Anti-theatre. Meta-theatre. Absurdism. Surrealism. Dada. Call it what you like, attempting to subvert and destroy the conventions, structure and narrative of traditional theatre is nothing new. In fact, if you know where to look, you can find boundary-pushing theatre every day of the week. This does not, however, mean that the form has been exhausted; by the very diverse and experimental nature of the form, new and often surprising and exciting content is created. The Vacuum Cleaner, by Kat Redstone and Vicky Kyriakoulakou, carries on the absurdist tradition, gleefully describing itself as “the worst show you will see at the fringe… probably!” This is certainly a bold claim, and one which I conservatively estimate to be entirely untrue.
On entering Arcola Theatre’s downstairs Studio 2, a performer is already in the space. Alexander Raptotasios, who also produced the piece, stands at the microphone, radiating panic, continually trying and failing to say something. This is an appropriate beginning to a play which is partly about failure, which seeks to dramatise and transcend the limitations of theatre. This is done in a number of ways, but most explicitly by Kat Redstone, who also co-created the piece. She does this charmingly and effectively, anticipating the thoughts and feelings of the audience with uncanny accuracy in my case, and gently teasing the boundaries between performer and audience in a way that is nonetheless thought-provoking and even slightly unsettling. The self-referential nature of the piece at times became too didactic to the point of being patronising, but perhaps this was a deliberate red herring, intended to deflect overly simplistic analysis.
At the beginning of the play proper, Raptotasios finally manages a few words, before being interrupted by the much-anticipated vacuum cleaner, then finally by the rest of the cast. The cast are a diverse bunch, which suits the style of the production perfectly. Their charisma and commitment to their roles within the production come across particularly well during the quieter, more subtle moments in the piece. Naturally, as with any production of this sort, there are moments that are more successful than others. There are times when the organised chaos descends into plain chaos, and also times when the randomness of the content seems counterproductive and gratuitous, but these moments are few and far between.
The danger of pieces like The Vacuum Cleaner is that they run the risk of being inaccessible to someone with no experience of such theatre, and patronising and unoriginal to those who have. There is also the danger of allowing the piece to become all about the formal experimentation, with the content taking a backseat. Whilst a piece such as this is always going to be divisive, I found it immensely enjoyable. It doesn’t simply tackle formal or theoretical questions – “exploring the relationship between performer and audience” – it also touches on questions of cultural and gender identity, and how these are created and supported by the stories we tell ourselves. This is a diverse, intriguing and entertaining show, with fleeting moments of real poignancy.
The Vacuum Cleaner is playing Arcola Theatre until 20 July, before playing at theSpace on North Bridge as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 12-24 August. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival website.