REVIEW: Jelly Baby (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Grace Hood-Edwards

[Are We Ready for this Jelly?]

(And by this jelly I mean the joyful deconstruction of symbols of diet culture and fat discrimination)

The Oddballs’ latest experiment Jelly Babystarring co-founder Alice Kirker, can be called nothing less than that, as 1 of 5 experimental entrants in The Basement’s 2020 Fringe Provocation ‘Duration’. Each of these four shows is a one-night-only, four-hour long durational theatre piece, with The Infomercial Project and Cleaning the Room set to debut later on this week. Audience members are invited to come and go as they please, or stay as long as they like. I stayed for the full four hours. 

Jelly Baby begins with Alice Kirker as the titular Jelly Baby tottering about the stage and playing with objects that she pulls one-by-one from a laundry basket. The stage is set up somewhat like a kooky studio apartment/laboratory, with colourful jars of jelly lined up in rows next to a large bathtub and sink – along with a weathered table and chairs, and a washing line rope strung across the back of the stage. Jelly Baby is silent as she performs these actions, over-exaggerating and clowning with objects that are intimately attached to the female, plus size experience – tights, towels, underwear, magazines, scales. This entire section of Jelly Baby is heavily reminiscent of Mr. Bean as Kirker’s character exhibits a playful and downright silly naïveté as she pulls faces and misappropriates the use of objects she pulls from the basket, with pantyhose being pulled onto arms and belts being looped around heads. Jelly Baby elicits laughs from the audience at the absurdity of her actions and at the moments of surprise Kirker is able to pull from each item, making silly fun of and at painful routines connected to the female experience. 

The soundscape shifts from an oppressive mechanical whirring as Jelly Baby hangs up her garments (spanx, tiny underwear, pantyhose, swimming costume, towel) and brings out a tray of tools. This change in action ushers in the lengthy second act of Jelly Baby. An audience member is invited to sit opposite Jelly Baby. Together they systematically destroy Sally Rooney’s book ‘Normal People’, where afterwards Jelly Baby shovels the scraps into a jar of jelly. This action continues again and again as audience members and Jelly Baby work together to literally take apart every object Jelly Baby had placed onstage in the first act of the show. Participants are urged onstage by Jelly Baby’s mischievous smile and raised brow, after she slowly scans the room looking for a partner-in-slime. As the hours pass, Jelly Baby/Kirker gradually refuses to convince people to join her onstage – waiting patiently for the audience members who, by that point, understand the routine and are eager to participate. 

One comedic audience member performs surgery on a box of Kellogg’s cornflakes, before showering themselves in the innards and snorting the dust. Expectations heighten as an audience member approaches and selects the scales (a sigh of affirmation and accord sweeps around the room), before they vehemently set to work smashing and tearing the scales apart. It is a moment of great catharsis and rage. It was amazing to see how much of a women’s magazine consists of diet industry propaganda, revealed as audience member and Jelly Baby tear through page by page. Seeing the two magazines shredded to pieces and scooped into a little pile prompted an unexpected emotionality within me, and I’m sure certain objects were received similarly by different audience members. It is obvious that a kinship develops between performer and participant as they playfully revel in the base human desire, and the chaotic freedom, of destruction. 

Alice Kirker slips in and out of the Jelly Baby persona through this section; and as time passes shifts more towards the former – although the hours-long act is not without humour. Each item comes with little moments of comedy, such as Jelly Baby’s reaction to realising she can actually eat the Roses Chocolates, and another audience member choosing to hammer a towel – provoking a bizarre and invisible game of whack-a-mole. It is understandable that a 4 hour show becomes repetitive, as Jelly Baby works frustratingly thoroughly through the objects on-stage, but the audience is held in a twisted sense of suspense as they wonder what will be next. You don’t want to leave, because what if you miss something! It is a work of endurance, for both the audience and performer. 

