Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! Sadler's Wells, London

Is that a naked dancer on your lap, or are you just pleased to see me?

Try a little tenderness, goes the Otis Redding song.

And that would seem to be the message being groped for in a bizarre piece of nude theatre created by Montreal's Dave St-Pierre and performed by 24 caution-to-the-wind Canadians. But this is an odd way of going about it.

The houselights are up and the Sadler's Wells stage is teeming with bearded men, naked but for fake long blond hair whose ends they twiddle in a parody of girlish bashfulness. This pose they alternate with bouts of running en masse across the stage squawking in falsetto, like extras from Monty Python. "We got grants for this show," confides Sabrina, the evening's fully dressed compere. "As you can see we didn't invest it in the costumes."

But this isn't just nudity at a safe distance. Before long, it's literally in your face as the bearded bimbos clamber into the stalls to sit or lie uninvited in people's laps, scramble across the tops of seats, exposing their meat and potatoes as they go, and gleefully rub their bottoms against anything that doesn't resist. What's astonishing is that no one does, nor, as far as I am aware, make a dash for the exit.

Instead, there's much raucous laughter, increasingly hysterical as the company's female cohort, who have been shrieking fully dressed from the sidelines (whether in reprimand or encouragement it's hard to tell), fall upon each other in savage fights, ripping off each other's clothes and underwear. This violent bacchanale continues for a full 12 minutes – pushing way beyond the bounds of comedy and into the territory of serious alarm. It ends as suddenly as it began, as the men retreat to the stage where they sit and masturbate into their wigs.

Quite how the show justifies itself as dance theatre isn't the issue so much as the question: why? What, beyond supplying cheap burlesque shocks, does Dave St-Pierre think he's doing? (Sabrina, in a telling aside, remarks on how dancers are the ultimate cheap labour – "They'll do anything you tell them to, and for peanuts!").

The tone darkens markedly after the cast put their clothes back on. In a crude steal from Pina Bausch the men shout "Frappe-moi!" and hit themselves hard in the face, over and over. In another sequence, Sabrina is offered the choice between a man and a chocolate cake. She takes off her knickers and goes for the cake.

Despite the plea implicit in its title, there is a good deal more bordel than tendresse in this long and often tediously barbaric show. Only in the final minutes does peace descend, as the 24 dancers, naked once more (but who really cares?) skid silently about the wet stage surface like seals at play, finally curling up as happy couples.

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert looks for some light relief in ENB's Gershwin extravaganza

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