Victoria Hancock aka Jeu Jeu La Foille’s Frontal Lobotomy premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and is now on a national tour. Jeu Jeu herself is a mainstay on the UK Burlesque scene and is known for her story-led, quirky burlesque skits. This, her debut solo show, combines ‘Visual storytelling and poetry, spun together with a Tom Waits inspired soundtrack and a smattering of weird science.’ Well I couldn’t have said it better myself: certainly there is poetry, certainly we are immediately greeted by the delicious and unmistakeable growl of Tom Waits and certainly the science is weird.
I descended into the basement of Leeds pub, Crowd of Favours, a fittingly dim venue for a show that delves into the macabre past of medicine’s response to mental illness. The show began suddenly as Jeu Jeu appeared amongst us, dressed in a white lab coat with a clip board in hand. She welcomed us then warned us, tongue firmly in cheek, that we might leave the room “changed” – cue wink and a slight smile.
This introduced us to the first of several characters Jeu Jeu would flit between in what was to become a dream-like shifting amongst form and character in a seamless domino effect. Later we see a puppet Tom Waits smoking under a lamppost, there is Tom himself – a trilby manipulated be Jeu Jeu, this ‘doctor’ who guides us through the gory details of a frontal lobotomy, and Jeu Jeu – one moment deadbeat in her overalls then next: sliding into glamorously sequinned poetry burlesque with the drop of a zip and the rip of a popper.
As Jeu Jeu made her way through the audience and onto the stage, she stepped into a great black skirt that covered most of the performance space and set Mr Waits’ drawl playing over the speaker. She observed her audience in a gold mirror, with her back turned to us. The mirror could have created a barrier, but in reality it gave her an opportunity to look safely; a direct gaze made slightly indirect allowed her to really look at us – and us at her. This early connection of eye contact and ease encouraged us to trust her immediately; I was drawn in and happy to go wherever she decided to take me. And I felt grateful to her for tending to that connection with care – all too rarely do performers dare to take that time.
Moving on, she unveiled her simple set by drawing the skirt up and away from the ground. What followed was a clownish battle with this vast black skirt. It was a fun moment which received a giggle from some, but not as many as it might have if it hadn’t felt a little forced; Jeu Jeu was clearly waiting for a cue in the music to stop before moving on to the next “bit”, so the timing wasn’t genuine and we could feel it. It was one of the few times in the piece that I felt her confidence slip, where she relied too heavily on a set piece simply because it was “set” and in doing so, lost her connection with us.
The spoken world element of the show certainly felt the strongest and writing and performing poetry is clearly something that Jeu Jeu herself takes great pleasure in. Influenced by the work of Tom Waits and indeed quoting him at times (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”), her words tripped and tumbled in quick succession, rhymes falling easily to create a crafted flow much like that of the piece itself. At times however, we heard Jeu Jeu’s recorded poetry (read in her own voice) played over the speakers as she returned to the Tom Waits miniature or moved the set. Here I felt disconnected from her words. I couldn’t find a reason for the change of form (why not speak it as you have been doing?) and I was too distracted by the action on stage to really take the words in; in my mind, a live performer will always be more interesting than a recorded voice, so here the energy dipped a little.
Then came the return of the “doctor”. She cooly led us through the process of performing a frontal lobotomy, as made popular by Dr Walter Freeman in the 1940s and 50s. This was followed by an exquisitely squirmy cabaret act in which Jeu Jeu referenced the swallowing of a sword, tipping her head back to allow the long sharp instrument she held in her hand to enter not her mouth but (seemingly) her forehead instead. It was a beautifully simple and curiously glamorous moment that truly brought home the devastating process she had just dryly described. The “doctor” interacted with us too, marking us up and inviting any one of us to “give it a go”. Not surprisingly no one put up a hand.
“Trilby Tom” returned and so did the puppet, more poetry and a few simple changes of dress – a convention Jeu Jeu set up from the beginning to mark her varying characters; a hat here, a coat there and all was clear for her and us.
I have mentioned that these characters were boldly-drawn. In fact I would say they were “outlined” in a style I would connect strongly with the cabaret and burlesque scene. It’s where showmanship and a good time meet, but there’s no three-dimensionality or emotion; I for one was never moved by them. And perhaps that doesn’t matter, perhaps that’s not the point, but I have noticed in myself that when I am not moved, my experience of a show becomes a cerebral process of trying to ‘figure it out’. Certainly this was true of Frontal Lobotomy: I found myself a little frustrated whilst trying to find the link between Tom Waits, the medical history of the frontal lobotomy and what seemed to be a personal journey into metaphor and rhyme. I felt as though I was missing something and I wondered if I had known more about Tom Waits whether I would have found more meaning in the piece.
So is this a show reserved only for Tom Waits fans who will “get it?” No, I don’t think so. I fully enjoyed the experience (and I do mean experience, which is what I feel it was) as I was swept along through images and words just as in a dream from which one wakes up bemused, but happily so. What’s more, there were some joyfully bizarre moments – the expert lip-synching to one of Tom’s songs and the hilarious introduction to Jeu Jeu’s stuffed animal “band”, stand out. And vitally, the whole thing was strung together with genuine care and craft, which saved it from what could have easily become a series of set pieces, poems and stripteases woven through with a “cool” soundtrack to little effect. Instead, we are held by a constantly shifting performer whose cheeky confidence and strong presence allow us to go with the current, to float on the tide and come out the other end – “changed?” Maybe not, but having enjoyed the experience, even if we didn’t exactly know what it was.
Frontal Lobotomy is on tour from the 3rd March until 22nd July. Details of venues and dates can be found on Jeu Jeu La Foille’s website: http://www.jeujeulafoille.com and on her Facebook page. Twitter: @JeuJeulaFoille
Watch the trailer here.