This month Word Of Warning flags up a series of small-scale performances called Domestic staged in an obscure local arts venue, Cooper House.

“Sounds familiar” I thought when I read about it, but I just couldn’t picture the place…

Then I realised… I used to live there!

Cooper House is on the left; the front of the building faces Booth Street.

Cooper House is on the left; the front of the building faces Booth Street.

In 1989, red-brick Cooper House, on Hulme’s edge, was a Northern Counties Housing Association property, but me and my friend sub-let a two-bedroomed flat from tenants who’d surreptitiously moved out.

We were right in the middle of the block… on the third floor I think… and were thrilled to be within walking distance of town, without having to suffer cockroaches, which infested the “real” Hulme flats across the road.

Having moved in, we lost no time in rolling up the cheap brown carpets and stuffing them out of sight. Tasteless curtains were also dispatched, and replaced with muslin drapes, in keeping with our arty aspirations. And I put up some eccentric lights which I’d made on my design course at the Poly.

But we never really got the hang of the kitchen and bathroom areas.

The sink waste disposal unit would rumble and grind unexpectedly, making washing up an anxious business… best avoided. Meanwhile, the bathroom plug-holes were regularly clogged with hair… belonging to people who definitely weren’t us. Where was it coming from? Were strangers using our bathroom while we were out? Or was there a dreadful problem with the pipes?

We were not very domesticated. I still recall the charred remains of one of our pans, abandoned in an outdoor stairwell following a conflagration… we walked past it for days, feigning ignorance. And our Christmas tree’s New Year balcony plunge – to avoid pine needle spillage of course. Why hoover when you can casually commit GBH?

The publicity for Domestic’s Kitsch’n Sync (above) spookily recaptures my Cooper House memories… even down to the gold sparkly outfit… mine was a stretchy sequin tube-skirt from the Topshop sale (which I teamed with a leather jacket and docs, and inappropriately wore to my graduation.)

Naive, glamorous aspirations; domestic incompetence; a deep dread of plug holes, plumbing and disembodied hair; tremendous personal freedom tempered by pennilessness. This is what Cooper House meant to me. I wonder what Kitsch’n Sync is really about? Any or none of the above? I’m going on Thursday so I’ll aim to report back.

Domestic — performance stripped bare (in a Hulme high-rise)
Friday 8 — Sunday 17 November 2013, presented by Word of Warning, Guiness Northern Counties + Z-arts.
A series of intimate interactions, homely conversations and domestic dramas played out in a block of flats. (Image of Leentje Van de Cruys in Kitsch’n Sync by Tamsin Drury)

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Kitsch’n Sync 14th November 2013
Written 17th November 2013

When I arrived outside Cooper House on Thursday around 5.40pm, it was already dark. The delapidated Gamecock Pub looked familiar, but the gated yard between me and the block of flats didn’t. I wasn’t sure how to get in. A large steel gate was closing automatically and, as I nipped through, I hoped I wasn’t about to find myself locked into the wrong area.

To my relief, I spotted a small group of people huddled around a heater, and a sign which appeared to signal that I was in the right place. I was greeted warmly, given an A4 handout and led through a low tunnel underneath Cooper House, towards the back carpark area, where a sound installation awaited in a garage. (I don’t think I ever ventured into this area, years ago, because I had no car.)

I then spent several minutes sitting inside a small dark garage with a complete stranger, listening to just the kind of sounds you would expect from a sound installation, and thinking how much smaller cars must have been in the eighties.

Presently we were ushered back to the building entrance, where a small crowd had gathered for the main event.

Leentje Van de Cruys’ performance piece is staged in a top floor flat, reached via the lift and a narrow walkway. The front door opens onto stairs which twist around so that a second front door lies almost directly above the first (at a 90 degree angle)… a very peculiar layout which pretty much rules out bike/pushchair/wheelchair access. My flat must have been like this but I had completely forgotten!

The second front door faces the bathroom; we turned left along the hall towards the living room. (A right turn would have led to the bedroom.) Because this was a one-bedroomed flat, the living area was smaller than ours was, but the layout was the same. Straight ahead, as I approached the living room, I could see the window wall and balcony at the back of the building, and to my right, round the corner out of sight, was a kitchen. Several rows of beanbag seats had been lined up facing the kitchen, which was transformed into a small self-contained performance space. (There was no wall between the living room and kitchen – the two rooms conjoined to form an L-shape.)

The three-sided kitchen-box contained a u-shape of fitted units, with some wall cupboards above, a window at the far end, and the floor was crammed with large, earthy, bulbous potatoes, lit from below by a flexible tube filled with yellow fairy lights. Standing with her back to us was a woman wearing rubber gloves, a long gold dress and very high gold glitter shoes. When she turned around and began to speak, her slow, unsteady promenade across the potato-covered floor made me wince in anticipation of an ankle injury. To balance, she occasionally leaned on the magnolia wall with a gloved hand, leaving an earthy hand-print trail.

