Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Jennifer has lost her arm in a tragic accident. The mysterious inventor offers her a robot arm, but at a cost. Father is delighted and Mother is filthy.
Twonkey (Paul Vickers) is an Edinburgh regular and somewhat of a hidden institution. His shows at Sweet Venues each year are like a Last Of The Summer Absinthe – he revisits the same routines and characters each time but always different enough to be worthy of another viewing. You know his one-man show is going to be nonsense, interspersed with bizarre meandering songs. He is an acquired taste (thankfully, I am a fan) but he is definitely not conventional. Given the shambolic anarchy of his stand-up shows (this year, he played ‘Twonkey’s Mumbo Jumbo Hotel’ in Grassmarket 3), the idea of him writing a musical, with a cast, and getting a five-star review from The Stage seems as absurd as his stories. But he has done so.
‘Jennifer’s Robot Arm’ is playing at Grassmarket 1, the largest space at Sweet Venues. The stage is free from any furniture or props and the backdrop seems to be made out of a few mis-matched sheets tacked up along the back. One is an ice-like abstract, the central one is a vaguely cubist representation of a kitchen in turmoil, and the one on the right seems to be full of photos and drawings. It makes little sense, and only the central one has any bearing on the show at all. This is zero-budget theatre and, frankly, I think it would fail if any money were spent on it. The Heath-Robinson nature of all Vickers’ work is part of the appeal and something he himself surely concentrates on.
Within two minutes of the show beginning, a woman has picked up her bag and walked out. Vickers gives a brief glance as she does so in a sense that is half-expected and half-victorious. The cast of four are in the middle of their introductory song. You have to wonder what she was expecting – and indeed what she thought of the spectacle before her eyes. She was either so disturbed or annoyed that she couldn’t even give the show a chance. I love that. That’s an achievement.
Vickers has given himself the smallest role, that of The Inventor. The show is a good halfway through before he even enters the story. Other parts are played by Ben Nardone as an unconvincingly-aged John Water’s lookalike Father, Simon Jay as the hilariously acidic, bitchy and camp mother, Pam, and Miranda Shrapnell as an (actually somewhat disturbing) gigglingly imbecilic raggy doll Jennifer. The daft, crude make-up and the uncomfortable humour instantly bring to mind The Tiger Lillies’ ‘Shockheaded Peter’.
Surprisingly, there is a plot – albeit somewhat absurdist. Jennifer is convinced that, like Pinocchio, she is made of wood. The nasty boy next door, Patrick Promise (who may well be an imaginery friend/fiend), tells Jennifer to cut off her arm with a circular saw to prove it. She does. She’s not. After attempts to fit a prosthetic arm fail, a mysterious inventor arrives with a fully-functioning robot arm for Jennifer. Everyone is delighted with it, but he wants far more money than they can afford. He chooses – with mutual agreement – to take payment in a quite different manner from Jennifer’s mother, Pam. Being a nymphomaniac, she is only too happy to accept. However, when it comes for the first installment to be paid, she is so disgusted by The Inventor’s appendage that she refuses to go along with it. He leaves, taking the Robot Arm AND their savings which were kept in a rare antique bowl. It’s only when it’s too late that they realise the value of the bowl (millions of pounds… it had something to do with Lord Nelson). The play has a happy ending – or as happy an ending such a twisted piece of insane Gothic could have.
Given Vickers’ Dadaist approach, it all hangs together rather well. Nardone is affable and possesses a very pleasant singing voice. His Father role is straight out of a fairy tale – everything is wonderful, he has no malice and loves everything and everyone. By total comparison, Simon Jay’s Pam is one of the most hilarious monsters you could want to watch. Not so much drag queen as drag slutty frump (think Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough as Cissy and Ada but with Lily Savage’s attitude). Everything he does is over the top and with filthy innuendo. His timing is perfect and this horrible creation needs a show of her own. In the lead role, Miranda Shrapnell sums up this show in her unique performance. She is full of energy and glee throughout and is clearly not what modern society would class as normal. She is in thrawl of the other characters and totally oblivious to her mother’s barbed comments. Seeing a young woman playing a child this convincingly in a story that is so askew and perverted, yet still being funny, is quite an unsettling experience. Vickers himself as The Inventor is an extension of his stand-up character, but with a bit of a sex-pest Wizard Of Oz thrown in (actually, that might not be that far away from his regular comedy). His acting is deliberately alternating between naturalistic and very wooden, everything being said with an unseen nudge and wink. His scene with Pam goes almost too far. It’s pretty unpleasant humour of the sort you’d expect a group of 13-year-olds to come up with. But they haven’t. Paul Vickers has. On piano, Pete Harvey deftly manages Vickers’ bizarre songs that, whilst not using prog rock obscure time signatures, undergo odd key changes and have lines that don’t scan or rhyme. It’s a sort-of trademark.
A lot of people are not going to ‘get’ this show at all. It’s Marmite. For me, it is a show of the skill of the writer and performers (and Jay as director) that deconstructs absurdism to a point you think is shoddy but you can clearly see by the professionalism of the performances is not. You will love it or hate it but you can’t ignore it.