The show opens with Frankie Thompson and Liv Ello standing stock still, like bride and groom on the top of a wedding cake, as the audience files past them. Thompson is pretty in ballerina pink and sparkles, Ello in a loose black suit and cowboy tie. As the song “Stand By Your Man” rings over the soundtrack, Thompson rolls her eyes in irritation, while Ello preens.
It’s a striking beginning to a show that consistently defies categorisation, at once extremely funny, sometimes quite silly, and always challenging stereotypes. Weirdly, in an act of impressive cultural prediction, it manages to reference both Barbie and Oppenheimer, since it is a show that asks where and what male and female bodies will be and how they will be judged at the end of the world.
The construct is clever. Thompson and Ello’s performances – often lip-synching to popular tunes – are set against a carefully chosen barrage of video samples: advertisements for Marlboro Man; Andrew Tate holding forth on masculinity; extracts of Lena Zavaroni being told crushingly that she is “back to her chunky self” after her initial struggle with anorexia; The X-Factor judge Simon Cowell proving nothing has changed in 30-odd years when he tells a contestant to go on a diet.
Anorexia and gender identity are to the fore. In a hilarious sequence, Ello acts out hyper-masculine body poses in a muscle-suit, and in front of an Action Man doll revealing his pumped-up power. Thompson meanwhile dances Swan Lake with a whisk, while a voice-over from Bake Off uncovers the oddity of a society that is simultaneously obsessed with baking and weight loss.
There’s a surreal Twin Peaks section where everything is off the menu, a Miss World contest at the end of the world, and a brilliant spoof of The Last Supper as an episode of Come Dine With Me.
Culminatively, for all the sparkle, the mood is bleak, with an overwhelming sense of history repeating itself and imposing strictures on bodies. There’s an honesty about the performances that grounds its wild surrealism in truth. You never quite know where you are, but that’s perhaps the point. At the close, when the pair stand side by side, there’s extraordinariness, tenderness and sadness between them.
I’d have liked a bit more of that, a little more revelation and a little less action, but nevertheless, there’s no doubting Body Show’s originality and wisdom. It stays in the mind long after it has ended.