THEATRE: Showtime; ICA, London

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As Showtime draws to a close, a man with a clock and a cluster of dynamite sticks strapped round his waist steps forward and slowly itemises his regrets: "I wish things hadn't turned out like this ... I wish you could take all the moments in your life when you were really happy and squash them into one minute ... I wish I could have been more believable ..." It's a remarkable speech, a blend of banal wistfulness and endgame epiphany, rolling a lifetime's incomplete fictions into a suicidal stand-up. It's also the edited highlight of the preceding 89 minutes, most of which are excruciating.

The programme notes reveal that Forced Entertainment began with this monologue and worked backwards, "unfolding the ruins of a story". This makes the process sound organic, whereas, in fact, the disappointing end- result feels as though it has been stuck together using twisted bits of old Sellotape. The most contrived sequence (by the show's own weird logic) is the opener, where our device-hugging host (Richard Lowdon) seems caught unprepared and "improvises" by deconstructing the art of performance - inspecting entertainment's mechanism to find out what makes it tick. His list of dos and don'ts (the need for a visual gag, rapport with audience, adequate rehearsals etc), is disrupted by the mayhem that breaks out on the balloon-and-cardboard- box-strewn set behind him. It's goodbye to plot and character, hello to whatever takes your fancy. For a few minutes, it's oddly funny. Two paper-tree people prat around, colliding in noisy bouts of fisticuffs; a woman in a panto dog's head yaps away on all fours; a naked man in a stocking face-mask, holding a balloon over his privates, wanders up and asks for cash. Mr Stocking (Robin Arthur) then lies on the ground smearing a tin of spaghetti into his stomach in a messy Reservoir Dogs-style death-throe. He is the first candidate for the random question- and-answer sessions that take up most of Showtime's plodding duration.

It's Time, you see, that director Tim Etchells and co are playing with. The not-so-clear-cut line between soft, cuddly childhood and nasty, brutish adulthood; the latter constantly looking back over its shoulder at the former, but unable to sustain the narratives that once made life so rich. "When you're a kid, you can't conceive of an hour, so you make things up," Arthur says, "but when you're an adult ... it's more difficult." Is this the point where words fail, or just idle chatter? Much has been made of Forced Entertainment's Sheffield roots, and parallels could be drawn between their 12 years of under-recognised labour and the protracted emergence of the city's hero, Jarvis Cocker. Indeed, an imagined suicide has a Pulp- ish whimsy to it ("I'd try on the underwear and look at myself in the mirror and be pleased with what I'd bought and then I'd go into the bathroom ..."). But if this is "pop theatre", cocking a snook at conventional story- telling, choking on its own morbid angst, then why does it feel like a rehearsal in someone's mum's garage? You don't succeed just because you judge yourself a failure by standards you clearly have little respect for, or earn applause by caricaturing your audience's expectations: "A performance should bring people together, not just rub their noses in the dirt ..." Lowdon drones on later, "if there isn't a moral, it's just pointless shouting, just people showing off. People want to go to the bar afterwards and say, `I know what that was about'." Whether or not Showtime has a "moral", showing off is still showing off - as anyone in the ICA bar will tell you.

To Sat. Booking: 0171-930 3647

Dominic Cavendish

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