[2011026] Steve Sheehan’s – A Little Horseplay

Steve Sheehan’s – A Little Horseplay [FringeTIX]

Steve Sheehan @ The Tuxedo Cat – Yellow Room Main Bar

6:30pm, Fri 18 Feb 2011

Just for something a little bit different, I’m going to put in my “conclusion” paragraph first – because, if you were somewhat inattentive (as I was) when reading all the publicity associated with Horseplay, there’s spoilers a-plenty ahead. So…

Steve Sheehan is the quintessential quiet surrealist. With a style that is so gentle and considered that it accentuates the bizarre nature of his comedic creations, A Little Horseplay is an utterly addictive vignette. But it is most definitely a work in progress; indeed, Sheehan provides a mobile number in order for the audience to SMS any show ideas or suggestions. It will be very interesting to see how it develops from here.

Right. So… spoilers ahead!

There’s a horse in this show. A fucking horse. Now – the postcard flyers and the Guide explicitly mention Arapahoe the mini-horse; but for some reason I completely ignored those words, or assumed that they were referring to the horse-head mask that Sheehan has been wearing in gigs occasionally. And I really should have known that something was up when the TuxCat StairGuardGirl told me that Sheehan’s show wasn’t in the Yellow Room, as indicated by the ticket, but in the Main Bar area instead – “because of the horse.”

See, I thought she was just taking the piss.

Not so.

Sheehan and mezzo-soprano Norma Knight appear with a set of Dylan-esque cards, each bearing part of a “translation” of an opera being played in the background. The words are utter nonsense, and the occasional profanity has Sheehan turning to the children in the crowd and very carefully – almost imperceptibly – shaking his head in responsible guidance. Just the very nature of his movements is funny.

And then a door opens… and Arapahoe the mini-horse clops in.

Now, the horse doesn’t really do anything – it just wanders along, nibbling at the food trail that’s been left on the floor, and stamping the odd cardboard box left in its path. But it’s a horse – and in this context, it’s utterly bizarre. The horse is lead out again, and Sheehan sits at a keyboard and plays some Liszt whilst telling a quiet – and nonsensical – numbers joke. A bit of Wagner with Knight singing, some horse-head mask antics (trying to stuff the microphone in the mask’s mouth was hilarious), and Arapahoe returns – while Sheehan and Knight sing Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.

It’s all quite surreal.

Sheehan’s been playing silly buggers with Fringe norms for years; earlier shows have had listed curious running times of “27 minutes”, and been staged in quiet venues like the SA Writer’s Centre. This year – besides having a horse in the show, his jape is escalating the price of tickets – from $3 at the start of the season, to a more typical $18 by the end. One might argue that’s fair enough, given the evolving nature of the show; but this $5 night I was very well populated and, even if people left with glazed eyed and confused expressions, word-of-mouth will quickly spread about this show. After all, it’s got a horse.

[2011025] Rhino Room Late Show

Rhino Room Late Show [FringeTIX]

Lindsay Webb, Dave Thornton, Trevor Crook, Andrew O’Neill, Alan Anderson, Janey Godley, Jacques Barrett @ Rhino Room – Upstairs

11:00pm, Thu 17 Feb 2011

In the past I’ve shied away from shows like this, preferring to see performers in their full shows; with the sheer numbers of acts that I’d genuinely like to see filling up my Shortlist, however, it’s almost become necessary to leverage these gigs as a means of giving the artists the attention (I think) they deserve.

Lindsay Webb was the emcee for the evening, which thrilled me no end. I saw a snippet of his main act a couple of years ago and had failed to be blown away; as an emcee last year, though, he was bloody brilliant, and he carried that form with him tonight. He’s amazingly quick on his feet, and – as befits his show this Fringe – quite the punster.

I’d only seen the first act, Dave Thornton, once before (coincidentally, the same gig I first saw Webb), and thought he was solid, without being exceptional. And he brings forth a few laughs tonight, and no cringes – but not enough to have me thinking “I must see this man’s full show.” But if he’s in town between Fringes, I’ll be checking him out.

After seeing his impromptu drunken cameo in Tony Roberts’ show the other night, I was keen to see Trevor Crook’s standup for the first time. And he is bloody brilliant – completely unassuming and laid-back (yet extraordinarily keen to get onstage, peeking through the curtains during his intro), he just delivers the joke and lets you laugh. Uncomplicated and very funny, with constant references to his gigs in a mosque, a lebanese restaurant, a monastery… and, in signing off, he quips “I don’t have a show or nothing, but I’ll be at The Bakery on O’Connell Street tomorrow morning. There won’t be any comedy – just a scroll – but you’re welcome to come along.” Brilliant, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for him in the future.

Andrew O’Neill rounded out the first half of The Late Show, jet-lagged as he was; he resorted to a lot more of his gloriously silly non sequitur sing-song bits than I’d seen in the past, but that’s just fine by me; he really is a bloody funny bugger. Can’t wait to see his show this year.

