Bum ride on the Bum Bum Train

There’s something deeply sinister and unpleasant about You Me Bum Bum Train, the one-man audience participation show running for one more week at an abandoned London Electricity Board building in Bethnal Green.

Yes, I know everyone likes it, but only in the sort of way you would like a ride on a good Ghost Train or a Big Dipper.

What I dislike is what I dislike about Punchdrunk: the fascistic sense of coercion, the bullying, the refusal to answer “off-piste” questions,  say about health or safety, the thin dramaturgy, the bad acting.

Actually, I was rather a good participant, adopting all the roles thrust in my face with flair and, I think, good humour.

An employment agency apparatchik accused me of being late and asked my name. “Justin Time,” I replied. Plugging a book I’d written about “Happiness” at a Q and A, I turned into a miserable curmudgeon, a big stretch for me.

You’re commanded not to give anything away, and you’re asked at the end if you liked the show.

And if you didn’t, you’re submitted, as I was at least, to a very unpleasant whiney grilling in the karaoke exit bar: more fascism, similar to Punchdrunk’s insistence on you wearing a horrible mask, or not being able to find your way round a labyrinth.

I’m not a timid or unadventurous person, usually, but I was scared stiff by Bum Bum.

And you’re helpless to intervene in the plot, or change direction, refuse to attend that meeting, or answer that question.

I’d like to know, incidentally, how many people have burned their elbows off while being shoved down a rubbish chute, or cricked their necks while climbing into a sleeping woman’s bedroom to commit a robbery.

The interesting thing would be to be able, as an uber-audience, to watch the solo punter’s journey through these totally unlinked scenarios; indeed, you feel, someone, somewhere, probably is. It’s all a kind of performance pornography, and I loathed it from start to finish.

It pretends you’re the centre of attention, but deprives you of any freedom to dominate or re-organise the proceedings.

It’s hatefully undemocratic, and reminds me not only of Punchdrunk, but also of Internal from the Flemish group Ontoerend Goed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival: one-on-one phoney seduction banter, with a falsely embarrassing patina of flirtatious sensuality.

Champions of this kind of work will point to the art of the installations and design — on this level, Bum is Bum is yum yum — and invoke the contemporary buzz words “immersive” or “site-specific” or “interactive.”

But there’s no real philosphy in this kind of work, no intellectual integrity and no aesthetic innovation. It’s theatre by art students for art students, a kind of elitist anti-theatre for desiccated critics and Time Out fashion-mongers.

It’s self-indulgent play-time, and a million miles from the genuine, demonic creativity of past groups like the Living Theatre, or the great companies of world theatre run by Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, Lev Dodin and even Simon McBurney. 
Needless to say, I’ve passed on the opportunity to join up for Hotel Medea, a participatory Brazilian cabaret and all-night technology fest on a ferry down the Thames.

I’ll be interesetd to hear what it was like, though. Handel’s Water Music enlivened a similar sort of five-hour royal barge party when it was first performed on the Thames exactly (last Saturday) 293 years ago. So there’s nothing new under the sun about that particular site-specific context at all.

There never is, of course. Nonetheless, undeterred by the bum-ness of Bum Bum, I’ve already signed up for two mystery tour productions starting at the Traverse Theatre in the upcoming Edinburgh Festival.

I just hope I don’t have to tap dance, or make any more speeches.

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