The art of awkwardness

18 Nov

How to Cope with Embarrassment

Blue Elephant, 17.11.17, with Nicola


How to Cope with Embarrassment mingles genres and performance styles to create a show that is partly a light-hearted showcase of relatable embarrassing moments, and partly a sincere examination of an under-explored emotion.

The initial set up feels a bit directionless – the two narrators, played by Clemency Thorburn and Ben Hudson, stand at microphone stands on either side of the stage and take us through a kind of fairytale quest to the home of chronic and incurable embarrassment. On the way, we encounter a few everyday moments of mortification – asking ‘what do you do for a living?’ when chatting with a taxi driver and similar – which are signalled with sudden flares of red light, an effective way to evoke that familiar feeling of turning red and wanting to disappear. This is followed – kind of incongruously – by a hookup sequence in a gay bar between ‘Geoff’ and ‘Alan.’ The sequence is gloriously filthy, and though it seems off-topic since neither character is even slightly embarrassed, it is effective just as a way of embarrassing the audience. It also sets up the two owners of a karaoke bar, who will reappear later for a fairly pointless but enjoyable musical interlude.

The action is punctuated with a series of recorded interviews – these seem to represent more sincere investigations of embarrassment, probing some thought-provoking questions – is embarrassment related to a ‘fight or flight’ evolutionary response? If not, why do we flush red and feel it as a physical swoop in the stomach? Is it always socially contingent? All the respondents are women answering a male interviewer, and I wondered whether this was deliberate.  There’s certainly scope here for an examination of the gendering of embarrassment – some of the examples that crop up in the course of the show seem to be related to gender expectations in interesting ways, right down to the anecdote about squirming over a male boss’s table manners.

The play’s central sequence is a disastrous Tinder date. There are some exquisitely awkward moments here, real masterpieces of comic timing and endurance. The main character ‘Lucy’ (Lucy Bond), whom we are told suffers from terminal embarrassment, sits in a toilet cubicle very slowly putting on lipstick before meeting her date. She gradually adds extra layers until she has a comically exaggerated red pout, covering half her chin, with a red cupid’s bow reaching almost to her nose. Her ‘date,’ ‘James,’ is pulled out of the audience, but it’s not clear to what extent he was a plant – he’s a theatre volunteer and seems very relaxed amidst the onstage shenanigans, so the awkward laughs that might be gleaned from dragging up an audience member are diminished.

The other two cast members add a lot to the date sequence with their performances as supremely unhelpful and surly waiters, keeping the couple under a judgemental gaze at all times as they fumble through some small talk. The best visual gag involves pouring prosecco sloppily across half the table and, later, just unapologetically all over Lucy, so she finishes the date in her underwear, asking diffidently if the waiting staff can put her dress in the cloakroom. Lucy, evidently not wanting to make a fuss, manages to reclaim some of her drink as it trickles off the edge of the table.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this work-in-progress performance – not least, the focus on embarrassment, which gives the play some very relatable subject matter and, potentially, digs into the inner workings of stage comedy itself by walking the narrow path between second-hand embarrassment and Schadenfreude.


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