Between You And Me is a portmanteau of three separate pieces, all penned and performed by American performance artist Christine Ferrera. Though loosely linked by themes of communication and loneliness, the three parts don’t quite come together as a whole – and each would benefit from a clearer purpose and a punchier delivery.
The first piece is relatively conventional. As we enter the theatre, we pass a long bench arrayed with Starbucks cups; these represent the hundreds of letters Ferrera has written on the coffee chain’s comment cards, tackling subjects ranging from her favourite flavours to the true meaning of love. Occasionally, Starbucks writes back – initially in formulaic tones, but later engaging with her as an individual. As Ferrera reads the letters she spins an unexpectedly touching tale, of a woman who forms a relationship with a corporation and reveals that even a company as big as Starbucks has real people at its core.
With some development, particularly a better-structured overall narrative, this piece has the makings of a full show. As it stands, though, it’s lacking in edge: Ferrera is nice about Starbucks, and Starbucks is nice in return. That’s sweet, but it doesn’t tell us much about either of them.
The second segment is in many ways the most interesting, but also to my mind the least successful. Described as a “stand-up tragedy”, it sees Ferrera take to the microphone for a halting comedy routine, inevitably revealing inner insecurities through her patter. Some of the gags are actually pretty funny, but the punchlines are delivered by expressionless recorded voices, slowly reading one word at a time.
The technique does succeed in neutralising the humour and throwing focus on the reality of performance, much as Brechtian theatre seeks to detach its audience from the play. But I’ve seen plenty of comedians tackle the same issues successfully in a conventional format, and I’m not sure there’s enough innovation here to justify such an alienating approach. All in all, it’s simply rather odd.
The third and final piece is a conundrum. On the surface it’s a biting satire on cultural excess, exemplified when it launches into a ludicrous description of a meaningless art installation. But on another level, it seems to celebrate the idea of making art for art’s sake, because “nobody cares but you”. Ferrera plays two roles, representing two sides of an inner monologue, with a pre-recorded video delivering the other part’s lines.
This is a well-worn technique, but Ferrera is more successful than most at physically inserting herself into the context of the video. And I enjoyed the humour of some of the earlier material. But it goes on for far too long and it’s done at a painfully slow pace, perhaps in order to accommodate frequent costume changes. Unfortunately, some of the points it makes about artistic pretension could be applied to this very show.
There are interesting thoughts underpinning Between You And Me, but there’s a long way to go before it becomes an effective vehicle for Ferrera’s ideas. As a first step, it needs some attention from a dramaturg – or just a stern director – to help tease out its central themes, and expose what needs to be left behind.