“What Nut Does The Human Finger Most Taste Like?”: A Party After The End Of The World

Sam Gregory heads to Sheffield's Festival of Debate for A Party After The End of the World by Forest Sounds

With the piss prez reneging on the Iran nuclear deal, the title of Forest Sound Theatre’s new two-night production sounds less like a fantasy and more like an imminent prospect, one which will see millennials rubbing smashed avocado into their gums inside the bombed-out remnants of a Westfield centre. Bearing in mind The Current State We’re In, is the title a joke in poor taste, nihilistic laughter in the faces of the egotists and the zealots intent on steering us over the atomic cliff edge?

If my expectations were for an apocalyptic stage set – a nineties rave designed by HR Giger – stepping into the Theatre Deli on a breezy Friday evening was an anticlimactic experience. The tables, arranged in cabaret style, lay strewn with cheap cardboard hats, plastic party poppers and mouldy nibbles spilling onto the floor. The flash of irritation that arose among the invited guests at the shortage of chairs quickly subsided as we questioned whether this was by design, an attempt to disorientate us at the outset.

The show fell under the banner of Sheffield’s Festival of Debate, an annual three month series of talks, Q&As, debates and theatre pieces exploring political themes, organised by social enterprise Opus Independents and stretching to over 70 events. In keeping with the festival’s mission to challenge orthodoxy and conventional thinking, the two hour party blurred the (already smudged) lines between theatre, performance art, spoken-word and club night. As audience members – or party invitees – we were more than active participants in the experience, we were the experience. Like children without toys, we had to create the fun for ourselves, albeit nudged along by the surreal props and antics of our hosts.

Before we began, the 40 or so guests were assigned nom de plumes via randomly selected stickers. “HELLO my name is Stephanie” mine read, while my friend became Pomegranate. We quickly began talking to a Dan rechristened as a Dmitri. As we introduced ourselves to our neighbours and sniffed stale Twiglets suspiciously, two hosts seemed to emerge from the chattering mass, though we couldn’t quite be sure who was an audience and who was an actor – did it matter? A wiry, long-haired man stood on a chair, tapped on a glass and nervously thanked us for coming, before assuring us that the pub quiz would start in ten minutes. It’s odd – and liberating – to have free time in the theatre, a feeling akin to playing a video game in sandbox mode for the first time. We milled around and explored the environment.

“What nut does the human finger most taste like?”

It quickly became clear that this was no standard pub quiz, and the two mates you’d usually bring along because they knew about soap and sports would be of little use. The answer, if you’re wondering, turned out to be “pecan”. “If you are a hysterical railway signalman”, began one question, “…what am I?” We looked around sheepishly at the people on our table we hadn’t arrived with. Pockets of nervous laughter broke out around the room, each table unaware of whether a party co-conspirator sat among them like a trojan horse.

Eventually, after revealing “what famous novel was written entirely in a vending machine” (Moby Dick), the manic female host shepherded us into another room with the promise of some dancing.

This isn’t a novel experience at the Theatre Deli, who regularly lease the space out for club nights to fund their increasingly-acclaimed programme of fringe theatre (I have to admit, so far I’ve been to more of the former than the latter). For those unfamiliar, the Deli began life in London in 2007 before branching out to Sheffield, taking residency in an abandoned Woolworths on a down-at-heel shopping precinct. After two-and-a-half productive years of innovative events and shows the group were forced out by redevelopment plans – where we once danced is becoming a massive H&M – and found a new site nearby in an old Mothercare store. Somehow, with very limited resources, the group have turned what must have been a soulless space when they first acquired it into a retail park outpost for creativity and community use, complete with two rehearsal rooms, a large theatre space, a smaller performance space and a bar that’s actually good. In a theatre!

Meanwhile, back at the end of the world, a grandmother appearing via a clapped-out CRT television was leading us through a series of only vaguely sequential dance moves, like a deconstructed take on the ‘Saturday Night’ routine. As she got faster – smiling serenely in her living room and never speaking – the inevitable happened, and I careened into someone’s children standing behind me. If the whole night was an exercise in melting the social anxiety of a large group of strangers, then it worked as well as any drug – we could have known each other for a decade rather than an hour. Songs by a-ha, The Smiths and Lady Gaga provided the soundtrack, like echoes of pop music past selected at random. I wondered whether the hosts were gathering fragments of a culture that had been lost, anything they could get their hands on.

This theory possibly explains why we found ourselves thirty minutes later singing ‘Wonderwall’ in unison to an enormous papier-mache head named ‘The King’ (I can’t really account for that bit), like a distorted mirror of Knebworth ‘96. Perhaps our hosts were attempting to revive those heady days when Tony Blair was the twinkling hope of the left and people inexplicably liked Kula Shaker. Who knows. The party was winding down.

We had a last dance, taking care not to knock into the tinfoil hats hanging at head height from the ceiling, each of which played a noise from a mid-nineties sampling CD upon contact. “DJ!” “Yeah!” and a rave siren. Gradually we filtered out into a warm Sheffield night, drifting towards the pub, or home, unable to entirely discount drunken yelps in the street and the thud from city centre clubs as a continuation of a party that would never end, or perhaps had yet to begin.

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