Oxfringe 2009

127 music, literature, comedy and theatre events in this year's bigger, better Oxford Fringe Festival.
Various venues, Wed April 1st - Mon April 13th 2009

April 13, 2009
Inflatable Buddha: Bigger than Jesus! with The Bold'n'Spiky Poetry Show
North Wall Arts Centre
Fri 10th April

Tonight’s entertainment was composed of two discrete parts: a performance poetry routine and a gypsy-ska gig. This rather strange coupling is, I think, explained by one of the poets being the lead singer in the band, but one act bore no relation to the other. And just as the two differed in content, so did they differ in quality, for though the latter was a good bit of leg-stompin’ fun, the former amounted to an unfortunately damp squib.

Let’s get the bad bits out of the way first. The Bold ‘n’ Spiky Poetry Show was a combination of performance poetry and stand-up comedy, where two (possibly intentionally) odd-looking characters ‘explored’ issues like love, sex and war through stand-up poetry. Our performers, possibly because they themselves felt the poems rather weak, kept interrupting themselves with little stand-up routines and jokes. These were, I will admit, quite funny in places, but it grated that they started off their performance with a routine taking the Mickey out of poetry shows in general. First off, making fun of performance poetry is like shooting fish in a barrel. Moreover, in this context it smacked rather of biting the hand that feeds. The overall impression was exemplified by the little picture on the flier for the show which showed the two performers standing cheek to cheek, one with his tongue out, through a fish-eyed lens: wacky, zany, edgy… forced?

Inflatable Buddha was a marked contrast, being a clever, genuine and all-round-fun performance. The four piece band, using a variety of instruments, regaled the audience with some leg-shaking good music. The style was potent brew of gypsy-ska, with a dash of klezmer and a twist of cabaret thrown in for flavour (it’s not as odd as it sounds!). The distinctive, light and accessible music was accompanied by natural and good-hearted stage banter which, in an amazing display of audience manipulation, managed to get people of their seats and dancing in the aisles. I’m sure you will all agree that that is quite an impressive feat.

All in all, I was very glad to see Inflatable Buddha, who offered an agreeable end to what was a rather weak first act. In fact, I found myself thinking about one of their tunes this morning.


April 13, 2009
John Hegley: Beyond our Kennel
Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda's College
Sat 11th April
One of the biggest treats of Oxfringe 2009 has to John Hegley’s Beyond our Kennel show at the Jacqueline Du Pre Building last Saturday evening.

I am not sure how to describe Hegley – a poet, definitely, but whether he would call himself a “performance poet” I am not sure – he does not fling himself around the stage as many performers do, every word is delivered with a more relaxed and casual air, rather like a slightly cynical head teacher dealing with the usual suspects. Not that his performance is at all jaded, he performs as though every piece is getting its first airing, even though several of them (Luton Bungalow, A-Z of Animals) have featured in his previous shows and devoted fans probably know them quite well.

That doesn’t matter – as he clambered on to the stage to rapturous applause, picked up his ukulele and announced “Right Oxford, let’s rock!” we all knew we were in for a good evening. It turned out to be a double treat, during the first half Hegley introduced George Chopping, a local poet who had the audience in fits with his tales about working for Sainsbury’s, his home town of Torquay and a train derailment that killed all the passengers (honestly, it was hilarious, but you had to be there to find that funny). Chopping returned again later to help Hegley with a sketch about camping and to provide musical accompaniment on a drum and spoons.

In the second half Hegley made use of the overhead projector to display some of his childlike sketches, animals and family were the main subjects and he reminisced about his childhood friend, an imaginary armadillo that slept beneath his pillow. It was a nice touch, there were quite a few children in the audience and animals and imaginary friends are subjects close to their hearts.

The other great bonus was the venue. The Jacqueline du Pre Building is small, it probably seats around 200, and the stage is raised high so you are guaranteed a good view wherever you sit. There are no side stage doors so performers have to walk from the back of the auditorium, past the audience to get to and from the stage. There is also some extra seating upstairs – and a very peculiar rule is applied; drinks are not allowed in the downstairs auditorium, but they are allowed in the upstairs gallery. The people who had drinks all balanced them – many of them bottles – on the guarding around the edge. One false move and they would have landed on the heads of the people below. My tip would be: always sit upstairs.

It was an excellent show; I hope he comes to Oxford again soon.

