Wandering out of the Bluecoat into the rain, I wasn’t sure if I had enjoyed The Ugly Spirit. I certainly wasn’t sure if I’d understood it. I’d been left not quite sure of anything. Just about the one thing I did know was I had come away from one of the most remarkable and unforgettable pieces of theatre that will be seen in Liverpool this year.
The Ugly Spirit, a ‘backstage play’ by Russell Barr and presented by Fittings Multimedia Arts as part of DaDaFest, lingers long in the memory and haunts the dreams well after the show is over. It is still constantly on my mind.
The strange evening all began by gathering the audience in the hub of the Bluecoat, as performance artist David Hoyle (possibly in character, possibly not) offered around glasses of fizz and a tray of strawberries, encouraging us to eat, drink, and relax. Looking like Quentin Crisp in heels and pink lippy, Hoyle’s presence was gigantic — a reassuring figure about to lead the group who-knows-where.
He took us into the Bluecoat’s gallery space, before sending groups up to the venue’s dressing rooms in the service lift. “It’s all a bit Willy Wonka,” someone joked nervously on the ascent. This was true. There, we found soprano Denise Leigh and an assistant helping her with make-up, and leading her to the mirror to sing and warm up. We were shown into the building’s plant room, where strange sculptures greeted us; and across the top of the performance space, where we would kick piles of stones unnoticed on the ground, be encouraged to feel wrapped up objects, take in a series of prints and slide shows, and look down to watch a solitary dancer waltzing alone to the sound of an accordion player in a Venetian mask.
When we made it down to the performance space, the audience together as one again, we were joined by Leigh and Hoyle once more. There was a variety of dioramas, more cairns of stones and toys to look at and interact with. I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what was going on at this point – the seats were covered, and if the main show wasn’t going to happen here, where were we going to go?
Suddenly, Hoyle announced that the twins were ready for us. Ah, the twins. If nothing else we knew The Ugly Spirit was a story of conjoined twins, Jessie and Bessie, loosely inspired by twins who had been part of PT Barnum’s circus.
Jessie (Gareth Keiran Jones) and Bessie (Rachel Drazek) were waiting to begin their 60 minute show in the Bistro space – how unexpected! – with Hoyle performing monologues from behind the open space in the bar area as we sat down on either side of it, our twins stood by one of the garden-facing windows by a giant birthday cake.
Russell Barr’s lively script revelled in wordplay and relied on impeccable timing from our twins. The narrative did not appear to flow chronologically but told its story through a disjointed outpouring of memories and subconscious thought. It was not easy to follow, but was fascinating to watch. “At my times of deepest depression, I wish we were separated,” Jessie says, to which Bessie replies: “Humans who are separated seem like monsters to me. How strange and inadequate every movement would be.”
Promenade theatre hasn’t been so affecting and unsettling since For the Best, a similar kind of show that took place throughout the Gostins building in 2010 and was completely unforgettable in the same kind of way.
And when it was time to go, each audience member was given a stone ‘for the dead’, and ushered out one-by-one. It was finished, and we were left to wander out of the Bluecoat into the rain, not quite sure of anything.
Read more about the story behind The Ugly Spirit here.