I was thrilled to see that Alan Anderson was on tonight’s Late Show list; Jon Brooks had recommended him to me a couple of months ago and, having seen this footage on YouTube (and struggling to understand a single fucking word) I was genuinely looking forward to checking his show out. However, this short snippet put the dampener on that enthusiasm – apart from the great accent and occasional Scottish mannerism, there wasn’t a whole lot of compelling ideas or laughter there. A massive shame.

His compatriot Janey Godley, on the other hand, was an absolute revelation. Very angry, very filthy (more c-bombs per minute than any other comic I’ve ever seen, I reckon), and constantly apologising to her daughter in the crowd for talking about her father’s boudoir talents, she earned herself a place on the Shortlist – topping it off with a hilarious description of her venue. Fantastic.

Jacques Barrett had the unfortunate task of following Godley, and bemoaned that fact until he found his feet. But he won the crowd over with his imitation of the dolphin-girls of Sydney, which is absolutely top-notch material… and he endeared himself to me when, struggling to find a segment to talk about, he called on his friends in the crowd: “support crew: what should I do?” A brief pause, then the reply comes in: “Goldfish.” Quick as a flash, Barrett shook his head. “Nah – wouldn’t work…” and kicked into some other material. That little exchange made him seem all the more human to me, and certainly didn’t harm his Shortlist status.

As I said at the top of this post, I used to minimise the number of these compendium gigs I attended; but if every one was as strong as this one, I’d be seeing a lot more. Fantastic entertainment.

[2011024] An Evening with Style & Panache

An Evening with Style & Panache [FringeTIX]

Dave Bloustien & Lliam Amor (featuring Amanda Buckley) @ The Tuxedo Cat – Yellow Room

7:30pm, Thu 17 Feb 2011

I was unsure about what to expect from this show, though as a “discerning chap” I was clearly attracted by the Guide blurb. And I knew that Lliam Amor did some work in Shaun Micallef’s most wonderful The Micallef P(r)ogram(me), and Dave Bloustien’s name rang a bell.

There’s a voiceover at the top of the performance in the form of an airplane safety recording; it’s quite clever and raised expectations. But as soon as Evelyn Style (Bloustien) and Rodger Panache (Amor) take to the stage, bold spectacles and English awkwardness, there’s quips about the venue: the daylight coming through the large windows scuppers their lighting plans, but provides them with the opportunity to punctuate every skit with a pantomimic call of “blackout”. And, with barely a titter from the baker’s dozen of assembled punters (at least three of which were media), they launched into their first sketch (with the help of the delightful Amanda Buckley).

And their sketches are quite variable in quality; the opening BBQ scene seems to have no real purpose (other than to declare that “tofu is murder” – yes, yes it is), and the Gentleman’s Club sketch is also pretty grim. But the Stakeout is pretty amusing, and Bloustien’s solo tale about Tutankhamun’s cock being found in a thrift store was strangely compelling.

Sitting in the front row (I like to try and encourage the performers if I can), my life was called upon as inspiration for their improvisational “Make’ems” segment; as with most improv, a fair chunk of the humour comes from the unexpected turns and resultant stumbles that are made on the fly. However, having seen the Whose Line Is It Anyway? guys the previous evening, this effort felt flat by comparison.

As mentioned before, the ambient light was an issue – but the “blackout” calls often offered more humour than the skits they ended. The stage, too, was a bit of a concern for them, lifting a bit under their weight and slapping back onto the supports beneath quite alarmingly. It’s early days yet, of course, but the venue can’t really excuse Style & Panache‘s lack of preparation; they ran over ten minutes short, and struggled with some of the material they did have.

[2011023] This Is What We Do For A Living

This Is What We Do For A Living [FringeTIX]

Tumble Circus @ AC Arts – Main Theatre

6:00pm, Thu 17 Feb 2011

I often wonder who turns up on the opening nights of shows like this; shows that promise spectacle for a pittance, in a venue that must cost an arm and a leg. Shows that rely heavily on word-of-mouth, because advertising isn’t going to cut it. Where does the word-of-mouth come from?

Well, people like me turn up. The curious, the nearby. Students, friends. Other carnies. A somewhat surprising number of people. AC Arts attendees trickle in throughout the show.

Taking my position halfway up the Main Theatre’s Cliff of Seating, I realise what a great venue for circus acts this is; the steep incline of the seating creates a great sense of verticality. The trapeze looks above the tiny cushion-littered mattress in the middle of the stage.

After an intro music selection of John Peel countdowns, Tina Machina and Ken Evil wander onto the stage with a hint of coyness; when they look at each other, they manage to convey a sickly-sweet cutesy passion. And they begin to tell the story of how they met on the streets of Dublin; critiquing each other’s juggling skills, they formed Tumble Circus and have worked together since.

Throughout the ensuing narrative (tales of travel and adventure, sprinkled with typical boy/girl conflict), they intersperse their circussy tricks: balance acts, hoops, juggling, free-rope, trapeze. Ken’s strength and balance was tremendous, and the delicacy of his courtship with a member of the audience (as he repeatedly plucked flowers from the top of the free rope) was delightful.

