“Why walk when you could tölt?”
Victoria Melody’s beautiful, brave and bonkers show will inspire you to discover your own outlandish passions and accept yourself
(5 / 5)
@tiagogambogi, Dance Theatre Artist, https://linktr.ee/tiagogambogi
“Headset” is an intricate and original piece of documentary theatre, combined with stand-up and live art that ignites your enthusiasm and lust for life with Victoria’s own rituals of self-discovery.
Following a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, “Headset” has a 22-venue tour this Autumn across the UK. That in itself is a huge achievement, considering the challenging times for the small-scale theatre touring circuit and current funding cuts. Now in her 40s and originally from Chester (“I’m from a working-class family with Tory parents”, she jokes in an interview), Victoria graduated in Fine Art at Newcastle and developed a very unique path as theatre maker and performance artist. Melody is a powerful female voice in the stand-up circuit – blending documentary theatre and video and embedding in her work peculiar approaches in search for authenticity, connection with audiences and, ultimately, herself!
Dressed as a funeral director (the subject of one of her previous shows), Victoria starts the piece by talking about her work. “I make and perform theatre shows about Britain’s enthusiasts. I am passionate about other people’s passions”, she says. She works like an anthropologist, immersing herself into communities over three or four years and then makes a show about them; “Demographics of a Pigeon Fancier” (2009) is a study of the British pigeon fanciers racing season. “Northern Soul” (2012) explores the dancing style. “Major Tom” (2013) combines dog shows and beauty pageants, highlighting the absurdity and impact of conforming to beauty standards. “Hair Peace” (2015) delves into the ethics of the human hair industry, “Ugly Chief” (2017) emerges as a response to her father’s terminal illness misdiagnosis, using humour and heart to confront the taboo surrounding death. She points out that she fell out with her dad during the tour of “Ugly Chief” …so…she needed a big change…what was she going to do now?
The origin of the word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek enthousiasmos: “divine inspiration, be inspired or possessed by a god, a goddess, be rapt, in ecstasy”. Victoria comes across “just like that” (as Tommy Cooper would say): a true Goddess in her own right – curious about people with the inventiveness to express her discoveries. She reminds us of extraordinary performance artist Bobby Baker, with her charm and quirky view of life.
Having worked as a video artist, Melody uses video the medium in an uncluttered and gentle way connecting the live action with images of her past, with quirky graphics to great comedic and plot development effect.
Tired of her theatre career she declares: “Enough was enough. I was tired of just being poor and feeling useless. Enough was enough. My life would fall apart if I didn’t change something…So f*** theatre. I’m going to become a well-paid, famous mortgage worthy stand-up comedian!”. We all laugh.
The piece follows trials and tribulations on her path to becoming a “mortgage worthy” stand-up comedian (she’s currently selling her boat by the way, she jokes). She reveals the inner works of the technique: “Set up, punch, exaggerations. Set up. Massive, giant punch. Rule of three. Set up, punch, punch, punch. Pull back and reveal…I was sh**”, she declares.
The teacher character plays an important role, representing “the establishment” as well as “her critical inner voice”. “How is this going to go down in Hull or Derby? the teacher challenges. Later, Victoria says: “Stop stereotyping nights out in different places”.
She recounts one of her first routines: “Icelandic horses are my favourite breed of horse. They’re small and hairy and best of all, they have five gears. Normal horses have four gears. They walk, they trot, they canter, and they gallop. Icelandic horses do all that and they also tölt. Tölt is Icelandic for “a gliding gait”. She then demonstrates. “Oh. Ow. It’s very uncomfortable on the crotch”. Then “This is a tölt. Wow. It’s so smooth. It’s like the horse is ice skating.” With her big, surprising eyes she delivers: “It doesn’t hurt the crotch at all. Why walk when you can tölt? That’s Iceland’s catch phrase”. Pause. Silence. Audience cracks up.
Victoria plays numerous characters besides the teacher: a funny “Hull Hoola Balloon” man, David Attenborough, (which, she jokes, comes out more like Margaret Thatcher), a barista, and others. The soundscape for the show is detailed and audios of her mum weave the narrative, describing how “little Vic” was as a child, in ballet, dropping keys in post boxes, and being herself – “I wouldn’t change it for the world. I think what you’ve got is very unique, but I wouldn’t even call it a problem. Vic, it’s not a problem, is it?”. With that question in mind, our heroine continues her quest.
