Thick and Tight’s modus operandi – quirky choreography, hitched to voiceover and lip-synch as well as music – serves up enough treats to bring sunlight into the hearts of those of us braving a bleary February evening in Salford. Humour and charm blend neatly with race and gender politics. Five pieces – each hung on aspects of an ‘iconic’ life story.
The opener, ‘Pink Narcissus’, features Thick and Tight’s prime movers (Daniel Hay-Gordon and Eleanor Perry) as a conjoined twin version of Barbara Cartland, author of 723 (yep!) romantic novels, who departed this earth 20 years back, aged 198 (give or take a century). Clutching a fluffy white lapdog, they lip-synch to Dame Barbara’s interview with Dr Anthony Clare for his long-running BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’. With students from Edge Hill University supplying a pantomime camp, pink frilly chorus line. Princess Diana’s step-grandmother treats us to her own (undeniably memorable) rendition of ‘Mr Wonderful’. As the programme notes (with a massive dollop of irony) tell us, ‘Barbara charms us with her wholesome views’ on women, feminism, sex and marriage. One can imagine Margaret Atwood constructing something deeply sinister with such material. Thick and Tight’s flair for shameless ridicule makes ‘Pink Narcissus’ a hilarious delight.
Taking Winston Churchill for its icon, ‘Empire’ (featuring Vidya Patel) is an altogether different matter. While late 20th century critiques of Britain’s leader in World War II sometimes focused on his questionable attitudes to the working class, Churchill’s views on race have come under scrutiny since the turn of the century. Bowler hat, dark coat and (briefly) cigar are sufficient costume for Patel to paint the icon for our imaginations. She dances and lip-synchs to music and quotations forged around some of his darkly prejudicial observations about those ruled by the British Empire but not ‘blessed’ to be white and English. The soundtrack plots a connecting line with other Conservative politicians – Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. The repeated occurrence of the loaded verb ‘swamped’ is a telling motif. Patel’s choreography, an eye-catching blend of contemporary and Kathak, throws out barbs of indignation and defiance. Her parting V-sign, as she strides upstage into the dark at the close, lends the familiar voiceover a transgressive ambiguity: “We shall never surrender, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight to the end.”
The next solo, ‘Soup’ (danced by Harry Alexander) references the can of Campbell’s tomato soup (condensed) immortalised by Andy Warhol. Alexander enters, can in one hand, spoon in the other, sporting a spiky blond Warhol-plus wig. The remainder of his outfit – tight-fitting top with clear plastic back and snug white shorts – wins unreserved approval from certain sections of the audience. The man is in good shape. In interviews, Warhol was a master of hesitancy and deliberate self-contradiction: “Sometimes it’s hard, but sometimes it’s easy.” Here he stammers about Liza Minelli while dancing to Grace Jones, before closing, predictably but enjoyably, to the sounds of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.
‘Pomp’, in which Gary Clarke takes the solo role, leads us into the interval. The icon here is Elizabeth I, whom Clarke energetically portrays as court jester. It’s a clever piece, riffing on the inescapably performative and gender-bending nature of playing the Virgin Queen in a man’s world. Clarke’s Elizabeth – baldness lurking behind resplendent ginger buns – comes complete with equine ginger tail and ginger trimmings to “her” sceptre and orb. Aside from a joyous (well, maybe) interlude as drum majorette, the imprisoning and darkly humiliating ritualisation of the demands of power is poignantly and wittily represented.
‘Gay Gardens’ takes up the entire post-interval show, its two icons being French author, Marcel Proust and British artist and film maker, Derek Jarman. It’s a slower, more contemplative piece than any in the first half. Jarman’s reflections on life, art, sex, illness and death are, of course, worth hearing again (as is the reminder of the brutal homophobia in Thatcher’s speeches leading up to the imposition of the notorious Clause 28). However, these aspects never quite meld with Eleanor Perry’s mustachioed Proust and, as a result, from time to time, the audience’s attention slackens. Hay-Gordon, though, is an exceptional dancer – his opening solo, throwing together Jarman’s creative vivacity and overwhelming sickness, is quite beautiful, and he and Perry share a lovely pas de deux at the finale.
Tim Spooner (costume and set), Darren Evans (wigs and make-up) and Lucy Hanson (lighting) all make significant contributions to a varied and highly enjoyable programme.
A box of delights at a bargain price.★ ★ ★ ★