Edinburgh Fringe 2012
AnimalParts Theatre Company presents “Tenderpits”: a powerful one man show that is physical, comic, sad and poignant. The writer and performer, Anthony Johnston, takes you on a journey from his childhood in Canada to his vibrant experiences in New York. This clever and surreal work deals with fantasy, perception, denial, fear and death.
Two stuffed toys sit in a restaurant. The waiter appears and attempts to take their order. This is our first encounter with Anthony’s world as he punctuates the repetitiveness of such a mundane job by repeatedly asking the same question. He becomes almost manic as he jettisons around the stage, at one point goading then strutting like a petulant Mick Jagger. He begs us all for money, and when a kind hearted audience member acquiesces, he rejects it. He then dissolves into a moving scene where he tries to tell something important about himself to his parents. You can sense the tension as he prepares himself for their reaction, then he surprises us all with his declaration.
A large screen behind flashes childhood images of family, and he as a small playful child, when playing make believe was acceptable. He boasts to the audience that he can perform all sorts of magic, and is cheeky and spoilt whilst doing it. Beginning in Canada, he tracks his journey across the wilderness where, nearing exhaustion, he is saved by a mystical moose. Arriving in New York, he is reborn in the City of Opportunity. His sexually adventurous nature involves him in dangerous role play but soon becomes absurd, when in the midst of pleasurable writhing, he takes phone calls from family members. These calls appear regularly throughout this work and are a call for him to face reality that a family member is very ill. At these points, Johnson dons a wig and depicts a whiny bossy sister who predicts his downfall, tells him horrible things are happening, and demands he stops everything and returns to the family home.
Becoming a waiter, his life is enhanced by meeting other immigrants whom he clearly admires for their ability to overcome hardship and remain positive in this hard city. They philosophise together and the screen provides us with comic yet profound footage of their adages. It’s this admiration and the seriousness of illness that overwhelms him. Both elements providing the percipience that leads to a public outburst at a Chekov play and confrontation in the restaurant.
Johnston is mercurial on the set and his energy is boundless. At one moment he is adult and then childish. He is for the most part half naked but for a nappy, and claims to have conquered various computer games – this achievement only possible if he wore the nappy and took no break. He blurs fantasy and fact, but there are points when you feel he is exposing a truth, particularly in his conversations relating to death. The mobile calls and depictions of a nagging sister are sublime and he seamlessly blends into different characters to tell his tale. His Grandmothers’ influence provides sentimental moments, she sends him an important newspaper cutting that shows she understands him, yet it is her illness that he avoids and the returning to home.
The whole work moves at quite a pace; the only short breathers for the actor come when his Mexican waiter provides food for thought. It’s enjoyable and awkward – a grubby set with few props is peppered with erratic flashing lighting changes, but he moves us around the set with just a chair or sleeping bag to take us to the theatre, restaurant or his bed. We witness the subtle connections between the cherubic image on screen of him as a small boy playing (where fantasy is encouraged) and the frustrated adult whose sister insists he return answer questions. I loved him at his manly best when posturing as a rock star, roaring about the delights of consuming the human body.
Anthony Johnston is as completely likeable as he is fragile; jumping between being sexually promiscuous to the nonsensical babble of wizardry and it’s up to the audience to put the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle together. I left wanting to know more about him, this huge presence on stage, and on meeting him after I was surprised how gentle and slight he really was. If you like your theatre to challenge you and provoke discussion then this is certainly for you.