Tina, it has to be said, had a bit of an off night. A fair few of her hoop tricks went awry, and her balance seemed to desert her for awhile. In fact, when they started doing the trapeze tricks I was a little bit worried that something terrible might happen; luckily, that work went off without a hitch… and was really thrilling, a bunch of tightly packed tricks as they clambered and swung their bodies around high above the floor, engaging in amusing faux conflict up high that would be missed if watching from the floor. They also shared a spill or two in the juggling; but the mistakes are always handled graciously, with a rueful look to the audience or a mocking nod from their partner. Tina’s eyes surely won a lot of admirers.

I’d be flat-out lying if I said that this is the best circus that I’ve seen this year. If you wanted that sense of spectacle, go check out Tom Tom Crew or even Cantina (disclaimer: don’t bother seeing Cantina, they probably don’t need your money). But what This Is What We Do For A Living does have is a bit of heart, a sly-but-friendly wink, with its attempt at a narrative structure.

And there is a curious ending, with Tina and Ken engaging in a pillow fight with the audience. Odd, fun, and most of all… charming.

[2011022] Trapped

Trapped [FringeTIX]

No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability @ Migration Museum Chapel

11:00am, Thu 17 Feb 2011

So after an enthusiastic chat about my shoes (and, be assured – I’m very enthusiastic about my KSOs) to Miep and PJ in the front-of-house, the small audience entered the Migration Museum Chapel… and it’s a lovely little space, but also quite small. There’s only seating for about twenty people in there, focussed on the bunk bed in the corner. A man sits under a light; he slowly counts in Spanish as the light flickers overhead, then throws himself forward, enacting brutal torture by himself, dunking his head into water. It’s a pretty shocking start, made all the more effective by wonderful lighting.

Alirio finds himself in a cell with Kym; there’s a sense of resignation (but still disbelief) at their incarceration: because of Alirio’s accent, because Kym can’t hear well in his left ear. A friendship develops in their cell, amidst the coldness of the authority that rules them; when Kym is eventually released, Alirio’s frustration and grief – and the pointlessness of his captivity – is tangible.

It was only about halfway through this performance (which runs a svelte twenty-five minutes) that I realised that I had seen it before, and Artistic Director PJ Rose confirmed it for me: Trapped was the major segment of 2connect, back in 2006. And then I noticed that snippets from that post have wound up in the flyers and programmes for Trapped, which makes me very happy.

And, even better, everything I wrote then still holds true: though some of the claustrophobia is diminished by the Chapel’s space, Mackenzie and Zavarce are still wonderful in their roles. And it still remains a decent piece of drama with a lot of heart… and a few lingering questions.

[2011021] The Worlds Only Saxophone Playing Stand-Up Comedian Who Used To Be A Goat Farmer

The Worlds Only Saxophone Playing Stand-Up Comedian Who Used To Be A Goat Farmer [FringeTIX]

Gary Bradbury @ Gelatissimo – The Upstairs Lounge

11:00pm, Wed 16 Feb 2011

As I ascend the stairs at the back of Gelatissimo, a young chap motions to me – “glad to see he’s got someone in the audience,” he says. “I overheard them saying that only had one ticket sold; that’s probably you.”

Now, I’m no stranger to empty shows, but it always makes me a bit sad to see a thin crowd, especially at the start of a season; but in this long, narrow room that holds maybe fifty, I figured you’d only need about a dozen people in the first couple of rows in order to pull of a decent gig.

I talk to the bar-guy while waiting for the show to start, hoping that more punters come up the stairs; the Shiraz being served upstairs at Gelatissimo is not too shabby, and the conversation was… interesting (he was keen to know if there was any… “you know, kinda racist” comedy being performed at the Fringe). There’s a rabble of voices ascending the stairs – half-a-dozen kids (we later learn they’re nineteen) wander in and take to the second and third rows.

Some saxophone notes drift up the stairs, followed by the unassuming form of Gary Bradbury. He sizes up the crowd of (now) seven, thanks us all for attending – “even you young ‘uns, who are here for free.” He singles me out – “you’re the guy who paid! Cheers mate.”

Bradbury is dry, and – with constant references to the trials of being forty-two years old – immediately likeable… to me. The others in the audience, lured upstairs by the promise of free comedy, were admittedly not his target audience; a large number of his jokes were lost on them (grey pubic hairs? who could imagine such a thing!), but Bradbury turns this age-gap to his advantage with a lot of sly digs that have me quietly chuckling knowingly.

And that kind of personal connection to the comedian onstage is priceless.

Bradbury’s jokes revolve around the minutiae of daily life, growing up, his girlfriend… you know, the usual stand-up fare, but delivered very casually. His forays into goat husbandry were equal parts mystifying and hilarious; tales from life on the road, taking comedy to the troops in Afghanistan, were fascinating. There’s a little bit of sax (the sax orgasm was a hoot) and a song or two (Road to Kandahar, to the tune of Road to Gundagai, straddled the line between cynical and fun).

