[Review:] THE DIRTY THIRTY: INTERNATIONAL WOMXN’S DAY, Rosemary Branch Theatre, London.
Degenerate Fox perform The Dirty Thirty, a compilation of thirty micro-plays, weekly at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. No two performances are ever the same, as this compilation is edited every single time, with five plays deemed the weakest, or those that have been running for too long, being removed and replaced every week, meaning that this theatre company dedicatedly refine and contemporise their art on a regular basis. This review will consider the performance of 7th March, a performance in honour of International Wom[x]n’s Day.
The first thing I would note concerns the introduction to the performance and, more importantly, the explanation of the ‘rules’. Put simply, there are thirty micro-plays, each with its own title, and all numbered from one to thirty. The audience members call out the number they want, and the first and loudest takes presidency. One of thirty numbered pieces of paper is pulled down from a washing line strung high Downstage from wall to wall. Upon it is written the title of that micro-play, reminding the cast of which one to perform. The performers get ready, the title is “called”, and the micro-play we have all decided upon begins.
Whilst I understand that the majority of audience members are regulars and would understand these [strangely named] ‘rules’, and whilst these rules are altogether plain and simple once understood, their explanation, voiced on this particular night by Aiden, is frustratingly void of detail and remains utterly confounding. Understanding this structure is crucial to the performance, and if, as they purport, The Degenerate Fox want to include the audience as much as possible and have them run the night, as it were, this format should definitely be far better elucidated. With the company doing this on a weekly basis, one would imagine that a quick and clear explanation of the performance’s format would be rather second nature to the performers.
The second thing I would draw attention to concerns what happens before the performance. Before the audience enter, they are greeted by a blasé Jack sat behind a counter, asking each of them their name before writing another, completely different name upon a piece of paper, below ‘Hello, my name is…’. Not only does this feel rather bouncer-esque and somewhat overly formalised and confrontational, it again is very ill-communicated. One would imagine, in light of the performance’s homage, that these names are all in honour of female role models or influential women either forgotten in history or important to our society and its development [although, I was obviously not able to see if all of the names were names of women]. However, the significance of this is minimised, because it remains unmarked, unarticulated. It just seems as though an odd interaction with a quirky result.
More importantly, this makes for another complication in respect to the neofuturist concerns which the company profess to have [more on this later]. The Degenerate Fox claim to be very much anti-illusion, encouraging their audience to be their true selves and professing to do the very same as well. To have very little eye contact from Jack and to have him ask our names, then simply ignore them and ascribe us completely new identity seems somewhat of a backtrack from this.
Whilst audience engagement is encouraged, with performers requesting that members of the audience scream out the micro-play numbers, as detailed above, and whilst there is a professed absence of a fourth wall, full audience immersion, and a great sense of “community” amongst performers and spectators, there is very little opportunity for audience members to include themselves in the bustle and action, verbally or, indeed, physically. This is not an issue in itself but becomes problematic when acknowledging what the performers make their audience out to be compared to what the audience are actually permitted to be. Again, it also makes for a complication with the neofuturistic approach to theatremaking, which I shall now detail…
From the very beginning, The Degenerate Fox performers declare themselves neo-futurists. It becomes clear as the performance unfurls that the company share their values with The New York Neo-Futurists, from general aesthetic and the notable use of the washing line to the manner in which they structure their performances, e.g. with the “menu” of plays — harking back to the dawn of futurist cooking — to working ethos. This ethos is one which demands that performers be authentically themselves and that the theatre they produce be non-illusory, i.e. their work should not make use of psychological realism or transport the audience to fictional wonderlands through plot and character but should, instead, be not merely a mirror to but a part of the real world, where actors are people and the theatre is…just that, a theatre. For the majority of the performance, this trajectory is achieved wonderfully.
Right from the start, this concept of non-illusion is articulated distinctly through certain clear artistic decisions. First, we have Jack’s greeting, then we enter into a deliberately understated stage in which we catch the performers setting up in preparation for the performance, and, of course, there are the transitions between micro-plays during which we see performers race to ready themselves in the shortest of time for the next scenes, using the time to joke amongst themselves and with us. However, on that note, I should just mention that momentum is permitted to fall quite frequently during these transitions, with performers overusing the same jokes (such as Jack’s feeling hot under the polyester dress he is wearing) or, at times, not doing anything at all, remaining silent and distant. Nevertheless, these moments teem with personality and vigour, overall. Performers even make sure to promote their social media accounts to audience members, both to contextualise the play in the present day and to heighten the fact that these are real people before us who exist beyond the stage, not mere transient, fictional characters.
So, who are these real people? And what are we presented of them? The performers in this company are all members of the queer/LGBT+ community. They hence possess very particular perspectives on and connections with gender, sexuality and its discourses, making them a perfect advocate for Women’s International Day, it would seem. And what a better way to start than with ‘Autoboobographies’, a most powerful, poignant and thought-provoking micro-play that presents sound clips of various women detailing their differing relationships to their breasts, before the only performer on stage, Lauren, makes a quirky yet significantly celebratory boob-print portrait that will hang on the back wall of the black box for the rest of the performance, all as chance would have it!
The cast seem like the best advocates, then, yet the presented narratives on gender — at least, for this particular performance — remain highly rudimentary and uninformative, primarily focusing on Aiden’s self-identification as a woman…and…well, that’s pretty much it. “I can be a woman if I want” is really the extent of the narrative provided here, across all applicable micro-plays. The performers could do a lot more with the experience and knowledge they have, creating strong messages founded by the required intellect and understanding, to really celebrate and empower queer and LGBT+ people as distinctly needed and to educate the unenlightened. The material surrounding this is simply too shallow.
Gender and sexuality aside, these performers are all wonderful, energised and vitalised performers, full of personality, drive and a palpable passion. I would just like to see a lot more from Aiden who remains a distinct anomaly in the group, dawdling aimlessly around the stage, competing fallibly with Sergio to call the scenes, failing to keep in time with [a very simple] rhythm in one particular micro-play, and appearing generally indecisive and unsure of herself.
I should stress that the company possess a very significant and powerful initiative but that this is sometimes compromised by the fictional elements in certain scenes (my head goes to ‘How I Imagine Jack Has Felt…’ and ‘Charity Shop Chic’ as examples for this). Nevertheless, the initiative is, overall, well communicated and well executed. One important feature of this performance is its ability to take historical events, figures, contexts, etc. and demonstrate, on the whole, their relationship to and lasting effect upon the modern day (an example of this being ‘Lucy Locket…’).
I shall finish by noting the tech-heaviness of this performance. Comprising an extreme amount of cues, presumably pre-organised in order to be picked at random, tech is operated with expert management. Graham is certainly very skilled. Yet, with tech manages to remain absolutely complementary and not too intense or overused. It is definitely most successful.
Overall, this is an extremely promising performance, proving an incredible versatility, expressing very positive sociopolitical values and deriving from a highly intelligent and radical initiative.