Motor Show

The walk from Brighton’s busy city centre to Black Rock, a patch of wasteland butting onto the coast, shadowed by a multi-storey car park, feels long – particularly late in the evening on a cold, windswept Thursday. As the Palace Pier twinkles into the distance and white seafront terraces give way to bulky flyovers and darkening headland, the sense of being exposed, of being between places, is overwhelming. It’s impossible not to quicken your step.

The enclosed, graffiti-strewn Black Rock, a well-known cruising spot, exudes atmosphere from every crack in its crumbling surface. Co-directors David Rosenberg and choreographer Frauke Requardt couldn’t have chosen a better place for their follow-up to the site-specificElectric Hotel, which premiered at the Brighton Festival in 2010. It breathes life into Motor Show’s whirl of flesh and machinery, which flashes with dark and disturbing brilliance but isn’t the scorching audio-visual experience it could be.

Rosenberg and Requardt ditch narrative in favour of mood, presenting us with a slew of surreal sequences that evoke memories half-repressed. Three identical couples, drink, kiss and fight in three identical cars; a schoolgirl climbs out of one car boot and into another, which blows up as an antlered beast dances around it; a man in a suit moves fearfully towards a phone kiosk that has sparked eerily into life; and a troupe of plumed dancers emerge from a saloon car to strut, peacock-like, before us.

When the production is firing on all cylinders it crackles with a lawless energy, making full use of the vast space at its disposal. One explosion of motion sees a gang of thugs electrocute themselves before attacking their car with baseball bats, while a couple writhe on the roof of theirs as, nearby, the suited man jerks and spasms, roaring in inconsolable pain. But they aren’t aware of each other; they share space but not time. It is as if we are watching layers of past (re)pressed into Black Rock’s decaying walls and corners brought to life as part of a macabre dance between temptation and trauma.

Throughout, the cars are characters in their own right. Whether disgorging passengers into the night or lurking menacingly in the shadows, windows blacked out, they are guardians of this purgatorial space. The weight of their presence combines compellingly with the frailty of the people they encircle and abandon. They symbolise security and status but also social disconnection and fear. Doors swing open ominously and the shadow of abuse looms over the child in the boot. If we get in, will we get out?

One piece of technology that is surprisingly superfluous is the headphones we wear to take us inside the cars. In Electric Hotel, these were integral to the experience. Here, however, where there is no dialogue, the effect is ambient rather than intimate. The sound of wind, car doors slamming and the eerie singing that emanates from a telephone receiver is evocative but doesn’t feel essential to Motor Show’s atmosphere of spiritual desolation.

Ironically, for a show about the distance between people, the production’s biggest problem is how far away the action is. It can be hard to see some of the performances, particularly in the cars. Along with a number of sequences which strive too hard for our attention or move too slowly to be effectively slow-burn, it becomes difficult to engage with the piece on the level it requires. But even if doesn’t always hang together, this dark fantasy of metal and movement will chill you more often than it leaves you cold; finding moments of disturbing beauty in the most ruined spaces of our lives.

First published by Exeunt magazine