Review: ★★★1/2 BURGERZ at Hackney Showroom
A brave, impassioned and affecting call to revolution, which nevertheless feels like 45 minutes of excellence spread too thin.
Writer, performer and theatre-maker Travis Alabanza premieres this autobiographical exploration of a transphobic attack in 2016. A burger was thrown at Travis on Waterloo Bridge, and no-one steps in to defend them, or offer comfort, or even to acknowledge the act of violence.
Here, Alabanza repurposes the burger as metaphor for the body, exploring how trans and gender non-conforming people are – or are not – allowed to be by deeply embedded social and cultural constraints.
It’s perhaps an obvious metaphor to draw on, but cleverly done: Alabanza makes an early point about how we all picture a certain, essentially similar burger when provoked to conjure the image. The seeded bun, the patty, the slice of cheese, the lettuce and tomato, the ring of onion and the squirt of ketchup. Sure, there are endless variations, we know that: the chicken burger, the veggie burger, varieties of cheese and sauces, pickles and relishes… but we all see pretty much the same burger as the ‘standard’, the accepted norm. It’s not a great leap from this to the way that even the most liberal-minded people, whilst accepting – even encouraging – of gender beyond the binary, would likely still envision a ‘textbook’ man and woman if asked to picture a ‘normal’ couple.
There are, unfortunately, a couple of factors which undermine the power of this work. Firstly, there’s maybe 45 minutes of strong material here, which feels like it’s been hammered thin to fill the best part of 90 minutes. The burger analogy – which of course is deeply personal to Alabanza given their experience – can only go so far.
There’s some interesting audience participation which, whilst fairly low-intensity for the most part, still leaves to chance the possibility of a participant whose voice can’t fill a room, or whose misunderstanding of a key prop might stall proceedings.
And then there’s the sense that Alabanza appears to be preaching mostly to the converted – this East London venue is attended almost exclusively, one suspects, by liberal, (reasonably) enlightened audiences whose views won’t be massively changed by what they see and here from this show.
Throughout, and particularly at the climax, one can feel Alabanza reaching for the emotional sucker punch to really strike out at the complicity we are all – however liberal – guilty of. That punch never arrives. As they depart, the audience is not silent, contemplative, anxious to redouble their efforts towards a fairer, more equal society. Instead, there’s that troubling feeling that the audience might feel better about themselves for having been there, bearing witness to a story of the failings of others.
Perhaps such a fear is misplaced. Undeniably, the presence of such a voice as Alabanza’s, speaking truth powerfully and creatively to a packed audience, must be invaluable inspiration and encouragement for other trans and gender non-conforming people, performers or otherwise. More such voices are needed.