Nurturing new performances is a balancing act: shows need audiences to develop, but exposing embryonic work too soon can be fatal. At this year’s Push festival, Home’s annual celebration of creative talent in the north-west of England, five new commissions spearhead the programme. Yet often these premieres feel like works-in-progress. There is a fine line between showcasing this work and protecting it by labelling it as “in development”.
One of these commissions, Cuts of the Cloth, captures the dystopian mood of the moment. The speaker of Hafsah Aneela Bashir’s one-woman show is a living exhibit, forced to perform in a museum of the near future. The soothing explanatory voiceover has all the neutral, blandly reassuring tones of the 21st-century museum, but its attractions queasily recall the “human zoos” of slavery-era Europe.
This is a show about various kinds of surveillance and othering. Bashir begins the performance standing inside a frame, the height and shape of both a museum cabinet and an airport security metal detector. She’s here to warn us about Islamic extremism, in a disturbing “seminar” aimed levelly at the UK government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent programme. She might be speaking from the future, but the target is the present, from racist stopping-and-searching to overzealous safeguarding.
The performance’s presentation suggests a finished show, but its muddled structure needs development. As the protagonist narrates how her family has been torn apart by the state, it’s unclear whether we’re still watching the “seminar” or if that frame has been broken. Bashir is best when eloquently raging against Islamophobia, racism and misogyny, ferociously denouncing the many kinds of violence – from bombs to bureaucracy – perpetrated in the name of freedom and democracy. There’s a lot here, and at the moment it strains to hold together.
Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board, by contrast, embraces the provisional and the unfinished. Storyteller Conor A is clear that living with chronic illness is a constant work-in-progress, and so is his solo show about fibromyalgia, therapy and eavesdropping. As Conor explains, chronic illness has a rubbish narrative arc. There’s no conflict, crisis and redemption, just a repeating cycle of pain and getting by. But he does his best to give it a shape and a few punchlines, finding humour and hope in the changes that fibromyalgia has brought to his life.
The show is framed by Conor’s eavesdropped gems of wisdom, posted on his Overheard in the Arndale social media pages. (Sample: “You can tell a lot about a doctor by the way they put on a rubber glove.”) The earwigging started as a strange form of therapy as Conor tried to unpick the challenges of living with an invisible disability, and it offers a gentle way into what could be tricky subject matter. The performance that follows meanders between Conor’s illness, his therapy sessions and the strange, funny and glorious things people say in a shopping centre.
It’s messy, but charmingly so. Accessibility – for both Conor and his audience – is embedded in the piece. There’s a chat at the start to explain how things will work, and Conor takes necessary breaks from performance during video sections. But rather than these adaptations feeling like distractions, they’re integral to a show that is about accepting and making the most of the hand you’ve been dealt. Or as Conor puts it, getting better at not getting better.