If you’re planning on seeing Putting Words in Your Mouth, the new show from Scottee that’s currently playing the Roundhouse, here’s some advice – don’t read this review. This production will work best without any prior knowledge of what you’re about to watch, and I’m going to have to go into spoilers one way or another (here’s a quick precis in the meantime – go watch, it’s amazing). For those of you still with us, ready? Ready? Ready.
Putting Words in Your Mouth is, at it’s very core, verbatim theatre. We start with three men opening up about their experiences of coming out. These are voiceovers known as Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester, all lip-synced to by our performers of Travis Alabanza, Jamal Gerald and Lasana Shabazz respectively. The stories are humorous but touching – the radicalization of buying your son a Barbie in 1996 gets a big laugh. Crucially, all three characters are extremely likeable.
Suddenly you realise the show has taken a startling right-turn. It’s not a grand reveal, but a simple, Earth-shattering statement that completely changes everything – our voices come from both UKIP and EDL LGBT groups. Being gay obviously isn’t strictly liberal, but the fact it’s such a shocking moment awakens that notion you were pigeon-holing the characters all along. Then we really start to listen. In the liberal echo chamber that is the arts, extreme right wing views will always be uncomfortable. The most important element to Putting Words in Your Mouth is that, although it creates a slightly ironic platform for the views of its characters, their opinions are not disregarded. Whether it’s pointing out the blatant hypocrisy that exists on the left, or – in a very funny and imaginative sequence – noting contradictions over playing gay cards against race cards, clearly no-one has all the answers.
Yet with all this, the discussion over homosexuality is never ignored. Leicester holds Thatcher as a gay icon, rather than a political figure. Section 28 is referenced, but not condemned. Alabanza, Gerald and Shabazz update their appearances throughout using wigs and lipstick, but also rosettes. You’re hearing one thing, watching another, feeling something else – there are too many levels to comprehend. I can’t name a production I saw this year that made me think so much.
Scottee is a genius. The staging of this show is so simple it forces us to engage with the text, only using the set on occasion to stimulate us visually. Birmingham’s disparaging remarks about LGBTQI movements in other cultures are beautifully pinpointed by Manchester slowly painting the word ‘Assimilate’ on the cyclorama. The same backdrop spinning round to reveal the word ‘Tolerate!’ The same backdrop being chaotically painted into an English flag, purposefully not a British flag. It’s yet another level, another thought process.
Alabanza, Gerald and Shabazz are all wonderful performers, particularly when it comes to the lip-syncing. It’s surreal, exaggerated, completely overblown but this fits the tone, widens the separation between the words and who we see speaking them. They all stand resolute with the dialogue, once or twice exploding in their own voices the injustice they feel. Each time this happens you feel the gut punch within the audience. Without the strength and bravery of these performances, Putting Words in Your Mouth could come away as a mocking commentary; it’s testament to the great skill on show that we tread a very fine line all the way through.
Good shows might deliver us differing opinions within its text. Great shows play with that delivery, twisting your mind, altering your perception. This is certainly a great show. At its heart, Putting Words in Your Mouth is a conversation, but one that uses theatricality to shock you to your core. Whatever your politics, culture or sexuality, you owe it to yourselves to experience this production.
Putting Words in Your Mouth is playing the Roundhouse until December 3.
Photo: Holly Revell