Until Thursday & Yara El- Sherbin: Reality bites back

Tim Atack

Droppin’ Shoppin’

Hey! Remember the real world? Yes, that’s right, the one with supermarkets in it, TV shopping channels, radio friendly music and stand-up comedy, the one with fistfights outside pubs. Two pieces are here presented combining theatre/live art and the everyday commercial arts: Until Thursday’s Droppin’ Shoppin’ and Avoiding dark Ali’s by Yara El-Sherbini. Both also share an interesting complication, in that they feature performers who might be considered to be working outside of their usual field of competence.

There’s always a certain tension when you’re aware that an artist is employing a brand new set of skills acquired for the sole purpose of performing a work. Elsewhere at the Inbetween Time festival, Uninvited Guests have trained themselves to create realistic body wounds using stage makeup, and it’s possible to spend much of the performance appraising the qualities of their efforts; Paul Granjon in his Lecturama presentation attempts unsuccessfully to make fire using primitive tools, and the audience are rooting for him throughout. This tension is also palpable in Droppin’ Shoppin’, which is a work built upon that great horror: middle class English boys rapping. As it happens, Oliver Bray of Until Thursday handles himself commendably in the MC stakes. The show, devised by Bray and partner Robin Sidwell—who plays a drum kit live on stage—combines the aesthetics of Shopping Channel television with stripped down recreations of hip hop tracks. The tones and abilities of Bray’s rapping voice are reminiscent of D.A.I.S.Y. age MC techniques, and that era’s definitive hip hop group, De La Soul. So, for instance, a Public Enemy-style righteous bark would not suit him, and the duo steer well clear of this type of material. Public Enemy’s polemic and political vitriol might be considered a little too ‘on the nose’ for a show which also deals with extreme representations of capitalism. Instead, Until Thursday address issues of creative ethics by performing 8 Point Agenda from UK act The Herbaliser. The original lyric is structured as a manifesto, which is then distorted in Droppin’ Shoppin’ by having Bray announce it wearing a cheap suit and a cheap smile, sat smugly in a red armchair, as if delivering quality guarantees and price promises on QVC.

There’s nothing new in this type of distortion, especially in hip hop, where most commercial albums are built around ‘skits’ presented between songs. It wouldn’t be at all out of place to hear an LP which featured Afroman’s line “I ate that pussy like shrimp fried rice” delivered with chummy English bonhomie, as happens in Droppin’ Shoppin’.

The show moves into different territory altogether when Oliver Bray addresses his audience directly using the anodyne style of a Shopping Channel presenter, and then begins to perform as if the videotape has wrapped itself around its own playhead, repeating words randomly, mixing them up, caught in a loop. These spliced up repetitions of dull media drivel resemble the work of Negativland or Chris Morris at his most abstract and whilst, as a technique, this might be seen as a perverted MCing of sorts, it didn’t seem to link in any way to the larger part of the show; except perhaps, tenuously, in the verbatim recreation of Afroman’s The American Dream which closes proceedings, delivered directly to us like a sermonising sales patter with queasy echoes of Martin Luther King. But the audience enjoyed it no end, and I’m probably in the minority in suggesting that Droppin’ Shoppin’ needed a good solid re-mix to unify its disparate elements.

Avoiding dark Ali’s

Yara El-Sherbini, on the other hand, has created a piece of dense conceptual layers through the most simple of focussed acts: filming herself performing stand-up comedy in a pub. In strange contrast to the work of Until Thursday, Avoiding dark Ali’s generates questions and provocations precisely because El-Sherbini is not a very good stand-up comic at all. She uses poor inflection on punchlines, flaps her hands about, laughs at her own jokes, and misses a fundamental trick of stand-up in failing to employ the microphone as a ‘weapon of presence.’ Her short routine is filmed at a smallish comedy club using a cheap DV camera, and is then projected in a darkened room, replaying in a constant loop. Sure, the audience within the film are laughing—with one woman’s voice loud and brash above all others—but in the entire hour I spend watching the projected film, the best El-Sherbini gets from her Inbetween Time punters is a couple of giggles. Unlike her pub crowd the Arnolfini audience knows that El-Sherbini is an artist using stand-up as an investigative medium. She’s telling those jokes for a reason.

The jokes in question share a common thread. All operate around the subject of Muslim culture and its place in the UK. It ought to be stressed that for the large part these are not political gags. Most are appalling puns and riffs upon pronunciation where, for instance “A right to be heard” is turned into “A right to beard” and “A Mosque? In Dorset?” becomes “A Mosque? Endorse it?” all made possible thanks to El-Sherbini’s Yorkshire drawl. But after a certain amount of repeated viewing the political begins to seep from the cracks in her act. Those annoying hand movements become an abstract dance, the crowd’s laughter an onrushing tide, and these deconstructions isolate El-Sherbini’s central concern: a cavalcade of stereotypes and terrorist associations is being made ‘safe’ and politically correct simply because it is being reeled off by a lass from Pontefract who just so happens to have a Muslim background.

The stand-up act itself asks no political questions, unlike the routines of other Muslim comics such as Shazia Mirza or Omid Djalli. It’s just a bright patter of Sheiks ensconced in cupboards with vacuum cleaners, Muslim women morphing into hookahs, and girls from Yorkshire pretending to come from Afghanistan, “fresh off t’boat.” But here, on the wall of an art gallery, it’s framed differently and the focus shifts accordingly. It’s made all the more relevant by the fact that outside, out in the real world (remember that?) there are currently a great many Muslims demanding blood over an unfunny, badly drawn cartoon.

4 February 2006