Being a critic isn’t all glamour. Like the work of the majority our toil is underpaid and undervalued (but in addition it sometimes goes unread too). It was with unfamiliar delight therefore that the invitation from the Riverfront Theatre to review Crashmat Collective’s Façade arrived, as it concluded with the line, ‘you will be entertained and fed also’. Perhaps starved of glamour it seemed within this invitation that there were tantalising hints of the blank cheque hedonism. Indeed, as an ambitious feast for all the senses – Façade combined fine dining and circus – and transformed the Riverfront’s austere studio theatre into a surreal and lovingly awkward restaurant, where the boundaries between the performer and the audience became blurred, provoking bigger questions about the nature of performance itself – an exploration, as the title Façade suggests, of both surface and play.
Façade was in many ways a game of performance. With the expectation of being fed and watered the audience of theatre goers adopted the role of diners. The actors adopted the roles of waiting staff. All games have rules and this was no different. We were given firm instructions on the door that ‘drinks can be taken in and you will be led to your seat, food will be served at the table, you will be given 4 more opportunities to order drinks throughout the performance, the actors will mark your bill, and please pay for drinks on the way out. There will be a break but do not leave your seat during the performance due to health and safety.’ Duly forewarned we entered ‘Claude’s Restaurant’, as the studio theatre had become, and were introduced to the waiting staff/performers who would serve and entertain us. Each of the actors had developed their waiter’s character through rehearsal, and there were a range of idiosyncrasies on show. The subconscious universe of the waiters was revealed, to often comic effect, as a voice-over of the waiters’ inner thoughts was broadcast as the orders were taken, and the performers otherwise interacted (sometimes flirting) with the audience. As the courses were brought out the partial narratives building between the performers were played out in dance and acrobatic circus form, the waiters took to the ropes, jumped and whirled through hoops, or suspended themselves from trapeze. Occasionally these circus scenes were interspersed with sad lyrical passages penned by writer Alan Harris. The overall effect was to undermine the familiar and the mundane with the comic and the spectacular, to both interrogate and elevate the everyday. All character is surface, Façade suggests, and life itself is little more than a series of micro-performances, an ‘insubstantial pageant’. In terms of content and gravitas the clowning and contortions of Façade were much more reminiscent of cerebral theatre companies like Forced Entertainment rather than glitzy troupes like Cirque de Soleil.
The success of Façade was dependant on its risk. The performance demanded that the audience be integrated and become a self-conscious integral part of the show, while simultaneously expecting, having paid for the experience, to be fed and entertained properly. While often funny, and sometimes sad and sexy too, it was not always a comfortable experience – and actually little slow at times. The discomfort, however, was an essential ingredient to Façade’s charm. £20+ is more than a fair price for food and theatre – and a far safer option for the company would have been to bolt a dinner onto a more conventional and showy theatrical experience. If Crashmat Collective had taken this option however the experience would have been drained of intellectual integrity, and become just another plus price distraction with less artistic energy. It is a measure of the company’s ambition and finesse that they pulled this one off with a touch of such bitter-sweet aplomb.