Pulse Fringe Festival review or 'A dotty and dirty weekend in Ipswich'

'7 Day Drunk', Bryony Kimmings
New Wolsey Studio, 3rd June 2011

A girl dressed in what looks like a clown's outfit – if said clown was tripping on LSD and had somehow realised his hallucinations – slopes onto stage. A sparkling silver champagne bottle stands proudly on her head. Staring at the audience in wide eyed wonder, the girl 'measures' out a healthy serving of vodka and downs it in one. She then spews out the vodka in timely cascades – a faltering fountain of alcohol. This is the opening and the essence of Bryony Kimming's '7 Day Drunk'. Only, instead of spitting out vodka, Kimmings plans to churn out art whilst getting increasingly drunk over the course of a week.

One might think this sozzled show is simply a piss take and that the vodka Kimmings drinks in the opening of '7 Day Drunk', and intends to drink for the rest of the week, is really just water. But this experiment is for real. Kimmings, with the assistance of a dodgy sounding doctor, a therapist and a friendly paramedic, is embarking on a seven day drinking binge. At the end of it, she hopes to have her Edinburgh show.

Despite her contentious concept, which will no doubt frustrate some more sober-minded artistes, Kimmings is actually a charmingly naïve performer. There is something childlike about her unchecked curiosity and slightly slapdash performance style. There is also something touching about her desire to simply create, as if she is a school kid living out a never-ending playtime.

However, as Kimmings' experiment continues and the alcohol kicks in, the show begins to haze over. Interestingly, the drunker Kimmings gets the more nervous she seems. She repeats her hypothesis – that art and alchol interact in mysterious but persistent ways – with an increasing tinge of desperation, as if repetition will somehow promote authority. 

Kimmings explains in detail about the parameters of her experiment: her alcohol intake is to be increased incrementally every day, with the aid of some kind carers, an absent boyfriend and a doctor on call. What is missing though, is any concrete idea of what will be created in this sodden state - the supposed 'art' she intends to create. Kimmings is a compelling performed with a distinct style, bursting with contradictions, but she needs to nail down her concept before she gets completely hammered.

[On a final note, should Bryony Kimmings wish to do a joint project – in which an increasingly inebriated critic reviews an Edinburgh show about alcohol and art - then she knows how to drunkenly dial.]

'When We Meet Again', Me and the Machine
New Wolsey Studio, 4th June 2011

Me and the Machine's 'When We Meet Again' is only a ten minute show but it feels like a long, lazy summer of love. It is a transformational piece of theatre  - a brilliant example of how technology can pull us deep inside a show rather than simply adding extra gloss.

The premise is simple and the technology complex. Outside the theatre, an alarming array of machines is presented to the audience of one. Some severe-looking goggles are clamped to your face, headphones plonked on your head. It feels odd and disconcerting. Yet,  in a matter of minutes, you will forget these objects are there. You will forget where you are completely.

A grey screen flickers in front of your eyes and a carefree soundtrack, tinged with melancholy (ala Amelie) whistles through your ears. A girl speaks to you: ''When I first met you, you could see me but I couldn't see you." The girl, now in an abandoned carpark, walks away. Unthinkingly, you follow her. It's only a few steps in a darkened theatre, but it feels like a frightening adventure.

Suddenly, you are on the shore with your lover. You stroll dreamily for a while and stop when your companion hands you a strawberry. Back in the 'real' world, something soft is also placed in your palms. In synch with the screen projection (played only in your head, thus creating the uncanny impression that these are in fact your own personal memories), you lift the strawberry to your mouth. That pixel image starts to smell of something. It even starts to taste of something. It is an extraordinary moment – a complete merging of technology, theatre, reality – and the brain pulses with sensual possibility.

These mesmerising crossovers, which make the theatre seem more real and the technology less fake, continue. At one point, we are shown a few dance moves. Once we've got the hang of the steps, a hand appears from nowhere and together, audience and actor glide - or stumble - together. So often, technologically innovative theatre is too bossy: screens demand where the audience should look and invasive sound effects dictate the focus of each moment. But 'When We Meet Again' is a delicate, utterly mutual experience; a multimedia show that guides you, hand in hand, into another dimension. Wonderful.

