Musical theatre has often been accused of being nothing more than ‘light entertainment’, labelled with a stereotypical image of fluffy glitz and jazz hands. Anyone who has actually been to a West End show and experienced it for themselves though, will tell you that there is so much more to the world of musical theatre. In the interest of honesty, yes, there are some shows which could be found guilty of favouring spectacle over substance, but there are far more that deal with very real and relevant themes. Les Miserables is probably the show which first springs to mind: you have a man who has become a victim of 19th century French rule and the uprising of a people who are fighting back against the unjustness of the time for one thing. Les Miserables explores the definition of right and wrong, the separation between rich and poor, and chronicles a time of historic importance – hardly ‘light entertainment’. It’s not alone either. At the core, Matilda is about a the cruel neglect of a child and the importance of standing up against injustice, Phantom is about the rejection of a man who doesn’t fit in with society’s projected image of ‘normality’, Ghost is about the effect that death has on a person and the strength of love, and Wicked is about people’s judgement of appearance and how influential perspective is in saying what is good or bad. Are these shows entertaining? Of course but, to steal a quote, they’re also like onions – they have layers.
Musical theatre may be built around significant themes, but they also dress them up in song and dance. Plays are generally considered to be on the more ‘intelligent’ side of theatre, but while they certainly do express their themes and issues in a more open fashion, audience members will often have different opinions as to the writer’s intent in a particular scene or wording. Plays are open to interpretation and the writer’s meaning is sometimes never truly discovered. So for those who like their theatre to wear its message a little more on the sleeve where it’s plain to see, they may need to look further afield.
There is a rich variety of works to be found that have a very focused theme to them, all of them dealing with a wide range of current issues within our modern society. It may be to do with sexuality, promiscuity, drug abuse or, another topic which seems to be all the rage these days: alcohol. Every day the papers are reporting on child alcoholics, celebrity alcoholics, binge drinkers or the generation of youths who have been corrupted by the evils of drinking…it’s never-ending. Alcohol has created many a heated debate and is often blamed for no end of problems in our country – it’s a hot topic which is being explored, not only by politicians and the media, but by theatre as well.
Bryony Kimmings is one person who has tackled the subject of alcohol. She is a performance artist who took her latest show 7 Day Drunk to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and, following its success there, has just embarked on a UK tour. 7 Day Drunk was an experiment created over a seven day period in an attempt to explore the link between alcohol and creativity. Many creative-types have problems with substance abuse and Kimmings herself shares that there is a link between alcohol and her work as an artist. Kimmings was kept in varying states of intoxication over those seven days to fully explore that link, with input given by professionals from a range of related professions, such as neurologists and sociologists. 7 Day Drunk is a combination of film from that experiment with song and dance performance.
I actually interviewed Kimmings when she took her show to Latitude Festival, where she explained that the concept behind 7 Day Drunk arose from that fact that “I often debate with myself whether alcohol fuels my art or if I just think it does. I wanted to see if alcohol made me a better or worse artist, I also wanted to look at people’s relationship to the stuff too.” I found myself quite fascinated by her intellectual and distinctive approach to the issue of our links to and dependence on alcohol and was intrigued as to what she hoped to achieve or prove with this work. Speaking about the desired audience response, she stressed that entertaining them and creating an interest in the subject matter was important to her, as well as hopefully sending them home, “considering their own dependencies on things and whether or not they are necessary or real. What is this relationship we have with alcohol… what does it say about us as human beings? Why is it considered cool for an artist to be a drunk, but not a guy who lost his job and has to sleep rough?”
Kimmings’ one-woman show is very straight-forward in what it’s all about, and it is a brilliantly creative means of exploring the area of alcohol in our society. A show like this is an effecting way of getting people talking and, most importantly, thinking – probably more so than a bunch of politicians lecturing them would do. She’s not the only one trying to get a decent discussion going on either.
Another Edinburgh Fringe Festival show, Thirsty, is currently touring the UK until April 2012. From theatre company The Paper Birds, Thirsty is a ‘forensic examination of the highs and horrors of binge drinking’. The company mixes verbatim text from real life confessions (left on a hotline set up by the company) with live music and physical performance. People from all around the country called in with their stories of drunken experiences, including tales of ‘bizarre stag night excess, sexual abuse and even accidental death’.
Shows like 7 Day Drunk and Thirsty deal with what is a very relevant issue, and there are plenty more to be found out there. They entertain as well as educate and explore, so those who dismiss theatre as an irrelevant or indulgent art form perhaps need to look at it without that blinkered vision and open their minds a little more to the power of theatre.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)