The Performance, by Iain Gibbons and staged at The Warren for the Brighton Fringe, is something rather special. It is a one man/clown show that pokes fun at all the times you’ve sat by an insufferable audience member or struggled through a play that isn’t going quite as expected. Iain Gibbons here is the audience. He is the staff of the theatre. He is the performance itself. Indeed The Performance is a wonderfully absurd and hilarious creation with Iain Gibbons opening up his inner-child to deliver a performance of which Rowan Atkinson would be proud.
It’s rather tricky to know where exactly it all kicks off with this show. The Performance begins just before the “performance” begins. Queuing outside the venue, The Usher (Iain Gibbons) directs everyone towards their seats, greets people on the way in, and hands out information on today’s performance. This may somewhat bemuse the audience as they rapidly discover that they are not here to see Iain Gibbons. You are about to see the “world famous” Jacques-Baptiste Weckbach’s Tango-infused interpretative dance performance about laminate flooring. Suddenly, it is a show within a show. We are the audience for Mr Weckbach’s show and the audience for The Performance; said performance being that of Mr Weckbach. Nice and simple, right?
We are informed that Mr Weckbach, trained in the North Korean state academy, is the pioneer of the “Dorset Ramble” – an approach to movement influenced by the shapes created by people walking around Chesil Beach (such as the renowned “head-nod” and “poop scoop”). The Usher is enraged to discover that there is a latecomer, banging at the door after they have already been closed. He blasts out of the theatre and leaves the audience in quiet confusion. Then, with a tiny creak of the door, sneaks through the latest member of the audience; Geraint (Iain Gibbons). In the thickest of Welsh accents, he apologises and attempts to bump into every single audience member as he tries to choose his seat, his popcorn in hand and his oversized backpack becoming more acquainted with people’s faces. After finally coming to a rest amongst the audience, he then notices a prime untaken seat, the one that is one stage. He slams his way past everyone again and gets comfy. After battling with his bags, his food, his phone and the absence of his date, the performance finally begins. Emerging onto the stage in a tuxedo and top hat is…Jacques Baptiste Weckbach (unsurprisingly, Iain Gibbons).
This character is perhaps the most “grotesque” of Gibbons’ creations. Weckbach is a humourless and pretentious chap who believes truly and unshakingly in one thing: himself. This mainly leads to a battle with the sound technician who constantly cues the music either at the wrong moment or at entirely the wrong speed. Gibbon’s facial and vocal work here is sublime as he flings himself between talking sweetly to the audience, attempting to begin his dance, and shooting death glares to the technician. He barks orders back and forth to the technician, attempting to then solve the issue by calling upon an audience member to help him. This, unsurprisingly, is Geraint. What unfolds is that the technical issues were the Machiavellian schemes of The Usher, their purpose being to drive Weckbach off stage and claim the spotlight for his autobiographical epic: “In the Dark: An Ushers tale”. The battle for the stage begins.
It is upon this ridiculous premise that the show bounces along. We see Geraint’s desperate attempts to call his now ex-girlfriend after his phone accidentally slides down hole in his pocket into his lower leg. Geraint weeps and whispers to his thigh-phone whilst trying and failing to not disturb Weckbach and the audience around him. What follows are rapid fire movements between characters that result in an argument and a fight between all three in which Gibbons darts around the stage, rapidly changing between a top hat, bobble hat, and usher’s hat whilst yelling. Punches are thrown and much delayed tumbles follow. It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. It captures a certain child-like humour that is a delight to watch whilst never coming across as annoying or overly immature. A connoisseur’s clown if you will.
However, the nature of this “performance” makes it somewhat tricky to seriously analyse. Gibbons is masterful with his use of facial movement to squeeze every chuckle from the audience. He swiftly and frequently transitions between playing the role of usher, star of the show and obnoxious audience member. Therefore, it is not too hard to extrapolate that this show is very self-aware. However, despite always being on the edge of shattering the illusion of theatre, it doesn’t exactly annihilate the fourth wall but instead constantly teases it with a swing of a sledgehammer that turns out to just be a tickle. It is as truly commendable feat to create a solo performance that lovingly pokes holes in the wider theatre-going experience whilst carefully treading the line between brazen parody and quiet comedy. This feat is achieved due to the excellence in which Iain Gibbons transitions from Mr Bean-esque physical comedy into the more absurd verbal silliness familiar to Fry and Laurie and Monty Python.
Nevertheless, The Performance is not a grand critique of audience and actor, nor should it have to be. Gibbons here embodies the most pretentious and ludicrous theatre and the most annoying possible person you could end up sat next to. Everyone has had that one occasion where the guy next to you decided to eat the noisiest food in the world or decide that now is the optimal time for a quick chat. It almost seems disingenuous to the spirit of the play to pick apart symbolism and meaning between the relations of audience, staff and actor. In true comedic fashion, these ideas are embraced fully and turned up to eleven.
The Performance is a relentlessly entertaining and light-hearted piece carried by a performer of real talent. Gibbons has the audience in his hand before you even enter the theatre. He has created a piece for anyone to enjoy, whether they have a bit of experience in seeing live performance or not. The Performance charms with its own unique blend of physical, verbal and self-aware comedy. However, I’d probably give Weckbach’s show on laminate flooring a miss.