A beautiful spring/summer’s evening. A clear blue sky, a gentle breeze. A collection of people waiting outside Square Chapel, Halifax. And we are told, as an audience, to look around and take note of our surroundings. To fix a memory of the sunshine and the buildings since sometimes things change and life can be, well, less pleasant. Such memories might sustain us.
We are split up and cannot enter the space with those we came with but are told we might just see them again. Some time.
Yet the mood is warm, the welcome from the cast inviting and friendly. It’s just that there is this tone, this sense that somewhere in the world we are entering things aren’t quite right.
My group enter at the front and are taken upstairs to a darkened auditorium illuminated with occasional pools of light in which stand curiosities. A train set, a selection of wooden viewers, a row of huge dominoes, a man playing the accordion, his face concealed by a beaked mask. We are encouraged to look, to explore.
The train set is in a suitcase and the train goes in and out of a tunnel. Look! A tree. Look! Bodies are hanging upside down from it. Those brightly coloured piles in the centre, by the tracks, in the corner? Bodies. Piles of bodies. And others standing over them, watching.
The viewers are infinity boxes through which to see, and see, and see images reflected all the way to nothing. Sharks, people, chains…
And we all meet up and then another group forms and is taken backstage, and a further group is led out. We are offered fresh strawberries. And so it goes.
Then we are all together again. And the dominoes fall, because sometimes life does that. And we are led downstairs to the bar, where the play element starts for real.
Fittings’ The Ugly Spirit is a new backstage play by Russell Barr which mixes improvisation and text. It showcases both the avant-garde performance artist David Hoyle and acclaimed soprano Denise Leigh in a piece focused on the world-famous Siamese twins, the Bellamy Sisters, and references Nazi atrocities, Jake and Deno Chapman’s art, and the history of the freak show amongst other threads.
For me, the height of the piece was the sisters’ relationship and the fragments of narrative surrounding them – the abuse, the cruelty, the notoriety and the pressure of performing that surrounded them. As the publicity says: “They’ve always been together. Imagine what it’s like always being one of a pair, always sharing the praise and the blame, and never even getting to have a birthday cake that’s just for you.”
Directed by Gary Robson, all the performances were enthralling.
For instance, David Hoyle as the convivial host always goes that sentence too far, catching you while you are still smiling but suddenly now feeling on edge.
Denise Leigh’s beautiful voice added a dramatic counterpoint to the action unfurling before us and Gareth Kieran Jones and Rachel Drazek, as the sisters, shared their emotional journey with us through snatches of dialogue, song and simple repetitive actions.
It’s the sisters who will haunt me – troubled and troubling with their longed-for Christmas present that, once opened, scars them just about as deep as you can go. And now me too, by association.
Affecting stuff indeed.
There was the sense that, like for many new pieces, the marketing copy had been written before the play. I didn’t get a sense of the promised “peek into a backstage world”, or really recognise Miss Glenda in “a new drag act in which she seems to be taking togetherness too far”.
But what I did get was a growing sense of unease and alienation. I did feel the Ugly Spirit. It left me shivering into the warm night, clutching my happy-birthday goody bag, not at all sure of anything anymore.
The Ugly Spirit is an Unlmited commssion and will be performed again at the Vauxhall Tavern, London on 8 and 9 June and then at Southbank's Festival of the World as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad celebrations.