The set has four chairs, a big plastic box, cables and props: a tambourine the teacher bangs when she disapproves of her behaviour, a beautifully crafted wheel with 5 masks that is spun to choose different personas”. She jokes “I shouldn’t use props, you see!”, as she gets tangled up in them and the microphone. She shares that her technical manager takes the mask wheel to the hotel as it won’t fit into the camper van, she sleeps in.
Melody encounters numerous challenges and as she experiences difficulties with words, visits a speech therapist and is diagnosed with ADHD. “Oh no!”, she thinks. “I’m Vic. I’m thick”, full of inner doubt, she feels incompetent and a failure.
In a previous interview, Melody has expressed her ADHD diagnosis as a profoundly liberating experience and that the show is a grand celebration of her newfound authenticity. “absolutely freeing…. This is my brain. I’m not masking anymore. This show is a big celebration of that…. And my performance on stage now is the best performance that I’ve ever been able to give”.
I dare to say that Melody has found her “clown’s intelligence”, as the great clown Angela de Castro would describe it. Clowns have their own intelligence, guided by their sense of curiosity, openness and naivety for the world. Melody exhibits all those clown-like qualities.
Even though she says the show is not “meta” (a stand-up show about stand-up), the piece is a reflection on the genre and plays with it expertly. At one point she jokes: “Are you going to do performance art now and alienate your audience?”, she says no…but she does. Melody is playing with the relationship with the real, with personal history, representation / non-representation and use of new technologies – aspects that performance art has always dealt with and that are embedded deeply in her practice as an artist.
Clowns fail, get up and do it again. And again. And again…never losing their enthusiasm. And so does Victoria. She decides to talk to a neuroscientist, her friend Silvana de Pirro. Melody starts wearing a portable electroencephalography headset that tracks her brain activity during her stand-up performances. Previous audiences found this hilarious, and we’re shown accompanying video footage.
Victoria continuously fails as a standup comedian and the show culminates with a magical scene where she is due to perform in an important stand-up gig, with headlining comedians and she appears on stage with a homemade Faraday cage and a laptop held close to her head. This is an amazing scene where time freezes, and our attention is totally focused on Victoria. She talks to “little Vic” again and again. It’s as if the actual headset device “dives” inside her feeling and emotions – the piece meets therapy, self-help in a light and playful way. “I’m Vic. I’m thick”. No more of that. It’s about acceptance. She looks at “Little Vic” and says, “I imagine little Vic, how desperate she was for someone to tell her that she wasn’t lazy or stupid or defective, that she wasn’t a baby.”
In a touching and insightful moment, she tells us: “I stopped measuring success using somebody else’s measure. Like I was a kid who just got comfort from putting jar labels, so they all face the same way and who got overwhelmed at injustice…”
She goes on to tell us with glee about her next passion and project: “I’m a musketeer in an English Civil War reenactment society”. We laugh and are genuinely curious about this new project.
Melody concludes the show with charm and eccentric flair… “and if you think of me as an Icelandic horse, then this all makes sense, because we should all get to choose the horse we want to be. Because I could walk off stage, but why walk when I could tölt?”
Beautiful, brave and bonkers “Headset” will inspire you to find your own outlandish passions and accept yourself.
Director John Gordillo
Writer Victoria Melody
Set and costume designer David Curtis-Ring
Lighting designer Sean Phillips
Updated and restaged with Bryony Kimmings
Musical director and composer Tom Parkinson
Video appearances from Dr De Pirro and Mitch Mitchinson
“Headset”, 2023 Autumn Tour
03/10/23 – Chipping Norton, The Theatre
05/10/23 – Guildford, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
06/10/23 – Birmingham, mac
07/10/23 – Harrogate Theatre
10/10/23 – Hexham, Queen’s Hall Arts Centre
11/10/23 – Kendal, Brewery Arts
12/10/23 – Leeds, The Old Woollen
13/10/23 – Barnsley, The Civic
17/10/23 – Norwich, The Garage
19/10/23 – Manchester, The Edge Theatre & Arts Centres
20/10/23 – Wolverhampton, Arena Theatre
24/10/23 – Brighton, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts
25/10/23 – Brighton, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts
30/10/23 – Cardiff, Chapter Arts Centre
31/10/23 – Bristol, Watershed
01/11/23 – Havant, The Spring Arts & Heritage Centre
02/11/23 – London, Jackson’s Lane
03/11/23 – Reading, South Street
07/11/23 – Exeter Phoenix
08/11/23 – Weston-Super-Mare, Front Room
09/11/23 – Ilfracombe, Landmark Theatre
10/11/23 – Barbican, Plymouth
For more details: www.victoriamelody.com
Photography by: Steve Ullathorne