performance art Judith Palmer Take a Peek! Royal Festival Hall, London

Reviews
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Reclining within a rose-tinted fish-tank, Bobby Baker preens and pouts winsomely - an unlikely odalisque in her pink fluffy slippers. Plunging her hand into a large jar of bottled plums, she crams the fruit into her mouth, roaring and spitting out stones sporadically, like a disgruntled orang-utang, crimson juice running down the crisp white of her hospital issue gown, pulpy flesh clinging to her scrubbed matronly face.

The audience huddles closely around the freak show, before two efficient nurses (Tamzin Griffin and Sian Stevenson) move us on; "I think that's enough now, don't you."

Commissioned by the South Bank as part of Lift and the Great Outdoors, "Take a Peek!" is the third in Baker's Daily Life series, following on from the Holloway housewife's award-winning Kitchen Show and How to Shop. Crammed inside one of the Royal Festival Hall's hidden balconies, audience numbers for her latest show are limited to a rather intimate 30.

Examining the dehumanising effects of the modern Health Service, "Take a Peek!" presents a hospital visit as a clinical funfair, the patient (Baker) as object, to be manipulated and humiliated, innermost secrets laid bare for observation by a series of passing strangers.

While Baker poses in a series a absurd tableaux, the audience are shunted behind screens, or left to wait in corridors by the frowsy sisters, sometimes brusquely hectoring, other times cajoling chummily. We feel alternately like powerless patients and voyeuristic medical students.

"Hold on to your nuts, ladies and gentlemen. Don't throw them yet," barked the nurses as we line up to pelt the patients with hazelnuts. "Roll up! Roll up! See the fat lady jiggle her melons," they invite as Baker strips off to display two plump honeydews draped round her neck. Up strikes the wurlitzer and off prance the nurses, posturing like magicians' assistants, before whisking their charge off in a mad can-can, lining her disoriented figure up against the wall for a little impromptu knife-throwing.

Worming our way deeper into the tight internal spaces of Fraser Brown MacKenna's gleaming white-screen set, the audience emerges to cluster around the trolley where Baker lies immobile. Parodying the arduous gymnastics involved in giving a bed-bath, the nurses vault and careen around the bed, in one of the evening's most successful vignettes, twisting the uncomplaining patient in glorious knots before using her as a spring-board for an audacious human pyramid.

The patient suffers ever more ludicrous indignities but all within the atmosphere of enforced jollity which hospitals do so well. Darting a bright- eyed glance or an engaging smile out into the audience whenever the going gets rough, Baker reminds us that we enter the Health Service as willing victims, complicit in a cheeriness which stops us addressing the truth of our mortality. For while the audience has shuffled from side-show to side-show, Bobby has been protecting us, too. Never once have we been left to feel discomfited or ill-at-ease.

The grand finale, and Baker euphorically sheds her gown and sensible knickers, before plunging naked into a bath of custard chocolate. Stepping triumphantly out on to the bath mat to the soundtrack of "Keep Young and Beautiful", the nurses splatter her dripping body with handfuls of hundreds and thousands.

And as Baker marches off back stage to the showers, squelching her way down the corridor in a towel and a pair of wellington boots, I sneak back to the bath tub, dip my finger into the goo and lick my lips. It's cold, its viscous, but, ugh! it isn't chocolate custard. Like a guinea pig who has spent four years on a drug trial only to find they've been taking the placebo I can't help feeling a little cheated. Or was I finally tasting the pill beneath the sugar-coating?

n Until 9 July (Booking: 0171-928 8800)

Comments