[Review:] PROUD 2 BE HERE, Phoenix Arts Club, London.
I found these creatives and their work to be most endearing, and their purpose and incentive honourable. Personally, I had a pleasant evening watching them perform. However, my personal enjoyment of this performance must be distinguished from my critical view of it, hence my writing below.
The performers have an excellent chemistry, from encouraging moments of eye contact and smiles at one another, to George’s (Lennan) and Charlie’s (Bence) dedicatory speeches, to the in-jokes and commentaries fully fledged by the final speech by Katy Reynard (also the director of this performance). In this sense, there is a relaxed sense of intimacy and personality present throughout the entirety of this performance. This is a beautiful and important foundation for the creatives’ work, further creating an environment of trust, love, empathy and openness for their audience as well. This is most efficacious for a performance of this nature and with these objectives and is certainly one element behind my own enjoyment of the show. However, this foundation should inspire and coach the development of a performance; it should not be the performance’s very material. Yet, these expressions of solidarity and togetherness amongst the cast pervade the performance most perniciously.
We have here the first seeds of a well-intentioned performance with a good premise, given that creating such a love-filled and open queer space is the intention of these performers. However, this is ineffective if this symbolic territory remains bound to the stage and to the performers alone. Prompted by a palpable hyperfixation of these performers upon their own having a good time, other significant aspects of this performance take a back seat and get lost: coherency, articulacy and communications of objectives are generally lost in a severe lack of structure and direction. In this way, this performance is in dire need of further particularisation and specificity.
A general overview could be that a group of close and like-minded friends got together to have fun singing their favourite musical numbers together before an audience who would notably share their political beliefs. This is a lovely and heartwarming premise and sounds like good fun, but this alone does not make for an artistic and intelligent performance. The dilute theme of ‘queerified’ musical theatre songs is not enough to ground this performance, either, I am afraid. I emphasise: this performance lacks organisation, a clearcut purpose and thus legibility. More importantly, this performance suffers from a great lack of identity. Anyone can sing musical theatre numbers, so what significance do they gain when incorporated into and performed within Proud 2 Be Here specifically? Beyond a so-called queerification, which I shall address below, I have not been made distinctly aware of the answer to this question.
When addressing this performance’s unique identity and objectives, I am drawn to the notion that the performance we are watching is a cabaret. It is not. I believe the creatives have been inspired by the high-flown and fabulous sound of the term ‘cabaret’ and are unaware of its definitions and characteristics. This is a concert, not a cabaret, and already we have misinformed and misdirected our audience, perhaps even to their disappointment. Furthermore, this is a concert of musical theatre lovesongs specifically, and we have little content, if any, to imagine the queer identity or queer character, which is supposedly the focal point of the entire performance, as opposed to queer love and its fictional representations. Sometimes, we are even presented with a mere unmodified restaging of the songs themselves, which, though true only for the minority of the musical numbers, becomes increasingly evident as the show progresses.
Our “first emcee”, Daniel (Breakwell), informs us that we are to expect a performance of various musical theatre numbers that have been “queerified to the gods” in order to represent the queer community appropriately, as much needed in the industry. The seeming grandiosity of this so-called queerification is somewhat disappointing in reality: the songs themselves have been largely untouched; the only aspect that has been altered, beyond a few superimposed puns and the rare verse, is the gender of the song’s addressee. This is an issue because the categorical and ‘boxing’ heteronormative representations present in these musical theatre performances, as Marnie (Yule) puts it, that Proud 2 Be Here aims to dismantle are perpetuated and concretised through this much-too-subtle subversion, rendering moot and hypocritical the main points of argument to which we are exposed. What is it smog these characters and their contexts that are so heteronormative and damaging, if all that needs to be altered is the addressee’s gender to neutralise them and have them speak of the queer community? The creatives express that these are not characters they will never play but wish they could, but characters they will play someday, once the industry allows them onto the stage in main, queer roles. It appears here that the desire to diversify and expand the representations so often found in musical theatre is in direct conflict with a desire to keep these characters exactly as they are, with their idiosyncrasies, social contexts and peculiarities but to make them playable by all, regardless of gender and sexuality. This complicates the motives and readability of this performance such that arguments seem contradictory and hence confused. If these representations are so damaging, why ought we to immortalise and to play them? Why not make our own — queer characters that represent the community and lifestyle appropriately and accurately? Briefly put, then: the songs with which we are presented largely retain their original contexts and meanings; no significant modifications to reflect the queer community have actually been made. This is not a space that wholly and accurately reflects solely the queer community and its desires authentically, then.
Not only are these political arguments incoherent and inconsistent within the re-presentations of these musical numbers, but so is the material we are presented outside of them. There is notably an attempt at some sort of structure: after a short series of songs, one performer [inappropriately named “the next emcee”, or even an “MD” on one occasion] delivers a speech. In these speeches, the creatives touch upon some incredibly resonant and important topics, such as the recent [and largely uncovered] Norway terrorist attack and, as referenced above, the under-/misrepresentation of queer people and their culture in the arts, namely in musical theatre. However, the cohesive incorporation of these subjects into a coherent and articulate performance is notably ill-considered. These speeches remain incredibly vague, providing the good-intentioned seeds for a poignant and observant sociopolitical discourse but failing to communicate well the creatives’ messages and concerns. Overall, the speeches are wishy-washy, their subjects related to one another only through the theme of queerness. These aforementioned dedicatory speeches communicate the cast’s chemistry wonderfully, but the purpose of these, why we need to hear why the performers feel the other cast members are so special to them, is left inevident. How does this chemistry reflect and progress the performance?
