Looking Back On The Big Feast

Satisfying Your Appetite: The Big Feast 2016

Glenn James || August 30th

In keeping with the style of two productions staged at this Year’s Big Feast, my review will navigate between the Sublime and the Iniquitous, in the productions of “Bill and Bobby” and “The Aperitif”. Although fortunate enough to have seen most of this year’s revels, these two shows are so radically different I wanted to select them for special treatment, for their own individual merits and the sheer contrast between them.

Appetite Stoke continues to fulfil its mission of bringing the very best of shows and entertainers to the Potteries, and when you consider how high they set their own bar this is no mean feat. The productions which visit Staffordshire have an edge, something different and fresh to say, and they do not leave you lingering in accepted comfort zones. They make you question your own assumptions and reactions, and they challenge you to embark on fresh journeys you might have never even considered before. This was just the case again this year, and following the dazzling spectacle of “The Enchanted Chandelier” it made you wonder exactly what would be enfolding before our eyes in and around the streets of Hanley.

On Sunday afternoon there was a staging of “Bill and Bobby,” by the Stopgap Dance Company in Albion Square. Starring Dancers Dave Toole and Amy Butler, this was the inebriated ballet of two boozy revellers who have got in from a night of hitting the town, only to wake up, still merry to put it mildly, in the same bath as each other. If there is one thing which is pretty difficult for a performer to do convincingly then it’s to simulate being drunk: there’s a lot more to it than swaying about and singing off key at the top of your voice, while taking wild stabs at the revolving keyholes with your Yale Key! If you try too hard it’s just not convincing, and that’s the difference between getting it right and keeping the audience with you, or just looking ridiculous. These guys had it just about perfect.

There was that woozy delight, just this side of giggling, trying to keep your balance and just about doing it. They had the prefect light touch, and the two of them went through a series of dance routines inspired by the grand old Hollywood Glitz of MGM and Fred Astaire.

What I haven’t told you yet is that Dave is a performer who dances on his hands, and only occasionally utilises his wheelchair. And very graceful he proved to be, and there was a real delight between him and Amy Butler as they performed together. A real chemistry which you just can’t manufacture.

Stopgap Dance Company has this to say on their rationale: “Stopgap value a pioneering spirit and are committed to making discoveries about integrating disabled and non-disabled people through dance. Our productions seek to offer a window into a parallel world where human interdependence, strength and vulnerability play out with poetic realism.”

On arriving for the performance I was a little unsure about where it was going to go, as it sounded unusual and eccentric, and I was prepared for something perhaps left of field. Dave was dressed very elegantly in tales, and I wasn’t sure how this was going to unfold. Amy was dressed in a beautiful white gown, and she carelessly made her way across to fall into the bath beside her unseen friend. But the story unfolded with huge charm between them.

I think it was the bemused way he peered over the side, as if to say “Hello then, who’s this?” which really made me laugh, it was such a natural reaction and he did it brilliantly.

There was a lot of very funny dazed confusion as they got tangled up trying to extract themselves from the porcelain and each other, and then they really got down to performing their dance routines, utilising the bath between them very cleverly, and Dave exhibiting a grace which was downright enviable.

They had it bang on. There was a warmth and romantic spark between them, and a certain respect which came across in spades. The whole performance was extremely clever, and the applause when they reached the finale was loud and very appreciative.

In complete contrast, there was the dark and brooding tale of “The Aperitif”, staged by Wet Picnic. Sardonic, vengeful, revolutionary and brooding, but very funny in a pitch black way, it was staged rather appropriately at Parliament Square. Everyone in the audience was kitted out with earphones so we could participate in the performance, listening to the story unfold. Grinning Butlers led us through our paces in a palace Coup, to bump off ‘orrible Lord Gredus, a bloated wrecking ball of a man with a straggling grey bread.

This was pitch black dark comedy.

The Butlers were all arrogant, and about as suave as Casanova on steroids, straight backed, disdainful and posing, with louche cigarettes and black ties. But they grinned at everyone taking part, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, moving like dancers, mercury across the floor. I could not stop thinking of the host in “Cabaret”, that refuge from an F. W. Murnau Horror film, with his white face and grin, and that oily sinister movement. They all moved like that and it was as creepy as hell. The head waiter was as imperious as a dictator, (unsurprisingly), and it was he who was the instigator of the plot to bump off his Lord and Master.

Lord Gredus was to be done to death, and we were all invited to partake in the act. This involved feeding him till he exploded, rather like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python. To this end, we were invited to explore his garden, in mime, (an area set out in great black and white squares like a giant chess board) and to befriend all the hopping bunnies. Then we had to pick them all up and snap their necks.

(I told you it was dark….)

Then there was befriending the birds, before blowing them out of the sky, and a lovely brown eyed moo cow, before dismembering her for steaks! There was a pretty solid vegetarian subtext involved in the performance, and by this point I had stood back to observe, and my own children were taking part. I saw uncertain smiles on many a face when going through the actions, and it clearly got the participants thinking about the themes involved firmly, so it achieved an aim with blood red accuracy.

Lord Gredus entered the dining room, a vast wobbly old man with a comb over, shaped a bit like a giant Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire Pudding with feet and a grotty beard. A production line of morsels wound their way towards his little red lane, all enacted with the same dark comedy, finishing with the head waiter standing on the table and shoving a whole cows leg into his mouth, which finished him off in one go.

A case of biting off more than you can chew if ever there was one.

The head Butler stood triumphantly on the table as the other waiters unfurled the tricorn flag of the French republic, and sang “La Marseillaise”

There were deep currents in this play: Revolution, environmentalism, animal rights, class war and capitalism, as well as any number of film references, and allusions to the style of french new Wave movies.

This was classy stuff, strong meat for an August Bank Holiday, and a well mounted sophisticated production.

For me, it reminded me strongly of Peter Greenways 80’s film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover,” which has the same concoction of greed, jealousy, murder, and pitch black humour. It was Shakespearian in tone, and also reminded me of the equally dark “Delicatessen”, with it cannibalism and thinly veiled currents of violence. There was a hint of punk about it, a touch of “Jubilee”.

And at the same time it was an enjoyably strange, creepy production which the family could take part in without feeling violated or outraged. A startlingly sharp and fresh production for the Big Feast, with its Butlers donning fish heads to serve to Glutton his Piscean course. I came away thinking over everything about it, and that is the triumph of a well-staged production. It makes you think.

Congratulations to all concerned, this has been a summer to remember.