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Gym Party, Battersea Arts Centre – Review

Presented by Made in China

Pros: Mixes fun and games with lateral thinking and an acute social commentary.
Cons: Although the work makes a lot of intelligent points about our society’s obsession with ‘success’, the audience are not left with an overriding central message to take home with them.
Our Verdict: A flamboyant and colourful performance unlike anything you’re likely to see anywhere else.
Courtesy of Made In China
Meet Chris, Jess and Ira, three winners who will do anything to keep hold of their title. This is the latest offering from Made in China – a collaboration between Tim Cowbury and Jessica Latowicki – who profess to make work “at the juncture of playwriting and live art, for audiences who are fans of neither and both.”
In the member’s bar of Battersea Arts Centre, the audience are arranged in a wide but shallow room. On the stage three names are announced in fluorescent neon tubing: Chris (Christopher Bret Bailey – Associate Artist), Jess (Jessica Latowicki) and Ira (Ira Brand – Deviser). The performers commence the show with an introductory workout, dressed in white PE kit, socks and converse. They are wearing red, blue and orange wigs, respectively, to match their names in lights.
The ‘meat’ of the action is a contest with three rounds, in which bizarre challenges are interlaced with cutting commentary on a winner’s place in society, and personal reflections on winning from the contestants’ own lives. The dialogue combines to make a philosophically acute collection of ruminations on a late-capitalist and celebrity-obsessed culture which requires us to be successful on multiple planes simultaneously. The writing is insightful and incredibly funny, and whilst scripted, it retains the feel of a natural conversation between performers, and in parts, audience.
In the first round competitors see how far they can spit a Skittle (the sweets) and how many marshmallows they can fit in their mouths (particularly entertaining/disgusting when they are eventually spat out), alongside other physically challenging and generally ridiculous activities. In the second, the audience has the uncomfortable experience of publicly voting for which contestant is the richest, most attractive, and which you would choose to save from certain death. I won’t give away the details of the third.
When contestants fail a round they punish themselves. They inflict physical pain and discomfort on each other in a variety of ways, but the most hard-hitting punches are the verbal insults: one contestant is made to stand on a podium in their underwear whilst the others critique their appearance from top to bottom. Literally: “Your thighs could be described as nothing but chunky, and when you get hot they go red and get pimples on them that’s made it extremely unpleasant for anyone who’s ever gone down on you”.
The performers openly speak to the audience, asking their names, incorporating them into the sports and challenges where they can. “Who wants a chocolate?” they ask. I did. (I have no real love of offering myself up for exhibition through audience participation, I am just genuinely greedy). “Yes” just came out of my mouth. Someone else in the audience wanted one too. They made us race. I lost, although in my defence I was sitting further back from my competitor and my skirt forbade me the shortcut of climbing over the chairs in front. I was told I must try harder. I need to up my game. I went home to a low-calorie microwave meal and flagellated myself accordingly.
The work was a great success. The actors sacrificed a lot, their delivery was nuanced, their presence magnetic. The three rounds of games provide a structure and climax, which I feel is important for this concept-driven (rather than plot-driven) style of work which can often feel flat and in which the audience can get lost.
Ultimately, the piece is a clever, colourful, slice of theatre that’s incredibly entertaining, and definitely different from anything that can be seen elsewhere. With Gym Party, Made in China, are truly on a winning streak.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Gym Party runs at Battersea Arts Centre until 2nd November 2013.
Box Office: 020 7223 2223 or book online at https://www.bac.org.uk/

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