Brighton Fringe 2014
Radio 4 presenter and veteran Fringe performer Robin Ince opens up the more lurid sections of his home paperback library for our entertainment, and provides some fascinating insights into human nature along the way.
I was listening to Radio 4 the other day. Not to Robin Ince’s show, but to a man talking about the fate of discarded paperback books; apparently, a large number of them end up propping up the motorways that link our country – the communication of ideas now serving to aid the transportation of our bodies.
Surely, I thought, words have more value than that – surely there is other paper that can be pulped for those purposes, and these books can have a better burial.
Upstairs at Three and Ten this evening, a small selection of such books get a sending-off that their authors could scarce have imagined. The words are held up and scrutinised, venerated and twisted, and finally, majestically, tossed aside.
Robin enters the stage with a shrug and a grunt. He has just eaten an apple, and must immediately apologise to the front row for spraying them with bits of it. “Welcome to showbiz,” he intones. Showbiz is something Robin seems to eschew with a relish, for reasons that would become clear before long.
And then, with very little preamble, only the most cursory explanation for the uninitiated of what format the evening will take, Robin attacks his books. And Robin really loves his books. Well, it’s more of a love-hate relationship.
He treats his books as sacred objects on the one hand – caressing their pages, tactile and delicate, yet firm and secure – and with reckless abandon on the other – chucking them to the floor when he’s finished with them like so many worn-out socks. Whether knowingly or not, this handling mirrors fairly accurately the characters’ sexual treatment of each other in the various extracts he proceeds to read out loud. For, as made clear in the title, this is no ordinary Book Club. This time it’s Dirty.
If the idea of a bespectacled man in his mid-forties reading out loud from bad erotic literature doesn’t fill you with massive enthusiasm, you may not be alone. But this is no dirty men’s club, where we wallow in lurid sexual descriptions and fantasies. This is a precise surgical post-mortem of a literary genre. Robin strips strippers of their sexiness, and detitillates the tits and testes, leaving us unaroused but in orgasmic fits of laughter.
Robin has three modes. The first is when he is locked into a reading, delivered in whatever indeterminate accent he deems most appropriate, layering caustic intonation upon the trashy text, his slight pauses and emphases bringing to the surface all the author’s inconsistencies and unintended allusions. These readings form the centrepieces of the show, and there are several stand-out moments; the book about fantasies involving Sting, David Bowie and Duran Duran providing the richest material and sweetest punchlines.
The second mode is reflection-mode, when Robin seeks to address some wider social issues brought up in the extracts he shares – for example, the difference between male and female fantasies, or the way the authors subtly reveal moral standpoints (he points out, for example, that the perpetrators of pre-marital sex always seem to be the first to die at the claws of the giant killer crabs). His eyes, in these moments of reflection, dart about the room, seeking the next piece of inspiration, and as soon as these are received he flicks them back out with erratic gestures, shaking the thoughts loose of his mouth as his eyes search anew – never a moment of stillness. This infuses proceedings with an exhilarating pace.
His third mode is when he really lets rip, and these are the moments when he is his truest, funniest self. Near the start of the show, Robin asks for the lighting to be changed so he can see the books he is reading. This launches him into a wonderful impromptu diatribe against theatre. “It’s just a lot of pretending”, he says. “I saw a play once,” he admits. “Silly.” He says there’s no need for theatre now we have film, and loathes artifice of most any kind. He pounds the air with his forehead; his hands flail in exasperation; his voice peaks and there is no holding him back. Nor really any wish to: Ince expresses himself with such clarity and passion that he could tell me anything and I’d buy it.
Robin welcomes two guest acts to the stage, and gives two slots to each. George Egg is a likeable character with a kindly face, a thoroughly infectious good humour and a frankly terrifying approach to hotel catering. While chatting to us about this, that and the other, he inconspicuously sets up a dangerous balancing act involving some items commonly found in hotel rooms and, well, without giving too much away, the result was delicious, thank you. This is a fabulous sketch – not only rollicking and ridiculous but also educative and practical.
George’s later poetry reading is a little less successful, sitting uncomfortably in amongst Robin Ince’s more derisive renditions – George seeks for us to laugh with his poems, when our brains are tuned into laughing at prose.
Jo Neary is a sprightly, accomplished character comedian, who is very honest about using the evening to try out new material, all of which is promising, and she sure cuts a mean interpretative dance. She will occasionally berate herself for undermining her own jokes, which only adds to her charm. She does once ask our permission to do some old material, and her subsequent impression of Björk is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time, and marks her out as a performer everyone should be keeping a beady eye on.
Her second set falls into a trap not dissimilar to George’s. Here she does comic readings from found texts, as Robin Ince does, possibly in homage to his style but again sitting less comfortably beside it.
It was lovely hearing my good friends Pog being used as pre-show and interval music this evening, their joyful la-la-la-ing setting us up perfectly for the ride.
Right at the beginning of the evening’s entertainment (after the apple-spitting but before the virulent attack on theatre), Robin tells us that this will be the last time ever ever
that he is ever
going to do this show (he really does seem quite definite about that fact). So it really is a burial, which may well render this review rather redundant. But we know that this man has many, many books, and we can scarce imagine which tucked-away shelf he will dissect for us next time. I will be there, and I urge you strongly to join me – this man is a master of making the mundane mellifluous and the mediocre magnificent.