I hate balloons. Well, not balloons themselves, but the noise they make when they burst. After more than three years as a children’s entertainer that does balloon modelling, you’d think I’d be used to them, but no – if anything, it’s worse. When I walked into Theatre N16 to discover a floor covered with balloons and four actors gleefully throwing themselves around the space, I nearly left. I’m glad I didn’t though, despite numerous explosions. Rules of Inflation, a new performance art piece by Balloons Theatre, confronts socio-political issues by setting them at a children’s birthday party, complete with a deranged entertainer who demands his audience of four child characters participate in increasingly disturbing activities. Though my immediate violent revulsion towards the balloons and the job I know all too well intensified as time went on, the messages contained therein are cleverly presented. Even though they are not particularly unique to the stage, the kids’ party framework draws attention to how disturbing these global problems are.
From the start, it is clear this is not a normal children’s party. The creepy music, dark lighting and clown in a ripped, dirty costume (a disturbing Joshua Webb) create a distinctly foreboding, horror film-esque atmosphere, along with all those balloons that could burst at any moment. It’s not a unique landscape but it’s highly unsettling, and relentlessly so. As innocent childhood games become not so innocent, it’s a reminder of how seriously little ones take their play. Getting “out” actually makes them feel like they died, or that they’re gagged and bound. It also calls to mind child’s play in war torn countries, where games in a dangerous environment can result in injury, trauma or death, and the way the world’s politicians play at war without experiencing any direct consequences.
Four actors play four children with varying levels of maturity, who are prone to varying levels of exploitation. Clown targets serious and mature Blue (Nastazja Somers), and finally abandons her in a harrowing, violent end. It’s horrific to witness. Yellow (Bryony Cole) and Green (Emily Sitch) are too similar of characters, and Pink (Bj McNeill) also aligns with them. Whilst this could create an effective gang against Blue, who has a wonderfully defiant presence, this opportunity is missed and she is neither particularly isolated or supported by the kids as Clown abuses her. Instead, their youthfulness draws them to the clown, who eventually proclaims a party winner even from their indistinctness. The piece is also a bit too long considering the straightforward format, but more abstract moments help add variation and a break from the relentless violence, abuse and manipulation. The actors’ vocal and physical energy was quite adult at times and would be more potent if the actors consistently kept to obvious depictions of children.
Rules of Inflation may not evoke such a visceral reaction in most people, but it’s aggressive displays of sexual abuse and objectification are still incredibly powerful. The piece needs a few tweaks to enhance its potency and theatricality, but not many. The balloons and kids’ party context can play on a fear of clowns as well, but this live art performance is a potent examination of power and child abuse in its own right.
The Rules of Inflation runs until 24th March.
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