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There are musicals and then there are musicals, and then there are Fringe oddities to cherish. I don’t mean the likes of Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical (E4 Udderbelly), which manages to exploit our prurience about seeing a stage version of the legendary porn movie while being almost wholesome. There is far weirder stuff on offer.
At Aurora Nova, long an esteemed Fringe centre for international visual/physical theatre, The Table (Stolik) consists of four Polish guys playing a table. Musically, not dramatically. The Karbido company sit around it, beat it, scrape it, cajole it in all kinds of ways and generate fiendish polyrhythms as they do so. Not only is the table miked; it also conceals an arsenal of electronic jiggery-pokery and, it gradually transpires, several sets of guitar strings, a flute and even a didgeridoo all built into the thing. Remarkable soundscapes are built up, playing both original material and extant numbers: I promise you will never hear a version of The Stooges’ “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” quite like this one.
By semi-coincidence the very next show I saw, Auto Auto (Pleasance Courtyard), consists of two men doing much the same to a car. The difference is that Christian von Richthofen and his colleague move from playing the car’s body with fists and feet to playing it with sticks, then an axe, a couple of sledgehammers and even an angle grinder, so that by the end the poor saloon is left a shredded hulk. Apparently they prefer the Astra Mk 2 as being better tuned (their pun, not mine), but the Lothians have no more Astras left to sacrifice, so the performance I saw involved the rather more resistant bodywork of a Rover 414. The duo’s theme tune? “If I Had a Hammer”.
One poor man’s body is almost played upon in the same way in Special (Assembly Universal Arts). John Keates’s company Fecund Theatre have long been interested in powerplay and disquiet, both among characters and between actors and audience; but this, the first show of theirs that I have seen in several years, takes things to a new level of unsettling purity by matter-of-factly portraying episodes in a couple’s sado-masochistic relationship. It is a succession of inflictions of pain both physical and psychological, but carefully presented with a detachment that prevents us from responding to the material sexually, in either titillation or disgust. We have to deal with the material entirely on a mental level.
In comparison, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Underbelly) is almost mundane. Likened to “Shockheaded Peter done by posh girls”, this gleefully black creation by the young 1927 company blends live action by a pair of white-faced performers and music by a third with wonderful faux-expressionist animations to tell a series of cautionary tales about greed, lust or simply straying off the path through the forest. At the end of the show, one poor punter is enticed to join the two girls as their grandmother playmate, and promptly vanishes into the screen in a kind of Ringu-in- reverse sequence.
Teenage Kicks (also at Universal Arts) operates less as a whistle-stop tour through the legendary DJ John Peel’s years at the BBC than as an act of collective homage. The banter between Peel and his producer John Walters all sounds eminently realistic given the real pair’s twisted epigrams, but it is the succession of interleaved testimonies of Peel’s influence on successive generations of listeners with which we really identify. It reminds you once again how irreplaceable he was.
A similar sense of loss hit me when watching the reformed Mancunian band James play in the T On the Fringe strand of rock events. An audience that seemed too young to remember the band’s early-1990s heyday nevertheless went ape at virtually every number – yet when the singer Tim Booth dedicated a new song “to Tony Wilson, who died today”, barely a handful of us reacted at all. Sic transit gloria Factory.
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