Shane Shambhu is an engaging performer, an exuberant blend of storyteller, mimic, stand-up comic and dancer. His Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer is an hour-long solo that tells us some of his history, beginning with the self-described “fat kid” living in East Ham, sent by his parents to learn Bharatanatyam dance in the hope it would work off some of the weight. The narration is punctuated by busts of dance, and he shape-shifts between different characters in his story. He wrestles with what the dance form means to him and how others perceive it. It’s easy to warm to him and to laugh along with him, but though the journey was entertaining it doesn’t seem to reach an entirely clear conclusion. It’s as if a final punch line was missing.
The work begins as the audience are still filing in. On a circular screen at the back of the stage is projected some old video of a young Shane Shambhu, performing what we later find to be his graduation performance in 1994 after some years of training in Bharatanatyam. There he is with a huge mass of hair, in elaborate Indian costume, bowing and bending. The current Shane Shambhu, bald, dressed in baggy shirt and pants, faces his younger self and mirrors some of the hand movements.
Once we are settled he begins a bilingual introduction. It’s striking how “turn off your mobile phone, and no photos” is intelligible across a language barrier. Throughout the performance he shifts from one language to another, and from accent to accent as he introduces other characters. He recalls growing up and going to primary school in East Ham, where it was absolutely necessary to keep the dance lessons a secret or be thought of as “some sort of weirdo”. Fortunately, in a handy piece of symbolism, there was a brick wall in part of the playground that he could hide behind to practice his dance.
There’s lots of detail about his family background (his parents are from Kerala) and their ambitions for him. The name Shane came from an uncle who loved Westerns: he obligingly gives us a very funny mimed plot summary of the film, nailing the essence of it in seconds. Though his parents initially encouraged him to study dance, they didn’t want him to take it up as a career. He tries to please them, and to fit in with his East End mates, discussing cars with them, in another striking gear-change of accents. But performing was to claim him.
All this is punctuated by short bursts of dancing. Shambhu is quite a big guy but is extraordinarily light on his feet, his movements full of speed, precision and attack. His arms and hands are fluid and delicate. The lighting is well directed so that it picks out every position of the fingers. It’s an intimate style: you need to be close enough to see the fingers tremble, and for the use of the eyes to register.
He recalls his teachers fondly. Their pictures appear on the screen, and he performs some classical devotional moves. Yet his feelings for the dance form they taught him are obviously very complex ones. He loves it but wants to do it his way, concentrate on its expressive qualities, and to leave the makeup, the bells and the beautiful costumes behind.
What isn’t so clear is why he feels moved to reassess his youth now. Nor do we find out anything about what has happened in the intervening years where he has had an eclectic career in dance and theatre away from Bharatanatyam. The much-promised re-enactment of his graduation solo begins but dissolves in a hiss of static. The ghost of his younger self both attracts and repels him, and the piece comes to an end rather than reaching a conclusion.
What’s most enjoyable about this show are Shane’s memories of childhood, his secret devotion to Hanuman as his own superhero (rather than Superman, Spiderman or Batman), and his loving evocation of family and friends. He’s a very likeable presence on stage and Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer is pithy and concentrated at an hour’s length. Yet the tension between his younger experience of classical dance and his older reframing of it propels the work without ever being fully resolved.