live review // Made in China @ Cambridge Junction
words // Lisa Buckby
**NB: Spoilers ahead – Ed.**
How much are you prepared to give to win? Jess, Chris and Ira are prepared to hand over everything because – as they point out – winning is a natural human desire. In tiny matching gym shorts and fluorescent wigs, each contestant warms up for the hour-long competition to ultimately be named The Best, and have their name stay up in the lights. But as time goes on, the show begins to teeter dangerously on a knife edge, and the audience as spectators gradually begin to realise the more sinister themes in the show.
‘Gym Party’ written by Made in China Theatre received much critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, including a four star Guardian review and various sparkling reviews from specialist theatre publications. This spring, the company embark on an extensive tour of the UK, stopping first at our very own J2 at the Junction.
The performance is built around the format of a game show; it’s meticulously scripted, but the winner of each round changes every time. There are many hilarious moments; a marshmallow eating contest, dizzy racing (where each contestant spins around a golf club for “ages” and runs towards the finish line) and loads of made up 80’s style dancing. The soundtrack is bold – each contestant has a theme song which is blasted at the end of a winning round, and the dialogue switches flawlessly between the three contestants, each competing for the attention of the audience.
In the contestants’ eyes, winning very much equates to popularity, so they encourage the audience to vote in a popularity contest. (“Who do you think is the most trustworthy?”; “Who is the best kisser?”; “If you could save Chris, Jess or Ira from certain death, who would you choose?”) Chris, Jess and Ira also reflect on what it was like to be 12, an age where popularity seemed like the most important thing in the world to most of us. Chris tells a vivid account of his own Gym Party, where he competed to dance with and kiss the most popular girl in school, and explains his desire to succeed – not for the girl, but for the recognition from his peers.
The trio barely speak to each other, instead choosing to address us (the audience) as The Group, The Whole. They recognise that it’s easy to be anonymous in a crowd, to not act up and put ideas forward. And this is where the most poignant theme and, ultimately, the political message of the show is revealed.
As each round of the competition closes, the winner is awarded their time in the limelight, their theme song is played, and they can thank their supporters. But the two losers face self punishment, malicious bullying and eventual physical violence. Made in China want the audience to feel so uncomfortable that eventually someone from the crowd has to take action to stop the violence on stage. They remind us, the audience, that although we are all one of a crowd, at some point it is going to be necessary to step out as an individual and act upon our own beliefs.
‘Gym Party’ strikes a perfect balance between comedy and darkness. There are moments of tranquil reflection, bursts of frantic action, and by the end? A stunned silence of revulsion hangs over the room. There were slight problems with the flow of the sections this evening, but it’s to be expected for the first night of a tour, and a work that has only settled once again after development. Overall, a truly thought provoking and daring show, made completely accessible through comedy and openness offered by Chris, Jess and Ira.
Made in China are currently touring with ‘Gym Party’. For more info on their shows past & present, see their official site here.