[Review:] LOVE SONGS TO GUINEA PIGS, Blue Elephant Theatre, London.
This performance was part of the Wild Shenanigans Comedy Festival at the Blue Elephant Theatre. It should be noted that this performance is a work in progress and so is subject to change. Hence, this review cannot speak conclusively of its potential.
Elf Lyons takes her audience by the hand — rather literally — and guides them into a world of screeching cacophonies and talking objects; opinionated and defective bodies, and drug use; the medical institution and small, fluffy creatures. All this is guised under an underlying focus on love: love for the self and one’s body; love for guinea pigs and medication; and love for one another.
It is perhaps this hectic and unwieldy list of subject matter, however, that makes it rather difficult to put a finger on Elf Lyons. In other words, it is what makes her work difficult to categorise. In discussing the mundane and the banal before leaping into a feminist narrative, Lyons stares the objectifying male gaze dead in the eye, uncovering the potentiality for its presence in any given circumstance. Lyons disguises her politics in the comedic and the bizarre, making a mockery of the super-feminine with over-dramatic hysteria, and denigrating the male-oriented image of a mindless, pretty woman.
However, her politics and her feminist narrative seem inarticulate, lost within the performance. Rather than voicing her own, idiosyncratic feminism, Lyons simply alludes to feminist thinking, making passing, gibing references to the possible perception of her body and other women before moving quickly to the next gag. This makes it feel as though Lyons is only referencing feminist thought to pleasure or to toy with her audience.
Lyons’s nudity serves as a synecdoche for this inarticulacy, for me. Lyons wears a tailored and sparkly hospital gown, hospital socks and black low-heel shoes. This is a clever image that usurps the suffering that Elf Lyons says she underwent when hospitalised for endometriosis, recontextualising and reappropriating it. However, under this gown, made into a shirt-dress by a bold blue collar, Lyons is completely naked. Lyons reveals this to us after a self-referential comment on women’s bodies…but that’s really all we see or hear of it. Despite the very few moments when Lyons caresses her body, playing with and raising the bottom of her gown, her nudity has very little significance. I understand that this is a way of implanting thought — and perhaps [erroneous] desire — into the minds of the spectators, but, realistically, it has little function.
Elements like these make me question the undertone of this performance. I had the impression that I needed to have watched other performances to get a broader, deeper understanding of her values and artistic voice. I felt as though there was an aim or an enquiry bubbling under the surface but that wasn’t permitted to escape / present itself to an optimum degree. Is this message-based theatre? Or is a bleak and vague feminism simply utilised for comedic purposes?
As for characterisation, voice plays a large part in Lyons’s work; I am sure that there is only one scene, where she speaks to a child at a children’s event that she leads, that allows for her real voice to display itself. There were two particular voices that dominated the performance: a posh, sophisticated and well-enunciated voice, and a gremlin-like, hissing voice (the one used to characterise, amongst many other things, her crippling and volatile womb). These voices created tone and texture, luring the audience with delicacy and suppleness before bewildering, humouring and frightening them with a funnily dark and monstrous anger. Whilst these voices were, on the whole, well executed and refined, I will note that other voices changed quite regularly throughout their usage. Further attention should be paid to the variations in and continuity of these.
Despite this unclarity in aim, the comedy offered in this performance is hilarious. Her comedy does also rely a lot on stereotypes and racial profiles, though, and I would be wary as to how and why this is done, and as to how frequently. However, there were quite a few moments where Lyons would immediately shoot a reprimanding glare at the audience for laughing at her. Perhaps I could understand this through a political lens, forbidding audience members to laugh when she comments on feminist matters, on her female body, etc., but this became much too frequent and reproaching, making for a recurring hostile tone and awkwardness. If these were followed by a secondary smile of “Ony joking!” perhaps they would be better, but to keep them at all is dubious for me. To follow up these glances with a message of “Love each other; this is a safe space!” can only cause me to ask: what is the relationship with the audience?
There is definitely an unclarity as to what Lyons wants from her audience, and when they should and shouldn’t participate is blurry in areas — hence the consistent callouts and heckling, which Lyons implied she receives a lot. Whilst Lyons dealt with these very well, I feel that she gives too much agency to her audience, signalled from the very beginning when she hands a bell stick to a spectator and asks them to shake it every time they find her funny. This is dangerous to do, as this bell-ringing could become obnoxious and persistent, disrupting mood and tone, not to mention: it has very little bearing on the rest of the performance. If it is not crucial to the performance, if it will not guide it along, edit it out. To compare the beginning of the performance, in which the audience are just answering [sometimes rhetorical] questions, with the end where they’re pairing up and looking into each other’s eyes for two minutes, coerced to hold each other’s hands and kiss, there is very little consistency in the role and function of the audience.
Overall, an enjoyable and comical performance. It is easy to fall in love with Lyons, despite her abrasiveness and volatility — almost evocative of a feminist monster theory where the person or their body is eroticised and distinctly invites the onlooker in yet pushes them away with alienating and disruptive violence, glares, abject matters and condescending pride. This work puts Lyons back in control of her "defective" but also sexually objectified body, telling when and where spectators can look, appreciate, judge or dismiss. But this is only loose speculation for me, as this performance is rather too hectic, watery and multifocal to give a clear portrayal of its subtextual intentions, of the realm is it operating in, and of how it desires to be read, engaged with or enjoyed. Further refinements need to be made both in subject matter and in audience significance to make for a more hard-hitting, clearcut and focused narrative. Key words: stripping back, and concentration.