‘How You Gonna Live Your Dash’ opens on an empty stage, lines of masking tape on the floor form variously sized boxes, in which are placed glass jars, matchboxes, folded clothes, a party hat, a cheap glitter curtain suspended on a metal frame, a box of cornflakes, a blonde wig, a piece of string, a Dictaphone.
The show’s compelling double act, (Jenna Watt and Ashley Smith) break the silence, take to the stage and begin an often absurd, visually arresting and emotionally frenetic hour of theatre. The pair don jumpsuits and begin fiddling around with a remotely operated pyrotechnic in the centre of the stage. Upbeat music plays in the background, they are counting down to something big. They want to be “big fish in a small pond.” They want to be “small fish in a moderately sized pond.” But the explosion they are waiting on is constantly deferred, they are hampered by safety regulations, bumbling around with an unwieldy health and safety manual in a way that echoes the comic duos of classic Hollywood.
When they finally manage to rig everything correctly, what follows is not an explosion but a puff of lilac smoke, which billows upwards before dissipating into the air, leaving the stage enveloped in a hazy purple mist. Coloured smoke is the central visual motif of ‘How You Gonna Live Your Dash’, but to call it a gimmick would be to ignore the creativity with which this device is employed. Smoke is captured in jars and then eaten like candyfloss, pumped through the fabric of a tweed jacket as the wearer steams with anger. In a particularly arresting scene, powder is packed into a plastic funnel and blown into the air using only the power of Watt’s own lungs, coughing and spluttering as plumes of violet dust fill the auditorium. Splashes of colour are used sparingly and effectively, the show’s visuals are perhaps its strongest point, aside from two impressive performances from Watt and Smith.
The coloured smoke is perhaps a perfect visual representation of the show’s central themes of the human drive to break the cycle of indecision and stagnation, to explode forth from the prison of routine and live spontaneously and even recklessly. At the end of the show we learn that the ‘dash’ of the title is the hyphen in between date of birth and date of death on a person’s headstone. Indeed ‘How You Gonna Live Your Dash’ is fundamentally a show which deals with mortality in a way which is never lacking in energy and life.
The show takes the form of a series of seemingly unrelated skits that come together conceptually as the performance moves on. They are funny, poignant and surreal in turn. Watt and Smith perform bizarre facial exercises as muzak blares over the loudspeakers. As John, a hapless family man who longs for escape and adventure, Watt stuffs her cheeks full of cornflakes as Smith narrates John’s nihilistic internal monologue. A particularly hilarious moment sees John, this time played by a moustache-clad Smith, leaving his family and boarding a plane to Saudi Arabia in search of new horizons. As he ascends the steps a sparkly plastic curtain appears behind him, a fan blows his hair in a fashionable manner as ‘Against All Odds’ by Phil Collins plays in the background as John’s body slowly crumples.
This absurdity is typical of ‘How You Gonna Live Your Dash’, a show which uses the strange and comedic to highlight the surreal rituals of everyday existence. The skits are often so bizarre in nature that the conceptual penny takes a while to drop, leaving the audience tangibly bemused, something I suspect is a deliberate decision on the part of the creators. But when it does drop, it is never short of rewarding. Admittedly, it took me a while to realise that the show is better enjoyed when you don’t try to understand or assign symbolism to what is happening onstage, but rather let the emotional and visual spectacle affect you viscerally. The show ends on a particularly touching note. The pair unfurl a small piece of string and place it at the front of the stage, setting it alight at the end. They watch as it burns, slowly, then fizzles into nothingness, leaving actors and audience alike in darkness.
Photo credit to Mihaela Bodlovic
Alice Bethany Markey
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