Let’s check our bearings. This is the Soho Theatre, right, not the Traverse? And it’s May, not August? OK, fine. For a moment there I thought we were at the Edinburgh Festival. The latest project from the erstwhile Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys, American Interior, would make a perfect Fringe show. Billed as “an extremely tall story played out on an epic scale”, it’s part gig, part lecture – complete with whiteboard, slides and sundry “visual aids”. Rhys was the perfect teller of this poignantly quixotic and, in his hands, gently humorous tale.
Here’s the concept: an album, book, film, app and now five-night theatre residency about the (real-life) 18th-century explorer John Evans, who searched in vain for a Native American tribe whose lingo was more Welsh Valleys than prairies. (What? Nobody told you Prince Madoc discovered America in 1170?) Rhys is good with concepts. His two albums released under the name Neon Neon focus, respectively, on the car designer John DeLorean and a communist Italian publisher. This one is closer to home. Rhys reckons he’s related to Evans.
The evening began with clips from a 1970s documentary about Madoc by the historian Gwyn A. Williams. Maybe its voiceover had been doctored. There were sniggers at the point where the prince encounters “a sea of weed” en route to Alabama. Rhys came on in a Davy Crockett hat fashioned from a cuddly-toy wolf. Like a sweetly befuddled Neil Young or an absurdist stand-up Nick Drake, he played acoustic guitar seated at a table laden with gadgets and props. Soon he would reveal the 3ft-tall avatar of John Evans – designed by illustrator Pete Fowler and “creature creator” Felt Mistress – that he took round the Midwest. Both man and puppet had tongues poking their cheeks, but hearts resolutely on their sleeves.
Whimsical with a capital W? Yes, but the quality of such frazzled folk songs as “100 Unread Messages”, “American Interior” and “Walk into the Wilderness” held it all together. Older tracks such as “Shark Ridden Waters” and “The Court of King Arthur” were eased into the set. They made haphazard sense in Rhys’s lush, campfire tenor – as romantic as antic, as touching as touched. For “Lost Tribes”, he magicked up a synthy chillwave wobble from his little electronic box of tricks. Meeting the Mandan Indians was the culmination of Evans’s quest. “The one problem,” Rhys deadpanned, “was that they didn’t seem to be very Welsh.”
No such problems for Rhys. As the professor at the start opined, “Myth itself can become an operative historical reality.” Or, in this case, a pretext for some gorgeous tunes and Rhys’s winningly offbeat empathy. If the Fringe director is reading this, book him.