One by one the youngsters drift off to catch their last bus home; in the end, there’s just me and a “platonic couple” left – she with the loud, infectious laugh, he with no laugh at all (and staunchly defiant when questioned of his age: “yeah, I’m nineteen – but I’m on my full license.”) And, in closing the show, Bradbury announced that he had sponsorship – and was giving away a bottle of wine at every show. I, as the only paying punter, got the bottle – a Wirra Wirra Church Block Cab Sauv / Shiraz / Merlot. I love my blended wines :)

All I can really offer is this: if you want a decent laugh, with a likeable comedian, and are in a slightly older age bracket, you could certainly do a lot worse than The Worlds Only Saxophone Playing Stand-Up Comedian Who Used To Be A Goat Farmer. And hey, you might get a free bottle of wine out of it.

[2011020] Gluttony

Gluttony Showcase

The cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Adam Vincent, Gravity Boots(?), Ian D Montfort, Guy Pratt, Noir Revue, Ivan Brackenbury, Dead Cat Bounce @ Gluttony (Excess Theatre)

8:00pm, Wed 16 Feb 2011

Gluttony is a new collection of venues, perched in that little park on East Terrace between Grenfell and Pirie, that sprung up earlier in the week. From the outside, it’s an ugly assembly of security fencing and portable cabins; inside, however, lies three performance spaces, some leafy areas in which to lounge, a decent bar, a Chipotle food stall, and a pig and luggage motif.

And no allegiance to Strut & Fret, if that sort of thing is important to you.

An old, very-dear friend-of-the-family has connections and we’re in for a little drinky celebrating the first night of Gluttonous activity. There’s a lot of people kicking around, and a real positive opening-night vibe. Tom Binns has a sit and chat with us for a minute or two; I raved about how wonderful his Ivan Brackenbury show was last year, and his response was a smile laced with sadness – “oh, you were the one who saw it!”.

Finally, around 8:00, the doors (well… tent-flaps) of Gluttony’s largest venue, the Excess, opened for the crowd of probably two hundred. Consisting of a long lineup of Gluttony’s performers, this one-off showcase was certainly an action-packed affair, and kicked off with improv theatre by the cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, who were lumbered with the task of ad libbing a piece about Uzbekistan, carrots, and drinking. The result was fantastic, and really fired the crowd up. They were then followed by Adam Vincent, who struggled to maintain their momentum… it took most of his short set to win the audience over, but he got there in the end. Unfortunately, a lot of his material felt familiar to me – and I’ve only seen him a couple of times before (in 2006 and 2009), and whilst the promise of dark material thrills, I’m a bit reluctant to commit.

An couple of characters (who I think were called Gravity Boots) then performed a surreal piece of theatre, each posing as a building: a neighbouring library and internet cafe. I’m buggered if I can find out who they were, or what show they are associated with, because their dry humour and quirky presentation definitely warranted another look. And then out came one of Tom Binns’ alter egos, Ian D Montfort: Spirit Medium, who failed to have the same joyous initial impact of Ivan Brackenbury; however, hints of his more evil character shone through and enticed.

Ex-Pink Floyd and Icehouse bassist Guy Pratt (my associate Barbara’s object of swoonery) came out and told a few tales of smashing up instruments and Bryan Ferry tour tales. These didn’t exactly fire the audience up in this larger venue, but I imagine they might go down a treat in a more intimate space; Noir Revue had no such problems, though, and managed to titillate and delight with some smokey singing, dancing, balance tricks and burlesque breasts.

A stumbling introduction brings Ivan Brackenbury to the stage, and I was delighted to see that he had the audience in uproarious laughter (if not tears) within minutes. Finally came Dead Cat Bounce, who made the Shortlist last year but were neglected – a mistake I won’t make again. These guys were fantastic, with rock-star sensibilities and comedy-laden songs; they’re definitely making the cut this year.

Blimey – that was a fair collection of acts! Eight mini-performances in a touch over ninety minutes made for a solid evening of entertainment… and the opportunity to do some Shortlist tweaking. Great stuff.

[2011019] Bound

Bound [FringeTIX]

Bear Trap Theatre @ Holden Street Theatres – The Studio

2:00pm, Wed 16 Feb 2011

It’s my first visit to Holden Street for the year (a slightly more awkward trek since changing abodes), and I was surprised to walk into the bar area and find it humming with activity. Without my glasses, I couldn’t see the faces; I asked what was going on at the bar. “It’s media day,” said the girl who, in my ocular haze, looked like The Girl With The Gorgeous Eyes.

Oh goody. So I go and sit outside in the quiet, indulging in a little meditative mull in the smoker’s corner; Martha walks past a couple of minutes later, we have a brief chat, and she gives me one of the media briefing booklets – which was really nice, and very much appreciated. Then I fall into conversation with Martin (who directed last year’s Final Round), which was lovely… though we chat too long, and wind up at the end of the line of a pretty decent crowd (with the presence of sight-line ruining TV cameras making The Studio feel all the more cramped).

