Theatre Review: HUG @ Tobacco Factory Theatres

by Polly Hember

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HUG is a unique and intriguing experimental polyphonic piece, professing itself to be an ‘immersive choral bath’, where each member of the audience is blindfolded, serenaded and hugged for the duration of the short 25-minute show.

A small audience was shown into a small, dark room with chairs dotted around and a blindfold draped over each seat. The oddity of walking into a room (or indeed attempting to write about it) with the knowledge that you are going to be hugged by a perfect stranger is overwhelming. Standen greeted the members of the audience, asking them gently to take a seat and blindfold themselves. Next, sound erupted from around the room as the singers walked about the seats. Wordless harmonies and multiple melodies washed over the audience, filling the small space with immense power. With the power of sight withheld, the other senses grapple to ground the body . The mingling voices erupting from unseen points fill the room to bursting point, immersing the audience entirely.

The harmonies halt and a hand is felt on your arm. Despite expecting this development, the alien touch is still a minute shock. The hand helps the audience member to stand up and enter into an embrace with an unfamiliar and unseen body. The profound intimacy of a hug is combined with intense anonymity; there is a comforting ease of a hug yet a jarring unfamiliarity of an unseen stranger’s body so close to your own. The sound starts once more; this time the polyphony seems even louder – instead of passively listening, the hug propels the audience members into new modes of experiencing song, sound and touch. The movements of the breath and the vibrations of the singer’s thorax immerses the audience member entirely.

A nuanced and unique experiment with sound, Standen has succeeded in putting together a choral piece that pushes the audience to listen to sound in new ways, opening up a sublimely subjective sensory journey. Exploring conceptions of intimacy, perception and our capacity to experience music; this short 25-minute show is hugely clever, beautifully simple and profoundly feeling.

If you missed HUG at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, it is coming to The Egg in Bath in September. Book tickets now. 

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Photographs by Paul Blackmore.

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