‘This is completely absurd!’ muses one young woman who’s been corralled on stage to give advice on parental issue to another member of Julia Masli’s audience. It’s as succinct a summation of Masli’s new show as you could wish for; a mischievous and compassionate piece of clowning that lets the crowd take central stage. While short on narrative and skeletal in structure, this highwire feat of trust in the participatory nature of her audience is uproarious, compelling, and strangely moving.
From Masli’s entrance it’s difficult to glean what kind of show it’s going to be. Wearing a frilly, Edwardian-style dress, a vertiginous black hat topped with a pair of golden doll legs, and a dummy’s leg of the same colour in place of a right arm, it’s a startling look. She manages to be simultaneously beautiful and ethereal, and ominous and disquieting. The effect is a little like Aldous Harding‘s video for ‘The Barrel’, or even Lady Dimitrescu in Resident Evil Village. It prods at two contradictory impulses in the brain and it’s a disorientating sensation.
Slowly Julia engages the audience through cryptic noises and encouraging facial expressions. If she approves she smiles broadly and tinkles a bell. If she objects, her face becomes a mask of disappointment. She has an incredibly expressive face; impish and cheeky one second, stentorian and wrathful the next. In fact, the vast majority of the actual clowning here is conducted through her face. Otherwise her physicality is restrained, letting the crowd slowly come round to what she’s aiming for; something akin to a group therapy session, a communal font of kindness and a sharing of problems. She does this by thrusting a microphone taped to her arm/leg and bellowing, ‘Problem?’ at people in a frankly terrifying manner, but it’s the outcomes that matter here.
Some of the problems are of a quotidian nature, which Masli has anticipated and come prepared with props; pillows, a potato, or a willing assistant dispatched to the bar for a bottle of fizz. These moments are entertaining enough. When the woes are of a more nebulous and existential bent, the show comes close to being remarkable. With Julia as bewitching ringmaster, bonds are formed, numbers are swapped, money changes hands, two potential lovers are duct taped together, and the woman from paragraph one sums it all magnificently. The atmosphere in the crowd steadily rises to celebratory.
Her solo debut ‘CHOOSH!’ (returning for a brief run towards the end of August) was one of very best-reviewed shows of 2022 and ‘ha ha ha ha ha ha ha’ (what a brilliant title to fill up a word count!) gives no indication of difficult second album syndrome. It feels raw, spontaneous, deeply human, and genuinely exciting. This evening ends with Masli being played out by a man who just happened to have his saxophone with him, while one chap who spent most of the evening trying to fix a smashed chair crowd-surfed from the front of the room to the back. Like pondering one’s problems themselves, who knows what tomorrow will bring?
‘ha ha ha ha ha ha ha’ runs until Tue 15 Aug 2023 at Monkey Barrel 4 at 00:05