[Review:] FEAR EATS LIFE, The Cockpit, London.
I was intrigued when entering the performance space. The low and soft music (music by Nina Hölscher & Tobias Till Krüger) of a piano, a stage of red and black, and a promising Jeremy Chevillotte in emcee drag with his back to the audience, cross-legged upon a table. Then, the performance began, and I became increasingly disappointed, nay frustrated.
First, a shambolic technical display in which Maeve Elmore (playing Mary) and Fabrice-Édouard La Roche-Francoeur (playing Leon) appear momentarily spotlit on the balconies above. Not only do these spotlights fail to coincide with the action, far too slowly illuminated, but the very notion of turning them on and off in this manner, to full intensity in such a short space of time, is incredibly dangerous. Nevertheless, I continue. The desired effect is obviously to spook, comedically if not sincerely, the audience, but both comedy and horror require expert timing; this is not achieved here.
Then, the opening musical number. A lacklustre rendition of a repetitive and uninformative song in which all performers, but especially Jeremy Chevillotte, playing our titular character, Fear, lack vigour, conviction and vitality. Physicality is limited, with minimal tension throughout the body and minimal expressivity. A terrible opening that needs urgent attention. It does not help that lyrics are repetitive and uncreative, or that none of the performers can sing in key. It is worth pointing out here that all musical numbers are just the same, both repetitive and incoherent, and this could also be said of the conceptualisation and deliveries of 'spoken word'.
A terrible beginning, and I am afraid it does not get much better than this... As I first sat down, I noticed the sheets of paper on every seat, activity sheets that ask the audience, in French, German and English, to write or draw their biggest fear and launch it onto the stage, in the form of a paper ball or aeroplane, whenever they please. My instinct was to think, “This is either going to be an anarchic, empowering and therapeutic performance or a mere shambolic display.” I imagined that either the creatives would have clearly structured their performance so as to facilitate audience participation in a methodical, intelligent and inspired way, in a way that benefits their work and progresses the material, or they have no idea how rambunctious, distracting and chaotic an audience can become when given such freedom and agency.
This performance remains completely unclear as to what function and role it desires its audience to have. Not only are they asked to litter the stage in this way at whatever point in time they please, the audience are also asked early on in this performance to scream, twice, at the top of their lungs in a demonstration of how they sound when terrified. This is an extreme defictionalisation that demands from the audience intense awareness of the self and the Other. The audience are then asked to call out what their worst fear is [more on this below], but after this...nothing. The performance then becomes a completely self-contained and rather 'traditional' play. The audience are only interacted with once more throughout, and this is when they are asked to vote for either Fear or Mary [again, I shall elaborate upon this below]. After the audience have been participating in such an extreme and deliberate way, they now must be reticent and passive for a good part of the hour.
Notably, their prerogative to throw their 'fears' onto the stage whenever they wish still exists, but this act is now confused, given that actors will not react at all to the bits of paper being launched onto the stage. Indeed, my apprehension was validated. In moments of slower momentum — of which there were shockingly many — audience members would take the opportunity to laugh amongst themselves, testing their paper aeroplane skills, laughing when they proved fallible craftspeople and when these faulty paper aircrafts collided with other audience members' heads. Utterly chaotic, and not in a desirable way. And who could blame them? They had been permitted to do so by Chevillotte.
So, what was the purpose of all of this? The following is from an official synopsis: 'Through this show, the company hopes to engage the audience in what it means to feel fear, why some of us are affected by it more than others, and what we can do to reclaim our lives from its hungry jaws. Ultimately, this piece asks if there are any benefits to feeling fear in the modern day and how do we live, if fear is breathing down our necks? [sic]' I emphasise: this performance does not meet its aims whatsoever.
Merely asking audience members to detail their fears, only to acknowledge these briefly and move swiftly is not sufficient to engage in an exploration of this subject. What is more, Chevillotte, playing a personification of fear, I should emphasise, clearly is unprepared for such an investigation, as when one audience member said that they suffered from trypophobia, Chevillotte was taken aback, completely unaware as to what this was. This not only shows a complete lack of research and preparation, with phobias obviously being the go-to here, but completely destroys any credibility and integrity, with Chevillotte's inability to, at least, pretend he knew what this audience member was talking about. Equally, despite the incredible disruptiveness of these activity sheets, their final purpose? To sit untouched on stage for almost the entirety of the performance, only to have three read out by Mary with an “I’m not scared of ___!”
