Kate Cotton feels mesmerised by an Australian theatre company's performance in a Bristol shopping centre
Over the late May bank holiday Back to Back performed at The Podium, at Broadmead in Bristol – the only UK dates on their global tour. This small ensemble of actors with an intellectual disability have been performing Small Metal Objects since 2005.
I’ve always been a big fan of street entertainment and the impromptu comedy moments it creates. Small Metal Objects took this genre to a new original level, was full of laughs, and had a loud and clear message too.
Sat on a seating podium in the centre of Bristol’s busy Broadmead shopping centre, with no obvious stage area set up, we were instructed to put on headphones and enjoy the show. The two characters we could hear talking in our ears were nowhere to be seen amidst hundreds of shoppers milling about in front of us. With some regret at bagging a front-row seat, it was hard not to feel a little uncomfortable when everyone who walked past stared so blatantly. It was a very effective way of getting across the point of difference as, being white and with no visible disability, I am not used to being gawped at like that. Paranoia creeping in, it was quite a relief when the characters came into view. The moment was pretty magical and filmic as they were revealed on the street amidst the bustling crowd, who all pretty much ignored them.
The story played out as the two friends, Gary and Steve, were mistakenly approached and harassed by two hardened executive types looking to score drugs for a corporate do. Looking for the unknown Gary, one of the execs, Alan, approached the shoppers. Hilariously, he did actually find a Gary in the crowd - just not the right one! When he did find the right Gary, and was instructed to give the money to his mate Steve, he furtively handed over three thousand pounds, which Steve proceeded to examine on full display. At that very moment two completely unaware members of Bristol’s police force walked up behind them. I have rarely seen such accidental and excellent comedy timing. As we in the audience roared with laughter, and the characters ramped it up a notch, the police started to look increasingly suspicious, and one even reached for his radio!
Back to Back are a talented bunch with some excellent credentials and a unique knack of uncovering prejudices. They challenge the value of individual lives within society and question what is 'normal' in quite a mesmerising way. I absolutely loved the way they completely deconstructed the norms of audience and stage area in such a way that to the hordes of bystanders and shoppers it was we, the audience, not the actors, who were being watched. Indeed, some people watched us for the whole performance, sitting on public benches across the square.
After the performance it took me a little while to re-acclimatise to the outside world, after having watched it so intently from a distance with headphones on. This felt pretty powerful and underlined the message of what is 'normal' and part of society. I slipped back into the crowd feeling a little bit more aware of everyone’s place in it.