Cattle Call

Direction and choreography by Javier de Frutos; music and lyrics by Richard Thomas
Phoenix Dance Theatre
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
(2008)

Priduction photo

There's something about the setting of this piece - in what looks like a gym - which calls for the use of sporting metaphors. This is Britain's Got Talent out of Jerry Springer the Opera with A Chorus Line in the very recent bloodline. It is also (as we'll see) a game of two halves, and what's happening certainly isn't a matter of life or death: it's much more important than that. (What would we do without David Coleman and his fellow sports commentators!)

A cattle call is an open audition in which auditionees get their very short time in front of the casting director and then wait, on tenterhooks, to see if they're called back. They're a mixed group in this piece: two classical sopranos and a bunch of dancers/singers (one, quite pregnant, a solo singer). The whole thing is presided over by a cold, even sadistic woman who treats the auditionees like... well, cattle.

In the first half we see the jockeying (another sporting metaphor!) for advantage, the bitter rivalry, the (almost certainly false) bonhommie, from every angle. And that is literal as well as metaphorical, for the door to the audition room swings, by 90 degree increments, through 360 degrees as do the two facing rows of chairs on which the wannabes sit and express their desires and frustrations.

The whole sense of frustration, expectation and even anger is increased by the doorkeeper's capricious giving and taking away of a microphone to what seem to be arbitrarily chosen auditionees.

Whilst the movement in this space between the chairs may look chaotic, it is very controlled and the tightness of de Frutos' choreography and the precision of the dancers are well displayed. The two sopranos do their battling outside the seating and it is vocal warfare, competing against each other in volume and a whole range of musical styles from bel canto to the highly dramatic. In both arenas, there are moments when the artistic violence beomes real.

When the scene has rotated through 180 degrees and we, the audience, see what is happening beyond the door, we see yet another aspect of what the auitionees are willing to do to get the job. I was reminded of the Chorus Line song "I need this job" but there is a desperation here - "Oh please, please, please God, pretty, pretty please" - which far exceeds what is expressed in the Hamlisch musical. And this is counterpointed (and, perhaps, reinforced) by the pregnant dancer's lyrical song, "Death will come quite soon."

If the first half - a game of two halves, remember? - is somewhat impressionistic, the second has more of a narrative line. It opens in the dressing room where, at one point, we see the pregnant singer savagely beaten by her (presumably) boyfriend in a superbly effective pas de deux and a very romantic pas de trois between the doorkeeper and two of the male dancers, appropriately wearing Pan-like horns.

Then, by a neat manipulation of Katrina Lindsay's set, we see the actual performance from the stage-left wings.

Like Jerry Springer the Opera (of which Richard Thomas was composer and co-writer), Cattle Call defies categorisation. Part-music theatre, part-contemporary dance and with strong operatic influences, it offers much to enjoy and impress but, in spite of the stronger narrative in the second half, it doesn't really move beyond the impressionistic. There is humour but the overall impression is of the sadness of the desperation for celebrity, the lengths to which wannabes will go and the way in which they allow themselves to be treated - like cattle, indeed - to achieve it.

The two night stay at Northern Stage was the last performance of "Cattle Call" on the spring tour, although the company tours other programmes to Stoke-on-Trent, Bromley and Brighton

Reviewer: Peter Lathan