Matt Miller has a couple of preferences when it comes to the language of gender and sexuality. Firstly, they’d rather a neutral pronoun to the stark binary of ‘he/she’. Secondly, they’d rather be described as ‘midsexual’ than ‘bisexual’. They don’t insist, though. It’s this ‘not insisting’ that set the tone for Fitting, a show about fluid identity and how that might be rendered visible (or not) through the costume of everyday clothes. The piece is an attempt to transcribe the subjective experience of occupying a shifting middle ground onto the mediums of stage and of language. Rest easy, it is not confrontational. It’s …meditative? Exploratory? It demonstrates. It does not insist.

Fitting is Matt’s second solo show, and although it arises out of personal experience they have moved away from the autobiographical mode of their first show, Sticking, which I think is a significant step up towards more sophisticated storytelling. Anecdote is here, but it’s only one way to explain what fluidity of gender presentation might actually mean, day to day. Everything in the show is designed for this purpose. Visually, Matt is constantly changing between ‘male’ and ‘female’ clothes, combining and contrasting the most symbolically gendered items (like stiletto heels and suits). As they do so they shift their language too, repeating phrases with changing pronouns, using self-descriptions that are at odds with what we can see, employing a floating detachment of tone that leads us to question – who is Matt now? What is Matt now?  A thread of sleight-of-hand magic runs through the show, providing a beautiful visual metaphor for how appearances can be deceptive, how visibility externally and confidence internally can come in and out of phase.

The magic tricks also give us something graceful and skilled to watch, and Matt’s obviously worked very hard to get them smooth. The last one in particular is genuinely boggling! I’m really excited to see them try, and succeed, at something like this. In the past I have been struck by a cautious quality in Matt’s physical performances, a sense of their body being held back, reticent. It’s clear in this show that their director has pushed them towards a more adventurous use of gesture and enactment, which has worked well, up to a point – some of the larger body movements are still quite tentative. Matt is so fluent as a writer, I wonder if they are reluctant to let go of the comfort zone of words? One scene in particular, an encounter on a bus, was beautifully acted, but narrated at the same time. I’d love to see some of those superfluous words let go and the narrative brought to life through physicality alone – I think it might be one way to enliven the show’s pace and overall tone.

A dreamlike sameness of tone was what stopped me from LOVING rather than really liking this show, and that could just be about where my head was at on the night. Certainly, don’t go expecting a traditional story arc with points of dramatic conflict. Think of this more like a poem. Matt is a very talented poet. the language they use in this show is very straightforward, but the way the piece is structured through repetition, metaphor, and association owes more to poetry. The effect is like entering a prism in which Matt’s experience of their own identities is turned and turned through all its facets, looking for the place where all truths come together, where ‘either/or’ is resolved into ‘I am’.

The SMOG (Work in Progress showing)

Firstly, dear readers, I’d like us just to agree that Teesside Surreal is A Thing. Is that OK? The rest of the world may think Vic & Bob are an isolated phenomenon, but we know that Teesside Surreal is a bona fide comedic genre, a specific cultural expression. I’m here to tell you, if you didn’t already know, that Scott Turnbull is its king.

Now comes the part where you’ll want me to tell you what The SMOG is ‘about’, or in some way synopsise the plot. This is going to prove difficult. For one thing, there are lots of plots, because as Turnbull handily explains, this is a ‘portmanteau horror’ in which several short stories are loosely held together by a framework narrative. I suppose I could tell you a bit about what the fine young lesbians did with the thing they found in the sea cave, or what the teenage rabbit saw through her binoculars, or even hint at the reason for the water turning brown. But I can’t say a thing without ruining the jokes! The plots are thickly strewn with jokes, you can’t take a turn without stepping on a joke; hell, the plots are jokes! So sorry, I don’t want to find myself knee-deep in the vivisected corpses of jokes like Dr Moreau surrounded by dead dogs. (Spoiler – there are dead dogs. You’ll laugh at them. You won’t want to, but you will.)

Instead let me tell you about Turnbull’s USP – the OHP. He tells his stories mostly seated at an old overhead projector, combining pre-drawn acetates with live illustration. He punctuates the on-screen action with fantastically bizarre interpretive-dance-style stand-up theatre, sometimes with tights on his head. A man pulling tights off his head should simply not be that funny, but there you go, it bloody well is. The whole show is so funny that at one point I literally had to put my fist in my mouth and slide down the wall whimpering.

What I suspect he wouldn’t tell you himself is that the show is also very, very clever. Turnbull is obviously an intelligent consumer of narrative styles, conventions, and clichés. The graphic-novel quality of the live illustrations in his first show, Where Do All The Dead Pigeons Go?, is amplified by excellent incidental music here until it takes on cinematic qualities. Turnbull is fluent in the visual language of different shot-types – the build from long shot to close-up, the sexualised red-carpet reveal from the feet up (and it’s comedic potential). At one point there’s a spaced-out audio-collage of dialogue snippets worthy of Airplane!

This fluency is not just in visual storytelling tropes, but in literary styles as well. Turnbull is as pitch-perfect at the repressed hysterical tones of the 19th-century mad scientist’s diary as he is at disaffected LA teen. No sooner does he set up the type than he flips it, twists it, perforates it with absurdity and renders the whole thing hilarious. If like me you are also an intelligent consumer of narrative styles and conventions, you might find this show not only massively funny but also deeply satisfying because of this sure-footed play-about with form.

We have a year to wait before the finished piece is touring out there in the world, by which time Turnbull assures us there will be an ending. Will we find out what Charlie was doing on the roof of the Swallow Hotel? Will earth ever throw off the yoke of their alien overlords? Stay tuned, dear readers, stay tuned…