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Edinburgh Fringe 2011

Tim Key – Masteralut

Tim Key

Genre: Poetry-Based Theatre


Pleasance Dome


Low Down

Key (poet) takes us into a world we will never understand but he enlightens us about it anyway. This hour-long audience with Key is funny, fascinating and will blow you away.


In the third of the ‘slut’-trilogy, award-winning poet and shambles Tim Key builds on his fame by way of Russian ballads, stand-up, films, poetry and loads of talking about baths. Now before I start going into the analysis of this show, I’d like to tell you that Tim Key’s show is odd. Weird even. The 5 star-rating should mean that anyone would enjoy this show. This I cannot promise. Key is an acquired taste and while his references can be a bit obscure, the entire show has such an intense oddness to it, a sense that we are in a place that’s not-quite-there. The tone is somewhat reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s deadpan surrealism- had Lewis Carroll been a stand-up (which would have been unequivocally awesome). This takes some work from any audience, so I’d completely understand people who would not buy into his left-field performance-arty shtick. I also apologise for overusing the words -weird- and -odd-, since there are only so many synonyms in the world.

For example, in the pre-show, Key -clearly in character- is standing on stage, next to the bath, caressing a red fresia whilst the Pleasance people were leading the crowds to their seats. Then, after quickly speaking to the Pleasance employee, Key walked off, went backstage, then ran. A blackout. And he appeared again, not once, but twice. Then he goes through a complicated process of touching up the audience, without having uttered a word. If it doesn’t make sense now, it won’t make sense at the show, so don’t blame yourself.

Masterslut is not, as Key says, a play on the words -Mastermind- and -Slut-, it’s more of a Masterclass. A masterclass in being Tim Key. Like a very very weird ‘Audience With…’ , Key talks, cues his techie ‘Dougie’ for music and slides, reads some poems and tells anecdotes. These anecdotes tend to have strange pay-offs, including some of the most delightful black comedy I’ve heard in a fair while. But all anecdotes start off in recognisable mundanity, an interesting trick. These ‘real life’ bits humanise the ‘thing’ Key, since this destabilises the off-kilter quality to his persona. For instance, when Key references his brother, who is a proper person, only coming up to Edinburgh ‘to watch his little brother do his little play’, he does so with Luvvie-esque benign disdain. He cleverly juxtaposes the mundanity of his own life with the oddness of his poems and stories which all feature immaculately chosen music. Sometimes including some off-hand banter with ‘Dougie’, constantly destabilising the ‘performance’ aspect of Key’s show. I caught myself thinking about this idea, that part of Masterslut‘s oddness lies in its off-hand sensibility, its denial of it -being a show-, as if the REAL show was on somewhere else – but I preferred to be right where I was. And then there’s the bath. It’s quite huge, dominating the stage of the Queen Dome. Key teases the audience with what it will be used for, and his consistent flirting with some girls in the front row. He allocates an audience member for drying duties (don’t ask). He even goes as far as initiating an enjoyably tense improv exercise with the audience. ‘A girl’ keeps on returning in Key’s anecdotes, sneakily hinting at a crack in the persona, but this, again, is Key teasing us. Like The Boy With Tape On His Face, Key revels in the technicalities of audience-baiting.

Tim Key is a (poet), a good description if there ever was one. He’s not a poet in the classical sense. His meters are weird, his images banal, his rhythms far more stand-up than performance poetry.

Key acknowledges that he doesn’t know how his poems come to be. They just appear, he says, before leaving this strand, only to pick it up later in the show, with a 15 minute segment about the construction of a poem that failed half an before, deconstructing the creative process. This bit about the creative process is as enlightening as it is strange, since the slapdash seems to exist right next to the rigidly constructed. I had watched the show with a poet friend of mine, having invited her for her view on Key’s ‘craft’. After a short deliberation on Key’s structuring (“Proper noun…, verb ^ something, something”) we wondered whether he’d be able to make it on the Performance Poetry circuit. She was adamant: probably not. But his poems do contain a strong artistic voice, even if Key only uses them for (comedic) effect.

Key’s short films (all with that dreamlike quality that pervades Key’s poems and stories) are as impressive as the other set-pieces, sometimes used as the punchline to a joke, sometimes as continuation of narratives that get picked up and dropped whenever Key feels like it. These films- apart from one which has been on TV before- share Freudian ideas, linking to the theme of the unconscious and how the creative process works. Or maybe I’m just seeing things that aren’t there; you can never be sure with Key.

His persona is high status and playful, but at the same time somewhat unsettling. This may be because of Key’s voice, which jumps along in the higher registers, or the fact that there is always something off-kilter in Key’s physicality- as well as his rhythms. It makes one wonder, if Key decides to pack in the poetry (as he’s been saying in interviews), how would he do as a stand-up? How much does the addition (poet) do to justify the oddness of Key as a performer, lending him a veneer of respectability?

Even if he doesn’t continue writing poetry, Tim Key is as much artist as comedian and inspiring in whichever form he chooses. His hour was the only time this fringe I wished that time would break or move more slowly, just so I could see more. Key’s Masterslut is where art and comedy come together. As satisfying as anything you’ll see at the International Festival, funnier in more ways than anyone at the Fringe and deeply – at times –  annoyingly fascinating.