Brighton Fringe 2016
‘Coffeeshop Girl’ was billed in the Fringe Brochure as – ‘Anthropology grad Joanie is stuck working as a barista. Much like Jane Goodall did with the chimps, this upbeat Miss studies her available subjects: the customers.’ So I was expecting a few jokes about how people have some animal characteristics, and maybe a bit about Jane Goodall (of whom I’m a huge admirer). But it turned out to be so much more!
The production is a full-on showcase for the multi-talented Rebecca Perry. This woman can do it all – stand up, storytelling, romantic comedy, physical theatre … and she’s a great singer too!
The Sweet Waterfront venue is in a large modern hotel with numerous conference rooms, and ‘Coffeeshop Girl’ used a fairly long and narrow one, maybe sixty seats, with black curtains round a stage area at one end. They’d set up a little counter with an espresso machine on it at the back, and there was a small table and chair at one side. Nothing else – but who needs more? This is minimal theatre, and Rebecca Perry proved quite capable of bringing the coffee bar to life in our imaginations.
In her show, she’s Joanie Little, an Anthropology student who graduated into the economic recession and can’t get a research post. So she gets a job in a Toronto coffee bar.
It’s early morning, and the customers are queuing for their coffees. Joanie classifies them into different jungle animals – slinky jungle big cats, timid indecisive deer, wild turkeys, zebra – Joanie spots all these species as she serves them, and she does great impressions of their movements and their speech patterns. Her voice goes shrill or husky by turns, and we can almost see the whole menagerie filling the stage: some hesitant, some jerkily demanding – desperate for their coffee fix.
Joanie’s boss at the coffeeshop is Gabe, who seems to have the character of a silverback gorilla – she comes from behind the counter to show him to us. Rebecca Perry is a talented physical performer, and as she leant forward, swinging her arms from side to side with exaggerated, ponderous movements and then took on Gabe’s deep, gruff voice, it felt like watching a David Attenborough documentary.
There are loads of great jokes – which I won’t spoil for you – and then who should come into the shop but the handsome newcomer who turns out to be … Marco. Now the show turns into a romantic comedy, as eye contact is made and hearts start to flutter. Joanie has red hair, of course, with the pale sensitive skin that blushes soooo easily – “When you’re a redhead, you’re a little on fire to begin with. You’re a dermic powder keg, basically!”.
Musical romantic comedy, that is. Joanie’s in love, so a piano track starts and she breaks into ‘Zing went the strings of my heart’. Perry has a really good jazz-singing voice, and gave this 1934 Judy Garland song a proper run. The song’s got lines like – ‘all nature seemed to be / in perfect harmony’, so it’s well chosen for the jungle coffee shop location.
The jungle connection continues in Joanie’s tiny apartment above the coffee shop, which she shares with Jane Goodall. See!, the Fringe brochure listing was correct – Jane Goodall is involved in this show – but you’ll have to see the show to find out how. Jane gives Joanie some useful relationship advice on how she should behave on her date with Marco (but Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees, remember, so you’re certainly not going to read that in this review …)
It’s a musical, don’t forget; so the next scene features an open-mic evening at Gabe’s coffee shop. This lets Rebecca Perry sing us some more jazz, and we became the open-mic audience. Joanie carried a stand microphone onto the stage, and proceeded to give us some coffee-themed classics from Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra. As well as the usual theatre lamps lighting the stage, they’d put a line of tiny footlights along the front, and these lit up Joanie’s face, as if she was in a club, as she sang ‘Black Coffee’ and ‘They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil ‘
At the end, Joanie and Marco are deeply in love, and their future may be opening up in front of them. Joanie has been offered a job in anthropology and her life has turned around totally. As she says – “My name is Joanie Little, but there’s nothing little about me. My story starts now”. The music came up again, and she gave us a haunting rendering of ‘Rivers and Roads’, from the 2010 album by The Head and The Heart. Unforgettable – it sent shivers down my back.
It’s totally unrealistic, of course – but that’s part of the attraction. ‘Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl’ is the perfect feelgood show. As we left, (after a lot of applause), the audience were smiling happily, and I know I wasn’t the only one humming ‘Rivers and Roads’ to myself.
Like all musicals and romantic comedies, Rebecca Perry’s show is frothy, bittersweet, uplifting and hugely satisfying. Just the same as coffee.