Extant’s Effing & Blinding Cabaret met with acclaim when it ran in the Edingburgh Fringe Festival in August 2008. Liz Porter took the opportunity to catch it earlier this month at the Rich Mix in London.
I love creative experiences in the dark. So I had been looking forward to this one for ages. Maria Oshodi and Extant are known for their risk-taking, so I was intrigued as to what this show was going to be like? At first, my expectations were slightly spoilt as we were taken through to a lit theatre space before the action took place. This gave those of us with some sight a chance to suss out the size of space and work out where the performance might happen. We also saw that the seating was somewhat conventional. I can understand the need to look after an audience especially people who haven’t been in a totally dark creative experience before. However, it would have been more interesting, to have had the entire experience in the dark from the start.
Once the lights were down, the audience was party to a series of satirical scenes on blind culture. For anyone with some sight, being plunged into darkness doesn’t mean you’re going to stop seeing. Our eyes strain to catch anything. You just have to let go and go with the vibe to get the most out of the ensuing anarchy.
The darkness is not used to give people an idea of what it is like to be blind. Nothing can simulate visual impairment. It is more an opportunity to reflect upon and experience a creative piece without vision. But the twist is that all the performers are visually impaired. So, the experience makes a comment on the change in power dynamics. It is not, as some might imagine, like listening to the radio. It is much more active and participatory. The Effing and Blinding Cabaret gave vent to social and political comment on such things as auditions, blind dates, audio description, and fantasy from the surreal to the theatre of the absurd. The five performers used the space imaginatively, moving in and out of the audience. The use of sound was great too. On occasions, the show became a multi-sensory experience and the companies take on Ian Dury’s ‘Hit me with your Rhythm Stick’ took the use of a white cane into a somewhat different dimension.
The music and songs worked really well with strong performances from Sandy Easton and Amelia Cavallo. I particularly enjoyed the companies version of ‘Three Cripples’ (trad, slightly adapted) and an adapted version of ‘The Ballad of Bethnal Green’ (originally written by Paddy Roberts) I also liked Maria Oshodi’s satirical adaptation of ‘The 12 days of Christmas’ which lent a fitting seasonal end to the show.
The content was amusing and enjoyed by the audience. However, the acting and some of the characterisation was not always consistent and needed more development. It is clear that blind culture is alive and kicking and very much wanted by visually impaired people. The audience was mixed, but there were several visually impaired people present, who really identified with what Extant were doing, getting the jokes where perhaps others didn’t.
Of course it’s not possible to make this experience accessible to everyone, but I don’t think Extant should have to. Visually impaired performers need to explore their own creative culture as much as Deaf or any other disabled or non-disabled performers. Do what you can to achieve good access, yes, but also allow artistic experiments to happen.