A bit of a hoot ... Duckie's Gay Shame
On Saturday 3,500 people attended the Brixton Academy. Booze flowed, Saint Etienne performed and general revelry was had by all. It wasn't for a gig, though, but Gay Shame – the annual performance-art extravaganza produced by theatre company Duckie (self-proclaimed "purveyors of progressive working-class entertainment").
Gay Shame has staggered on for more than 10 years, timed to coincide annually with Gay Pride. This year's theme was Gay Shame Goes Girly and the market-stall set-up in the main auditorium included booths offering boob jobs, hair removal, hat-making and backstreet abortions – all delivered in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek style by performers dressed as sadistic beauticians, flouncy milliners or 1950s housewives. It was an interactive night of audience-participation high jinks paid for thanks to a massive donation from Arts Council England.
It's difficult to extol the virtues of Duckie's shows without sounding like a philistine: they're fun, raucous, stimulating and attract a bigger and more diverse audience than a new play at a small theatre. Would you really want to sit through a 90-minute new work exploring the objectification of the female body when you could participate in Duckie's 10 Classic Breasts stall instead? Punters are asked to choose from a catalogue of breast augmentations, each given names such as The Katie Price and Full English. They're warned that the procedure could result in death, and then lie on an operating table with their faces covered by a sheet. Ten minutes later, they emerge with random objects taped to their chests. I went for "Fun Bags" and ended up with two bags of Jellytots taped over my nipples. The whole thing gave as good an insight into unnecessary cosmetic surgical procedures as any Channel 4 documentary, and was a bit of a hoot.
But is it arty enough? Should the Arts Council really be frittering away a fortune on what, to some, may seem like a big gay booze-up? Undoubtedly so. The performances, although intentionally all pretty one-note, have a high impact while the interactive element is key to Gay Shame's success. Audience members choose what stalls to go to, how much booze to drink in between, and whether they want to mull over the wider artistic ramifications of the experience ... or just have a big camp laugh. And if the Arts Council is committed to engaging with people who wouldn't normally go to the theatre, then aren't shows like this – high on spectacle, low on tedium – the way to go?
There's a suspicion that if a work is fun and informal then it must be devoid of artistic merit. Gay Shame may not appeal to every theatre critic in London, but Duckie have demonstrated it's possible to use wit and humour to take the work to an audience who wouldn't usually bother with performance art.
As we all know, public arts funding will be cut next year and, as ever, there will be much wrangling about where the money should go. While there's undoubtedly a place for worthy, small-scale work, big events like this are also necessary to reach people who aren't part of the usual theatregoing community. After all, everyone's paying for it, and if taping fried eggs, sweeties or a dish rack to someone's chest makes them a more interested participant in the arts, then it's money well spent.