When it comes to challenging performance the line is actually pretty easy to distinguish between challenging-engaging and challenging-confusing. Slenderly placed in the middle of an all day festival of experimental theatre, Easy For You To Say was far along the more comprehensible end of the spectrum and all the more welcome for it.
Commissioned directly by Cambridge Junction, it draws heavily from the experiences of lead writer Rowan James – a poet diagnosed with a specific learning disability and speech impediment, easily othered – and co-stars Marv Radio, a beatboxer with the talent to suggest he’s a pretty big deal in the circuits he frequents. The show looks at normality and labelling, all set to the rhythm of Rowan’s irregular heartbeat as the synopsis beautifully puts it. Like some other performances at WATCH OUT, Easy For You To Say is about embodying difference, but though the performers’ selves form the ground what really makes it fly is how this difference is extended to include the audience. When normality is something to strive towards the winner gets to be average. And no one wants to be labelled average, right?
Crowd participation is a near perfect device for this; equal parts play & equal parts fear, you keep your eyes down, avoid eye contact and hope the performers don’t pick on you. We start off with a raise-your-hands-if equal opportunities form and move forward from there (spoiler: Cambridge is very white). The show excels at revealing everyday interrogations. What does the person next to you think about you? What’s the difference between banter and bullying? We’re asked to fish out pens from under our seats and write a label for our neighbour without seeing what each other is writing. I decided “pretty” on the girl next to me would be a little creepy, and for my cowardice was labelled “approachable”. Social calamity successfully avoided. Essentially what we’re being asked to do throughout is play with the idea of what it’s like to be at the mercy of others’ assumptions.
It could have been traumatizing, but it wasn’t. What felt really important was that a) this was delivered in a personable, relatable way, and b) it was realistic and not idealistic. Labels can be limiting but sometimes they aren’t so easy to change. Sometimes they’re inevitable, and sometimes they can be helpful. It’s important to acknowledge that the issues raised here are three-dimensional. It’s not a binary right or wrong thing; people are complicated and we’re all in it together.
Performance-wise, the show mixes up spoken word, rap and beatbox interludes with conversational dialogue, and the lighting guy obviously had a bomb. Marv Radio is capable of pretty much anything you could want from a set of vocal cords; his dexterity and ease is a real asset to the performance. There’s only a finite number of things you can do with two people addressing the same topic across an hour. Any longer and it may have felt stretched. The nervous thrill of being put outside your comfort zone is instrumental in making this thing breathe; crowd interaction like this is very welcome, for any future creatives reading.
There’s a fine line between trite and triumphant, and Easy For You To Say straddles it. It’s challenging and entertaining, reveals the audience’s vulnerabilities safely and wraps them up neatly at the end. The danger is always that something like this is going to tumble over the line into equality and diversity lecture territory, which would probably do no-one any favours. In order to really challenge audiences there needs to be ways of engaging them besides varying the tempo and volume of rant, and the mood as everyone left the room was incredibly positive. This is very empowering stuff, and much needed. This was just a preview, but if there’s any justice in the world it will be touring itself silly soon, and you’d be a fool to miss it.
Words from Wesley Freeman-Smith.