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[Performance Analysis:] SHUGA FIXX VS. THE ILLUMINATI, Camden People’s Theatre, London.

I shall start by saying that this is a wonderful performance. Its dramatic text is well-conceived and well-developed, immaculately structured and coherent, and comedically inspired. Judging by this text alone, this performance is superb. Its aims are met; its content, well communicated; and both its concept and plot development are exemplary. Sensationalist elements are also wonderfully incorporated. Irony and satire as comedic devices are intelligently integrated, and reliance upon campness and melodrama are clever and appropriate. An inspired text.

On to the performance itself. All performers need time, it seems, to warm up. At first, characterisations are extremely lacking, with identities being ill-communicated and fluid. Up until it is revealed that Gemma (Poppy Pedder) is the “shit one” [note the word ‘revealed’, as this is only clarified through direct expression in the dramatic text, not through Pedder’s initial characterisation], portrayals remain incredibly understated. This is partly due to more stage time being given to Shuga Fixx’s Manager, underplayed throughout by Jake Sears. I would like to see a lot more extremity in and care towards the expression of the caricatures from all cast members, barring Harri McKenzie-Donovan [I shall elaborate upon this below]. Whilst this notably improves as the performance progresses, expressivity is a persistent issue in this performance, both vocally and corporeally, and is limited almost exclusively to the face.

In this particular case, I would urge performers to concentrate on tension and stillness in the body. In performances like this, there should always be a palpable degree of tension in the extremities of the body and in the face, and stillness in the body should be avoided at all costs. If you are not moving, you are not reacting, you are not performing, and, thus, you are limiting the readability of your character. But this is not to say that all performers should be frolicking around the stage at all times, constantly in motion, reacting wildly, failing their arms; instead, it is to say that inertness and stasis should be avoided, that the space should feel constantly enlivened, and reactivity should be dynamised. Facial expressivity and corporeal expressivity should be balanced in this way and to this effect. There are many moments in this performance where stillness becomes an issue, and a good example of this is in Sears’s characterisation of the Manager: Sears often stands still, expressionless beyond a purse of the lips, swiping through his phone. This becomes repetitive, overly simplistic in its suggestive proximity to naturalism, and, put bluntly, simply uninteresting to watch. This is especially an issue here when we consider the emphasis that is placed on the body itself, with Sears’s skimpy costume, and lost on his heavily adorned face/head to his sunglasses, hat and wig.

We need to see what it is that makes Gemma so ‘rubbish’. Retrospectively, having learnt this about Gemma’s character through plot developments, I can see now that Pedder is deliberately slower in choreography, generally in the other two performers’ way and off time. But, whilst this is noticeable, that aforementioned lack of tension in the body and a lack of extremity and vigour causes this to seem not as though a deliberate portrayal of clumsiness and under-performativity but a genuinely lacklustre performance from Pedder herself. We really need to see her fumbling around the stage, completely forgetting choreography, actually physically bumping into the other two performers, perhaps stepping on their feet, smacking them in the face – something more drastic, in other words, to really drive this “shitness” home. We need to get a palpable sense of her forgetfulness and general underperformance. And this need for extremity goes for all performers, not just Pedder; we need to be offered a tangible sense of identity, personality and demeanour. If characters are nervous, awkward, fumbling or underperforming, this should be represented in caricatural expression and movement, not through what is almost, in places, naturalism.

This lack of extremity persists to be an issue in all performances of Shuga Fixx’s music. When the group perform at their first substantial gig, ripping their outer layers of clothing off to bare their revealing outfits underneath, and sing about now being “all grown up”, choreography (movement direction by Chloe Young and Cameron Carver) is [comedically, ironically] raunchy, seductive, impassioned and stern…but conviction remains far too low. Again, tension! These performers lack vigour and dramaticism in these moments, seeming to save it all for the middle-end. Blank facial expressions and steady, fluid movements are simply not enough. Sharp, forceful and energised movements, rigidity, strain and unnatural bearing…these are what is needed here. The performers rely too heavily throughout, despite their definite improvements as the performance goes on, on the nature and content of the text itself and on supporting material to communicate their characters’ personalities and contributions.

