However, there were moments of genius in Puffball. The flirtation between a trampolinist and a contortionist balanced above the stage was nothing short of delightful, while two acrobats hanging from a bed in the rafters gave a sensual and beautiful duet. A bathtime ensemble piece had the company exploring a surreal playscape of stacked hanging baths, with water and towels flung around the stage with cheery triviality in a refreshing antidote to the earnestness of much of the performance. Tonally, the show spent a large proportion of its runtime internalised, so its moments of fun acted as palate cleansers, which at times were much needed. Its aspirations were high and watching performers fling themselves through routines accompanied only by their ethereal (and beautifully downbeat) in-house singers was breath-taking, especially as their focused breathing and low grunts of pain and concentration were audible above the music, giving very human performances an almost animal undertone. This was a show about sexuality as much as sensuality and at times we saw humanity stripped to the bare bones of its nature.
The night started with Miss Jonjo, whose childlike ode to Titanic (the movie, not the actual ship) and Celine Dion tribute on handbells set the audience alight. Singer and accordionist Patrick Carroll-Fogg followed, sounding like a cross between Brian Molko and a Parisian street artist, while dancer (and winner of Mother's Ruin's 'Who's Got The Max Factor') Joshua Hubbard later gave a bold and unusual solo performance, with his unique blend of contemporary dance a surprising contrast to the cabaret performers around him, especially with hostess Sheela Blige following him, who took a four minute challenge to transform an audience member's "weave". Cue hairpins, fluffy pom poms and a suffocating amount of hairspray.
Gareth Cutter took the performance back from audience interaction, performing an alluring extract of his original drag-folk fairytale ride about beauty, body hair and banjos dressed as a seductive and sensual Red Riding Hood. Comedy followed from Jackie Hagan, who performed an unusually successful blend of humour and a message of empowerment about a near death experience. Not normally my cup of tea, her Scouse charm and upfront objectivity made what could otherwise have been an uncomfortably saccharine message into a touching and poignant moment without losing a beat of comedy.
Under the darkening dome of the Royal Exchange, which Timberlina remarked looks remarkably like the portal in Stargate (I'm never going to look at the ceiling in there the same way again), this new venue gave a whole different atmosphere to a night that fits perfectly at its home at the Contact Theatre. Both Puffball and Mother's Ruin are a striking departure from the country's premiere rep theatre's usual schedule and, though an interesting change, felt a little rough around the edges for a space that delights in its military precision and organisation. The main theatre space's resemblance to a circus tent certainly helped its aesthetic, but the booming acoustics of the hall around it weren't the most appropriate for what should have been a more intimate cabaret. Both parts of the night were fascinating to watch however and equally entertaining and thought-provoking. The Exchange deserves recommendation for trying something different and to see such a large audience for an event like this was hugely gratifying. Roll on the next Mother's Ruin I say, and roll on the Exchange's next left-field venture too!