In the past 20 years the Australian Lloyd Newson has pretty much written the book on physical theatre, at least on the kind that weighs in with a political message. Through his group DV8 - its very name a clarion call to protest - he has tackled topics such as macho culture, the loneliness of casual sex, and society's obsession with body image. Over time the bleakness and bruising physicality of the early work has been offset with humour and an increasingly sophisticated use of film, but DV8's intention is always to confront, however right-on its liberal audience might think itself.
But is the bee in Newson's bonnet running out of buzz? Just For Show takes a jab at the current preoccupation with how we present ourselves, the cult of personality and the spiritual emptiness it can hide, yet its string of ironic character sketches falls prey to the very shallowness it denounces. You search for hidden depths in the wordplay that spews from the characters' mouths ("don't lose face, bite your tongue, don't reveal your hand, let's face it, we're obsessed with appearances") but hear only the slickness of a copywriter.
The show's cast of characters, too, arrive larded with so much irony that they slip from your grasp. A fashionable hostess delivers a monologue about being in control while allowing her limbs to be rearranged by men in suits. A vain gymnast fails to persuade members of the audience to take his photo in extreme poses, and ends up doing self-timer pics of his own bottom. A magician performs standard tricks producing roses from his non-existent sleeves. Some of this is quite funny, all of it's beautifully performed, but you see the message coming from such a distance that it quickly becomes tiresome.
The abstract sketches are more promising: the frantic flailing arm-ballet of the smiling couple who fail to find a comfortable way of holding hands, the girl so desperate to be loved that she virtually climbs out of her stretch dress every time she meets a man. The show's strength lies in these individual feats of virtuosity. But their personalising effect is repeatedly overwhelmed by the use of film - a medium Newson has become so clever with that it's become glib. Streams of projected words race past your field of vision like speeding trains. Flesh-and-blood performers appear in a 3-D field of roses. More poignantly, roomfuls of performers appear to freeze and disappear, or beam up suddenly out of nowhere.
This is sophisticated stuff. It's all sophisticated stuff, but its cleverness is under- developed: the simple disparity between the face of things and a less attractive reality is not enough of a clincher. Just like the boy who supplies his own taped applause, and then gets applause from the live audience for simply switching it on and off with a knowing smirk, this is one of those circular stories that ends up saying very little.
On the face of it, the latest touring production by Protein Dance treads similar ground. It even duplicates DV8's opening image of a careening supermarket trolley. The Big Sale also uses text, pop music, masses of props and live video to lambast the chain of exploitation led by advertisers, the fashion industry and cheap TV. The major difference is that Protein's director, Luca Silvestrini, and his cast of seven are a full generation younger than Newson and this fact gives their outrage a very much livelier edge. No one could pretend that production values are high. The set of The Big Sale is a jumble of scaffolding, discarded white goods and cabling, and the level of performance is hardly glossy. But the company approach their theme with a apocalyptic energy that's by turns funny and alarming and intoxicating - and much likelier to rouse sleepy consumers to arms. I have rarely laughed so much as at the shampoo-sponsored event that turns into a hair-flicking catfight, or marvelled at the control of group dynamics that morphs an entire call-centre workforce into a sex-chat service.
DV8: Brighton Corn Exchange, (01273 685861), 16 to 19 December. Protein Dance tour continues in spring 2006. Info: 020 8541 5399Reuse content