Given the very nature of the plot we are presented, this cannot in any way be an informative and profound exploration into anything. I shall elucidate my understanding of this plot: Mary is addicted to Fear and wants to be engulfed by it 24/7. Fear is tired of her and sets her a challenge of selling peelers(?!), and if she succeeds in selling them, Fear promises to stay with her forever. She then comes across a co-worker — seemingly a manager, though this is left unclear — and he has a fear of crisps after being traumatised as a child. They both go on a date, which the personification of Fear then ruins (not by any coherent means but through the persona of a waitress who can speak several languages, much to his interest, and flirt with him). Mary now detests Fear for what they have done and decides to denounce them, ripping up our so-beloved activity sheets during the process. She is now a changed, free woman. After being terrified of them to such a degree that even the mere sight of them sends him into a frenzy, with Fear’s coaxing, he starts feasting on a bag of crisps(?!). Maria — again, now a changed woman — stops him and asks him to break free with her. We, the audience, must now decide whether he should stay with Fear or join Maria in her revolt. I see absolutely no correlation between this material and an exploration into fear. The very notion is confounding to me. This performance is completely unsure of itself and its aims and content.
In fact, despite my ability to enumerate these 'plot developments', I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea what this performance was about, and that is no fault of my own but due to the performance's own sheer inarticulacy, suffering from a unique esotericism that is so profound only its creators will ever know its significance. A completely senseless performance.
I understand that with such an international audience, simplicity is key, and so content must be extremely simple if all audience members are able to comprehend it. I also appreciate that absurdity is a wonderful means of making content enjoyable to such an audience who can observe the fluidity and lack of logicality freely and without fear of misunderstanding content; instead, they can feel free to focus on the language itself alone. However, The oversimplicity of this dramatic text combined with the illogicality of this material means it is totally inaccessible as a language learning tool. However, this performance is not intended for language learners but for multilingual audiences in general. The understanding, then, is that all audiences should be able to understand English. So, this cannot be used as a framework with which to understand the strangeness of and lack of meaning in material.
Whilst I enjoy the multilingual potential of this performance, especially with its demographic seeming to be chiefly multilingual themselves, the four main languages, Japanese, English, French and German, are unintelligently incorporated into material merely for the sake of it and have no significance and, indeed, no place in this performance whatsoever. With the principal language of this performance being English, other languages are simply thrown in whimsically and for negligible humorous effect, as mere fleeting in-jokes for specific audience members, and the effect is simply not worth it. As a speaker of these languages myself, I can certify that I gained nothing more from their incorporation than I would have done if English remained the only language used. However, I can certainly imagine that if I could not speak these languages, and I am sure that not all audience members present could speak or understand all of these, the effect would be rather ostracising and disorientating, and needlessly so. This needs to be urgently reconsidered.
Fear Eats Life is supposedly a cabaret, but despite Chevillotte’s solely aesthetic approximation to an emcee, nothing screams cabaret in this performance. Chevillotte’s makeup, showy blazer, high heels, and sleek and wonderfully ornate hairstyle are at odds with his underperformativity and with the main body of his inelaborate costume. Yes, theme is perhaps somewhat ‘dark’ and there is certainly music, but cabaret requires a lot more than merely drag art and vapid musical numbers. On the whole, costumes are completely understated, and the masks Stella Marbles has designed for La Roche-Francoeur and Elmore’s characters, masks that we only see once during the overture, are simply bizarre. By ‘bizarre’, I do not mean alien and attractively strange; I mean completely incongruous with performance style and content.
Even the title, Fear Eats Life…what has this got to do with someone once addicted to fear inexplicably overcoming this and falling in love with someone terrified of crisps? The mere photograph included above communicates better the lack of creative awareness than I could, with our subject being entirely concealed. Ridiculous play.