views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Etcetera Theatre
19th July 2015


Publicity image for Pole

Photography provided by Bent Theatre Company

I often make the point that theatre is meant to inspire us. Well, I walked out of Pole wanting to be a pole dancer. It must be nearly two decades since I was last seen in spandex and my physio says I have zero upper body strength, but it just looked liked so much... fun. Whilst I'm sure that Anais Alvarado, Amy Bellwood and Lyndal Marwick will be pleased with that reaction, I'm not sure how my mum will feel if I actually follow through on this latest whim of mine. Which is incidentally one of the issues explored in the show: what does pole mean to the dancers, their friends, complete strangers - their family? Pole dancers don't just shimmy onto stage ready formed, each woman is someone's daughter.

Pole gives a voice to five different women, using verbatim dialogue. We spend the longest with the three we meet first; three dancers with very different yet equally valid views on pole dancing. This contrast works really well and creates a natural debate - with which of the trio do you most identfy? Is pole dancing a physical sport, a dance form, or something deliberately titilating? Most view points can be pigeonholed into one of these groups.

This isn't a show about pole dancing where the actors simply imply they're comfortable with a pole; all three women demonstrate some very impressive moves. Whilst they're speaking with the words of others, they're all experienced in the form themselves and this technical ability means they can weave some impressive choreography into the production. This adds a certain realism to what they're saying. We don't know whose voices they're borrowing, but as the protagonists laugh and joke about the less glamorous aspects of pole - the little things which go wrong when practising - you're sure the actors have been there themselves.

Publicity image for Pole

Photography provided by Bent Theatre Company

The tone suddenly becomes dark as Bellwood takes on a second role, moving away from the sexy dancer to the undercover sex trafficking investigator. It's not immediately clear that that she's playing a different character, and this is a little confusing, as we're waiting for the two stories to link up and of course thy never do. Alvarado glides between parts more easily, from the confident banker who does pole to keep fit to the club dancer who dances for men and doesn't feel exploited by what she does, but knows she's one of the lucky ones out there. Bellwood doesn't as clearly differentiate between her women - the voice and mannerisms are too similar.

The second jump between the sex trafficking story to the friendlier, safer environment of the three women taking a class together and chatting about pole feels even more jarring than the first. You can see why they've done this - it means the show ends on a happier note - but it feels disorientating. What does work well is how the three women support each other - as one speaks, the other two copy her actions, or impersonate the people in her tale. They create a lot of humour in the first and last third, and in the seedy side of dance, they work together to show compassion and poignancy. The direction could be tightened, but there's no denying Alvarado, Bellwood and Marwick have a natural on stage rapport and are very expressive, very physical performers.

With so many shows competing for attention at the Edinburgh Fringe, Pole offers something interesting for those who like theatre, and something visually appealing for the plus ones who didn't want to be dragged round Edinburgh in the first place. Pole isn't meant to be an overly sexual piece and indeed most women will see it as empowering rather than sensual, but you can't deny the sheer elegance of the performers twisting around the poles and contorting themselves into physically challenging poses.

Pole ran from 18th to 19th July 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre. It will run from 7th to 31st August 2015 at Cowgate, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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