Nevertheless, these performers do prove capable from the middle onwards, and characterisations become increasingly particularised and clear. I acknowledge that this is also because backstories start to emerge, as well as contexts that define character feeling and intent – such as Jude’s (Molly McGeachin) history as “the poo girl”; Brooke’s (Grace Church)’s newfound popularity/fame; or, indeed, Gemma’s self-recognition as ‘the shit one’ – and so the cast have more concrete material to work with. But we should not have to wait until this material is revealed to us; we should have a clear sense of identity from the very beginning, regardless of whether or not we understand its origins. Even at their best, I want more from all of these performers. It is easy to come out of this performance having really enjoyed it but also having no idea what makes Shuga Fixx’s members unique beyond ‘the shit one’, ‘the famous one’ and ‘the one who pooed’. This needs to be urgently addressed.

Nonetheless, idiosyncrasies do start to develop, and even an increase in general expressivity is perceptible, too, culminating in the final scenes with Pedder and McGeachin ‘running’ and ‘fighting’ their way through the Lizard King’s (also Sears) establishment, energised and forceful. Whilst comedic style does change quite a bit here, with the additions of gags like “maybe we should stop running on the spot” and McGeachin’s illusionism [more on this later], it is a comedy long desired.

Whilst I disfavour quite heavily Sears’s portrayal of the Manager, which is far too understated and lacklustre, as I have expressed several times above, his caricatural presentations of the Lizard King and the French Choreographer are most redemptive. As these latter two, Sears is adequately expressive, energised and, above all, transformative. However, diction is a recurrent problem for this performer, and this was something noted, unfortunately, by two separate audience members as well. I would urge Sears to work on comedic timing as well, though I recognise that this is also one of few editorial issues, for the writing of sarcastic, long-winded remarks, made regularly by his characters, is underdeveloped. Remarks like these are overused and are relied upon too heavily to capture his characters’ bitterness and self-importance, something that is needless, being already evident in flamboyant/pompous costume and comportment.

McGeachin demonstrates great ability when it comes to illusionism, from producing the marshmallow from Pedder’s mouth to producing the fork on the floor to revealing the unexpected faeces down her leg. These practical effects are conceived and executed very well, certainly adding to the performance’s absurd and unpredictable nature. Concealment could be better managed in some areas, however; I would recommend slightly more practice for the specific acts required by this performance, as opposed to practicing the overall talent. Beyond this, McGeachin’s facial expressivity is wonderful, after she has warmed up, but more corporeal expressivity is needed. Otherwise, she proves herself to have good characterisation and a great sense of comedic timing.

As the performance progresses, Church perhaps shines through as having the most developed characterisation, overall, and this is, once again, chiefly due to the material of the dramatic text being increasingly concentrated on her character primarily. Once she settles into her character, Church proves herself to be highly transformative. A talented actress. Her extremely intimate scenes with Sears are handled very well and with the desired comedic extremity. I must admit, though, having seen Church perform before, I was underwhelmed by her overall characterisation in this performance. I know she is capable of more, as I am sure the other performers are too. I would recommend performers each step out and watch the action, encouraging each other to portray these caricatures more and more extremely, only then to refine this later on. It is easier to work with a lot and to refine it than to make something out of nothing.

Pedder, underplaying her character throughout, rather surprised me at the end, with expressivity and vitality seemingly coming out of nowhere. I must admit that I was most disappointed by her performance up until these final scenes (from her being a bartender onwards). Having conceived this performance, I would have expected more. Her solo scene with the ring light, the main and only scene that really allows us to comprehend and bond with her character, is, again, far too understated, both in text and delivery, and the lyrics of her song are lacking and far too heartfelt [and not in the comedic way that they ought to be]. Tone is wrong here. I believe it was also an error to present us with the entirety of this song, given that it will be reprised in full later on.