The lights drop, and a wonderful, harmonious hum fills the air as the cast take to the stage, the hum overlaid by a traditional sea-faring song, the voices strong yet mournful. It’s a physically inauspicious beginning, though; a man stands at the edge of the stage, looking into the crowd, waiting for his contact, Woods. He’s a Polish man in England, contracted by an employment agency, ordered to work on the fishing trawler The Violet. As the other crew members arrive, expecting payment from their recent voyage, there’s obvious conflict between the Englishmen (and the Welshman, Reece) and the union-undercutting agency worker.

The crew are dismayed when their captain, Woods, arrives and breaks the bad news; the biggest corporate buyer of fish in the market had been put into administration, so the bottom had fallen out of the market prices: their expected pay would be a pittance. He hatches a plan to be the first boat back in shore with a load of fresh fish when the markets re-opens, to make a big score when return is high; reluctantly, the crew returns to sea.

As the fish fail to materialise, the boat’s nets snag, and they discover that they’re not the only trawler at sea, the crew’s tempers fray; the Polish worker, the odd-man-out, is accused of spying by Woods. The young hot-headed crewman sows seeds of discontent about the eldest, deriding his efforts and unsettling the rest. Woods, clearly in financial trouble, chases the big catch by taking the boat into a storm; they get the fish, the crew celebrate, but then the distress signal is heard from another boat in the storm…

If there’s one criticism – and there is only one – that can be levelled at Bound, it’s that the latter half of the script becomes a bit predictable, a little bit Perfect Storm-ish. But that, by no means, should diminish the quality of the work on display here; the Bear Trap ensemble are stellar throughout, with gutsy acting backed up by wonderful singing. The direction is faultless – a table and five chairs and some wet-weather sailing gear are all that’s required to leave you in no doubt that this is a fishing trawler in heavy seas (the rocking of the men back and forth is simple and effective); the height of the storm is a cacophony of noise and fumbled light, of panic and terror before an instant of calm.

An instant of calm before the thunderous applause and whooping of the audience… and these actors deserved every bit of it. Bound deserves to be a massive hit.

[2011018] Pirate Rhapsody, Mermaid Requiem

Pirate Rhapsody, Mermaid Requiem [FringeTIX]

Better Bradley Productions @ The Spare Room

9:30pm, Tue 15 Feb 2011

As the thirty-odd punters (perhaps lured in by $10 Rush Tix) filter into The Spare Room this evening, the cast are already positioned onstage – Tommy Bradson, wooden-legged and eye-patched pirate, grimaces at the crowd; his accompanists, perched behind their cello and keyboards with their swabbie-ish striped shirts, look perfectly bored. The throng settled, they launch into song – after which, in the middle of his first rant, Bradson removes the stunt-leg.

A few more rants (mostly about women – and his genitals), a few more songs (mostly about his genitals – and women), and he storms out of the venue; a little video interlude shows his Pirate self talking to his Mermaid self in the dressing room. The video over, the Mermaid – literally – tumbles back into the room and, with members of the crowd roped in to spray her down (“your air here is so dry“, she complains) and hold up lanterns like makeshift lighters, she completes the performance with a chat / song rhythm.

Bradson’s cabaret-esque skills are, it must be said, impeccable. He can hit the notes cleanly, or dirty them down to a growl; combined with the glorious notes from the cello, and the sterling piano support, the songs are a highlight of the show – occasionally filthy in content, yes, but a good laugh… and, in the case of the opening number, a confusing clap-along test for the audience.

But in the spoken word interludes between songs, Bradson’s Pirate’s delivery is two paced; stage-wandering rants topple into rapid-fire torrents of words, tripping over themselves and almost becoming indiscernible through the accent and the occasional emphatic yelps that fire off my tinnitus. His Mermaid, on the other hand, is slower, more contemplative – and more emotionally fragile.

I loved that whole stream-of-consciousness style exuded by the Pirate, even if he did seem to focus on his own cock a bit much; the challenge of following his diction and metaphors reaped rich rewards. Whilst the Mermaid didn’t have the same compelling delivery, she did provide one of the highlights of the night during an audience interaction bit, where she struggled to get her mark to repeat “yes, it is” – until he landed a comedic knockout blow that had both Bradson and his musical swabbies cracking up in laughter.

Pirate Rhapsody, Mermaid Requiem was a solid bit of Fringe cabaret; as mentioned before, Bradson has a fantastic voice and cutting tongue, and Johanna Ng’s keys and Sophie Radke’s gorgeous cello made this a musical feast. Sure, the bits between songs didn’t always hold up the same high standards, but they don’t negate the quality of the songs.

[2011017] The Lounge Room Confabulators

The Lounge Room Confabulators [FringeTIX]

Stuart Bowden & Wil Greenway @ Fringe Office

8:00pm, Tue 15 Feb 2011

So there I was, poring over the Shortlist, trying to roughly fit together a plan for Tuesday night, when an e-mail from the Fringe office pops into my Inbox:

Are you interested in coming to a Loungeroom Confabulators preview on Tuesday, February 15 at 8pm, at the Fringe office, 105 Hindley St?