'World of Wrong', created and performed by Avis Cockbill and Janine Fletcher
New Wolsey Studio, 4th June 2011

Two girls clamber into black trouser suits, still hanging on a coat rail. The girls, now suited, peer out at the audience looking for instruction. In synch, they extricate themselves and, hangers still peeping out, dance around like string-puppet Charlie Chaplins. The suit jackets are discarded and the girls, so innocent at first, gallop around with their tassle taped breasts flying freely. It is bizarre, completely asexual and giddily entertaining.

If only Avis Cockbill (really?!) and Janine Fletcher had kept their clothes on more often. One dreads sounding prudish but the more explicitly sexual components of this show  do not, on the whole, work well. They feel indulgent and sometimes even cruel. And, most importantly, they aren't very funny. Or original.

This is a company rich with unique talents, with the potential to provide a quirky take on life and theatre. There is something Monty Pythonesque about the 'Wrongies' lust for the bizarre. It is only when they go completely off track that they find their way. A large section of the show is devoted to 'The Art of the Lunge', with Cockbill and Fletcher providing a mini master class on this much-neglected craft. A video is projected of real-life lunging and the bizarre lines of 'real', public lungers are a nutty joy to behold.

The all powerful Lunge

There are other wonderful flights of fancy. At one point, again on screens, we are shown two paper puppets floating through a fantastical landscape. The backdrop is really just a massive ream of paper but the joy is in the freeness of invention, the personal flair of their strange imaginings. It is telling that the screened segments are some of the show's best moments and perhaps suggests these brave but bonkers performers could be destined for TV sketch comedy.

But it is the extended 'sexy sections' that sell this show short. Great swathes of stage time are spent with with two placing each other in increasingly ambitious sexual positions. Blow job jokes abound. Cum pours out of increasingly unlikely places. At one point, they even seem to re-enact a rape; 'Be quiet. Don't scream.' Far from shocking, these scenes are actually the blandest and most predictable of the lot.

It is when these two take the sex out of sexy that the show finds its spark again. At one point, a girl dressed as a classical ballerina pulls out one of her breasts. It isn't titillating, it's just silly. She rubs her nipple until it's practically dancing with her. And, at the end, the two girls dress in massive penis and vagina suits and dance out their absurd seduction. It's like watching a hot dog wrestle with a massive paddling pool and, though it has a shimmer of sexiness, is really just good old fashioned panto. With a little bit of tweaking, and a little less streaking, these girls could be onto a winner.

'High Speed Impact Test Number One', Chris Thorpe
Arlingtons Hotel, 5th June 2011

Chris Thorpe is a master of understatement. As his audience files into a room in the Arlington restaurant, he meekly insists 'the show hasn't started yet.' It has. As he empties the contents of his pockets, Thorpe glibly states, 'This is just stuff.' It isn't. The point of this show is that everything, no matter how insignificant, matters. 'High Speed Impact Test Number One' is a glorious exercise in a logic – a dizzying journey between cause and effect and the swarming possibilities that lie in between.

Thorpe describes his show as 'Jackanory with swearing' but, again, he's underselling himself. Despite the simple set up – the audience gathers round as Thorpe tells two supposedly real-life stories – this is a sophisticated, intelligent show. Thorpe is obsessed with the 'what if' and his pensive, perambulating narrative style feels both chaotically sprawling and tightly strung. Every diversion – and the two stories are littered with strange little riffs – takes us to extraordinary places with exceptional speed. One moves from a supposedly incidental matter to a catastrophic outcome in seconds. Each step makes perfect logical sense and, yet, the distance between the initial instant and its final impact is extraordinary.