The particular performance I saw was BSL-interpreted by guest performer Harri McKenzie-Donovan. Most interpretations are somewhat sterile and poorly integrated into performances, but I must say that this particular interpretation was handled very well, compared to most. McKenzie-Donovan is included as a character, interacts with the others. Self-referential humour is used effectively to naturalise her presence in the performance, a presence that can often be quite alienating, both for members of the deaf community and the hearing alike. Whilst I cannot comment on the accuracy of the interpretation, not being absolutely familiar with BSL myself, attention is given to ensure that signings are clear and legible. For example, during group hugs, McKenzie-Donovan still leans in with the others, their hands around her, and she is not removed from the action, but her hands are still free to sign. Elements like this, allowing for her inclusion, are what makes this particular interepation so successful. I would just recommend that she be closer to speakers in the final scenes; her distance here is not so effective. McKenzie-Donovan is wonderfully expressive, her characterisation clear and coherent throughout. I would recommend the other performers take note of her, in fact. It is a shame that she is not present in all performances, as I rather enjoy the dynamic her presence allows.

As for tech, having the projections on the strip curtain screen is a very good decision, minimising the consumption of space. The footage itself (videography by Poppy Pedder and Kofi Stone), is very humorous, and it is the writing of these scenelets that really communicates the ridiculous and the ironic, allowing us to regard the rest of the material offered in this performance appropriately as sensationalist and comedic. This performance derides its themes and content unashamedly and invites us through this footage to do the same, aware of its positively ludicrous and overdramatic nature from the very beginning. Very well-written scenelets. Lighting and sound (the latter designed by Harriet North) overall, however, are very badly operated. Design-wise, they are sufficient and facilitative, but their operation needs considerable refinement. Tech seems to function at far quicker a pace than the acting on stage, as though the technician is looking out for formal cues as opposed to considering the action on stage and the most appropriate time to dim the lights or play the sounds. This is most irritating at the end of the performance, when Sears has hardly finished his line before the blackout ensues, or during the Lizard King’s phone conversation with the Manager where the classic squeaking sound of the person on the other line is played too early, meaning that timing is off and the conversation does not match up. This needs to be urgently addressed.

Costume (designed by Isobel Pellow) is most befitting, communicating character incredibly well and being successful in uniting the singers, nay creating an imagined ‘brand’ for them. Costume is overly camp when necessary, and the comedic effect is hilarious. I would just recommend that Sears appear in a more familiar costume when portraying the Lizard King in his pedal-boating scene with Brooke. As it stands, it is far too similar to the French Choreographer’s, and we have not yet become familiar enough with her character to distinguish them correctly. Props are used efficiently, and I must note that the lizard eggs, in particular, are most impressively conceived. A revoltingly spectacular element.

Mentioning the lizard egg, however, brings me to my final, somewhat minor, comment: This performance maintains a performer-audience divide throughout, despite its recurrent self-referentiality, and this is a good decision for this particular text. Allowing for the pantomimic interaction when Brooke asks the audience if she should eat the Lizard King's eggs, resulting in Sears reprimanding the audience, "This isn't a pantomime!", is ineffective and subtractive. It causes for needless defictionalisation and awareness of the self and the Other amongst audience members. This interaction is stylistically inconsistent and should be removed.

Overall, this is truly a wonderful performance, sure of itself, its style and voice, and impressively structured. Performers are certainly talented, energised, committed and enjoyable to watch but must further develop their characters, ensuring that identity is clear from the moment they first step on stage. Expressivity is very much lacking, overall. Regardless, they retain more than sufficient conviction and vitality needed to maintain audience engagement and interest, and lack of extremity is an issue that is easily resolved. Visually powerful and cohesive, this is definitely a must-see performance.

“Intelligent, articulate, spectacular and sensational. A performance not to be missed!”


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