Whilst conversations about female body image – and how the media and popular culture has distorted it – are becoming increasingly frequent, it’s difficult to know how to react to them. Should we cry or laugh? Should we scream and shout or to talk rationally and persuasively? Should we tell our stories to the world or to share them exclusively with the trustworthy women around you?
How To Keep Up With The Kardashians does all of these things, often simultaneously, in a performance that is honest, hilarious and – to use an overused word in this conversation but one that really rings true here – empowering.
Opening with the playback of pre-recorded audio, depicting authentic conversations with around 30 women of different ages and backgrounds, the audience quickly became aware of the topics How To Keep Up would be exploring.
Central to them all was body image – an idea that pervaded the entire performance. These conversations end with the question ‘Describe your body in one word’, to which an anonymous interviewee replies ‘Average’.
This response seemed to have more impact on the audience than the speaker might have intended. Their potentially lighthearted, self-deprecating comment, when played in such an environment, carries real weight.
We first meet the cast as they dance to Todrick Hall’s ‘Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels’ with an ironic humour that lacks any kind of self-consciousness, immediately allowing the audience to feel comfortable with the cast. This is necessary as the show is made up of vignettes by each actor, telling personal stories from their own lives that they individually scripted as monologues.
The standout performance that closed the first act was by Lae Carbon-Wilson, as she explored her relationship with body hair. Stripping down to her bikini whilst discussing her experiences with body hair and the expectations surrounding it, from being pressured to shave as a teenager to finding power in refusing to do so, the intimacy she created with the audience was tangible.
“I’m just going to put my trousers back on now,” she tells us, towards the end of her performance. I nod and smile and forget that this might be rehearsed or scripted, for the person stood in front of me is real, as is the story she is telling.
This understanding and empathy extends to each individual performance, as they deal with issues such as weight, beauty standards, race, motherhood and being a daughter.
Yet, despite its exploration of these difficult and often triggering subjects, the performance never felt heavy or like a manifesto (or at least not a traditional one). This is a credit to its directors (Lucy Laverty and Scarlett Spicer) who seamlessly weave humour, trauma and the confrontation of feminist issues together.
Millie Loveday Inglis’ performance as 6-year-old Eliza appealed to mine and the rest of the audiences want for innocent humour (largely scatological). We belly-laughed our way through her portrayal, as the comedic timing was perfectly in line with Eliza’s interview, which also held power as a reminder of how thinking negatively about our bodies is not inherent, that consciously thinking about our bodies at all might not be so either (as Eliza’s baffled responses to the questions she was asked about her body exemplified).
Eliza Lewis as a harassing boy wearing a North Face puffer jaket in a nightclub (you know the type I’m talking about) was also hilarious in its accuracy. This was particularly powerful in her body language which brought back one too many memories, for me, of boys who were better off left to the void of alcohol-induced memory loss.
Her portrayal was also impactful in a scene that was tragi-comic, as she woke up in bed to physical materialisations of her mental health struggles. Millie Loveday Inglis was, again, particularly funny here, acting as ‘Anxiety’, fiddling with her fingers and apologetically offering feedback to the other forms mental health difficulties, equally as destructive as the others.
The audience’s cackling laughter at the strangeness of this otherwise familiar experience, however, was undercut by the final line, spoken together by each actor as Eliza climbed back into bed after their encouragement, ‘NO ONE HAS TO SEE YOU.’
At the performance’s end, my friend and I looked at each other and almost simultaneously agreed that we felt quite emotional. I, personally, was holding back tears, at the community, solidarity and honesty that had been created in the 90 minutes I spent at the basement room in Tribeca Bar.
So how do you keep up with the Kardashians? This performance suggested to me, that you shouldn’t be keeping up with anyone, but rather opening up, as the community that was built on that stage, and in their rehearsals as evidenced by their social media, is more powerful than any Kardashian will ever be.
If we take can take this energy and fearlessness into our lives and open up to the women around us – from the ones who live in the room next door, to those we notice but fail to see in the supermarket queue, to the ones who teach us; manage us, gave birth to us; love us, hate us, to the ones who live inside our own bodies – there will be no want or need to keep up with the Kardashians, because we will realise, as the crew and cast believe, “each individual woman has something that no one can keep up with.”
You can keep up with the cast on their social media (@howtokeepup on Instagram).