Review: New Art Club in Big Bag of Boom at Soho Theatre

Performance: to 4 June 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Wednesday 25 May 2011

New Art Club 'Big Bag of Boom', Soho Theatre, to 4 June 2011

Reviewed: 24 May

It’s press night, but not as we know it. For a start, the performance begins at 9.30pm – comedy ‘o’clock, rather than the usual mid-evening curtain time of most dance bills. For another thing, I realise the gentlemen of the press gathered in the bar are almost exclusively comedy reviewers rather than dance writers and I’m denied my usual chummy catch-ups with fellow press. And most unusually of all, my dance-averse partner is sitting next to me. This above all else is probably testimony to the unique brand of performance Tom Roden and Pete Shenton have built up over the last ten years – dance-based comedy with a delicate balance of in-jokes for the cognoscenti and broad physical humour for dance outsiders.

*Big Bag of Boom* is a collection of “all the funny stuff”, drawing on several of New Art Club’s recent works. Existing fans – and there were plenty in the audience – are in for a real treat; with every announcement of a popular extract, there were cheers of pleasure (and the odd sigh of disappointment at a missed favourite). For audiences new to the New Art experience, this was a whistle-stop tour of the pair’s irresistibly quirky, ingenious physical comedy. Using the setup familiar from The Visible Men, Shenton instructs the audience to open and close their eyes; on opening, we find a series of bizarre images: unexpected costume changes; pieces of set teleporting around the stage; Grecian urns transformed into pot plants.

Jokes for dancers abound. I did this is an extended movement-poem about being lost in an improvisation; Roden messes up his phrase, loses the plot, and is reduced to staggering about the stage with legs akimbo and jazz hands waving . A series of joint-locking exercises turns into a game of invisible ping-pong that threatens to spill over into the next item; Tom’s rendition of his O-Level Dance choreography in tribute to a beautiful French teacher is side-splitting in its authentically naïve awfulness.

There’s plenty for non-dancers to enjoy as well. Pete’s country dancing with invisible children to the music of Heaven 17 went down a treat with the late-night audience, as did the shockingly tasteless (and very, very funny) IRA punishment beating set to Kool and the Gang. Both were memorable moments from last year’s This Is Now; also on the menu were the Aboriginal dance from Extra-Ordinary World and an ever-popular Riverdance pastiche with an unmentionable title.

Weaving the sections together were the minimalist gestural constructions last seen in Dance, Jokes and Dance Jokes, series of tiny hand and arm movements in almost-unison accompanying a running commentary about the process of dancemaking. On previous outings, the precision of these ultra-simple movements had been a joy to watch, but to my eye the gestural sections were last night rough and under-rehearsed. A pity, because performed to standard these unfussy phrases can be surprisingly visually powerful. A duet version of Pete’s Another One shared the same problem.

The space of the Soho Theatre is itself a constraining choice; having seen This Is Now on the more expansive stage of The Place last year, I felt some of the movement sequences were a little cramped; the country dancing in particular lost some of its wild abandon in the smaller space. The intimate space does, on the other hand, benefit the comedy; spoken addresses to the audience can be made more directly. Bodily jokes – all the underpant-wearing, arse-rubbing and floor-humping – can be seen at much closer, cringier, funnier quarters; the relationship between performers and audience is both literally and figuratively closer.

Big Bag of Boom isn’t flawless. The boys’ over-reliance on brightly coloured unitards as a visual joke is rapidly wearing thin, and in moments where devices such as unison are important, a few more days in the rehearsal studio wouldn’t hurt. But this is a pacy, fat-free distillation of the things that make New Art Club a great night out: dance jokes, cock jokes, playful undercutting of sentiment, and a very genuine love of movement under all the laughter.

Catch New Art Club’s Big Bag of Boom at Soho Theatre until 4 June 2011 **”“: special ticket offer

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