Wendy Houstoun is an artist who keeps the great British tradition of anarchic physical theatre alive, if but barely kicking. It’s a tradition that conceived Monty Python, punk rock and – in dance – Liz Aggiss and the late Nigel Charnock, with whom Houstoun enjoyed an inspirational partnership. Stupid Women has now undergone several iterations since it premiered at the Juncture Festival in Yorkshire. Not by coincidence, from 2006, Charnock had toured a show entitled Stupid Men and so – as with her previous solo show (Pact with Pointlessness, for which she won a National Dance Award in 2014) – we can see this as another instalment in Houstoun’s ongoing homage to Charnock.
But Houstoun’s latest shows could not be more different. Pact with Pointlessness is tightly-knit, requiring disciplined control over long passages of repeated monologues, closely – poetically – interlinked with clever word associations. Stupid Women is deliberately without discipline. It is billed as “a celebration of immediacy….starting with the empty page”. At the outset, even the performers don’t know how long the show will last: not less than an hour but no more than 90 minutes seems to be their rule of thumb. The music that accompanies the six women performers is credited as “sound found on the night” and included extracts from the soundtrack of The Chorus Line and an instrumental version of Total Eclipse of the Heart amongst many other musical snippets, invariably broken off before the end.
Although Houstoun is not billed as a performer, I include her as such since her onstage role as director requires several interventions of giving instruction, moving artefacts, typing up messages that are screened onto the back wall and so on. At one point, roughly two-thirds of the way through the piece (which, by the way, concluded at around the 80-minute mark), Houstoun stops the show and asks the audience for advice. After a few seconds of collective shyness, one man shouts out “more singing” and another follows up with “let’s hear the rest of Total Eclipse of the Heart”, whereupon one of Houstoun’s performers bravely obliges, largely off-key.
Top of my list for praise must be the technical team who kept such an unkempt show serviced with light and sound. It couldn’t be easy for Chris Copland and Marco Cifre to stay on top of a performance that wandered where it pleased!
Houstoun has the anarchic funny gene. She is skilled at delivering spoken text with natural comic timing shrouded in an air of nervous uncertainty. She opens the show – with her five co-performers standing behind her holding a flag with “Welcome” written across it – by explaining that there are evaluation forms to be completed and giving helpful hints about how we should fill them in. Whenever she spoke or intervened the show seemed uplifted but the problem was that her involvements were too few and far between.
I can be fascinated by improvised physical theatre and that peculiar sense of “what next” that hangs in one’s expectations throughout every sequence. But, here even that anticipation palled in the blur of apparently disconnected activity onstage. Occasionally, a nugget of sense emerged from the disparate episodes such as when one woman dragged a cumbersome five-aside football goal from the storage area behind the stage, pulling it laboriously from one side to another and then back into storage again; this occurred while Marvin Hamlisch’s opening number of The Chorus Line – that iconic dance auditionee’s’ prayer of “I Hope I Get It”- played in the foreground with four performers mirroring the step instructions of the audition’s dance master. Rightly or wrongly, this juxtaposition of activity resonated with the idea of the “goalposts being moved” in terms of what is expected of dancers in auditions. Later, however, speaking to audience members without English as their first language, it became clear that the metaphor of “moving the goalposts” was completely lost on them.
And, in a sense, this sums up my own struggle to find an ongoing connection with Stupid Women. It had playful moments; one admired the courage of the performers in appearing metaphorically naked (in terms of no pre-determined material) before a paying audience; and Houstoun herself is a goddess of fun. My review of Pact with Pointlessness concluded by saying that “it is daring, draining – emotionally, mentally and physically – and disarmingly charming”. This iteration of Stupid Women falls well short of such praise. It was unquestionably free-flowing and deliberately (and to some extent charmingly) disorganised, but it neither challenged my thoughts nor engaged my emotions with any consistency. It failed – for me, at any rate – the acid test of being entertaining.