REVIEW: Standstill (Auckland Fringe)

Too late!

All is revealed [by James Wenley]

Too late!

With the Auckland Fringe over, it is safe to talk about Standstill. The latest from The Rebel Alliance, Standstill featured a unique and risky promotional campaign. Their image said “Don’t read this” and the promotional blurb told us nothing about what the show was about, or who was in it. We were asked to take a chance on a show that we knew nothing about.

And it seems to have worked. I must confess, I did have a sneaky look at some of the reviews that came out after the show’s first night. With Sunday being the last night of the Fringe, I had to make a difficult choice about what I would be able to see. So I took a peak. Do early reviews destroy the concept of the campaign? Perhaps. After reading them I was still intrigued, and even surer that this was a show I wanted to experience.

It is a clever promotional concept, because I’m not quite sure how you would market the show as it is. This is no criticism. It defies easy description, it has an absurd form yet it recognisably plays with some very contemporary concerns. It reminded me strongly of the work of British playwright Caryl Churchill, but in a more accessible and appealing way. I have a suspicion that if Standstill debuted in Britain it would be hailed as an instant contemporary classic. But this is New Zealand, and theatre here can be a very hard slog. Fitting, as this seems to be one of the direct inspirations (“inspired by true stories”) for playwright and director Anders Falstie-Jensen in creating the work.

Now for what you wanted to know. The three actors in Standstill are Candice de Villiers, Brian Moore and Catherine Nola. The Basement stage is bare when we first enter, save for three baskets at the end of the stage, but during a blackout the actors each wheel on a treadmill. For most of the show they walk/run on this treadmill on different speeds and stage configurations. You feel puffed just watching them.

The play’s meaning and themes aren’t immediately clear. At first, it seems to be built on random scenes and sketches. Brian Moore begins with a monologue from Colin the Cambridge Cannonball, a world championship winning cyclist who, in his own words, has “never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs”. He then changes into John, follows Dr Peter Thompson on his rounds, and wipes off his sweat. ‘Power Speaker’ Candice (the actors often use their own names) delivers self-help platitudes to her fellow actors. And yep, all this happens on those treadmills.

As the scenes continue, and we return to each strand, the meaning begins to emerge. The Treadmills are a metaphor for working hard but not getting anywhere in life. As much as you may run, you always stay in the same place. What could easily be a gimmick, and indeed quite a trite metaphor, becomes a simple but powerful idea when paired with the other material. The show is very contemporary in its frustrations about life, about the bullshit ‘The Secret’ stuff we are plied with, the belief that if you believe in and visualise something enough you too can be a “Rockstar astronaunt actor slash model”. Our three actors find themselves working in a Can factory, the treadmills becoming conveyer belts – Candice has to shake them like maracas, Catherine has to flip them over, and Brian sends them to dispatch. But Catherine has a revelation of Plato’s cave proportions, and learns the futility of the whole operation.

Life is frustrating, and you never get what you want. Standstill asks us to take a heavy dose of reality. The script is deep and clever. I found myself puzzling over the storyline about John the hairdresser, who developed an impossible love for a doctor, and found cutting his hair one of the most profound moments of his life. My friend had a theory that it’s about people’s delusions, and the lies we tell ourselves, living life out in fantasy bubbles. It’s a play that allows for much discussion afterwards.

The actors are wonderful, fit and funny. Brian has a wicked ability to inhabit different characters, I loved Catherine’s Aussie tour guide, and Candice’s growing desperation as ‘power speaker’ Candice was compelling to watch.

It’s a play that by rights should make you feel depressed about things, though I came away quite energised (Delusional? Perhaps). “My life wasn’t meant to be like this!” exclaims one of the characters. Dreams start to slip away. Catherine makes a telling meta comment about the “iconic” Basement theatre – its performers are aged between 20-30, but once they hit 30 most realise their dreams are never going to become true and they become cops, teachers and arts administrators. The uneasy laughter (myself included) showed this one was rather close to home!

It’s hard to succeed. But then, what is this success thing? Where are we going in our lives? Standstill very cleverly catches on to our inners fears and frustrations, creating a brilliant and sometimes disturbing piece of theatre that brings the repressed to the surface. Life isn’t fair, but if it was, Standstill would continue to have seasons and run, run, run.

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