Review: Kate McIntosh in All Natural at Purcell Room, Southbank Centre

Performance: 4 March 2010
Reviewed by Sam Gauntlett - Wednesday 10 March 2010

Kate McIntosh 'All Natural' Photo: K.McIntosh. 4 March, Purcell Room, Southbank Centre

_*All Natural* _is a piece that teeters between stand up comedy, theatre, performance and art installation, with the tiniest sprinkling of dance. If this was a taster of what is to come in Southbank Centre’s 2010 programme which promises a series of works blurring the boundaries between dance and other art forms, the year looks set to provide plenty of challenge and innovation.

McIntosh inverts conventions of traditional performance practice, with the piece never really beginning or ending and keeps the audience in a state of constant anticipation, blinking in full house lights (save for one drawn out episode where we are plunged into total darkness). As we all filter in, McIntosh crouches in a far corner of the stage, surrounded by scattered autumnal leaves and twigs, resplendent in a silver sequined leotard and fishnet tights, displaying an emerald green feathered tail fan like a proud peacock. A striking figure, with dark red hair, elfin face and long, filly-like legs, she regards us disinterestedly, whilst occasionally guzzling something from a large, bromine coloured, glass bottle.

There is something of a vacant animal about her and when she finally moves across the stage, it is in a slow, prowling crawl, which ends when she reaches an old office desk and clutches its leg. The stage is reminiscent of a Tracey Emin-esque installation. The desk is littered with paperwork and assorted items and the stage is scattered with detritus; an old swivel office chair, some rubbish filled plastic bags and two large iron weights either side of the front of the stage, between which a piece of rope is held taut. A soundtrack of shuffling feet and indistinguishable background noise plays constantly.

When McIntosh stands, she transforms into a more human, painfully self-conscious figure and starts to address the audience directly: she has recently discovered she is pregnant and isn’t sure how this will affect her performance, she says. Throughout the piece, she stumbles through awkward procrastinations, in sentences that never finish. We are left to fill in the gaps to create any concrete meaning, and in a state of confusion as to what the performance really consists of. The whole piece hangs on this unease, with the traditionally passive role of the dance audience constantly challenged by McIntosh’s direct address.

Twice she stands and grins forcefully, for an extended period, eliciting awkward titters from the audience, then suddenly drops her expression to dead pan. The second time she does this, she declares “ok, I’m just fucking with you now“. And this seems to be the point in the performance – McIntosh is expert at manipulating the audience into awkward embarrassment, through misconstrued meanings and emotional curve balls. It is this tension that carries the piece. Towards the end, McIntosh has a telephone conversation with someone called Jeffrey, in which she expresses dismay at the audience’s inability to interact. She says: “Do you think it’s alive? The audience I mean. It’s not moving – just blinking sometimes.” But although her endearing smile draws us in to want to participate, her unpredictable nature causes us to keep up our guard.

Although the whole piece is a series of strange unconnected moments, her vulnerability, pregnancy anxiety and the constant anticipation that something of note is about to happen do carry the performance through to an uncertain end, where McIntosh continues to regard us with bemusement. There is an episode where she cries loudly, wiping her nose on her bare arm; a clumsy attempt at a card trick; an exploding biscuit – a shard of which she shyly offers an audience member; a furious struggle to escape from her tail feathers and a scene where she acts out delivering a baby from a family size bag of crisps.

There are only really two sections of dance, which are a parody of Las Vegas show dancing, or something you might see in a strip club, with McIntosh throwing her arms aloft, wiggling and writhing, objectified in our gaze. But again, it is the implication of dance that is really the point: the costume, the stage, McIntosh’s athletic build, all signifiers that lead us to expect her to break into a routine at any moment.

When she tells us she is taking down the rope that has been dividing the space between her and us, it seems to mark the end of the performance, although she continues to talk to us, asking questions that dissect the piece, as though hosting some kind of post-show Q & A. She eventually announces “it’s finished” in a suitably underwhelming close. We are unsure if she is telling us the truth and without the standard cues fail to deliver a sustained applause, leaving the theatre in uncertain dribbles.

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