[Review:] FRILLS AND SPILLS, Camden People’s Theatre, London.
I have seen theatre quite literally every day for many years, and I can honestly say that this is one of the best performances — if not the best — that I have seen in a long time. Grace Church (playing Frills) and Chloe Young (playing Spills) are comedy geniuses, sharp, bold and spirited, and their work here is intelligent, exhilarating and inspired.
The characters of Frills and Spills satirise the social conceptions of the upper class, condemning the disenfranchised and the unprivileged in a fashion most laughably self-referential and self-demeaning. From their excessive consumption of croquembouche to their overly lavish attire, Frills and Spills critique relationships between and manifestations of power, privilege and pleasure. Their acts are positively outlandish, garish and, above all, disturbing. The material is presented in such a manner that classist ideals and abuse of social advantage are dehumanised and satirised, made laughable and mockable, and visual inspirations taken from the Georgian era make this all the more readable. Church and Young have definitely mastered the grotesque, from their strange sexual proclivities towards one another to their eating trampled treats off of the floor and wiping vomited food onto one another’s cheeks. These monstrously self-indulgent acts of gluttony, pride, entitlement and narcissism make the vision all the more riveting and beguiling, brutalising and extremifying the characters and their sociocultural representations to a most sensational degree.
It is clear that there are elements of this performance that are improvised, as expected by a performance that plays off of its audience in such a way, and this brings a most personal feel to the show. The ending, in particular, wherein the audience are asked if they would like things to remain “as they are”, with Spills in charge over Frills, or if Frills should take back the reins instead, is most successful in regard to this. Combining their sheer hesitance towards — nay resistance against — our decision with an uneasy “Oh…right…we’ve never done this before…erm”, we get the impression that Spills remaining in charge is an exclusive only for us, that perhaps other audiences choose or are forced to see Spills regain her superiority, instead. I am sure that this ending is very much desired, even engineered, but the possibility of another ending produces a sense of specialness and intimacy, which is most fruitful. This is emphasised, of course, by the audience-specific interactions that occur, tailoring each performance to each evening.
This performance is truly almost perfect. Thus, the comments I make below are not so much details of what was unsuccessful or ineffective [as there was very little that was so, in my opinion] but, rather, minor critiques on how existing features could be even sharper and richer.
There are often moments between routines where the performers stay deliberately still, staring out into the audience, either shocked, stupefied, overly offended or in absolute awe of themselves or what they have just done. These moments of tension, existing both physically within the bodies of the performers and socially within the room, are most fruitful, as this sense of inertia, ambiguity and discomfort intensifies the creepy, unpredictable and inhuman feel about the two characters, enthralling us all the more when these tensions are relieved. However, I would note with importance that there must always be a sense of animation (moving eyes, extremities, etc.), and a sense that something is definitely to come next but that we are just temporarily halted in the moment. Otherwise, the tension loses this effect of relief, for we are stuck in the moment for too long and settle there unwillingly, or we feel as though the action has been prematurely inhibited, rather than paused.
One certainly does get the impression at times, though rarely, as though the performers are thinking about what to do next or, worse, have forgotten such. A simple remedy: either make some of these moments shorter or make sure to constantly animate these moments so as to produce an effect of suspense and tension, noting that becoming physically tenser and tenser is also a form of animation. Related to this, momentum is permitted to fall in places — again, usually in-between routines. I would urge the performers to make sure that there is constantly something happening, some sense of business if not pure chaos. This relationship between business and chaos — over chaos and vacuity — is crucial to a performance like this; it must always be moving, progressing, fluid, never inhibited.
Coming out of character and laughing at oneself becomes much too customary to these performers, particularly to Church. In small doses, this plays on the absurdity of the performance, reminding us of the performers behind the characters, of their unboundedness to these actions but their strange volition to execute them anyway, and of how wild, bewildering and whacky the events of the performance are in comparison to the accepted norm. For this reason, it is permissible to come out of character a good few times, but Church comes out of character during almost every skit, and this is less productive.
I must admit that there are two routines that stand out to me as the weakest, and these are the ‘British tea’ routine and the fighting routine. This former is adequate until the two characters break out in song, and then it proceeds to lose vigour. I would recommend scrapping this song completely, as it feels far too repetitive and rather as though a simple filler where a song fills required. Stage fighting is very difficult to get right, and if one or two movements look too unrefined, forceless or noncommittal, the entire fighting sequence can be compromised. I am afraid that the vast majority of movements in this routine seemed particularly hesitant or yielding. A lot more commitment and verve are required here. The use of sound effects which typically accompany clown fighting could certainly be of benefit here as well, over-fictionalising and farcifying the action. A good example of where these are needed in this routine would be where Frills whacks Spills over the head with a dish, a moment seeming rather unimpactful and lacklustre without some sort of intensification. In fact, I am surprised that sound effects are not used in this routine, given that the appropriate sound effects do accompany Frills’s miming shooting a rifle. Where sound effects are used like this, however, and as far as music and the more simple lighting goes, the use of tech is more than facilitative.
These few comments aside, there is very little else to say other than that this is a most enchanting and wonderful performance. Lecoq’s training once again proves itself victorious, but Stumble Trip Theatre have definitely made both their characters and material their own. Frills and Spills remain throughout excellent and cogent presentations of social thinking, right until they are blatantly stripped down (quite literally) to nothing but a sordid and peculiar master-slave duo. The two are garish, volatile, unpredictable and grotesque yet remain legible and clearcut throughout, tantalising us with a most demented and uncanny yet moreish clownery. Even set and costume remain utterly undependable and whimsical, set allowing for the production of more and more items from behind seemingly too small a folding screen, and costume always changing its image and form. I must note here that costume is most remarkable in Spills’s overjoyed “burlesque” routine in which she strips herself liberally of her maid attire and, ecstatic and cheeky, produces never-ending hankies from her perky-to-sagging breasts. A wonderful example of the absolutely wild tomfoolery this performance is capable of.
If only more theatre was as intellectually and hedonistically stimulating.