Knowing a British theatre-goer fears nothing more than a show promising audience participation and nudity (“Please let those be separate things”), Hannah Ballou opens ‘hoo:ha’ with a run-through of her impressive academic and professional credentials. You can almost hear the sound of bum muscles relaxing. Worries safely set aside, the audience is ready for entertainment, and Ballou serves up entertainment by the bucket load.
Part of Camden People’s Theatre excellent feminist festival, ‘Calm Down, Dear 2015’, ‘hoo:ha’ is described as “comic performance art that cleverly pits funniness against sexiness in a knock-down, drag-out fight for control of the female body. Warning! May include the following: nudity, pedantry, ironic pelvic movement, live animals, participatory games, a tiny banjo, and inadvisable pathos.” The live animal in question is Ballou’s sidekick, Nigel, her pet pug and star of the internationally-acclaimed Marina Abramopug project. Nigel is a more talented co-star than many a soap actor; he illustrates discussion on animal nudity vs human nudity, lends pathos to points regarding the free will of our pets, and ramps up the laughs with his hilarious little pug face. Together, Ballou and Nigel navigate the world of feminism, comedy and the female body.
While ‘hoo:ha’ covers a lot of ground, two points stand out as particularly successful. The first is on feminist infighting. This is tackled via a song with a sock puppet (yes, there’s a puppet but it’s handled well – you can unclench your bum again) as real Ballou and puppet Ballou debate who is the better feminist. It’s a very funny song with an incredibly important message: feminism is not a competition and calling someone a bad feminist sure as hell doesn’t make you a better one.
The second point is to do with nudity. Actually, Ballou makes several points about nudity (it’s amazing how few things can compete with a naked woman in terms of drawing your attention, as she humorously demonstrates) but one thing in particular, which wasn’t even focused on, hit home hard for me. While Ballou is obviously attractive (can female performers ever be unattractive in this world? This is a show which pits funniness against sexiness, so the artist being attractive is arguably the point), she’s not the average size 6 we’re usually exposed to. I know, I know, it’s really boring for someone to note that a woman can be hot and still have curves, but it’s still rare to walk away from female nudity as part of a performance not feeling completely crap about yourself. The first time Ballou removes her clothes, there is an immediate gleeful reaction of, “Oh my God! She’s not skinny and she’s totally gorgeous! I’m not skinny and maybe that means… I could be gorgeous too?” While I wasn’t personally about to strip off and join Ballou on stage, it shows how easily our ideas about beauty and the female body can be changed. Being able to see a variety of body types presented in a ‘sexy’ way could help some women overcome the feeling that sexuality and sexiness just isn’t something for them.
‘hoo:ha’ also blurs the lines of performance and reality with a couple of shocking twists, each significantly increasing the emotional resonance of the show. Ballou’s husband films throughout and you can bet that this is used to every advantage, with certain revelations leaving the audience scanning his face for clues as to what is real. Real or not, it’s a clever method, as it draws you in and makes you feel part of something authentic – this isn’t just theatre, we’re participating in Ballou’s life.
My only criticism of ‘hoo:ha’ is that it can feel disjointed. While there’s a definite conclusion, prominently set up at the start of the show, some of the pieces in the middle feel under-explained. A piece on feminist twerking, for example, is impressive but confusing and lacks a definite message. However, generally the format of short segments each dealing with a different issue works well and shows the wide range of ideas the artist has about feminism. You may not agree with all of them but you’ll definitely enjoy watching Ballou present them.
Hannah Ballou is charming, funny, and you will want her to be your friend. Especially if Nigel is part of the package. If you can catch this show, I highly recommend it – you’ll be in some very capable hands.