Nevertheless, it is oddly fascinating deconstructing objects down to their base materials – such as a skipping rope and a set of scales; learning, for the first time, what is actually inside these commonplace objects. I also learnt that humans love watching things being squished into jelly. There is a strange glee as each object is taken through the process, and something innately satisfying about the wanton deconstruction of these objects. As time goes on I realise that lots of people are actually finding the squishing of the jelly gross, yet morbidly fascinating – they can’t look away. I don’t share this squeamishness, but do find that many of the jelly jars become art pieces in and of themselves – particularly the deconstructed scales as they form a Dali-esque suspension of measurement and weight in jelly. When the items/symbols are finally done with, the lights turn green at the perfect stroke of 9pm, as we enter the fourth hour of the show and the third act. 

Jelly Baby is a messy show, with detritus from the last act – glass, cornflakes, metal, material scraps – littering the floor. Kirker begins to clean up the mess and remove furniture from the stage. It says something of the goodwill of the audience to the performer that they would watch this – in spite of a comedic moment in the separation of the sink from its pedestal, this section is probably the least engaging. It is only the constant suspense at what will happen next that manages to keep the audience hooked. As Kirker begins to take the jelly jars from their shelf and line them up along the floor, a notebook is exposed, which sees the audience perking up with anticipation. Unfortunately nothing comes of this, even though Kirker does open the book to silently go over a few pages. It is a little disappointing as, like a loaded gun, the notebook raises the expectation of, and heightens the desire for, speech or dialogue – which ultimately goes unfulfilled. 

Once all the jelly jars are lined up, Kirker sits on the floor behind them and begins to eat, legs widespread – taking up space. Eating in public can be a source of great anxiety for plus size people, or is an action which plus size people are told they are supposed to feel anxious about. In this performance, Jelly Baby holds the audience hostage as she eats publicly, staring at her jelly jars. The once crystalline containers are muddied with all the items that have been shoved into the jars – all shoved into Jelly Baby. This moment marks the complete arc Jelly Baby takes within the show, from childlike naïveté to solemn contemplation as Jelly Baby surveys all the contents she/the jelly have taken in.  

Kirker then strips down to her underwear – eliciting a proud smile from her director, Grace Augustine, in the corner – and gets into the bath. She smiles at the audience and then relaxes, reclining her head with an overwhelming sense of relief. The audience claps loudly. Kirker lets the moment rest, at peace, normalising the fat body. It is rare to be able to let go in public in a body which is under constant supervision, yet Jelly Baby blatantly flouts this pressure, letting go in spite of being under intense and public scrutiny. It is a very vulnerable act. The show ends with Kirker coating herself in jelly from the bath, and then slowly washing herself clean. 

Jelly Baby is a show about details, with little moments and objects stretched out ad infinitum. This type of show encourages and invites personal analysis as its duration continues, inviting you to draw your own conclusions from its silence and simple actions. It is inevitable that audience members will impose their personal impressions and experiences upon the performer, with each person somewhat seeing what they want from the artist and the performance. It is a performance art piece and a completely unique experience, where – even if repeat performances were to occur – the framework may remain the same, but the experience would be different each time. The show does drag at times – which is to be expected from durational theatre – and I cannot help but somewhat mourn my desire for greater narrative input within the show. However, including dialogue would have completely changed Jelly Baby and, without seeing it, I cannot say if it would be for the better or worse. It was a personal creative choice and, as such, Jelly Baby remains a deeply personal show.  An argument could be made that nothing Kirker could write would be able to equal what suppositions the audience themselves come up with in place of dialogue. It was certainly not the type of show I was expecting, yet its unexpected nature is part of why audience members were able to stay engaged through such a lengthy period.  

Alice Kirker has an undeniable magnetic energy that sustains the “daunting” four hours, as Kirker herself describes it post-show, whilst Jelly Baby’s cheeky smile is utterly charming and utterly forgivable. Elements of the Jelly Baby character’s playful absurdity hail back to The Oddballs’ 2019 devised show Fleshies which also explored body identity. Jelly Baby possesses great moments of levity, containing many a chuckle elicited due to awkwardness during its prolonged duration, alongside quiet moments of revelation as the hours unfold. Whilst Jelly Baby is perhaps not the examination or discussion of body positivity or the fat experience that audience members may have expected, it is certainly a very personal and intimate journey for Alice Kirker and, retrospectively, a unique privilege to have been able to witness. 

Jelly Baby was performed on as part of the Basement Theatre Season of Duration for Auckland Fringe. 

SEE ALSO: Nathan Joe’s preview of the durational season

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