Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer | Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Soho Theatre, London

Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer

Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Soho Theatre, London

‘This is not stand-up comedy,’ avant-garde diva Penny Arcade declares. Nor is it theatre, nor cabaret, nor even performance art.

She uses many of the techniques of all the genres, but primarily Longing Last Longer is a polemic about many an -ation: gentrification, corporatisation, marginalisation, infantilisation… A rant against the safe, bland middle-class values enveloping the New York she once loved for its endless scope for reinventing yourself in a myriad of alternative lifestyles. The young, especially, are increasingly absorbed into a world controlled by the forces of marketing and PR, she argues, rebellion replaced by follow-the-crowd behaviour.

With such views, not to mention her blistering passion, unshakeable conviction and colourful personal backstory, Penny Arcade could be Russell Brand’s future (if Russell Brand dies his hair vivid red and develops a pretty impressive rack…)

Her message might initially seem straightforward, arguing that the Big Apple has become the Big Cupcake, as jazz dives and strip clubs are replaced by chichi bakeries. But that is just the glazing on a corrosive, pernicious cultural cleansing. ’Gentrification is about erasing the visibility of the alternative’, she says, suggesting forces at work pushing compliance with the mainstream.

Evoking the psychology of PR pioneer Edward Bernays and fancy-pants concepts like the ‘integrated spectacle’ ideas of critical theory, she gives an intellectual wallop to her convincing arguments, even if it sometimes teeters towards the lecture-like…

The message is mostly delivered in a series of slogans, almost like blank poetry, to an atmospheric soundtrack of great music the counter-culture has given us, some of which she bounces excitedly along to. The epigrams offer various depths of insight. Her attack on political correctness is perfect – ‘We are burning the books one word at a time.’ But some are a lot more bland: ‘Mediocrity is the new black’, for instance, or even, for heaven’s sake, the vacuous: ‘Everything happens for a reason.

Some of her diatribe is bit pompous, pretentious even, intoning to a jazz beat: ‘Shakespeare wrote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What, prey tell, is the name of the rose right now? Incomprehensible.’ Sounds like a parody, but she’s sincere. She’s always sincere.

However Penny Arcade herself is the real draw, more than her words; she’s a ballsy survivor on her own terms, an eccentric cult diva. She’s lived the life and more in her 65 years, fleeing from button-down Connecticut to reinvent herself in New York, apparently changing her name from Susana Ventura to Penny Arcade after an LSD trip. Her subsequent biography, full of avant-garde theatre and provocative performance pieces, is littered with the names of underground heroes like Andy Warhol, Patti Smith and Larry Rivers. Quentin Crisp was a friend, and offers some sage advice in the show, thanks to a taped impersonation. Her philosophy is that ‘in a puritanical world, pleasure is sin; so pleasure is radical value’ and that led her to contact with a lot of colourful characters.

Yet the stagey, declamatory delivery style doesn’t always suit her. It seems a bit cold and over-rehearsed. Her humanity only really comes into it when she loses her place in the script; consulting her DJ and telling the audience ‘tough luck’ that it’s not perfect. Rehearsal’s cheating, she claims. 
Still there plenty of ‘you go girl!’ style whoops of support at her statements about falling outside the system, for those who see themselves – or at least their aspirations – on her wavelength. Her ballsy alternative approach also takes on the easily offended self-centred culture chipping away at free expression. ‘You can’t call yourself fierce and ask fro a safe space in the same sentence,’ she points out.

Yet her desire to revive a more edgy, diverse scene in New York is not nostalgia, she insists, having no nostalgia for being raped as a teenager or seeing her friends die of Aids in the 1980s that drives her to push the safe sex message to this day. Yes, the seriousness of her subjects sometimes turns deadly. Instead she says she has a longing for some of the value of the past – a sense of loss suggested by this show’s title compared to the dew-eyed sentimentality of nostalgia.

But primarily she preaches a gospel of ‘personal authenticity’ claiming, in one of her less lucid moments, that it’s the ‘wellspring of synchronicity’. Whatever that means. But, my, is she the real deal.

Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer runs at the Soho Theatre until November 21.

Review date: 9 Nov 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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