Green Room Award-winning company Elbow Room present a flawless new thriller exploring the vacuous heart of celebrity culture
The show opens with a distinctly ecclesiastic vibe, with choral music and chapel lighting. But the only things being worshiped here are secular gods, notably fame and money. Just how much humanity is left over once we’ve pawned or sold ourselves to these lesser deities is the question at the heart of Elbow Room’s new play. Of course, with this company – known for searing, politically charged work like We Get It and Prehistoric – notions of femininity and the male gaze are bound to surface. It makes for a heady mix.
In the world of the play, Niche is the name for both a branding exercise and the artist at the centre of that exercise; and there’s a delicious irony in the fact that the two are virtually interchangeable. The piece opens with pop superstar Niche (Eryn Jean Norvill) mid-performance, open-mouthed, supplicant. We then get introduced to Jodie (Emily Tomlins), an epidemiologist studying a colony of chimps who have been infected by a virus. The virus enters into the ear of one of the chimps and alters her behaviour, sends her mad. The chimp’s name is Nook.
Jodie is transcribing her findings – presumably for some serious and seriously important scientific journal – when she is interrupted by an offer to join Niche’s marketing department. She declines, until the money becomes irresistible, and she capitulates. Her expertise on the ‘ear worm virus’ is the real objective of her new employers, and suddenly science is at the mercy of blatant commerce. Jodie’s inevitable meltdown mirrors society’s uneasy relationship with mass marketing forces, but it also leads to a breakthrough of sorts, a narrowing of the gap between the two women.
It’s not clear just how the audience is meant to read the character of Niche; this is a play where suppositions morph subtly into their opposites. We are offered various ‘versions’ of Niche throughout the play: an awards night acceptance speech given by her alternates as an exercise in narcissism, feminism, sexploitation. The pressures of performance seem to weigh heavily on her, and then they don’t. She comes across as a victim of capitalist greed and then, in the blink of an eye, as an unapologetic role model for young girls. She’s mercurial, in the most complex and disturbing sense – a cipher who understands and manifests her audiences’ multiplying needs.
It’s Jodie, however, who really transforms. While her obsessive exercising hints at a woman who cares about her appearance more than she might let on, her shifting and increasingly nutty reactions to her employer indicate a person undergoing a crisis of identity. She starts to hallucinate, conjuring images of Niche that she grapples with both physically and metaphorically.
Norvill and Tomlins are simply flawless, their individual performances so perfectly calibrated that watching them together brings to mind a duo of musicians riffing off each other’s talents. Tomlins brings a wearied stoicism to Jodie, a sense of the accumulated disgust that comes from a lifetime of resistance to gender performativity. Norvill is astonishing as the problematic, shapeshifting Niche; her musical numbers drip with the suggestive sexuality and complete lack of sensuality that define modern pop, and her lightning-fast manifestations are dazzling.
Director Nic Holas manages to wrangle the complex technical demands of the script into a seamless package, and keeps a tight rein on the pacing and dynamics. Owen Phillips’s set is ingenious, allowing for rapid changes and multiple perspectives. Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting is superb, nailing the cold efficiency of Jodie’s office and going to town on the heightened drama of Niche’s musical numbers. Those musical numbers – written by Norvill and Elbow Room co-artistic director Marcel Dorney – are uncanny: so close to modern pop’s ingratiating shallowness, they also suggest a creepy undercurrent, something vaguely prurient and pornographic.
It’s quite difficult to create work about the vacuousness at the heart of modern culture without appearing vacuous yourself, but Elbow Room pulls it off here with commanding insight. Niche is frequently hilarious, but laughter here is always in the service of something darker and more probing. The play ends with a brilliant scene of apology, but there’s nothing to apologise for when you’re creating work of this calibre. Dazzling, flawless, insightful, probing. If only all pop were this good.