The performer, Leentje, delivered an hour-long monologue without a break, her soft (Dutch?) accent lilting engagingly as she moved around the small space – lounging, crouching, searching, hiding – her actions reflecting her words. Her self-assured delivery was measured and calm apart from a couple of intentional changes of pace. Incredibly, her combination of wit, poise, intensity and intriguing unpredictability held my attention for the duration, in spite of my slightly uncomfortable beanbag perch.

Leentje describes a ‘she’… we assume this is the same ‘she’ that she represents, in her gold dress and her yellow rubber gloves. ‘She’ has no name. She has no function except to peel potatoes and wait in the flat for ‘him’ to return at half past five. She has no relationships; she just has him.

Meanwhile household objects and appliances are given person-names, in the style of an IKEA catalogue. This is a bit confusing as it suggests a smugly up-to-date (though perhaps sterile) interior, which is not where we find ourselves…

‘She’ is contrasted with ‘him’, because he has ‘person-ness’… which seems to be something she has lost. We are apparently in Stepford Wives territory (which I confess I have never read or seen) and I found myself wondering why – why is this woman in this situation?

The woman’s isolation chimes with my experience of being at home with small children… that feeling of exclusion from normal life which I hugely resented. But in Kitsch’n Sync, babies are not apparently the culprit… although potential pregnancy is suggested obliquely, and also depression.

Leentje intelligently and imaginatively explores a woman’s unhappy existence within a co-habiting heterosexual relationship… but I was unconvinced because I couldn’t square the woman we watched with the plight of the woman described. A woman from a previous era or different cultural background might tolerate this existence… but not the woman before us, nor anyone resembling her, it seemed to me. Nevertheless, I found the quiet intensity of the performance very absorbing and the subject matter food for future thought.

(Any similarity between Kitsch’n Sync and my experience as a Cooper House tenant begins and ends with the location and the gold dress… I suppose that’s because I was single when I lived there.)

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November 18th 2013

Leentje Van De Cruys reminded me of Suzanne Vega, but I didn’t mention that before because I hate lazy comparisons. But the more I think about it, the more the comparison holds up. She is a similar physical type, chooses and forms her words with precision and gazes directly outward at the audience while focussing inward.

The Suzanne Vega I know well is the one from the first album – articulate, analytical, beguiling, vulnerable, masochistic, self-absorbed, inward-looking. And her breakthrough song Marlene On The Wall was about a woman, alone in her flat, contemplating her relationship as ‘witnessed’ by a picture of Marlene Dietrich on the wall, which seems to overlap Kitsch’n Sync territory.

I went off Suzanne because her perspective was so self-obsessed and bleak… although the boys still swooned over her. It was around the same time as Betty Blue (1986). There was a lot of pressure to be tragic. Being a gorgeous woman seemed to involve being mad and/or doomed for some reason… and then I discovered that music could make you high and indie introspection went out of the window. I stopped looking for answers to life’s mysteries in song lyrics.

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November 21st 2013

I just stumbled across the A4 sheet I was given at Cooper House the other day, and read it for the first time. Leentje Van de Cruys writes:

“In April 2006 I swapped my life as an actress/theatre-maker in Belgium for a new life as a mother/housewife in the UK. I spent my days mainly changing nappies, breastfeeding, washing, cleaning, cooking and ironing, and in between (when there was a bit of spare time, the babies were asleep and the dishes done) I developed a series of solo performances – all relating to motherhood, domestic activities and female and cultural identity…”

I find myself very disappointed that none of the baby stuff found its way into Kitsch’n Sync. It seems that it was the arrival of real babies which kick-started the creation of this piece of work… and certainly babies provide a more convincing reason for a modern, attractive woman to suddenly feel trapped and isolated, rather than blaming it all on ‘Him’.

Kitsch’n Sync was a memorable piece of theatre, but it was weaker than it should have been because the real reason for the crisis portrayed was ommitted and replaced with something unconvincing and cliched.

I wonder why?
Can I guess?

Negative feelings about motherhood are tricky to explore… even difficult to admit to these days, I think. But no matter how much you love your child, the restriction which his or her arrival brings is so massive it can feel overwhelming.

I used to tell my friends that parenthood felt like losing a leg, because my loss of freedom was so dramatic. I added that I knew the leg would grow back eventually, but that it would take years. This sounds exaggerated but, in fact, pushchair users experience the same general mobility restrictions endured by wheelchair users… and these are much worse than most people realise. My double pushchair made bus travel impossible; the tram stop was half an hour’s walk away and on reaching town there was no toilet I could easily access with my pushchair in tow. (My favourite toilets at The Royal Exchange were unreachable upstairs and the disabled toilet required a special key.) The upshot of all this was that I stopped going into town altogether… stopped going anywhere, in fact, that wasn’t very close to home.

It was the difficulty and expense of moving around the city with small children which trapped me in my house for several years, along with our society’s surprising hostility towards small volatile noisy messy children with no road sense. Kids need to be annexed, apparently, though whether this is for their own protection or for the convenience of the adult majority is unclear. As a stay-at-home mother, I found myself trapped in the kid-zone with my kids… away from all the adult-things which I thought were normal. I wish Leentje had explored this peculiar dislocation, instead of identifying the couple’s relationship as the root of the woman’s isolation.

Imagine trying to get a double pushchair in and out of that flat!