Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Review: A Small Gathering (Ad Infinitum)

Online
HOME, Manchester

Prior to lockdown, you may remember that I regularly posted theatre reviews on this blog, usually ahead of broadcasting a review of the production on my show, Hannah’s Bookshelf, on North Manchester FM. The last theatre review I published was – as you might imagine – back in February, and Hannah’s Bookshelf has been on an unfortunately prolonged hiatus since January.

So it gives me a lot of pleasure to be back reviewing performance pieces on here, and also to be able to say that a radio version of this review will be broadcast on Saturday, as Hannah’s Bookshelf is returning to the airwaves with a slightly different format (which you can read about here).

If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll perhaps know that I often reviewed theatre and multi-media productions staged at HOME in Manchester. Sadly, like all theatres, HOME has had to close its doors during lockdown – though plans are afoot for its reopening in September, and you should check out their website for information about those plans. However, during lockdown, HOME have been putting out a programme of digitally-accessible content that can be enjoyed from the safety of your own home.

One part of this programme is the Homemakers series. The website describes this series as ‘new commissions inviting artists to create new works at home, for an audience who are also at home’. These funded projects invite artists to make creative use of COVID restrictions to produce art in different media, and that use different strategies to engage their audience. You can book tickets to view or take part in these creative experiences via the HOME website, and most are on a pay-what-you-can basis (though there is a recommended ticket price, which will help HOME to continue to survive and plan for the future).

I’m going to be taking a look at a number of the Homemakers commissions over the next few weeks, and reviewing them on here and on Hannah’s Bookshelf.

So, that’s by way of any introduction to the series, time for my first review in six months… A Small Gathering.


A Small Gathering is a trio of short films, created by Bristol-based theatre company Ad Infinitum, which deal with the fears, obsessions and compulsions of lockdown. I was drawn to this one by Ad Infinitum’s own description of the piece: they describe it as ‘a triptych of shorts served 2m apart’.

The first film of the three – or the first section of the triptych – is ‘Mr Pink’, created by Nir Paldi and George Mann. It’s a stylistic – almost garishly so – performance about the effects of isolation. As with the other two shorts, ‘Mr Pink’ has no dialogue, but makes use of sound effects and music to convey both emotion and context. (Sound design and composition for all three films is by Sam Halmarack.)


‘Mr Pink’ presents us with a man alone in lockdown (performed by Paldi). The film throws a spotlight (quite literally, at times) on the isolating effects of social distancing. The man’s escalating neurosis is performed physically, manifesting in theatrical movements, mime and exaggerated facial expressions, thrown into stark focus through Mann’s direction, and also through unsettling and jarring use of lighting and editing effects.

The man primps and preens himself as though preparing for a gaudy night out, but as he steps out of his front door, warning messages flash on screen and an alarm sounds. It is not safe to go out, and the man maniacally washes his hands as though trying to purge the mistake from his mind.

As Paldi’s man remains indoors, attempting to occupy himself with some sort of isolated entertainment, further fears manifest. The spectre of death is increasingly intrusive, and jittery neurosis dissolves into abject terror as the film progresses. The flashes of government warning messages evoke dystopia, but it’s through the use of lighting and camera angles that the dystopian atmosphere is truly created. The man is, we gather, in a house. But it feels so very small, dark and claustrophobic. There are no home comforts here, just a single featureless sofa and an anxiety-inducing bathroom sink.

‘Mr Pink’ is not a subtle film. Its messages – like the authoritarian slogans – are writ large on the screen. At times, it veers into being rather heavy-handed: a particular sequence involving soap and very suggestive facial expressions and sound effects, for instance, is rather blunt in its commentary on the fetishization of handwashing. Nevertheless, as a comment on the stifling effects of fear – particularly during the early days of the lockdown – it makes its point in a stylish and arresting way.

The second film, ‘Rewilding’, is also stylish and arresting, though in different ways. ‘Rewilding’ is directed and performed by Deb Pugh, and is also a dialogue-free performance that focuses on the manifestation of an individual’s lockdown fears.


In this piece – which, in my opinion, is the strongest of the three – a woman is alone on a houseboat, trying to work up the courage to go out and do some shopping. As in ‘Mr Pink’, there is something stopping her from going outside, but here it is much more clearly a psychological barrier. She checks her shopping list, checks her appearance, but then repetitively makes cups of tea and (of course) washes her hands. The camera offers us repeated close-ups of Pugh’s face, but the exaggerated neurotic expressions of ‘Mr Pink’ are replaced with a lingering and pervasive sense of worry and concern. This is intercut with – again, a little heavy-handed – glimpses of ‘outside’, where fears are manifested in something physical.

I think the reason why ‘Rewilding’ is the strongest of the three shorts is that it offers something a little different – unlike the other two pieces, we are reminded at the end of human connection. The final moments of the film, which I found surprisingly moving, offer a gentle reminder that, isolated as we might feel during lockdown, there are still very important reasons why we might have to do battle with our fears and go outside. Perhaps it’s reflective of my own experiences, but I found the ending ‘Rewilding’ to be something of an antidote to the intensely solipsistic experience of the other two films.

The third film, ‘Cynthia’s Party’, returns us, in some ways, to the concerns of ‘Mr Pink’. Directed and performed by Charlotte Dubery, ‘Cynthia’s Party’ presents us with a person alone in a house, attempting to entertain themselves in the absence of company – or, indeed, the outside world. Again, the psychological manifests as physical, though the focus here is on the dehumanizing effects of extended isolation, rather than the immediate fear of death and disease.


Of the three, ‘Cynthia’s Party’ is the least explicit about its COVID context. There’s no compulsive handwashing here, and no suggestion at all of the possibility of leaving the house. Instead, it’s a portrait of a fractured psyche that ends on a somewhat bleak and hopeless note. Like the other films, it’s both stylish and stylistic, hitting some standard horror notes, while also maintaining a disorienting sense of the surreal. Dubery’s performance jolts between maniacal and terrified, which, along with the unabashed trip to the Uncanny Valley, makes for uncomfortable but compelling viewing.

I referred to this piece as a ‘trio’ of films, but I think Ad Infinitum’s own word ‘triptych’ is a very apt description. Each of the three films is a complete piece in its own right, but they should be viewed as ‘hinged together’, not only by their shared context, but their shared themes and the stylistic devices and techniques they use to explore these.

Overall, A Small Gathering offers a creative and artistic response to the psychological effects of lockdown. Neuroses loom large, and the piece is occasionally heavy-handed in its approach, but as a stylistic and creative look at some of the (possibly national) obsessions and fears that have surfaced during lockdown, it works very well. Clever use of lighting, direction and sound design create a powerful atmosphere, but also serve to further ‘hinge’ the pieces together with repeated motifs and effects.

A Small Gathering is a short piece, but one that packs a lot into its running time. I’d recommend you check it out, along with the other Homemakers commissions, on the HOME website.

A Small Gathering is available to view via the HOME website until 31st December 2020. Please visit the HOME website for more information and to book tickets.

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