I should have known better. Going to a Wendy Houstoun gig with a pre-conceived notion of what to expect is indeed a pact with pointlessness. I had read that her new 50-minute solo show was inspired by the impact of being ‘knocked sideways by death’, in this case the terminal cancer that so quickly took the life of Nigel Charnock (aged just 52) during the first week of the London Olympic Games (one of the final photos of Charnock captures him in a bath at his hospice, holding an Olympic torch). Houstoun and Charnock were close contemporaries, working together in DV8 (who can forget them both in Strange Fish) and subsequently as independent movement artists. Houstoun – now 55 – explained in a recent interview that when Charnock died she “just closed the door and lay down for two months”. And so, I came to this performance armed with the expectation that Pact with Pointlessness would be riven with tragedy; her rage against the theft of creative potential in this senseless case of a life terminated so early.
There is certainly poignancy a-plenty in this one-woman show but it comes without a scintilla of maudlin sentimentality. Death may always skirt the edges of her work. In fact, it could be argued to be ever-present, from the opening explanation that this is a “brief thing… without pauses or gaps” (a monologue subsequently repeated twice more), which we take at face value to refer to the piece itself but with a clear and obvious relevance to mortality (particularly brief when applied to the death of a 52 year-old); to the continuing theme of dying and dead computers in graphics that might be derivations of the opening credits of the IT Crowd. Then there is the liberal scattering of sand (or ashes) and the enclosure of Houstoun within a cardboard box. Overlaying all of this – and thus absolving the work of any tinge of morbidity – is a gentle humour, both physical (Houstoun shuffling along in the aforementioned box was exquisite movement-based fun) and in the long and demanding sequences of spoken text.
It is in her faultless, flowing delivery of words that Houstoun’s performance soars. The first part of the work is a long comedic monologue – articulated while awkwardly standing on a chair, bent over to speak into a microphone on a stand not quite tall enough; a poetic narrative of word association delivered with a deliberately halting diffidence. Comedy derives from the structure of the text, coupled with both the awkwardness and sincerity of its delivery: a sentence ending with oxymoron leads into a memory about Roxy Music; a reflection on Immanuel Kant slips into the Today programme’s faux pas interview with Jeremy Hunt and then morphs into the Countryside Alliance. There are hundreds of similar wordplay examples constructed back-to-back and often without pausing for breath. It’s much more vaudeville than “stand-up”, a feeling enhanced by the slow bluesy jazz sometimes playing in the background and the charismatic personality of the performer.
Houstoun has a wicked way with words and a wonderful sense of comic timing, evidenced by her professed admiration for the generation of British comics she grew up watching (Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise, the Pythons). One feels that if Houstoun hadn’t chosen a career in dance theatre then she would have given Victoria Wood and Julie Walters some serious competition. When Houstoun turns to a brief routine on the different ways of counting in dance, she creates comedy out of movement that induces a fit of the giggles of self-recognition amongst all the dancers in the audience!
Unsurprisingly – in such a long solo – there are moments when it begins to fall a little flat but Houstoun always manages to switch gear before this sets in for too long and there are many such changes of pace, with the emphasis switching from speech to mime to movement. Houstoun spurns the cardboard box to perform another duet with a red fire bucket. She runs around the stage in futile circles before disappearing into the wings (another life and death metaphor) and she frequently disappears behind the screen, her silhouette appearing as if a backstage bystander caught in the wrong place. For me, the most difficult part lay in the long ending of a story about muscles and other body parts meeting up in a pub, told by Houstoun as she slowly shuffled upstage and off into the wings. It was the only section that didn’t quite work but if the ending of Houstoun’s Pact with Pointlessness continues the metaphor of life’s journey into death, then perhaps even that disappointment is appropriate, since no such ending is ever going to be what we expect.
Although at one point Houstoun jokes about not appearing naked, this show lays her bare in so many other ways. It is daring, draining – emotionally, mentally and physically – and disarmingly charming. Around the time of Charnock’s death, I recall seeing a black and white family snapshot of young Nigel in swimming trunks on a typical English seaside holiday (some time in the mid-1960s) and somehow Houstoun has captured all the feeling of that image – and the impact of the life that was to follow – in her own evocative monochrome dream of this dead man.