Birthday Fish is clever & surreal

Words by Isabela Palancean.

‘To drink like a fish’ takes on a new, surreal dimension in Birthday Fish, a physical theatre piece co-authored and performed by Stephanie Burrell and Erin Hughes. 

What starts off as typical drunken silliness morphs into a fever dream that takes the audience through the realms of existentialism, capitalist critique, bike sheds doubling as fox dens and general urban dystopia. 

In fact, the piece plays very cleverly with appearances as a method to interrogate reality – odd elements are inserted into the mundane, producing a sense of disruption and discomfort, amplified in the performers’ physicality via a warped acid soundscape. 

As the duo’s initial revelry degenerates into horror, the brightly coloured parlour, once fun and cheerful, suddenly feels eerie and oppressive. Like the two balloons tied to the table, their bubble literally bursts.

The work’s subtext, however, runs deeper than simply having a bad trip, burnt out syndrome and wishing to make art instead of making lattes. Although that undeniably adds to the ‘Ha-Ha, funny, but not really’ style of comedy employed. 

Referencing surrealism and its successors, the Situationists, Hughes and Burrell use the body as a vehicle to pierce through society’s Spectacle. Animalism, mutation, bodily fragmentation stand in stark contrast to confetti, party blowers and cupcakes.  

The play’s eponymous (third) character functions as a medium between the subconscious and material reality, enabling a process of transformation, seen both at the individual level, as well as from a wider socio-political view. 

While the fish can be read as a trigger for trauma release, it also alludes to a Kafkaesque notion of the Absurd. Despite institutional attempts to portray society and the individual as rational, orderly entities, life is ultimately utter chaos. 

Images by Ellena-Maria Kappos.

This notion is made particularly tangible in one of the play’s stand-out moments, where a guided yoga sequence is hilariously parodied through the use of fish masks and line-instructions such as: 

“Stretch your purse strings. Stretch your capacity to work a seventy-hour week on no sleep. Stretch and diversify your capabilities, be a performer, writer, producer, cocktail shaker, adult content maker. Stretch your endurance and performance: put on a smile and just get on with it. Stretch your mind.”

Where natural desires for freedom and happiness are falsely satisfied through consumerist entertainment or, in this case, overpriced wellness classes and Hinge dates, individual automatisation is the only logical conclusion. 

Shown via an athletic dance loop performed while incessantly cleaning, the choreography reflects the unrealistic demands imposed by hyper-productive capitalism. Repeated to the point of physical exhaustion, this loop highlights how the exploited consequently become alienated from their own body. 

Regardless of its rich political treatment, what makes this such a refreshing piece is its ‘in-your-faceness’ – the way in which it openly confronts the struggle of being a creative against a cosmopolitan milieu where revealing your insecurities, or indeed, ‘weirdness’, is seen as a sign of failure. 

Framed in parallel to human experience, this piece illustrates that ‘being a fish out of the water’ may be the antidote to social numbness and automation, which, dare I say, makes it the pre-requisite to finding personal autonomy. 

Be one of the first to catch Birthday Fish at the Omnibus Theatre London on July 21st, before it makes its debut at Edinburgh Fringe on 20-24th August. Full trailer here.