In the first story, Thorpe relates his experience of a near plane crash. Despite heading towards a potentially devastating climax, Thorpe frequently jumps of his set path and indulges in strange flights of 'logical' fantasy. As Thorpe describes settling down in the plane, a stray packet of peanuts prompts a spiralling rant about the  snack's potential origin. Thorpe imagines a room in the developing world, 'so big that clouds form in it', with eagle eyed children picking out the finest peanuts for first class. It is a nutty and totally off-topic image and yet these forays never feel irrelevant and instead make the narrator more human and the story, strangely, more real.  

Over and over again, we are taken further away from the core of the story and yet somehow closer to its heart. In the second segment, Thorpe relates how one missed cup of coffee led to two planes clashing in the clouds. Somewhere along the way, he manages to jump from the topic of the tired flight controller, to his new girlfriend, to said girlfriend's visiting Italian friend and, with a few more leaps, to the exact words this girlfriend's, friend's, ex-boyfriend uttered during the point of climax. Quite how we arrived at this point is hard to recall but that doesn't matter – the point is, we did. This rigorous connection of seemingly disparate dots is both calming and depressing. It lends the impression there might be an order to things, but try to make sense of this order at your peril.

There is an added element to these beautifully crafted tales. Occasionally, during both of the sessions, Thorpe 'steps' out of his story and addresses another person in the room. During the first story, he seems to be talking to a prostitute or a one night stand. Throughout the second story, the extra, imaginary member of the audience is his ex-girlfriend. I hope Thorpe incorporates these elements more conclusively into his show. They could work brilliantly,  creating weird jolts that remind us that each story has not only endless back stories - but also limitless listeners, contexts and consequent interpretations. 

'Epic' – Foster and Dechery and the Corn Exchange
New Wolsey Theatre, 5th June 2011

'Epic' is an aptly ambitious show, which hopes to explore the past hundred years by merging private stories with pertinent political events. This is a show as ambitious in form as it is in content. The production is packed with different theatrical styles and tricks: there are scattered screens, projecting interviews between the cast and their grandparents, dramatic re-enactments of historical landmarks, abstract dancing and a cameo for Bertolt Brecht. And, when Brecht appears, he proceeds to de-construct an already consciously fragmentary show. As I said, ambitious stuff.

With a show covering so many different times, places and dramatic genres, some loopholes are bound to emerge. And, alas, these holes appear frequently and suck the show right in. A lot of the time, 'Epic' just doesn't make sense. It's absolutely fine for a narrative to be wilfully chaotic and ambiguous, but the production still needs to cohere. 'Epic' feels like a huge number of different ideas pasted hastily together and the subsequent picture is patchy indeed. 

The core concept – the intent to re-discover key historical events in the light of smaller, private stories - is an excellent one. As each actor watches his or her grandparent on screen, it is moving to witness the old and new remembering together. The pleasure is in the obscure details these stories unearth; the significance of the tiny things in life, despite the urgent political context against which these recollections unfurl. Cast member Chloe's grandfather, despite being obsessed by his wartime experiences, spends a lot of time discussing his quest for Camembert. Philip Arditti remembers eating eating sausages with his dad, much more strongly than the political rumblings in Portugal.

These auto-biographical projections could've made for a bold, beautiful show in themselves and perhaps, as this show develops, the company might rest a little more heavily on them. Other dramatic excursions work less well. The interviews are repeatedly interrupted by strange, abstract mimes of monumental moments in history. They don't really add much. Fragments of dance are weaved in between everything and, to be frank, just aren't good enough. Strange physical motifs emerge (during the dancing, the girls grab their pony tails and let their hair, rather oddly, lead them around the stage) – which I could make neither head nor tail off.

The delivery style is odd too, with lots of sections intoned in a blunt and purposefully emotionless voice. I'm sure this is meant to be some homage to Brecht but it feels inappropriate for what is actually a rather heartfelt and enveloping show. Why create distance between the audience and the actors, the actors and their performance, when what is most interesting here is the connections between these elements - the persistent pull of the past on the present, no matter how stubbornly we might insist on forging paths of our own. 


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