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People Show 137: God Knows How Many at Southwark Playhouse

People Show 137: Back in 10 minutes - Credit Sheila Burnett
People Show 137: Back in 10 minutes – Credit Sheila Burnett

Two-thirds of the way through People Show 137 – God Knows How Many I was starting to think about my review of the latest performance piece from The People Show, the UK’s longest-running experimental theatre group. I was going to write how this surreal – or was it Dadaist – piece of theatre had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it. There was a tiny automaton or was it a puppet, who introduced the show in a French accent and sang “La Mer”. Then a man in a bowler hat and long brown coat came on and removed the blackboard that said, “Back in 10”. He was followed by an elderly man naked except for the kind of loin-cloth Gandhi wore – or was it a giant nappy?

Then a man – or was it a woman? – entered the stage in a wet raincoat holding a dripping umbrella. Under the raincoat was the kind of uniform that French waitresses wore back in the fifties. The near-naked man returned fully clothed and struck up a conversation with the “waitress” in rudimentary French. Then the velvet curtain in front of a mini stage opened and behind it was a “train carriage” onto which Man One (or should that be Homme Un?) boarded and then Man Two (the “waitress”) became a ticket collector. Later on, the mini-stage revolved and became a box in a theatre. The man in the bowler hat and long brown coat had changed into a natty waistcoat and reappeared with a guitar. Man One and Man Two who were sitting in the theatre box holding brass instruments, were joined by a fourth man carrying a saxophone and the quartet proceeded to play “Blueberry Hill” – badly!. This was followed by the appearance of six robotic legs above the musicians doing the “Can-Can”. There were also magic tricks, a cremation urn containing ashes, laser beams and tennis balls full of wet sand!

At this point, it looked as my review would point out the silliness and possibly the pointlessness of it all. I realise surrealism – or is it “theatre of the absurd” – doesn’t have to have a point and maybe that was the point but it all took a left turn – or was it a U-turn when Man One and Man Two started speaking English and discussing how as they aged, how difficult life had become for two old theatrical troupers whose best days were behind them. They’d been working together for years but they couldn’t do now what they could do when they were younger – that’s if they could remember what it was they did back then! There was a certain sadness and poignancy to this section of the piece but I’m not sure it made up for the somewhat forced nature of what went before.

So many questions – but no real answers. In the programme it says: “Our non-hierarchical approach to creating live performance and new theatrical work has always gone against the grain and resisted form” and that’s certainly the case with People Show 137 – God Knows How Many. The company has been going since 1966 and this is their 137th (hence the title!) production so they must be doing something right – it just left me a little cold and judging by the lack of any real laughter from the rest of the audience, maybe it did for them too. As someone once said (or did they?), what’s the French for avant-garde?

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

1966, a Soho basement. The People Show was born. Born site-specific, immersive, screaming and always visual.

With the company now archiving and reflecting on their first 50 years, they surge onwards.

From the troubadours of the Parisian boulevards of yesteryear to today’s global corporate domination, People Show 137: God Knows How Many, will take you precisely nowhere. But on the way you will laugh, possibly cry, and feel a sense of what it is we might be doing here.

Emil Wolk, George Khan, Mark Long – People Show stalwarts – and Bill Palmer of Avanti Display, come together for a new show. Years of tumbling, verbal and musical gymnastics are taken to the next dimension. A darker dimension where the momentary nature of life is confronted and challenged.

Formed in 1966 and acknowledged as the UK’s longest-running alternative theatre company, People Show has been creating devised performances in theatres, in telephone boxes, on streets, on water, for five decades, and its radically disruptive influence has made a major contribution to the current theatre landscape.

People Show presents
People Show 137: God Knows How Many
Created and Conceived by Mark Long, Emil Wolk, George Khan,
Bill Palmer and Nigel Edwards
Special Effects Design by Dr Dave Southall and Bill Palmer of Avanti Display
Maureen is voiced by Nicola Blackwell
Additional Arrangements by Nick Tigg
French Radio by Fred De Faye

Southwark Playhouse
77-85 Newington Causeway
London SE1 6BD

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