Spoiler alert: I loved this show. This reviewer is desperately trying to think of something constructive to offer in a couple of paragraphs time, because ‘nothing is ever perfect’, but I have to admit, this show came pretty damn close. Soft Tissue, created and performed by Ella Gilbert (with direction from co-creator Jade Eriksen) is an hour-long deep dive into the twisted imagination of its creators. This solo clowning show is a playful, political probe into the ‘performance of womanhood’ that will leave you crying with laughter and also with anger at the patriarchal forces still at work in 2019.
The show has no set except for the black box Random Stage Theatre at BATS, whose walls and pillars feature in an endearing discovery section by the solo performer, where she seems amazed by its very presence. “WOW, its beautiful…” she whispers with total sincerity, whilst gesturing to a plain black wall that suddenly does seem worth noticing. There are three doors at the back, which remain open, revealing a corridor that is used throughout. Essentially, this is a show of entrances and exits with the character and the concepts all flowing in and out of the space, giving us moments to reflect on what we’ve just seen. Gilbert, dressed in what I can only describe as a full body stretch bandage, matching magnolia kitten heels and a cream bonnet that frames her face to create an exaggerated mask-like focus on her expressions, (costume design by Anuwela Howarth) entertains us with Bouffon- inspired physicality and impeccably delivered, improvisational sequences.
The show starts with an off-stage giggle, and it only takes seconds for the audience to join in. Soon, Gilbert has us in stitches with her bizarrely babyish character whose made up ‘language’ allows for the odd recognisable English word to emerge. The sudden slip of an understandable phrase such as “Stuck between a rock and a…you know” always sparks an eruption of laughter from the audience, who hang off Gilbert’s every incoherent word. Gilbert adheres to the clowning rulebook; constantly checking that we are still part of whatever game she is currently playing and repeating anything we seem to like. This darkly comic clown is immediately so peculiar she makes sense. Amongst affirmation’s of beauty we see the character engage in the grotesque until we are squirming in our seats, silently willing her not to ‘lick the milk’.
Through expert audience interactions, perfectly timed moments of physical comedy and genius prop work, Gilbert keeps us in fits of laughter right up until she decides to shock with something undeniably real. Suddenly I am watching a woman, dressed sparsely, running away from the audience and screaming as we provide ‘woof woof ‘sounds with disturbing enthusiasm. I find myself feeling suddenly culpable, and there is a distinctly uncomfortable shift in the theatre as the performer drags herself offstage by her elbows and we watch a woman’s bare legs disappear into the darkness. This show speaks to the ‘me too’ movement without mixing its words. But, unlike much of the conversation around this topic, this show laughs at itself, which is refreshingly honest and endears me to both the show and its subject.
The lighting, designed by Jade Eriksen and Michael Trigg (who also operates) helps propel our mood between the hilarious and the tragic with the flick of a switch. Highlights of this sublimely surreal solo hour include sporadic moments of high intensity music to accompany a breast jiggling dance motif. Despite the minimal tech, Trigg’s contribution is noted as a valid addition to a highly professional and well-constructed show. If I was searching for critique I could only direct it towards the male audience member who decided it was his place to shout out a ‘funny’ comment during one of the early parts of the show, which seemed unnecessary, but was handled expertly by Gilbert. We had plenty of opportunity to join in later when invited by the performer and his ‘joke’ only served to highlight why pieces like this, that give women a platform and a voice, (if only for an hour) are relevant and important and should be able to run uninterrupted.
This charming and versatile performer pushes everything to its absolute limit, and then pushes a little further until you aren’t sure exactly what to feel. The whole thing lies somewhere between a tantrum and a talent show, which perfectly expresses the paradoxical reality of the female experience. Soft Tissue lives in the extremes and in the details. In the moment before a laugh when Gilbert has you right where she wants you and you don’t even know it. She simultaneously embodies every unapologetic mother who breast-feeds in public and every woman’s inner critic, with a scattering of the dirty fantasy we keep locked away in the darkest parts of our souls.
Though this show dabbles in a loose narrative, it is more of a series of vignettes dissecting both the standards that woman are held up to in the outside world and, indeed, inside our own heads. It is, in equal measure, a reminder to the messy amongst us and to those of us screaming into tissues and forcing a smile and an ‘’I’m fine, thank you”, that it is always ok to be more than “a little bit angry”.
Soft Tissue is on at 6.30pm at BATS until the 7th March as part of Fringe. For tickets click here.
For the full Program visit the Fringe Website.