It's naked. Very naked indeed

The founder of the People Show would rather `crawl over broken glass' than tour with the performance art group again. But the sick show must go on.
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"You're doing what?" yelped Jeff Nutall, when I rang about the theatre group he founded. "You're going on the road with the People Show ... voluntarily?"

He then gleefully detailed 28 years' worth of rifts, mythical misbehaviour and personality meltdowns: how one actor had been ejected for refusing to drag a bloody umbilical chord across the faces of the audience; and how a fist-fight broke out, mid-show, between two company members and everyone took it to be part of the performance. "Which it was," Nutall explained, "since it happened."

The People Show has become synonymous with the monster-raving-loony end of the performance art spectrum, a quintessentially Sixties, very British blend of charm and deconstruction. But, Nutall claims, it wasn't all just wrapping up audiences in polythene, distributing newspapers smeared with strawberry jam and prancing, naked, around community art centres. "Not at all," he boomed. "Touring with the People Show is a penance. I would rather crawl all the way to Jerusalem over broken glass than do another tour with them.'

And so, with this prophetic snippet ringing in my ears, I made my way to Dartington College where People Show No 101, an anarchic, imagistic appraisal of religious cults and launderettes, was in the middle of a tour which finishes later this month as part of the London Mime Festival at the BAC.

This is the remnants of a troupe that was assembled in 1966 when Nutall, poet, sculptor and self-confessed malcontent, was asked to create a "happening" at the Notting Hill Carnival as the warm-up act to an unknown psychedelic art-rock band called Pink Floyd. When the original cast failed to arrive, Nutall called on fellow residents of the Abbey Arts Centre, a monastery complex of artists' studios where the monks let the rooms with the poorest light to the "artistically inclined". Whoever happened to be in that day - Syd Palmer, John Darling, Laura Gilbert and Mark Long, now the only surviving member - instantly became the People Show.

The "happening", which, Long recalls, "involved motorbikes and very fat women", went down a storm, but the first official gig, People Show No 1, didn't take place until some time later, in the dank, fetid basement of Better Bookz in Covent Garden. Group members exhibited selected parts of their bodies: feet, stomach, a single female breast. Then these living sculptures began to lacerate the audience with corrosive, unflattering remarks. "Perverse Savonarola though I may have been," says Nutall, explaining the group's objectives, "I was first and foremost an artist, a maker. What we did was based on the visual arts. It didn't have a narrative. It didn't have any content. It just was."

Since this first monumental event, People Shows have veered from the wilfully abstruse to the almost conventional: People Show No 4 involved locking the audience members in cages, giving each in turn a live telephone and asking them to use it to prove that they were not Mrs Meadows; People Show No 23 contained British theatre's first ever female nude; People Show 92 revealed the murderer of Leon Trotsky. Continuity over the shows has been provided by the scrawny, imposing figure of Mark Long and by an iron-bound commitment, even before the term was invented, to visual theatre. "We utilise a kind of criminal art form," says Long. "It steals from movement, it steals from music, it steals from circus, it steals from vaudeville. It's the best way of realising your fantasies there is, if you haven't got too much talent."

I discovered the People Show - as ever, blue-collar Dadaists - building their own set in Dartington's shabby, prefabricated studio theatre. Mark Long, suffering from a magnificent head-cold, was skulking about in the dusty shadows, barking stuffed-adenoidal cockney commands and loudly worrying that the other star turn of that evening, Princess Diana's Panorama interview, would mean a low turnout. The three newer, younger members trooped in carrying cages, giant test-tubes and space-suits. In the centre was a huge revolve with a gigantic orange washing machine mounted on one side, and on the other, a labyrinthine, laboratory-like cult HQ.

People Show No 101 explores the issue of sarin-toting, apocalyptic cults using the characteristically corny people-pun - here is where the launderette connection comes in - of "brainwashing". Dressed in pristine white vinyl macs and white wellingtons, the performers drink cleaning fluid to attain "inner cleanliness". Individual personality colour is immediately rinsed away after progression through the various cycles of the set's washing machinery.

But the imagistic high point is saved for the final tableau: a bulimic last Technicolor supper. "I must say," announced Long to the very respectably sized audience, "that I appreciate it that you all came out tonight when someone more famous is spewing out her confessional guts far more spectacularly on TV." Then he and the rest of the cast took a long, deep slug of the fluorescent cleaning fluid. Soon, the retching began: great heaving spasms of nausea, bursting out of the row of gaping open mouths and flooding down in great gobs of viscous orange, red, green and cobalt. "Well," sighed Long after the show, sluicing a gloopy mop across the stage, "I doubt if she could have done any better herself."

Back in his sickbed the next morning, doped up on Lemsip and Lucozade, Long is expressing his surprise that the People Show didn't automatically self-destruct around 1973. "If you had said back then that I would still be here 28 years later and I would have done more than a hundred shows, I would have replied that you were obviously insane."

He puts down the staying-power of the group to the flexibility of their working method. "We work more like a band," he says. "In the beginning, Jeff [Nutall] was always saying: `You're a jazz band, and I'm writing the theme for you. You're a saxophone. You're a trumpet. At a certain point, you do your solo. And then we return to the theme.' Individual members are left to write their solos about anything that they want. There is total freedom."

Contrary to expectation, Long detests the label "communal", which has always been applied to the People Show and prefers instead the approach of non-consensus. This he calls the "Fascist of the Day" method, where the strongest voice wins out. "Communal suggests the lowest common denominator," he says. "I much prefer working with people who have a definite idea of what they want to be doing. I much prefer someone who says, `Fuck you, I'm right, let's go with this.' The People Show would never have got anywhere if it was all just people being nice to each other."

This approach has, quite naturally, led to the conflicts chronicled by Nutall. But it has also given the People Show a resilience and, despite obvious and spectacular lapses, a general abhorrence of pretension. "It's very naked," concludes Long, "very naked indeed. At times it was too aggressive because you were so naked."

However, during the few days I spent with the People Show, there was none of Nutall's glorious, celebratory, internecine, nostalgic violence. Long remained holed up in his room except for forays on to the stage. The younger members sat up late into the night, discussing religion and birthmarks. One day, we went on a day trip to the Cornish seaside and took a ferry ride across the picture-postcard bay.

When I rang Nutall to break the news to him that it had all been a trouble- free and disappointingly pleasant experience, he seemed rather put out. "Oh that's good, I'm very pleased," he seethed. "In that case you must be right and I'm wrong. You toddled along for a few days. But I stayed with them all for years. And if I were to tell stories of our school, I would have to say that they are not a happy bunch of people. There was one show where one person is doing this obbligato movement and then one of the others comes across and smashes him in the mouth. And everyone is wondering whether it is part of the show. Which it was, I suppose, because it just happened."

n People Show No 101 is at the BAC as part of the London Mime Festival from 25 to 28 Jan. Booking: 0171-223 2223