The stage is set. I've pushed back the coffee table, dragged the dining room chairs into the sitting room and whisked my housemate's socks off the radiator. The audience (nine of my friends) is gathering in the bar (my kitchen) drinking white wine, chilled to a degree unheard of in most stalls bars. They're here because, for one night only, I have converted my flat in Brixton – some five miles from the ritz and glitz of the West End and as yet undiscovered as a hub for the dramatic arts – into a theatre. On the bill is Avon Calling, an "intimate Avon party with a theatrical twist" by Louise Platt, a 32-year old actress from Birmingham, who travels the country performing in ticket-holders' homes for audiences of 10 people at a time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, would you please take your seats for this evening's performance", announces Gareth Nicholls, our stage manager for the night. "And please remember to switch off all mobile phones." We file into the next room, squash up on the sofa and assorted chairs and await curtain rise – or, in this case, the doorbell. This is a play about an Avon lady, after all.
"Ding dong!" The door opens to reveal "Debs", our friendly Avon rep, shivering in an unflattering coral skirt suit and blue eyeshadow on the front step. Once inside she pops on a CD of Pretty Woman and begins to unpack her display – Arabian Glow bronzing pearls, Skin So Soft hand cream and Celebre eau de toilette – from three battered red suitcases. We sit and watch, nervously. It's one thing plunging voluntarily into the immersive theatre worlds created by site-specific companies, it's quite another having one crash into your home and set up shop between your television and the pot plant.
Billed as "an intimate solo performance for real homes", Avon Calling is no ordinary one-woman show. The realisation dawns: if Platt is playing the hostess of our fake Avon bash tonight, it must be down to us to play the guests. Sure enough, we're soon called upon to get the party started. "I feel like tonight is going to be a special night," says Debs, instructing us to introduce ourselves, tell the room our favourite colour and give it a pretentious adjective, "like they do in the Avon catalogues". "My name is Alice and I like regal purple," I say, tentatively. "My name is Ed and I like camouflage green," growls one of two males in tonight's audience, possibly sensing his masculinity is under threat. Little does he suspect that within an hour he will be relaxing to the latest meditation CD from "Avon Ambassador" Reese Witherspoon – with cucumber slices on his eyes.
Egged on by free samples and the charming Debs – and the fact that the "house lights" are blazing down on both rows of the stalls, making it very hard to be a wallflower – everyone gamely plays their part. Over the course of the 90-minute show, there are rounds of Kim's game and "Pin the lipstick on the Avon Lady", bronzer demos ("We'll just do half the face, Cate..."), hand massages and liberal spritzing of the nostril-burning "Essence of Man".
It's not all fun and games. While Debs has a nice line in cosmetic-themed double entendre and a tongue-in-cheek take on the company ethos, Avon Calling is more than a slapstick cabaret act. It's also a drama that takes an unexpected emotional turn as we catch a glimpse of the "real" Avon Lady beneath the chirpy, foundation-slathered surface. Between games, Debs tells us about her late mother, an Avon Lady to the tips of her manicured fingernails, whose dedication to the brand veered on obsession. Our hostess, it is implied, is now in danger of going the same way as she tries to keep her mother's spirit alive with pots of moisturiser and bargain shower gel. Out of the superficial silliness, Platt crafts a poignant piece –an elegy for happier times and perhaps for the heyday of Avon itself.
The story was loosely inspired by the playwright's own mother, who worked as the local Avon Lady when Platt was growing up in the tiny Northamptonshire village of Yelvertoft. "She still buys a lot of Avon. There's too much of it in the house," says Platt. She too worked as an Avon rep for a year in the name of research. Was it enjoyable? "Yes... to a degree. Some things about it were quite empowering – having knowledge to offer people. It's really good value but you have to sell quite a lot to make a commission."
As co-founder of The Other Way Works, a Birmingham-based company who specialise in interactive, immersive theatre outside of the traditional black box, Platt knew from the start that she wanted to stage her play in real homes. The company's last show, a detective thriller called Black Tonic, was performed in the bedrooms and corridors of various city hotels for two couples at a time. Previous productions include a one-on-one "date" in a theatre bar, a sound-and-light show in a two-man tent that toured the summer festivals and a play in an empty unit in the Mailbox shopping centre in Birmingham. It is currently working on a promenade sound piece to play on park bandstands.
Avon Calling is now touring until July – stopping off in Oxford, Bristol, Ipswich, Harrogate and Cardiff after its London run. Audience members book through theatres, providing their home address is within a certain distance of the box office, and pay around £150 per performance – which, between 10, works out cheaper than most theatre tickets. For the company, it's an efficient way of touring on the cheap. "I can tour the show on my own, on public transport if I need to," says Platt. "It can be quite hard to get into theatres these days. This way a theatre can have two shows running at once – one on its stage, and another in people's homes."
There is something both old-fashioned – recalling the days of rich patrons welcoming in travelling players – and very of-the-moment about Avon Calling, which plays on the vogue for site-specific productions and audience interaction in hit shows from Punchdrunk's The Masque of the Red Death to One Man, Two Guvnors. Welcoming a stranger into one's home takes the intimacy of those shows to another level. There is a certain thrill in watching a personalised performance from an actress so close you can see her pores and Debs' story is all the more affecting for playing out at the foot of my sofa rather than a stage. Platt, who also works as a drama therapist, is most interested by how audiences react. "Some can be overly chatty – people forget they're watching a play because of the blurred edges," she says. "We'd never tell an audience off. We want people to take a risk in interacting but we don't want to humiliate them. We always want the audience to be the most important people in the production."
As the party draws to a close, we help Debs to pack away her display and usher her out of the front door, suitcases, mirrors and all. "I told you tonight was going to be a special night," she says, with a shiny coral grin. And with that, she's gone, leaving behind a room filled with "Essence of Man" and one knotty problem for the would-be home theatre impresario. Can you applaud a performer who is no longer there? We do it anyway – warmly and enthusiastically.
Avon Calling, Oxford Playhouse (oxfordplayhouse.com) in rep to 22 April; then touring to 8 July (theotherwayworks.co.uk)
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