[Review:] TRANSIENCE, The Bread and Roses Theatre, London.
This show was part of the Clapham Fringe. To book your tickets for any of the Fringe events, click here.
I will start by clarifying that this show is a work in progress. However, it is one that I believe to be on track to being a rather strong performance.
Solo standup comedian Chloe Petts’s demeanour when we first enter the room is welcoming and laid-back as she greets every one of us. She is conversational, informal, warm, inviting and a little cooky. Starting the show with a fumbling and dysfunctional tech that she ‘has done herself’, talking at us from the back of the house at the tech desk, there is a certain degree of unprofessionalism. But this does not do her a disservice. In fact, these factors together contribute to a very relatable and engaging persona. As an audience, we are made to feel comfortable with her, at ease. As she wanders through the house, talking to each of us directly, she dismantles the audience-performer barrier and, in doing so, causes us to feel as though we are active participants, free to interact with her – and perhaps each other. This is a great setup for comedy, as now we feel that we have a recognised presence in the space, which comes with the freedom to laugh.
Petts certainly nurtures this relationship with her audience well, demonstrating great ability to personalise each of her performances. After interacting with individual audience members, which she does on a regular basis, and mostly to her benefit, Petts incorporates the gags that come of these interactions into her material well. She also avails herself of audience utterances, laughs and other notable moments that, when highlighted as they are, self-reference the risibility of the audience and the comedic nature of the performance. This is done consistently and, overall, appropriately, with just the right frequency. This is a great method, and I commend Petts for her effective use of it.
Though theme is not currently communicated well at all through the material [more on this below], Petts's content retains a good degree of topicality and personality, dealing with subjects in which she has a keen interest or of which she has particularised opinions, and managing to humorise these and infuse them with subjectivity and individuality. For example, the persona she concretises as a 'tom-boyish lesbian' certainly plays a good part in this and equips Petts with her unique selling point of comedy, so to speak. This latter is to great avail, as well, particularly when her audience is mostly queer, as it was pointed out to be on the night I saw this show. However, I ruminate over how big a role lesbianism and other matters derivative of this play in this show when an audience is [supposedly / believed by Petts to be] almost exclusively straight. I would recommend she not change how big a role these matters play, as I believe her gender identity and sexuality play a monumental role, at least with this particular text, in influencing her content and persona.
Now, I do have a few notable negatives. My first is quite a significant negative: do not, under any circumstances, work in progress or not, perform with a script. The perceived 'safety' of a script on stage causes a comedian to relax to such a degree that they forget their material. Panic then ensues, and panic is not good for memory, meaning that reliance upon the script is further augmented, and the cycle ensues. This was a cycle evident in Petts's performance here. Scripts also look untidy and communicate to an audience that the comedian cannot function alone, that it is the material itself that is funny and not the comedian, that the comedian is simply the messenger and that the real show lies within the text alone.
I would advise Petts remember that this is still a paying audience whose members are giving up their time to see her performance. Whilst they can appreciate a work in progress and that comedy shows have to 'start somewhere', it is a lot more difficult to appreciate that they have spent money on something that communicates itself emphatically – more than it should – as half-baked, unready.
It was clear to me that Petts was – at least, superficially – making notes on what jokes worked and what jokes did not. Rather than stopping, turning away from the audience, burying her nose in her notebook, and, most importantly, subtracting from the time she spends engaging with her audience, I recommend that Petts record her experimental performances and rewatch them alone in order to take notes privately, inconspicuously, as an artist. One must remember that in comedy, timing is everything. So, equally, pacing is everything. And turning to a script is a surefire way to slow pacing right down. Work in progress or not, before performing in front of a paying audience, Petts should memorise her material and perform it without external supports like a script, and this should be noted for all future performances.
Every audience should feel special, treated, not just a Guinea pig to test on for something better that is coming along shortly and that they might not see if they do not pay for another ticket and come back again. And this brings me to a similar issue: Petts references persistently that this is a work in progress. This should be avoided. What is communicated here is "I am funny, I promise! I just don't know the joke properly yet." This allows for a loss in performer credibility and hence our trust – our trust in the comedian's ability to make us laugh and in the space as one which permits us the freedom of laughter. It also communicates "There is a better version of these jokes, and you will not see it tonight." This can cause for a sense of impatience and deflation. Again, avoid. It is common knowledge, even from common, everyday joke-telling, that as soon as the teller says, "Hold on, I can't remember how it goes", momentum and effect are dampened considerably. An audience can appreciate that this is a work in progress, but constant reiteration of that fact is counterproductive. Reiterating this does not placate an audience or make them more risible, more understanding; instead, it frustrates and offends and allows for a sense of exclusivity, half-heartedness and also disloyalty.
Before I continue, I should clarify here that any extreme disengagement is definitely impermissible by Petts and the open and joyful environment she creates. She has far too strong a persona, complete with vitality, character, lovable idiosyncrasies and a great and engaging demeanour. She is a joy to watch, and her material shines through.
Does material scream its theme of 'transience', though? Certainly not. Though references to the end of humanity, eco-anxiety and relative existential crises do make a recurrent appearance, they are not enough alone to unify the material and give it an overall identity. It feels as though transience inspired the show but ended up having nothing to do with the final text. Any references that are made to transience are sterile, almost academic, as though Petts is really trying to come across as though she has framed and structured her material seriously and has given a lot of thought to it…and then her next joke is about fat men playing darts. The humour lies not in any theme but in the random, unrelated and muddled material, which often playfully caricaturises and criticises the Other. The themes of sport or anxiety, for example, come up more than transience where comedic material is concerned, in fact.
I recognise that this text is in its early conception, and I also recognise that this might be disheartening for Petts, but I do not think the theme of transience adds anything of value or credit to her performance. It is completely overlookable and, if anything, subtractive. If the theme of transience cannot be better solidified, and better humorised, it should be forgotten entirely. Rather than having any theme, I do not see why this performance cannot simply be named 'an evening with', as this is what the material better equates to. I do not believe any audience would be saddened to see this change, either. Better yet, a vaguer theme, an example of which might be Sarah Millican’s show, Chatterbox. A great and effective title that allows her to get away with just rambling about anything and everything; anything she could say is ‘on topic’, because the only theme is that she talks a lot. Furthermore, this title is effective because it communicates something about Millican's identity, her personality and character. Petts's show in its current form could benefit from a name like this, I believe.
Those really are my only negative criticisms, but they are quite fundamental and persistent ones, hence the rating I give this work. As I have written repeatedly, both the material delivered in this show and the performer delivering it are both a treat to experience. I would just recommend more careful thought towards the organisation of material, in regard to what I have mentioned above.