I am the person who never wants to be picked out of the audience when the audience participation bit happens. I am the one who cowers in their seat hoping not to be pointed at or spoken to or even acknowledged. I am the one who wants to watch but not play. At the end of Gym Party I chose to get involved. That is how much I liked it.
There are definitely spoilers in this. Made in China change their shows constantly, so if it tours or keeps going I don’t know if the spoilers will matter. But there are absolutely spoilers of how it works in its current form.
Last year at the Fringe, when I saw AKHE’s Mr Carmen, I largely didn’t enjoy it. It was visually amazing but I found a lot of it distressing – the downing of the vinegar and the surprise penis, for example. It was like the TV show Jackass, but artsy (read: pretentious). I think because Mr Carmen, to me, didn’t seem to be exploring any themes or trying to say much, the whole gross out thing appeared ultimately futile and so I did not like it.
Gym Party also has a tendency to feel a bit like you are watching live art Jackass, but in this instance I thought it was fucking amazing. It was about something and it felt relevant and it was irreverent and funny, whereas AKHE felt like it was taking itself a bit too seriously for something with what I thought was no discernible point to make. Although, I’m not sure how much I actually believe this, and how much of it is just that I really like Made In China after seeing We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?) a year or so ago. My affection for AKHE is minimal and so I don’t want to see someone smoking a rose, but I’ll feel thrilled at watching three people ram as many marshmallows in their faces as they possibly can.
I wasn’t necessarily expecting to like Gym Party. Partly because of all the AKHE based reasons above, and because a lot of things I had heard about it or read about it beforehand had said the ending was appalling. As it goes, the ending was a grim, I suppose. Although unlike most shows I saw at Fringe I had read and talked about Gym Party prior to seeing it, and so I had these expectations and actually found the ending not to be nearly as upsetting as I thought it might be. It was good, though.
The ending was not nearly the most disturbing part of the show, I found. In fact I think the reason I am being so accepting of and so affectionate towards all the marshmallow-mess-chewed-up-Skittle-oranges-rammed-in-the-face-ness of the show I’d normally abhor is that Gym Party contains two of the most memorable and potentially powerful ‘scenes’ I’ve seen in theatre. The first is mentioned in Andrew Haydon’s not-review of the show: Chris Brett-Bailey under a single spot, stood on a podium, playing a melancholic tune on guitar. This follows a series of monologues about the three performers awkward 12 year old selves which are simple and quite stilted in delivery but ultimately very beautiful. The moments during which Chris sings and plays guitar feel peaceful against the chaos of the rest of the show, like the two minutes silence during a remembrance parade otherwise full of bagpipes and drumming and loud, loud speeches. The other image is Jess, who is being penalised for losing a game, stood nose bleeding, again on a podium. She has removed her wig and her clothes and is wearing nothing but her underwear. To the side, Chris speaks into a microphone and slowly lists off her physical faults. As he describes the chunkiness of her thighs and how her haircut does not suit her face, I wanted to cry because this, more than the forced almost-drowning and beating with a golf club, felt brutal.
By the end of it, despite all the competition and horribleness, I wanted to give each of them a hug because I felt sorry for them. This is pretty much completely down to that song, and those monologues and the slagging off Jess went through. I’m not sure this is the point of the performance. It’s just a performance and I know that and I even know they know that, but at the end there’s an opportunity to make just one of them maybe happy even in context and I try (and, admittedly, fail) to take it.