Instructions For Modern Living @ Barbican Pit, London

devised by
Duncan Sarkies and Nic McGowan
I’ll admit it: I wasn’t looking forward to Instructions for Modern Living. Billed as a ‘comic-tragic multimedia collage’, it had all the hallmarks of the kind of self-consciously left-field arts event likely to bring me out in hives. As it turned out, I found the evening so affecting I stumbled out almost in tears, managing to get comprehensively lost in the bowels of the Barbican.

The set hadn’t seemed promising: in front of an empty cinema-screen was a tangle of laptop leads and microphone cables, a mixing desk, a glockenspiel, and a pair of stools. When Duncan Sarkies and Nic McGowan came onstage in unassuming shirts, I couldn’t quite see how it would work: I wanted transporting theatre, not ordinary life.

But between them they concocted a kind of theatrical magic I’d not encountered before. Essentially, it was a series of poignant and funny short stories narrated by Sarkies, a respected New Zealand novelist and playwright, who has written episodes for musical comedy Flight of the Concords. His slow and rather dead-pan delivery brought carefully to life the cast of lonely space-travellers, affectionate ghosts, and bickering couples, and he possessed the rare gift of directly addressing the audience without causing them to shrink back into their seats.

All the while musician and producer McGowan sat at his mixing-desk, deftly providing an aural background vaguely reminiscent of 90s sampling hero DJ Shadow, and none the worse for it. His dexterity was astonishing: one moment he’d lean in to whistle a melancholy riff, which he’d record and play back on a loop; then he’d leap up to play the theremin or glockenspiel.

The music and language complemented each other to perfection, and were given an additional dimension by the visual images projected onto the screen behind. These were at times far too literal at one point, as Sarkies hypnotically talked us backwards through our own lives, the traffic shown onscreen went into reverse but often displayed real invention. Most notably, as we saw a couple sit watching television, the narrator leant towards a camera mounted above his laptop, and his face appeared on their television screen, gazing out at both us and them.

The stories are not without problems there were times when Sarkies needed to trust that we had understood, and not be tempted to drive home his point too fervently, as with his opening sketch on racial tension but in spirit they were benevolent, whimsical, entirely without cynicism. I had the rare sense that McGowan and Sarkies were encouraging us all to live a little better a little more kindly, perhaps, with a little less emphasis on new fridges and property prices and perpetual dissatisfaction with our noses or our partners.

It wasn’t a perfect evening, by any means, but it confounded my rather conventional expectations of what can be achieved in multi-media theatre, and I earnestly hope we see more.

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