views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Standby For Tape Back-Up
Soho Theatre
8th July 2015


Ross Sutherland

Photography provided by the Soho Theatre

According to Ross Sutherland, we're designed to see patterns in everything, even things that aren't there. Of course he's very right - it's how we make sense of the world. When it comes to theatre which doesn't work, often it's because the piece just isn't credible. We can't believe it because it doesn't make sense within our own parameters of what's normal. It doesn't necessarily have to tie in with our personal experiences, but those of our friends or acquaintances. We're constantly trying to relate things back to what we already know in an attempt to process them and understand.

After a particularly awful asthma attack some years back, Sutherland was instructed to stay home and rest. In this period he watched an old VHS tape over and over again, the only significant thing about the video being it belonged to his grandad. Struggling to find his sense of normality after the near-death experience, Sutherland began to analyse, reanalyse and overanalyse everything. The Fresh Prince, the Crystal Maze -shows my generation quite happily watched in our youth, but never saw as particularly meaningful. This show is largely based on his thoughts from that difficult time.

The reason why Standby for Tape Back-Up is so powerful is because it's so honest. There may be some artistic licence in Sutherland's tales, we'll never quite know, yet the events are true and the feelings of grief and the memories of being overwhelmed are definitely genuine. He's a very amiable and polished storyteller, but he's sharing something real with us and that makes it easy for us to see something real about ourselves in it - as the solo performers states, it all comes back to patterns.

Sutherland makes his point by playing and replaying the captured video, overlaying music to change the sentiment and mood. The Wizard of Oz doesn't seem half as carefree and childish with Dark Side of the Moon carefully laced over the tornado at the start of the film. We've all done it, thanks to that urban legend. Here, it all becomes a bit ethereal, out-of-body, that captures the bizarre high with Dorothy genuinely in peril and time slipping by as she tries to make it to safety. Personally, I think Sutherland has just ruined the old movie for me - his take is better.

Initially Sutherland shares some funny anecdotes with us, gradually slipping from friendly chat into lyrical and emotional spoken word and finally into far more personal feelings. When he talks about the peak of his mental health issues, it's so very raw as to be uncomfortable. It's scripted and yet the memories that Sutherland shares are dark and having become so close to him by this point, we're at a loss as to what to do to help. Do we just watch him as he loses control? Of course, with mental illness, that's quite a typical reaction - how many people with depression have found that their friends just don't know how to treat them for the best? It's a subtle way to slip in a bit of awareness.

I'll be honest, any excuse to rewatch Richard O'Brien's little torture chambers and camp narration in the name of art is quite appealing. But what makes rewatching the 90s so compelling is rewatching it through someone else's eyes. I'm not really sure what Sutherland will do next, this is the kind of show where the performer digs so deep, you wonder if they have anything left to give. However, that's not really the point. Standby for Tape Back-Up is a beautifully poignant and honest account of one man's battle to bring himself back from the abyss, as well as a touching tribute to a man who he clearly adored.

Standby For Tape Back-Up opened on 6th July and runs until 11th July 2015 at the Soho Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Tottenham Court Road (Northern, Central)

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