Edinburgh Fringe 2009
With a title few can pronounce and an inspiration (Geoffrey Chaucer) few can recall, the odds seem stacked against this two-hander in which two actors play a multitude of farmyard storytellers for an hour. As it turns out, Dougie Blaxland’s astonishing Chaucerian language including lines like “you shall not splatterspunk me” and “bye-byes to his strut cock-cosity” is placed ravishingly in the mouths of Tim Dewberry and Abigail Unwin-Smith who give performances as funny and focused as anything you’ll see at the fringe.
Every so often a show comes along to remind us why we became interested in the theatre in the first place. Staged in a space which is nothing more than a bunch of chairs in a room with curtains round the walls, and with a title which begs the reader to mispronounce it, Chauntecleer and Pertelotte seems unlikely to do more than mildly amuse. But, as staged by James Bounds and movement director Kate Sagovsky and as performed with astonishing energy and seeming ease by Tim Deweberry and Abigail Unwin-Smith, Chauntecleer is in that category. With only subtle lighting changes and no sound design the entire show is two people and a block of wood talking to us and each other in multiple characters about the daily (often perverted) antics of a bunch of chickens.
That this is, at least linguistically, the dirtiest show in town should not surprise anybody with any knowledge of Chaucer. Writer Blaxland unleashes a tornado of juicy vernacular in which every body part, function, secretion or desire becomes poetry. A penis is a “poke sizzler” or, more usually, a “glee machine”. A face is described as looking like a “burst arsehole”. One character dismisses another with a withering “Thou speakest from thy hole.” And for good measure maybe half of the whole text is in iambic pentameter. Yes, this is the ideal show for the smutty intellectual.
Tim Dewberry, tall, striking and with a voice straight out of PG Wodehouse, handles the cadences with such ease that were he reciting railway timetables we’d still know what he meant. His brow glistening with sweat, the energy with which he plays his eccentric assortment of characters cannot be overstated and his RADA vowel sounds reassure us throughout that the substance behind the words never dims. Abigail Unwin-Smith, with the beaming sexiness of Emma Thompson and the talent to match, exudes warmth and familiarity – not just with her co-star but with us – which is irresistible. Together, this absolutely sensational pair of actors are able to simultaneously wow us with their technical precision (the imprint of the director and choreographer’s imaginations never flags) and also with their naturalness. For a show to look highly directed and yet completely spontaneous – both in movement and language – is a remarkable achievement for which director James Bounds deserves considerable credit. With such a challenging text, this would be the easiest show in the world to do badly. He jumps the hurdles of this production with consummate skill and wit.
Ones eyes and ears are constantly focused on the material placed before us and frequently amused by it. This is an extremely funny show and the fact that it is self-evidently not a commercial piece adds to ones pleasure at being part of a select group who gave this astonishing piece of work a try.
Go and see it. Whether you know Chaucer or not, whether you like watching chickens have sex or not, this show is a wow.