It’s a lingering peaty smell that unsettles me as we enter the space. Jennifer Swingler, Sacha Plaige and Charles Adrian form a contorted tableaux less than a meter from the front row. They kneel on a pile of dirt (the offending smell), bare but for gauze, which wraps their modesties. 45 minutes later as the show enters its final act, the performers are washing the soil off each others’ bodies, taking turns to thwack a sopping mop head against each other’s backs. They have milk, custard, spaghetti, cornflakes, and what I think might have been mint sauce to wash off. There’s a lot of mess.
What this bookends isn’t so much a narrative but a building of momentum toward more and more grotesque interactions between the players. Clout Theatre’s Feast is mostly a clowning performance, structured into three sections: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, which re-digests the way that we value and the way that we treat food. It exposes how we take it for granted; how we abuse it.
The initial picture is primitive and stark. Each performer moves like a light-starved battery hen, forever toppling over deformed hands and feet. They fumble about in the dirt for the first ten minutes. As an early image of supplication to food, they have bedpan-like dishes tied to their ankles in the fashion of a ball and chain. A great hole is cut out of each centre. Though the intended slowness of the scene’s development delays me truly engaging with the material, there are moments of early success. For example, when the pre-set tableaux is broken apart by a watering can emptying a milky substance noisily onto the players and most of the front row. Or when – with bedpans now secured to heads via the now handy head-sized hole – a shower of cereal from the ceiling is eaten through a clumsy rotating line.
Around the halfway point, a whole onion is revealed. It’s already pealed, and is carried stately across the stage to Swingler who, to audible groans from rows two and three, gives into the pressured glares of her companions and successfully chomps through the entire thing. A number of moments are likewise teased, and always almost impossibly followed through with. These include a small to medium tomato suppository, and Plaige having her head wrapped in cling film for the show’s remainder. Clout play the tension masterfully before each moment, ensuring that they get the desired active reaction.
It’s inarguably a shocking performance, but with just the right measure of laughs for balance. By Lunch we have fallen into a steady driving rhythm, urged on by percussive breathing techniques and an eclectic soundtrack. I was struck by the fact that despite the true feast of foodstuffs that appear in the show, very little goes to waste. Large steaks and beetroot for example (or was it liver?) are exploited for the pornographic potential I didn’t realise they had. A banquet table of delights becomes a playground for Clout to expose our misguided attitudes to all things edible.
For me it was the exposure that made the show a success. From the opening milk cascade, we were a vulnerable audience. And though the interactions between characters and their meals stretched far into the absurd, the motivations behind the actions – to compete with food, to punish with food, to celebrate with food – are feasibly true reflections. It might not make you check the size of your lunch portion tomorrow, but it will make you wash that vine of fresh tomatoes a little more thoroughly.
Feast plays at Battersea Arts Centre until 6 February. See their website for more information and tickets. www.bac.org.uk/feast