Hug at Tobacco Factory Theatres

Some people are huggers, and some people are not, but I’ve always fallen into the first camp. I am a tactile person who gives hugs away freely and loves to receive them. Even so, it was with some trepidation that I entered into the secret location laid on byTobacco Factory Theatres, where I would be experiencing Hug, the latest piece of a cappella musical theatre from composer, performer and musical director Verity Standen. Giving and receiving hugs as a greeting or a parting gesture is one thing; embracing a performer for 20 minutes while they sing to you is quite another.

We walked into the space and were met by Verity herself, who invited us to sit on one of the seats dotted around the space and don our blindfolds. I took a deep breath, reminded myself to be as open as I could to the experience, and tried to prepare for what was to come. Slowly the singers filed into the space, using their voices to create close harmonies that seemed to fill the room so completely. This was much more intense that a ‘normal’ choral performance, as my sense of hearing was heightened by my obscured vision. It is hard to describe the sound as I don’t have the technical musical language to do so, but that’s OK because for me, this was entirely about how it all felt. Even before I was hugged, the sound made me feel full up. It felt like it was inside me, rather than around me and my skin tingled with the sensation of it all. I became aware of my performer before he touched me, as the voices had been moving around the room but became still as each performer arrived with their audience member. As he took my hands, and lifted me to my feet I felt a rush of trepidation and anticipation.

I’m sure each audience member brought his or her own experiences and feelings to the performance. For me, it undoubtedly had an erotic charge. The only men in my life I would have embraced in that way for that long would have been lovers. Initially it feels strange and I probably held my body quite rigidly. By the end, I had my head resting on his shoulder with our arms wrapped tightly round each other. This level of intimacy with a stranger is initially challengingly unfamiliar and made my heart race with the strangeness of it. Soon enough though I felt at ease with the encounter. I realised our breathing was synching, and I relaxed into it. Despite the eroticism, this was so much more than that, and to focus entirely on this aspect of it would do the experience an injustice. My sense of hearing and touch were heightened to a delicious yet almost unbearable level. I didn’t just feel held physically, I felt held emotionally. The performance is an entirely sensory experience, and the man who hugged me whilst singing made me feel safe and immersed in his world. The sensation of being able to feel this faceless strangers chest move against mine as he projected his voice into the space was powerful, startling in its intimacy and surprisingly emotional. It seemed to be over in a heartbeat. When the embrace ended and my performer slowly left me, I felt bereft and was taken aback by the tears that sprung to my eyes beneath the blindfold. For that briefest time, I was in relationship with this performer; we very much experienced it together.

This show is not for the feint hearted, although I guess it goes without saying that if you fall into the non-hugging camp then this is probably not how you would want to spend nearly half an hour of your life! For me, it was beautiful, and an amazing exploration of the power of the human voice and its ability to move you, especially when the normal boundaries of performance are not just removed but swept aside in a tidal wave.

I’ve used a lot of words in this review and initially I didn’t feel like I would be able to find them. But, to put all of this in much simpler terms, this was the best theatre experience of my life and I’m certain I won’t ‘see’ anything quite like it.

Hug is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres until Thursday 21st July.

Review by Karen Blake

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