BWW Review: Derivative Meme-style Show THINGPHONY Needs a Directorial Hand
One of the most confounding things about the National Arts Festival's annual programme is the placement of works on the extensive National Arts Festival Fringe into genres. The artists themselves select the heading under which their show is listed, so one wonders what the reasons are when a production ends up so obviously miscategorised. Are the artists unsure about what encompasses each of the different forms of the discipline in which they have chosen to work? Do they simply lack vision when dreaming up their works and filling out the forms? Do they not know themselves as artists? Or is there a wilful attempt to mislead audiences as they sift through one of the many channels through which they can book a ticket? One such show in this year's programme is THINGPHONY - A SYMPHONY OF THINGS, which is listed as theatre, but which probably best belongs in the comedy listings. As it turns out, THINGPHONY is only occasionally funny, despite its efforts - but there you go.
THINGPHONY takes as its theme the philosophical question of whether order is intrinsic in the universe or whether it is human beings that order to the phenomena they experience. It occurred to me momentarily that THINGPHONY might be attempting a thematic masterstroke through its self-definition as something that it is not, but with little evidence of such mastery elsewhere in the production, this thought is easy to dismiss.
Performer Philip Southey discusses a wide array of topics in the show, including colour, physics, music and sex, many of which take cues from references like QI or Leonard Bernstein's lectures on music. The whole piece recycles information like memes that suck in media consumers on Facebook with click bait and, like those memes, the less one knows about the topic under discussion, the more entertaining the spin on each becomes. Further problematising each of the skits is the differentiation of each using what are - at best - patronising stereotypes of Australians, Afrikaners, Scots and the French.
Southey punctuates the skits with interludes at the piano, playing the classics, extracts from film scores and pop with greater expression than accuracy. He also incorporates his own compositions and some improvisational work, which received a largely warm response from the audience at the first performance. Certainly, there were some members of the show - which relies heavily on audience interaction and participation - that responded enthusiastically to the show overall.
An ironic aspect of this review is that THINGPHONY is not the worst show one might pick from the vast offerings at in any given festival year. Not by a long shot. It just fails to distinguish itself from the pack in the absence of a critical outside eye to steer the show from being a good idea to a fully realised theatrical experience. THINGPHONY needs a director-dramaturg who can work out how to build the show on Southey's persona rather than a series of hackneyed cultural clichés and a designer who can pull together the various visual proposals on stage and in the programme into a unified aesthetic. It needs someone who will order to the phenomena its offers as its content.
THINGPHONY - A SYMPHONY OF THINGS runs at Vicky's as a part of the National Arts Festival Frings until 8 July, with performances at 22:30 tonight and 16:00 tomorrow. Bookings are through the National Arts Festival website as well as at the box offices in Grahamstown at the Monument and the Village Green. The show is recommended for audiences of 12 and over, with markers for Language, Sex and Prejudice.