Let me know if you can come along, should be fun. The show is completely sold out, so this is the only chance you’ll get to review it.

Suddenly, use of the word “review” notwithstanding, I had a plan for Tuesday night.

I roll up at the prescribed time, and there’s a collection of somewhat familiar faces in the dozen-or-so non-Fringe people there; I start thinking that this is a media preview… you know, for all the ‘Tiser and Adelaide Review and street mags to see the show, to write about it… and there I was, too.

What a curious turn of events.

Michelle brings a couple of glasses of wine downstairs – the red is delicious. There’s a knock at the door – “Pete, can you get that?” Michelle calls. Sure – I open the door, and there’s nothing there but a small woven blanket or mat, neatly folded on the ground. I pick it up; there’s a note attached.

The mat’s name is, apparently, Keith (or was it Kevin?).

I close the door, offering the mat to Michelle – I’m assuming she’s the Mistress of Ceremonies for the evening – but she insists that I hang onto it. “You do it,” she says, gesturing me to the space where everyone has gathered downstairs in the Fringe Office.

It’s then I realise that there’s more written on the note; I unfold it and read it outloud. It’s neatly handwritten, but the odd word is absent, causing me to stumble – how embarrassing! – but it explains that the mat… er, Keith is to be unfolded into the centre of the space, and room left for Keith’s friends.

The mat is laid out, and there’s a bit of an awkward wait – some nervous smiles between the assembled throng, but no chatter at all – before a quiet tap at the door sees one of the Fringe staffers let two grinning gentlemen in – one carrying a guitar, the other a suitcase. Alexander and Finn find Keith, cajole the seating arrangements somewhat, and introduce themselves with a simple explanation: two men, cursed by a suitcase, destined to spend their days wandering around, telling stories.

And, they warn us, “all the endings are shit.”

Their story comes in fragments, chopped up in a chronological blender. The two orphaned boys, the mansion with the mouse problem, the flatulent wombat, Rose the Midnight Gardener, the drunk caught in a Groundhog Day-esque nightmare… each little story snippet, in itself entertaining and (more often than not) capped with a “shit ending”, eventually forms part of a cohesive whole. It’s twisted and convoluted, but oh-so-satisfying.

The two men animate their tale with bits of flotsam from their suitcase; small toys and dioramas and little shadow-puppets. There’s a few beautiful songs, quietly performed on guitar and ukelele, the last of which sees Finn quietly pack the suitcase up again. The men wave a gentle goodbye and slip outside.

We applaud, expecting them to come back in to take a bow. They do not. We thank the Fringe staff for the use of their office; a couple of people immediately take their leave. A brief chat, many more heartfelt thankyous, and I’m off, too – heading to the next show.

There was something really sweet about the Confabulators; their storytelling, wide-eyed and earnest, had an innocent feel. Sure, the humour got a little potty-ish, which doesn’t really gel with the lyrical nature of the rest of the performance; but this was a charming performance, and one that I’m chuffed to have experienced.

Thanks, Michelle :)

[2011016] Skip Miller’s Hit Songs

Skip Miller’s Hit Songs [FringeTIX]

Brink Productions @ Odeon Theatre

7:30pm, Mon 14 Feb 2011

There’s something special about a Brink production; maybe it’s the calibre, or the refinement, or the tone of the performances that lingers with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

Skip Miller’s Hit Songs ticks all of those boxes… and more.

Skip Miller is a frontline photographer, taking pictures of the tragedies befalling millions in Africa. Though lauded with awards, he’s always searching for the next Best Shot – but finds himself becoming more and more emotionally distanced from his subjects… and everyone else. The play flits back and forth between the past, where he rambles through Liberia and Guinea with Basel (a young boy eager for the opportunity to escape the refugee camps in search of his mother and sisters), and the present: a domestic quagmire where Skip is gutted by his reporter girlfriend, and cultures clash between Skip’s brother and the subject of one of Skip’s greatest photos, Patience… who struggles to reconcile the fact that her face is now on every billboard.

The first thing you notice, settling into the comfy seats at The Odeon, is the three-man band parked to the left of the stage; they were magnificent throughout, the texturing they added with their African and Western instruments being almost imperceptible at times, and powerful when required. The second thing you notice is that the stage floor is a sandpit – a huge, heavy sandpit.

The third thing you notice is the lighting.

Oh, the lighting!

As the play opens, the cast wander across the stage, holding sheets of paper in front of them; from the back of the theatre, African faces are projected onto the paper, following the actors as they walk (or, more likely, the other way around). It’s a stunning effect, but easily forgotten by the lighting design that follows it.

Shards of light create fragments of space for the actors to perform in, for those offstage to hide in; projections on the back wall create a teeming refugee exodus, of memories and hopes. I’ve raved about Geoff Cobham on this blog before, but this is an amazing body of work – clever design and cunning direction as one.