Some speeches, such as Marnie’s (Yule) and Hannah’s (Cound), touch upon very important topics but merely state a hard-to-swallow fact, seemingly irrelevant to the content hitherto, and move on. The content of other speeches has not been scripted, and the improvising performers lose their trains of thought and stumble over their words, losing the speech altogether: Hannah-Theresa’s (Engen) and Daniel’s, for example. Conversely, other speeches, such as Charlie’s about the effects of lockdown and Anna’s about perceptions of bisexuality, are far too over-rehearsed, delivered unnaturally and robotically. In this way, these speeches, as honourable and important as their references are, either need to be far more informative, educational, or they need to articulate the shared concerns of the audience in a manner that encapsulates major aspects of our culture and reflects on them in the content we are being presented. Either way, these speeches need to be far more pertinent to the concert’s material and far better excommunicated than they currently are. Especially for such short speeches, bringing scraps of paper or mobile phones onto the stage from which to read scripts and notes is highly unprofessional and aesthetically undesirable — not to mention confounding, given that these speeches must be repeated every time this performance is staged and so surely could be memorised by performers with a desire to star in productions in the West End.
To improve the delivery of these speeches, I would recommend that the performers employ calming and focusing techniques that may be practised before and even during their performance. As expressed above, the creatives’ nerves and inner emotions tend to compromise their confidence and, ultimately, their eloquence and intelligibility in the early parts of the performance and especially before their solo speeches. I should also mention here that Hannah’s speech is far too aggressive, especially given the audience type, who, presumably, already concur: after prompting a laugh from her audience about bisexuality being seen as a “spicy version of straight”, a sharp "It's not funny" whips them back into silence. This is unnecessary and needlessly confrontational; delivery ought to be reconsidered here.
After the inconsistency and incoherency of material, we have the lack of topographical organisation, which further cements the performance’s overall disorderliness. Admittedly, this was a small stage and an altogether intimate theatre venue, but having the performers waiting just off of the stage, or watching the action from the house, sometimes half-perched upon the stage, addressed by onstage performers though invisible to the audience, lost in the dark corner just off Stage Left...this is far too visually and semiotically confused. At times, especially during the [highly important] opening number, it is difficult to see all of the performers, sardined onto the stage where spreading out is still, in fact, possible — and necessary. Indeed, I can see an attempt in this opening number specifically to ensure that all cast members are viewable, with their staggered positioning, but this attempt failed, unfortunately. Lighting suffers a similar fate, with spotlights regularly failing to follow or focus upon the performers, and with lanterns illuminating prematurely before they have been repositioned. For many of the numbers with which we are presented, half of the performers remain either dimly lit or completely unlit altogether, especially those just off stage. Visually, this is a hugely chaotic performance. Choreography (arrangements by Hannah Cound) is too hesitant. Oftentimes, particularly in the former portion of the performance, choreography is virtually nonexistent, with the performers simply stood either end of the stage, demonstrating no discernible or conspicuous characterisations. However, this does vastly improve as the performance goes on, and choreographic decisions become bolder and more obvious, with an increased use of space and dynamism in movements. Nevertheless, these movements remain untidy, overall. I would urgently recommend the creatives reconsider the creative possibilities and necessity of using the space of the stage to their advantage.
This brings me on to the performers themselves. Whilst solo performances tend to be weaker, harmonies are mostly impeccable. These are, indeed, talented performers, for the most part. Where movement has been choreographed and where narratives are incorporated decisively and well into this choreography, the numbers with which we are presented are most enjoyable and energised; other numbers, seeing the performers standing awkwardly, singing into the audience are less impressive. I should note that it is peculiar that Engen, in particular, is used so frequently as the object of fantasy and crush, yet other performers like Reynard seem to make a rare appearance. An equal distribution of roles ought to be sought.
Most likely a volume issue, the microphones had not been set up correctly, resulting in a quiet high-pitched whistle coinciding only with the performers' vocals. Overall, the performers also hold these microphones far too close to their mouths and often forget to move away when projecting their voices. Their crescendoes almost always result in a change to the next note in the same key where they often ought to maintain the same note, and repetition of this makes the songs feel too similar, overall. Expressivity during songs is far too dissimilar amongst the performers, with Reynard and Bence being mostly devoid of corporeal and facial expression, as opposed to Cound, Yule and Jan Gunnar Garlid, for example, who remain distinctly theatrical and animated throughout. The effect is jarring and allows for a confused aesthetic and communication. In fact, I should commend Yule for their versatility, impressive physicality and vocal excellence. A skilled performer, most certainly the strongest of the entire cast, though they do take a short while to warm up.
Overall, the creatives need to better consider not only the communications of the objectives of their performance but the objectives themselves, and levels of expressivity, characterisation and energy need to be consistent across the cast. Briefly put, the issue is in the conveyance of the personal beliefs and intentions, motivations and passions to an audience who are going blind into their work. Clarity, structure and presentation should be the main points of focus for this company, Cabaret Theatre, going forward.