Brighton Fringe 2014
Anarchist stand-up poet Jonny Fluffypunk is in reflective mood following the birth of his second son. What can he offer as a father and role model? What does it mean to be a dad, and to be a man? Jonny draws from his own childhood memories, and from the lives of his heroes and representatives of manhood, and channels his findings through the mediums of well-crafted performance poetry and sock puppetry. This is a tender and life-affirming show which raises substantial issues and more than a few hearty chuckles.
The premise is clear from the start. We are the Crew. Jonny is the Captain. We’re on an Expedition. He’s dressed for it. Our ship is multi-coloured, and has a mast and eventually a sail. The Destination is Dad. Dadness, more accurately. What is also made clear, though, is that we’re not on the ocean waves at all. We’re in a shed, the quintessential domain of the Dad, and the boat is about ten centimetres from bow to stern and bought from Poundland; in a sense, we have reached our destination already, and our Dad for the evening is leading us on a journey to his inner self. What is also made crystal clear, though, is that of course we’re not in a shed at all. We’re in a church antechamber, temporarily converted for use as a Fringe theatre. We are an audience, not a crew, and Jonny is a poet, not a captain, and certainly not our dad. Reality is thus triple-framed, and one of the great strengths of this show is the interplay and tension between those layers.
This is a very knowing show. At one point, daddy sock puppet turns to Jonny sock puppet and asks whether he’s being used as some sort of Brechtian device. You don’t have to understand Brechtian devices to find this funny – the father character represented by the puppet, Jonny’s own father, has already been established as someone who would probably never have heard of Brecht, let alone his devices. We snap back to the top layer of reality, where Jonny is reflecting on his own show’s construction. Even if the sock puppet itself doesn’t qualify as a Brechtian device, the mention of Brechtian devices certainly does.
The most sublime moment of art-analysing-itself comes half-way through with the revealing of the map of this evening’s performance. This is pinned up so we always know exactly where we are and how long we’ve got left until the end (not long enough, I say!). Just as a child playing a game will always be fully aware of the artifice of the world they’re creating, so the audience in this room is fully aware of the theatrical conceits they’re being asked to buy into. This approach is great comedy in itself, but it also serves the deeper purpose of broadening the themes – Jonny is not just presenting an autobiography, although much of the material is autobiographical; he is encouraging us to reflect on our own lives, our own relationships with our fathers and sons, and perhaps even on the human condition as a whole. We are ever-present in the equation
Jonny admits that the mention of poetry tends to put people off. For those of you who may be thinking, “yeah, it sure puts me off,” let me reassure you of two things. Firstly, the poetry is excellent: funny, clever, down-to-earth, and filled with unexpected twists and references, delightful rhythms, and euphonious wordplay. And secondly, there’s far less poetry in this show than I was expecting. The poems serve as links from one subject or scene to another; in a way, they are the waves that transport us on our expedition. The meat of the show lies elsewhere. (If mixed metaphors bother you, think of the poems as the gravy instead.)
The meat doesn’t lie in the sock puppetry, either, although this is a highly welcomed addition to proceedings. Nor in the show’s absorbing historical storyteller moments, where Jonny will tell us about the shipwrecked crew who survived thanks to their altruism and camaraderie, or the World War I soldier shot in the back by his own countrymen on Christmas Day, or the Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary – Jonny’s rolemodels, the men who epitomise manhood and Dadness. No, the meat of the show lies in Jonny’s more internalised, spontaneous conjecturings, his “less safe bits”. This is where he can really begin to grapple with the themes, and talk to us in perfect candour about his love for his sons, and the burden of responsibility he feels towards them. I walk away from this show with a lump in my throat. And I’m not even a dad myself.
If this was a moustache-reviewing website, I would have rated Jonny’s “Outstanding”, one other audience member’s “Outstanding”, several other audience members’ “Very Impressive”, and my own a “Very Poor Showing Indeed” – I shaved mine off just two days ago, although to be honest it never really made it above a “Middling”.
If this was a music-reviewing website… Jonny knows four chords on the banjolele, uses these four chords in the same sequence to back most of his poems, and hilariously has the same riff pre-recorded for when his hands are otherwise occupied. He does play a teensy dinky little accordion at one point too (I mention this because I know one person who will only go and see shows with accordions in them).
But it’s neither of these. It’s a fringe-theatre-reviewing website. I would highly recommend this show to a Fringe audience. It may not be a no-holds-barred extravaganza, it may even be a little unpolished in places, but therein lies a great deal of its charm, and Jonny has a good running joke about what the show could have been. Our Captain is an endearing host, a highly accomplished wordsmith and comedian, and an honest everyman with some pertinent and universal questions on his mind.