The actors, too, are almost faultless – sure, it took a couple of minutes for my Anglo-ears to settle into the unfamiliar inflexions in the African trio’s voices, but that’s my problem, not theirs. The performances were spot on; Mondli Makhoba’s hospital segment was fantastic; Adolphus Waylee’s shattered rage at being photographed stunning. And Chris Pitman’s seemingly-bipolar Skip Miller was fantastic – equal parts ebullient and morose, confident and terrified. His hot’n’cold relationship with Lizzy Falkland’s Alison was wonderfully portrayed… but “wonderful” doesn’t feel like the right word, really, given the nature of the relationship.

In short: I loved Skip Miller’s Hit Songs. It features some wonderful performances – both onstage and off – and a strong, compelling story, and doesn’t feel the need to delve into melodrama for closure. And, even better, it has that Brink feel about it – proper theatre, with impeccable production values, for the same price as a Spiegeltent ticket. Massive kudos to all concerned.

[2011015] Ali Cook – Pieces of Strange

Ali Cook – Pieces of Strange [FringeTIX]

Ali Cook @ The Deluxe

9:45pm, Sun 13 Feb 2011

Ali Cook is a likeable chap; he seems friendly and struts the stage with just enough preening self-awareness to appear in complete control of proceedings. He’s an engaging stage presence, inoffensive to the many volunteers he grabs from the sizeable crowd.

Unfortunately, he’s not a very convincing magician.

I knew we were in for a rocky ride when, early on, he used the same Princess Di joke and invisible card-shuffling trick that I’d seen Tony Roberts perform the previous evening; sure, the latter was dressed up with a flash of flame, a dash of Vegas flair; but Roberts had delivered both aspects more convincingly.

Sure, Cook delivered some neat tricks – the eleven-digit-number embossed on the credit card was pretty neat (although accompanied by a suspicious “can you just do that again? I forgot which envelope you chose” return to an audience member), and the dove-centric opening was pretty slick… but other parts of his act looked decidedly clunky and unpolished. From my angle – maybe seven o’clock to the stage’s twelve o’clock – his water mixing trick looked really ordinary. No, make that bad – it was possible to see him clearly manipulating items in the bowl. It’s pretty hard to suspend disbelief when you see that level of physical manipulation.

Then there was the odd audience-involved trick or two that genuinely seemed to fail – but the trick was tossed away airily, covered up with a glib joke.

And that’s Ali Cook’s saving grave (if, indeed, he has one) – he’s a reasonably funny guy. The thing is, he’d probably be a better comedian than a magician… but I wouldn’t pay to see his standup show. Make of that what you will.

[2011014] Nothing Is Really Difficult: Niets Is Echt Moeilijk

Nothing Is Really Difficult: Niets Is Echt Moeilijk [FringeTIX]

Theatergroep WAK @ the big wooden box

8:30pm, Sun 13 Feb 2011

Sitting in The Garden’s deckchairs and watching WAK’s spruiking whilst sipping a beer has been one of the real decadent pleasures of this Fringe so far; their hilariously out-of-place-and-time dancing, combined with their wacky accented messages (“That is Toon. He is the star of the show… he is single”) and penchant for chasing unsuspecting Garden-patrons with the chunks of wood that constitute their flyers… it’s good, clean, silly fun.

There’s a frantic search for a “lost” mobile phone before we head in for this performance; once inside the big wooden box (oooh! that lovely smell of …wood!) there’s ample stepped seating and… a big, blank, performance space. The lights suddenly go out; through the cracks in the floorboards, fingers of light struggle through and land on the back wall. The light moves under the floor until it reaches the corner of the space; the floor folds up, and up creeps one of the three WAK performers.

Attaching his lamp to the wall, he plays with shadows, using an outstretched arm to open a door on the opposite side of the room. Another man appears, bursting through the wall and leaving a cartoonish silhouette in his wake; there’s a bit of competitive posturing, and then the sense that the men are trying to find their way out of the space.

There’s a loud crack as a hole in the roof gets kicked in; fragments of wood fall into the space. Once the hole is cleared, a rope descends – and is dropped. There’s a laugh from the crowd, and a sense that things are going to get silly. And that sense is accurate; soon the men are engaging in crotch-mangling one-upmanship, there’s a protracted segment of (literal) toilet humour, and it’s all good… I’m really enjoying myself, watching these three mute Dutch men.

But then the unmistakable opening chords of Eye of the Tiger start up, and one of the guys is running in circles within the box. The other two synchronise, running around him with a napkin, a glass of wine, a table, chairs… the table is dropped in the runner’s path, he sits at it, and suddenly the scene is of demoralising domesticity.

And they’ve suddenly completely lost me.

It’s just not funny anymore – at best, it’s just curious. And the performance sputters along in this moribund manner until a bang extinguishes the lights, leaving much of the audience in hesitant disbelief. They – well, I – reluctantly clap the end of the performance.

