Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Jack Klaff uses tales of theatrical tyranny as a springboard for a wider discourse on human discourtesy and the choice we all have to be selflessly disobedient. A very amusing and provocative hour which this reviewer paid to see again a few days later.
Do not be late for Jack Klaff! Before the show even begins… while the audience are queuing outside in the drizzle… Jack is chatting and shaking hands. We are let in and he places a voice recorder and a clock on the stage. He says the recorder is because he wants to know if he’s quoted correctly, although the real purpose is of course for Jack to listen to the show again later, in case some of his ad-libs are brilliant… and sometimes they are, especially when there are late-comers. (Do not be late!)
Jack quotes a comment made about his performance – "he looks like he’s making it up" – and he does indeed both make it up and look like he’s making it up when he isn’t. He paces a little in front of the stage, and hands out imaginary £20 to the audience. Who is on the £20 now? Who was taken off by whom? The show hasn’t even started yet, and already the concepts and the names are dropping fast.
Jack Klaff is hard to define – which is part of the point. It’s not exactly theatre, nor is it stand-up, and while there are elements of both in his performance, Klaff is first and foremost a story-teller. Bill Hicks and Ken Campbell come to mind, although Klaff is more serious. Not that he isn’t funny, but laughter is not the measure of his performance. Like Bill and Ken, Jack is on a mission – his moral purpose is to reveal some uncomfortable truths about the world and us in order to make both better. He’s also great company for an hour.
The show is called Jack the Knife and tonight, if you believe the publicity, the theme is theatre – and Jack Klaff will be committing career suicide by spilling the beans on this godforsaken profession. Well, no he won’t. There are no damaging revelations about Assembly supremo Bill Burdett-Coutts for example, and though we all know who he means the fear of Mel Gibson’s lawyers perhaps prevents Jack from actually naming him. The nearest he comes to biting off any contemporary industry hands is when he makes a general dig at the BBC for being brainless and spineless. There is a sprinkling of stories of how he’s been mistreated during his life in theatre, but they all seem to derive from decades past and don’t come across as bitter or self-indulgent, more as authentic tales of how shitty some people are in theatre as in the wider world. Though he regales us with plenty of stories of theatrical tyranny – the stage is just a metaphor for the world, and Jack tells us his real theme is "disobedience coupled with selflessness".
With restless energy he talks in a rush, an intelligent and commanding flood of stories, memoirs, references, impressions and one liners, while he paces the stage back and forth and tottering side to side. The effect is discomforting, particularly in the front row of the unlovely Assembly supper room, where the stage lifts his shuffling feet almost to eye level. He seems out-of-control of his body, but thankfully he occasionally slows the tempo and stills the frenetic movement to make important points, even kneeling to get down closer to our level, perhaps in a selfless act of disobedience?
When he wants to he demonstrates actorly tones worthy of an RSC star (think Patrick Stewart) – his demonstration of how to voice the wall in a Pina Bausch piece was a revelation, and some of his take-offs of thesps past are deliciously accurate – as in the dialogue between Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. It’s a shame his Hitler is not a better impression, as he puts into Hitler’s mouth some interesting comments about how to slice services like a salami, so thinly no-one notices. His Blair too is a bit odd (but then so was/is Blair) but his Gordon Brown was spot on.
After an entertaining and thought-provoking hour flitting from the Holy Grail, Adam and Eve, Prometheus and perhaps a hundred or more other names introduced (Alec Guinness, Sarah Siddons, Michel St Denis, Ben Zander) and dozens of stories told, the show builds (or meanders to) a final section in which the names are some of Jack’s relatives and close acquaintances and the abuse described is worse than any mere theatrical discourtesy. Even here, Jack never strays into self-indulgence and the ending is affirmative and uplifting.
"I wish I was one of those artist (like Kafka) who leaves you to work it out" Jack says near the end, and he quotes "It should be like an ice pick, an axe in the frozen sea within us." Well, he needn’t worry. After seeing this show first time it stayed in my mind but I was struggling to write the review. "I’m a bit of a complexity junkie" he says, and while I’m hardly a dimwit myself, my first viewing of the show left me feeling as if I’d missed the point. So five days after seeing it on a press comp, I paid to see it again (actually I got another press comp, but I did pay for half of my friend’s ticket). I’m glad I did, as it was nice to see the show from another angle (this time the auditorium was nearly full and I sat near the back). I found it to be as entertaining and as thought-provoking and as fresh a second time around, and this achievement totally outweighed the minor reservation I had had about the irritating effect his pacing, which I even began to see as a deliberate conjurer’s trick designed to direct the audience in one direction so Jack could all the more effectively take them in another.
Despite his being awarded a Herald Archangel last week for his contribution to the fringe over many years, Jack Klaff is not an artist who has arrived, but one who is seemingly in transition, still exploring the very form of story-telling theatre itself. After first seeing Jack the Knife I had intended to give him 4 stars, but since the show rewarded a second viewing a few days later it deserves an extra star. My final thought is that if I had to choose any 3 guests for a dinner party, Mr Klaff would be a candidate to join Buddha and Hitler, although it’s doubtful who would pace and talk more – Jack or Adolf – while Buddha calmly ate all the pies.