Hard to believe, but Sheffield based provocateurs Forced Entertainment have been pushing at the boundaries of the theatrical form for almost 35 years now. No band has lasted this long, at least not without splits, reformations and changing line-ups. This is a company which has somehow retained the same core members – director Tim Etchells, and actors Richard Lowden, Robin Arthur, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden and Terry O’Connor – since meeting on a drama course at Exeter University in 1984.
I’ve greatly admired their work since Speak Bitterness – a mesmerising, confessional, black comedy – in the early nineties. It opened my eyes to a form of theatre which was worlds away from the conventional, ‘well-made’ three act narrative dramas with which I had grown up. A new forced Entertainment show often feels like a Christmas visit from a favourite Uncle, who puts a great deal of care and attention into the gifts he brings. I still have vivid memories of Quizoola, Bloody Mess and The Travels, which were some of the most challenging, infuriating and brilliant shows of the noughties.
The dialogue free Out of Order sees them revisiting what director Tim Etchells describes as ‘low-rent, near-but-distant neighbours of theatre … the border zones of cabaret or nightclub act.’ They’ve often been interested in what lurks beneath the eager-to-please showbiz masks we’re all familiar with (and through a variety of media). Usually what they uncover is despair and misconnection.
Here it’s a troupe of tragic-comic clowns. The six performers sit at a classroom table, waiting for instructions on what to do next. Nobody is in charge, and any rules are apparently ignored. The first 15 minutes is like a slow build-fight, as petty, unnamed grudges rise to the surface; no punches are thrown but there’s a lot of pointing, scuffling, and aggressive staring.
After a while, it starts to become tedious. This is perhaps the point; the situation can be interpreted on several levels (maybe they’re members of the Brexit Party in disguise and on an office bender). Unfortunately, after 15 minutes, it feels like Out Of Order has run out of steam. There’s another 75 minutes to go.
More routines follow, including some larking about with balloons, air horns and a sequence whereby the troupe pointlessly move furniture around the stage. Robin Arthur, Cathy Naden and Terry O’Connor are joined by occasional collaborators Nicki Hobday, Jerry Killick and John Rowley. All are expressive, natural performers but here, they simply don’t have enough to do. Though you can’t fault their energy levels (there’s a helluva lot of running).
Forced Entertainment often close their shows with a monologue; a reminder that the chaos we have just witnessed has simply been a drama, structured and rehearsed, but nothing like the chaos that real life will eventually throw at us, no matter how hard we resist. Sadly, that doesn’t happen with Out of Order, and deprives the finale of the dramatic punch it keeps promising to deliver. The cast shuffle off the stage leaving the audience with a feeling of ‘is that it?’
Your favourite Uncle can’t always get it right. Out of Order feels like a workshop production, something still in development. But Forced Entertainment will be back, and I hope sooner rather than later. Why? Because contemporary theatre would be a significantly duller place without them.★ ★