Look – there’s no doubting the talents of the Dutch lads. It’s an odd collection of mime and more physical interaction, but I can’t help but think that there’s a disconnect between the native comedy psyche of their country and mine. Because, whilst there was a delighted grin on my face for the first half of the performance, there most certainly wasn’t for the remainder. So unfortunately, I have to concede that, for me, the spruiking is funnier than the act itself.

[2011013] Deborah Frances-White: How To Get Almost Anyone To Want To Sleep With You

Deborah Frances-White: How To Get Almost Anyone To Want To Sleep With You [FringeTIX]

Deborah Frances-White @ The Cupola

7:00pm, Sun 13 Feb 2011

So – Irene and I walk into the Cupola together. It’s already pretty full, and – her ocular abilities being what they are – we take a seat in the previously-empty front row.

“This makes me nervous,” I tell her. More so than ever. She laughs, either oblivious to my terror, or revelling in it.

Deborah Frances-White bounds onstage, chock-full of confidence and presence. She makes a few quick jokes about how the audience has just paid for her airfare and cocaine habit, and we’re off and racing – the crowd instantly love her. She starts explaining how she’s the Philip Escoffey of relationships, then points directly at me, gesturing towards Irene:

“I can tell that you two are a couple.”

I get halfway through saying “oh no” before I freeze. There’s a wave of laughter.

“…of friends!” Deborah appends. More laughter; a wave of relief.

“There’s something there, though, isn’t there?” she continues. I hide my face in my hands; Irene, giggling, holds her hands up in don’t-go-there defiance. More laughter.

“What’s the story, then?” Deborah asks me.

“I defer the storytelling to her,” I say.

“Oh – you’re deferring to her? You’re already married, then.”

We’re all laughing. She hasn’t even broached the core content of her show yet, and we’re all pissing ourselves.

There’s a quick survey of the room; mostly couples, a handful of single men, less-than-a-handful of single women. She presents the expected stats highlighting the differences between who the genders want to sleep with, rips apart The Game, and presents a blend of Clooney and Bond for men to aspire to.

There’s a couple of intoxicatingly curious analogies – women, she purports, are either Bad Sitcoms or Scorcese Movies. She covers the idea of maintaining anticipation, leading to the fantastic auto-correct bastardisation of “I have the keys.” There’s also a challenge to the men in the audience to undo a bra one-handed; two take up the challenge, and the resultant battle was like watching two chimps try to de-flea each other whilst trying to hug. Bloody funny.

There’s a lot of truth in what Deborah presents up there – though I know from experience that, if you’re going to try to be a DayMaker, you’d better develop a thick skin. And lord knows that I just about bust a lung laughing at her “stalker” comments. And whilst her advice could be easily distilled (Men: get a case of the Clooneys. Women: be like a Scorcese movie… with a hat), it’s still worth seeing Deborah present this information live; she’s immensely likeable, has a great stage manner, and it’s one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in years.

[2011012] Tom Tom Crew

Tom Tom Crew [FringeTIX]

Tom Tom Crew @ Umbrella Revolution

5:00pm, Sun 13 Feb 2011

I first saw a Tom Tom Club show back in 2007; I loved it then, and the 2008 incarnation was even better – the show was clearly evolving, with the group tightening the hour-long show to yield a maximum wow-factor.

This year, though…

Holy shit.

I reckon that there’d be a whole thirty seconds in the entire show that could be considered anything near dull – and that’s only when Ben Walsh is explaining the crowd-noise rule (that is: “make some”). The rest of the time, something genuinely exciting is happening; new DJ and keyboardist Luke Dubbs leads off with a scratching set that gets the heart pumping, Ben Walsh thrashes drums above and below – and even some in mid-air, as they’re thrown across him. Tom Thum’s beatboxing is still gobsmacking, even though you’ve seen it before and you know what he’s capable of… his Michael Jackson tribute keeps gaining new tracks, and the scratch battle between Thum and Dubbs is amazing.

Even the slower parts of the show manage to be monstrously entertaining; there’s Tom Thum’s clever graffiti piece, backed with music from Walsh and Dubbs. Walsh’s OmniChord still makes an appearance, but rather than being a solo performance it’s now accompanied by Thum’s beatboxing.

And then there’s the five acrobats…

Ummm… they’re a bit good.

Fast, energetic, certainly enthusiastic and – most astoundingly – fearless, they run and jump and flip and tumble and fly and perform feats that genuinely take the breath away. Their closing brace of stunts, complete with backing from Walsh, Thum, Dubbs, and an unnamed bassist, is a stunning performance; the musical accompaniment somehow becomes directly linked to the audience’s emotions, driving the excitement with a rapid-fire beat, holding our breaths as the acrobats tumble through the air, hoping to nail that landing.

It’s amazing stuff, it really is.

Every time I see a Tom Tom show, it seems to be faster and leaner and more exciting. It’s hard to see how they could up the ante on this show in any reasonable manner; but I’ve got a feeling that the capacity crowd that was in today – myself included – will be lining up to see them try.