As the audience milled around the wooden floor of Tālava (Wayville’s Latvian Hall) there was a definite nervousness in the air. We’d already been asked to participate in a pre-show task and now there was nowhere to sit.

Experimental theatre collective Pony Cam and collaborator David Williams had, of course, deliberately engendered this gentle chaos. Eventually, each audience member worked out – sometimes with the help of others – what process to follow to find a chair. As a result, even before the show had begun, we were loosened and imbued with a sense of camaraderie.

This state of open togetherness is essential to the success of Grand Theft Theatre, and – really – to any live performance. But it is especially important to start the show this way when it feels, at least on paper, likely to be impossibly incoherent.

Grand Theft Theatre is a breakneck-speed tour of memorable show moments that have persisted in the minds of its six creator-performers. It takes in ground as diverse as the 2002 film version of Chicago, Simon Stone’s vibrantly violent Thyestes, a show at Melbourne Fringe in which a performer’s anus features heavily, and dozens more works that sit somewhere in between.   

To make the piece navigable, the performers start out with a sort of spoken-word version of a perpetual canon. What begins as an earnest speech from Williams disintegrates into a wall of sound accompanied by hypnotic choreography. This is a clear signpost to sit back and worry less – if a word or detail gets lost, the bigger picture will still emerge along the way.

The performers then cascade over each other in an astonishingly simple pattern – recalling a show that stuck with them and its memorable moment in varying amounts of detail, sometimes employing low-rent props and high-comedy re-enactments, sometimes telling the story simply – as though speaking to a friend. In every recount, there is fun and humour, and in many there is something much heavier and more complex, too.

There is a sense of camaraderie among audience members in the hall. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

The collaborators have no expectation that the audience will have seen the shows they reference. This is not a theatre show only for the theatre-obsessed. And so, they must walk a razor-wire between boring the audience with a barrage of minutiae and providing us with enough contextual detail to allow each show’s memorable moment to land.

This is expertly handled, and its success is in no small part thanks to the calibre of the performers. Williams and Pony Cam’s Claire Bird, Ava Campbell, William Strom, Dominic Weintraub and Hugo Williams are at once intensely, comedically physical and highly emotionally relatable as they present their past selves on stage (or, depending on the moment of the show, on the hall’s floor, seated amid the audience, or even writhing on a pile of potting mix).

Grand Theft Theatre – performers present their past selves on stage . Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

The second difficult challenge of an eclectic show that effectively cycles through short stories is rhythm. With the commencement of each recollection – and they sometimes come only seconds apart – the work is at risk of losing the momentum it has built. But there is a subtle and very secure structure baked into the bones of Grand Theft Theatre. As the show progresses, the frame of the recollections begins to occasionally widen.

Slowly, the audience gets to know not just moments the creators loved, hated or remembered for some other reason from shows, but also the creators themselves. It is not character development through plot or pacing, but through vulnerability and intimacy. By sharing bites of their own personal histories, the performers remind us – cleverly and affectingly – that moments of theatre are memorable not just because of what is on stage, but because of how and who we are when we receive what is on stage.

A lot of generosity is required to craft this reminder so well, and that largeness of spirit flows across the whole work. Grand Theft Theatre is chaotic and hugely entertaining, it is intelligent without being condescending, but most importantly it is full of truth and feeling. And by its conclusion, the audience has forgotten about being nervous – they are absorbed into the room and into the communal experience, something that only happens during the very best and most memorable of theatre shows.

Grand Theft Theatre is at the Latvian Hall ‘Tālava’ until March 11.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Festival coverage here.

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