Thursday, 6 June 2019

Review: dressed. (This Egg)

Tuesday 4th June 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of dressed. at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a version of this review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version of the review…

dressed. is an award-winning piece of theatre, co-created and performed by Josie Dale-Jones (This Egg), Lydia Higginson, Nobahar Mahdavi and Olivia Norris. Combining music, dance, physical theatre, and – perhaps most significantly – costume, dressed. is a powerful show about trauma, healing and friendship. It is thought-provoking in the way it intertwines these big ideas, and in the way they are staged, emphasised and interrogated.

As the audience arrive, the four performers are already on stage, and upbeat music is playing. Dressed in loose-fitting grey costumes, Dale-Jones, Higginson, Mahdavi and Norris dance around the stage, laughing with each other and messing about like a group of friends who know each other well. There is a real intimacy to this introduction, which will continue throughout the production. When the performance proper begins, each woman takes the mic and introduces another, sharing little inconsequential nuggets that suggest a long (and strong) acquaintance. They met at a dance class when they were ten years old, we learn, and then they perform a little bit of the routine from that class.

While this opening is certainly tender and cute, it has an interesting twist – it’s all true. The performers are not playing fictional characters – they have indeed been friends since they were children. dressed. is a collaborative and autobiographical piece, which utilizes the individual performance styles and talents of the four co-creators to tells its story and explore its message (or, rather, messages). The buoyant opening sequence foregrounds the theme of female friendship, before we move into the story. The four performers take their places at the front of the stage area, the music stops and the lights drop…

In 2012, Higginson was stripped at gunpoint. As a way of healing from this trauma, she began to make clothes – redressing herself by spending a year creating an entire wardrobe from scratch. dressed. is the story of this process – though it touches on broader ideas around trauma, healing and dressing. The audience is asked to close their eyes as Higginson recounts the incident itself, the only sounds being her own voice and the removal of clothing. The contrast to the piece’s opening sequence is stark. Higginson ends the narration with a simple statement: ‘You can open your eyes now.’ Again, there is a peculiar intimacy, as the line is not dialogue as such, but rather a conversational request.

What follows this is an energetic and hard-hitting run through the complex and messy process of responding to an assault of this kind. The women dress in costumes made by Higginson in the immediate aftermath. Mahdavi dons a floaty pink cocktail dress, in which she performs a searing torch song; Norris wears a dramatic black evening dress, and gives a furious and unnerving dance performance, filled with rage and a slight sense of menace; Dale-Jones is a clown, dressed in circus attire and comically gambolling round the stage like a puppet. Higginson stands aside, dressed as a piratical warrior. The costumes signify various aspects of a (particularly female) response to trauma, and it is significant that we see Higginson literally lacing her co-performers into their outfits. But I was especially struck by the way in which the women embody these costumed personas through physical movement, mannerism and vocal performance – they become the costumes.

For me, the real strength of dressed. lies in the combination and development of the performances. Mahdavi’s voice is unexpected and striking, bringing a haunting quality to the songs she performs. Norris’s physical movement around the stage is assured, unsettling and evocative, and Dale-Jones has impeccable (if rather off-key) comic timing. And, of course, these individual performances are stitched together by the story coordinated by Higginson, and it’s no surprise when she climbs onto a sewing machine table, observing and conducting the scene before her.

As the pace increases, the women’s performances escalate and fragment into near-incoherence. This is not a criticism, but rather a reflection on the deliberate styling of the show. At various points, dialogue and vocal performance is overlaid by the intrusive sound of white noise. Mahdavi’s song loses its pitch, descending into a discordance that becomes a scream of pain. Norris’s fury becomes almost terrifying in its disjointed attempts to vocalise… something. And Dale-Jones’s comedy routine pulls no punches, addressing the audience in a particularly uncomfortable way.

The latter was one of the most arresting parts of the show, for me. The sheer discomfort of Dale-Jones’s pseudo-stand-up routine was impressive, and I appreciated the way dressed. refused to relent by throwing a ‘#NotAllMen’ bone to audience members. There is a rawness in this that, along with Mahdavi’s disintegrating melody and Norris’s pained contortions, packs a real punch.

Nevertheless, an adjective that is used a lot in reviews of dressed. is ‘tender’. While the show doesn’t hold back in showing pain, it also stages moments of recovery and healing – all the while presenting recurring images of friendship, performance and clothing. One sequence, in particular, in which Mahdavi performs a musical number to a prone Higginson buried in a pile of costumes, draws these three images together in a moving and – dare I say it? – uplifting way.

The overall message of dressed. may be up for some debate – indeed, the show itself offers some meta-commentary on the reception and interpretation of the show, and of its relationship to the #MeToo movement. In many ways, this is an unusual piece of theatre, constantly referring to things outside its own staging (for instance, Higginson’s blog project, Made My Wardrobe) and to its own reviews. In doing so, the show tries (perhaps a bit too hard) to offer its own interpretation of itself. Indeed, it’s difficult to write a review of the show, knowing that certain adjectives and phrases have been incorporated into the piece itself, with the suggestion that these were not the responses its creator/subject was hoping for.

Nevertheless, this meta, self-reflective commentary is also part of the fascination of dressed. The question of how to process and interpret stories such as this is returned to time and again, with Dale-Jones’s stark and angry shout of ‘Is this helping?’ referring to so much more than the immediate narrative moment. It is an interrogation a much broader picture, and it’s notable that neither Higginson nor the production as a whole give a definitive answer to the question.

dressed. is not always easy to watch. Its finale made me cry, and some of the questions asked do not have an easy answer. But it is utterly compelling in its confident and competent staging and performances, and convincing in its message of solidarity, friendship and healing. It is tender and intimate, discomforting and confrontational. And I highly recommend it.

dressed. is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 8th June.

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