“How much do you normally pay to go to the theatre?” Hannah Ringham asks her audience – half-full at best – around halfway through Glen Neath’s interactive play Hannah Ringham’s Free Show (Bring Money). £20, answers a woman named Maureen after a pause. £10, someone else offers vaguely. This is the latest in a series of ploys by the actor to extract the largest amount of money from her audience; as the title suggests, this is a ‘free show’ only insofar as we are free to decide what it’s worth, and, as the three walkouts are told kindly when they try slip out unnoticed, free to leave. For those who stayed, however, the play turned out to be an intelligent but flawed, self-referential piece that largely succeeded in its comic investigation into the monetary contract between audience and performer.
Ringham breathes a remarkable appearance of spontaneity into what is in fact a rigidly structured performance, giving lines the appearance of off-the-cuff remarks. She gives a series of excellently performed bad performances, pulling off the awkward actor perfectly with a persona somewhere between nervous stand-up and confessional one-woman show. Her stilted reading of a fabulously bizarre Mills and Boon-esque tale, complete with heaving bosom, goes down very well and she masters the black comedy of some of the material perfectly. The ‘Hannah Ringham’ of the play is direct, sometimes harsh, but never genuinely threatening in her demands for money. Any warmth we feel towards her has nothing to do with the heart-rending tales she tells us to get us to dig deep into our pockets – “50p’s worth of pain” – but rather her ability to carry the show and manipulate its tone between comedy and confrontation.
The play has echoes of Tim Crouch’s even less conventional The Author, which began at the Royal court in 2009 and saw its writer playing a playwright called Tim Crouch, though Free Show owes its ideas to a host of similar pieces exploring the notion of performance and audience. Like The Author, however, Neath’s script suffers from its dependence on the willingness of its audience to engage and from its own unclear boundaries; it is obvious that we are supposed to interact, but the extent is hazy. Certainly the audience at the Warwick Arts Centre were squirming in their seats with self-consciousness and seemed to have come expecting a less demanding show.
As a result of this, the performance was for the most part uncomfortable, perhaps intentionally so; the atmosphere certainly reflected our society’s embarrassed attitude to money. Neath and Ringham have taken creative and very real financial risks with the play, which to both their credit and downfall expects rather a lot from its audience – some nights it just doesn’t pay off.
Hannah Ringham’s Free Show (Bring Money) played at the Warwick Arts Centre.