Theatre: Speak Bitterness / False Entertaiment The Hawth, Crawley

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The Independent Culture
"We confess to never having had an original idea," says one of the seven penitents in a hilarious show of ironic self-mockery. The confession is false, because though False Entertainment make an art out of recycling their own and other people's ideas, beneath the layers of falsehood and repetition lurks a brilliant originality.

Speak Bitterness was clearly inspired by the moment in their previous work, Hidden J, when one member of the company, who has been ostracised throughout, suddenly lets loose a self-lacerating confession. False Entertainment has tended to work from minimal but carefully selected starting points, taking them to their logical extreme. Here, that is reduced to one initial concept - that of the public confession - and the resulting show is aesthetically the purest I have seen. At times, it teeters on the edge of a one-gag show, but brings itself back from that brink by the strangely compelling nature of its confessions.

The seven penitents face the audience, ranged behind a long table beneath rows of light bulbs. These light bulbs stretch out over the audience, thereby involving us in the proceedings as much as the direct gaze of the performers, who accuse, beseech and sometimes simply snigger. The confessions are jumbled: childish ("We listened to 'Stairway to Heaven' 13 times on the trot"); fanciful ("We signed the Official Secrets Act in 1981 and never spoke again"); and chilling ("In our hands, ordinary objects became objects of torture"). They remind us of show trials, of late-night radio phone-ins, even the meetings held after China's Cultural Revolution, from which the piece takes its name.

The entire performance consists of lines which begin with "we", followed by the confession. The way the audience reads them depends entirely on the way they are spoken. The word "we" implies "you" as often as it implies "they". Sometimes it becomes a petty "he" or "she", and occasionally "I". Not all of the comedy works. The mannered in-fighting becomes stale, and the confessions of deeds beyond the performers' own experience that refer to the larger, political world are the least effective.

But the company handles the dramatic mood expertly, switching effortlessly between merriment and bleakness. You begin to long for a genuine catharsis, which you are denied by too slick a company of actors, making no secret of their manipulative skill. As a nation, we are over-burdened with guilt, and the horror we are fed by the tabloids brings on an unnerving sense of guilt by association. But False Entertainment are not in the business of letting us off easily.

n 1-2 Dec, Ferens Gallery, Hull, (01482 593911); 5 Dec, Wakefield (01924 370501), 7-8 Dec, Powerhouse, Nottingham (0115-948 6554); 11-21 Dec, ICA London (0171-930 3647)

CLAIRE BAYLEY

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