Theatres have adapted to COVID-19 restrictions in all sorts of ways. During the summer months, some venues held outdoor performances with socially distanced seating and were planning to move back indoors before the latest lockdown was announced. Others have taken to t’internet to offer recordings of previous productions or broadcasts of live shows that were originally intended for the venue. Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester has been extremely successful with its live-streamed production of RENT, which was initially designed for a COVID-19 safe performance.

David Hoyle – A Grand Auction of My Life is none of these things. Almost a one-man show, almost a cabaret turn, almost a TV game show, Hoyle and his long-time collaborators, Mark Whitelaw and Jayne Compton, have created the sort of event the late Ken Campbell might have enjoyed, although he would undoubtedly have given notes.

Campbell used to say in his broad Essex brogue: “The secret of my success is that I create uncriticisable work. The critics have no idea where to begin.” I feel a bit like that about this production. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. Did I learn anything? No, not really. Did I feel anything? Oh yes, quite a lot. And by god it was brave.

Hoyle, dressed in sparkly miniskirt, shiny blouse, tights and heels that show off his fabulous legs, is auctioning off his “most treasured possessions” including a hand-peeled potato, a piece of broken costume jewellery, a jam jar of dust and a couple of live experiences – 27 minutes of his time and a bespoke “spirit portrait” painted on stage. He is assisted by Debs, dressed from head to foot in PPE, a post-COVID-19 Madge Allsop to Hoyle’s Dame Edna. Similarly put upon, yet necessary.

A commentary accompanies each item and I particularly liked the bespoke portrait, which was painted by Hoyle on stage from instructions given by Debs who was looking at a photo of the winning bidder online. When compared with the original, it was remarkably accurate in a post-expressionist-Willem-de-Kooning-on-acid kind of way.

David-Hoyle. Credit: Lee BaxterThere are a couple of pre-recorded commercial breaks in which Hoyle presents some thoughts on the state of the world while old TV commercials for things like Cadbury’s Flake run behind him. I’ve never seen Hoyle perform before but he strikes me as someone who would bounce off an audience, physically and verbally, so he must have found the lack of a live crowd challenging.

It could be regarded as a political performance and Hoyle certainly has some messages: When this is over, we must not return to the way things were but find a new order. We should do away with the Government. But I’m sure he was joking. 

I said it was brave. What if no one had bid? I assume they had a fail-safe for that but, in the end, they raised more than £1,000 for the Naz and Matt Foundation, a charity which tackles homophobia triggered by religion and helps parents to accept their LGBTQ+ children.

Theatre has become adept at creating recorded versions of performances in a way that makes them familiar to theatregoers while differentiating them from other recorded media such as film or television. Streamed live, the show exposes the polished nature of pre-recorded TV by being a bit shaky here and there. Yet its rawness gives it authenticity and lends power to Hoyle’s occasional political imprecations. In the post-COVID-19 world, I predict that live-streamed theatre is one of the adaptations that we’ll keep.

By Chris Wallis

Main image: David Hoyle by Lee Baxter.