“Do pop along if you are in London,” tweeted performance artist Pat Ashe. “It’s only £6 to watch me doing stuff on stage.” Now, I don’t know how much thought went into this marketing campaign, but the man has got the tone spot on; this is exactly the kind of humble understatement that powers Ashe’s piece, An Oasis in 5 Parts.
As the title suggests, this work is split into five segments: four experimental and digitally-driven performance pieces that explore the artist’s hometown Ashby-de-la-Zouch and one ’zine designed to be taken away, so that we can also carry a little bit of the memory with us. Throughout, the tone is personal and tightly knotted to Ashe’s own experience but, as the piece develops, it also starts to represent more general ideas and urges us to think about ourselves.
It’s not until the third piece that we hear from Ashe directly. In parts one and two, the performer talks to us through projected text, using music and doodles, which he scrawls over the top of maps. Through these indirect modes of communication, Ashe documents the process of reminiscing about a place. His poetic image of a passing year being “counted only by the places I’ve slept” is compelling, and the contrast between the distanced and digitally-mediated single voice and the plural pronouns that liberally scatter the text conjures up a gentle, dreamy nostalgia that links place with people and emotional experience or, as Ashe articulates, “the ghosts of events that have gone”. There is indeed an unquestionably warmth in Ashe’s textual snapshots, as he describes being huddled in music rooms and crammed into cars. There is warmth, too, in the comic scenes, such as when the textual voice affectionately mocks the GCSE students who have just discovered that they can swear in drama class.
Yet it is hard to appreciate the personal before we’d had chance to meet the person, and so it was difficult to stay focused throughout these early sections, which were indulgently swollen with the artist’s own experience. Yet, looking back, these scenes seem to have a functional role, as if the performer was quickly jumping through inevitably awkward hoops in order to establish a mutual history upon which to build a friendship. Indeed, the further we progress into the piece, the easier it is to develop a fondness for its creator as he delivers an organic and truly live journey of understanding; cleverly, Ashe supports this view by revealing that he is fully aware of the irrelevance of his material: “‘These moments are nothing; I guess they are nothing to you.” The facts are recited and the details are lingered over, yet we get the sense that the specifics are immaterial and this is a piece as much about moving on and away as it is about looking back to a specific, lost town.
This idea is developed later in the production, when Ashe brings a video of his town to life through an enthusiastic commentary. As the video powers forward along the streets of Ashby, the artist points out the route he used to take to school, his best friend’s old house and his favourite chippy. Just like the paper maps used at the start of the piece, this video provides a canvas upon which experience can be illustrated. The filmed first-person perspective takes us to a fork in the road, and while the camera takes a left, Ashby points to the other road, which would take us to Measham in “a whole different show”. His comment raises a laugh, but it makes a key point about the different paths that we can take. And so, while this production roots us emphatically in this artist’s hometown, this is not a tale with a rigid postcode. For me, An Oasis in 5 Parts is as much about my hometown located just the other side of the Midlands – a place that has left a similar influence on me.
An Oasis In 5 Parts is certainly inventive, but there is a refreshing absence of pretentiousness throughout. This is a creative journey across place and through time, navigated by a likeable and honest artist who occasionally rushes his delivery, misses his apostrophes and lets his boxers show. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a professional piece. With messy sound design and text often obscured by light fittings, Ashe’s piece was a reminder that the gloss of theatre, used to neatly get a message across, isn’t so necessary when the message is already so clear and endearing.
An Oasis In 5 Parts is playing at the Yard Theatre until 21 July. For more information and tickets, see the Yard Theatre website.