it rather convoluted and confused. Its purpose and aims seemed unpolished and fruitless, yet its comedy and character were endearing and delightful.
The initial mise-en-scène is not much to look at: a wooden train and toy aeroplane suspended from a “kid’s” keyboard and two piles of toy planes on either side. Connie Wookey, writer, director and performer of this show, stands behind the keyboard, with a head-worn microphone, its cable conspicuously — and rather hideously — trailing down her back and off the stage. Hanging behind her, a cardboard ‘Air Canada’ sign. Yet, as bland as this aesthetic was, it bore little hindrance to Wookey's performance. This was mainly due to her comical persona but also the aid of lighting which made for dynamic and energised visuals.
Through an ‘autobiographical’ narrative, Wookey details the problems, troubles and distresses she has experienced with air travel. This narrative pivots on two main sub-narratives. In the first, we learn that Wookey’s family member had died in a plane crash, and we are presented the disaster Wookey experiences in travelling by aeroplane to his funeral. The second details Wookey’s denial to leave the country at an American airport. How these two relate to one another is self-explanatory; however, what confuses me is how they relate to feminist narratives of marches and borderline sexual harassment…these sub-narratives seem to go on a tangent, departing from the main focal point of the show. Whilst I would understand, and encourage, the versatility of style and material to keep an audience’s attention, these jumps felt much too incongruous.
The main difficulty for me, however, was the tripartition of this show. The material quickly becomes predictable: a recount of an air travel-related disaster followed by a rendition of a pop song of which Wookey has changed the lyrics, then a recount of a somewhat impertinent personal experience. I found myself unable to grasp the significance of pop songs. As the piano arrangements themselves were rather dull, comprising only simple chord progressions, it was the vocals and renewed lyrics that carried the drama of the songs. I find it perplexing, then, as to why pop songs were used as opposed to new, original songs. This would have added quirk and personality whilst reducing the banality of the tunes we all already know. The use of pop songs simply extended the narrative to a multitude of other voices (pop stars’ voices), subtracting from Wookey’s own voice and adding a complex layer of allusions and references incongruous to the main focus of the show.
I mentioned that lighting aided the narrative. Lighting had a rather semiotic purpose in this show, expanding or reducing the performance space: to the whole stage, to the house, to the ‘Air Canada’ sign… This was particularly effective in enhancing visual sequences such as Wookey utilisation of a small LED light, and helicopter and aeroplane toys as figures to describe an event in which a helicopter took pictures of the underside of her plane.
For the most part, especially in moments like these, Wookey's performance was endearing and humorous. Her material was political and somewhat satirical but not too harsh. Wookey cleverly takes her audience through unfurling tales of lived experience with a bubbly and loveable persona. Wookey draws attention to aspects of everyday life, although the overarching voice piercing through this show is rather quiet.
Some decisions were, indeed, quite weak and fruitless, such as the conclusion of the performance: under each audience member’s seat was a small flying glider to be assembled and thrown down to Wookey on her command. This moment was playful and mirrored Wookey's high-spiritedness, somewhat congruous with the audience interaction that had taken place throughout the show, but it was simply quite awkward. The time it took to assemble it, the switch to audience participation, etc. It was an odd if joyous decision. Yet, the majority of material, despite its repeated lack of interrelation, was highly enjoyable.
To summarise, I would advise a re-evaluation of performance aims. How interrelated is the material? How seamlessly do the sub-narratives flow into each other and project from their encompassing narrative? What relationship do I sustain with my audience, and does this change too drastically at any point?