REVIEW: ★★★★★ GUNK, BIRMINGHAM & MIDLAND INSTITUTE

REVIEW: ★★★★★ GUNK, BIRMINGHAM & MIDLAND INSTITUTE

“It’s okay. I’m okay.” In a world that never stops, GUNK is a gorgeous landscape of today’s anxieties, blending devised theatre, prose, live music and illustration to create a spectacle that is equal parts tender and powerful. 

Returning from their debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019 with a devised production of Julius Caesar, SquareEye Theatre bursts back into their Birmingham home with their original new show, GUNK. An explosion of funk and vibrant physical theatre, SquareEye explores how anxiety manifests in a world that never stops, producing a build-up of “gunk in the brain”. 

From the moment GUNK begins, there is an intriguing interaction of feel-good funk and the nervous energy that underpins much of contemporary life. We enter into the world of GUNK through a gateway of energetic original funk songs, which are played live by the slick five-piece ensemble composed of Casseline Gilet, Raffi Hayrapet, Hannah Lovell, Jacob Marshall and Daryanne Scott. Over the course of the performance, the ensemble switch between instruments with ease, blasting powerful harmonies at one moment and gently plucking strings at another to create a soundscape that balances vivid energy and soft stillness.

The performance jumps between sources and manifestations of stress; ensemble members rotate as focal narrators, describing experiences of anxiety while the other members enact and respond to their words through bold physical theatre. We are guided not only through stress as a personal feeling and condition, but also through the anxiety induced by the working world. Here, there is a shift towards a more politically conscious critique of a society defined by career ladders, promotions and the constant need for material gain at the cost of emotional stability. Under the skillful direction of Martha Harrison and Sam Strachan, we are shown the interconnection between stress as a psychological experience, and as a direct product of the pressure under capitalism to never stop working, striving or “progressing”. Each section of exploration brings a new layer of insight, though there are times where they feel slightly fragmented from one another and could be more tightly interwoven.

GUNK is live in every sense of the word; the ensemble respond to each other with deft precision while maintaining an energetic presence, the original soundtrack is vibrant and performed with careful attention, and the entire performance is accompanied by projected illustrations drawn in real time by designer Sullivan Holderbach. This exquisite visualisation shifts from growing huddles of words, to angular mazes, to loop after loop in what seems to be an expression of anxiety-induced thought spirals. All of these components combine to create a multimedia panorama of the experience of stress on a visceral and intellectual level, saturating the senses without overloading – after all, as Lovell expresses at the beginning, while this is a performance about stress, it is not their aim to distress.

GUNK is a timely performance that sheds light on the contemporary struggle to manage stress in a world that seems hellbent against letting us rest. Concluding with an expression of the simultaneous difficulty and necessity of seeking support, there is a subsequent invitation for the audience to come and dance onstage together in an opportunity to simply let go and grin. GUNK does not claim to hold the answers to the hurricane of worries we face today, but it doesn’t need to – instead, it offers a hand to hold as you brave the storm together. 

 

Hayley Gow

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