Smack That (a conversation): As likeable as it is important
A girl called Bev is having a party and you're invited. It's like any party - there's cider and buffet table, and the host isn't a girl you know well. She looks cool in her glittery socks and white trainers. She's even wearing a silver wig. You'd like to be her mate.
Except there's seven of her. And you're Bev too, nicknamed at the beginning of the piece and given a name label (I was Boots Bev). This is the party that Rhiannon Faith is inviting you to - an unexpected performance about domestic abuse that is as likeable as it is important.
Smack That (a conversation) has created a safe space that defies the internet's easy, and often nasty use of that phrase. You're given a box that has a series of useful numbers and information about Cambridge refuges. But it also contains marshmallows and party poppers. At the end of the piece you are invited to process the performance in the space, or just have a dance to Grimes.
It's not irreverent - there's no sense of carnival or burlesque. Instead it's a sincere and generous way to refocus the audience's mind on the idea that for survivors, their softness is just as radical as their strength.
It is fundamental to the success of the piece that we like and trust the performers. And we do. Because, although the piece is participatory, you are never being asked to do anything that one of the onstage Bevs is not doing with you. You reveal something during Never Have I Ever, by standing up to drink. The likelihood is that there is a performer standing with you.
Likewise, one singular performer speaks directly to you for the whole piece, their mic just feet from your chair, which means that while the narratives are shared out, you have an individual to focus on. This means you can develop intense personal rapport with the performers.
This allows some of the most troubling images of the piece their full power. A performer is dragged to her knees, and her face repeatedly pounded into a cheap cake. The choreography maintains its visceral simplicity, but the image is given nuance by the work done beforehand. The same woman who's wig has come off, who's face is smeared, is the woman that asked you twenty minutes before if you preferred tits? Or chips? If you had to choose? She probably offered to top up your cider too.
The choreography is dense but delivered with lightness. The repeated motifs of splayed legs and grasping hands are emotive, without slowing the momentum of the dance. A particular triumph is a dance with three of the Bevs. Each violent exhale of breath creates a rhythm to which they stamp and arch their backs. The look of the flying silver hair is astonishing.
There is a tendency towards some slightly prescriptive lighting and sound towards the end of the performance. It jars with the party props. The slightly anonymous piano music doesn't work nearly as well as their use of high-tempo pop, Sleigh Bells and Grimes. Likewise, the dances are at their strongest under simple lights. The use of red light feels too insistent, too obvious.
The pacing of Smack That (a conversation) is one of it's great strengths. It balances, with great delicacy, the needs of the audience, and the needs of the material. There are points at which the performers are insular, and interact almost solely with each other, hugging, lying together. This gives the audience room to relax and process. Likewise, for every hard fact (read out via a game of pass the parcel), there's a moment of rich and dreamy symbolism, like the building of a house onstage, out of the same boxes that that had the party poppers in them.
Smack That (a conversation) is confident takedown not just of the stereotypes around abuse, but of preconceived notions of what our conversations about abuse need to look like. It's at its core an intensely practical show, with hard and fast advice about what to do to help, or where to go if you need help.
Its joy is in the blending of this practicality with joy: balloons, Haribo sweets. Its genius is in never allowing the joy to trivialise the stories of these performers. The paradoxes sit well: the performers can roar in anguish and play pass the parcel with you. Bev is as complicated as she is watchable.