April 7, 2009
O, my luve's like a red, red rose
St Michael at the Northgate
Tue 7th April
Another woefully small turnout proves some of Oxfringe really is on the fringe. Nevertheless, St Michael at the Northgate provides enough atmosphere to make up for it, and the gap between audience and performers seems smaller when one doesn't outnumber the other too dramatically.

Allan Smith, the baritone, ably hosted this intimate gathering, singing the poetry of his fellow townsman Burns, with sensitive and receptive accompaniment from pianist Fiona Macleod.

The first half of the programme consisted of arrangements of the traditional melodies interspersed by some insight into the mindset of Burns when he wrote the words. Smith is a keen and earnest communicator, affably discussing what is obviously a dear subject.

His gentle bearing didn't prevent him striking out with bold and resonant tones when the music demanded it, and he wasn't afraid to enliven the songs with demonstrative body language - though he was capable too of a softness matching the piano, and in these quieter moments a sublime beauty was evident, the calm harmonies of 'Afton Water' being particularly moving.

The second half ventured into translations of Burns and more modern settings by classical composers, including inventive interpretations by Ravel and Shostakovich. The programme developed an increasingly educational element with snippets of the songs in their original settings juxtaposed with their translated reinvention by the classical composers, with plenty of Romantic sturm und drang alongside the plaintive yearning.

A successful and enjoyable recital all in all, and some welcome pastoral medicine to soothe away the strains of urban life. Stepping out onto Cornmarket Street amongst the caterwauling of teenagers wrapping their sugar-fevered faces around their burgers and each other, it was easy to sympathise with Burns's sentiment "My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here" - and I've never even been there. I like to think they don't have McDonald's.

April 5, 2009
Comedy Cubed: Suttie, Antopolski & Foot
Brewery Gate
Sat 4th April
Comedy Cubed, Oxfringe's comedic equivalent of the Goring 10K, kicked off with the superb Isy Suttie. Recently demonstrating her talent for character acting in Peep Show, Suttie is a warm and confident comedian, a talented musician, and most importantly, funny. She is of the show-and-tell school of comedy, with pleasingly disparate jumps between topics and no attempts to smoothly segue between them, instead being inspired to read out letters from her Mum, trade on the reliable hilarity of computer translation, and show us her songs, much of the material unearthed from her teenage days.

It's all as amusing as you'd hope, but the sharing nature of bringing out such personal material for public consumption also serves her purpose by warming the crowd. She noted how different it would have been if Martin Luther King had spoken of his dream about a penguin in a bowler hat instead of his more famous choice, and like him, her oratory was full of right choices. Unlike him, her words didn't usher in a new era of social change, so I'll have to limit her to nine out of ten.

Dan Antopolski, her touring partner, followed with a less sure-footed set. He equalled Suttie in confidence, but seemed to lack her quality control. Much of his humour stemmed from the fact that he wasn't being funny - that he didn't know how to end an embarrassing routine, or that he had gone on about one subject for too long, and generally employing a facial expression to get a sympathetic laugh in lieu of a genuine one.

Much of his material was great, such as excerpts from his novel and a rap about sandwiches, but it was diluted by the scripted ad libs and faked incompetence. Nevertheless, the good will generated by Suttie had the audience on-side, and I may have been the only one growing tired after ten minutes of his conversation with an imaginary worm.

That good will proved to be in short stock. Paul Foot headlined with a set of three lengthy routines, fantasies that grew ever more surreal and elaborate; observational humour about the frequency one sees a van, or the poor quality of meals in a B&B giving way to specially-designed 'vanglasses' and elaborately staged 'Red Indian nightmares' to terrorise the irritating guesthouse owner. These concepts were delivered with unabashed histrionics and plenty of simulated sex - as the haircut and bow tie forewarned, Paul Foot is not a man easily shamed.

This insistence that you take him on your own terms divided the audience into two factions - those going along with the ride, and those who had given up and inconsiderately chatted to each other instead, before drunkenly heckling towards the end. His early material was inventive for the sake of it, but as he relaxed, improvised, interacted and smiled more his set grew funnier. By the end, he had carved up the room quite uniquely - he had killed half of it, stormed some of it and rubbed his groin on the remainder.

April 5, 2009
The Art of Catastrophe
OFS Studio
Fri 3rd April
The Art of Catastrophe was a solid and enjoyable one act, one woman play, presenting a familiar narrative in a funny, powerful and highly compelling way.

The thrust of the play was the well trodden anti-businessman, anti-work-your-life-away American Beauty style disillusionment story. Our main character, Helen, presents a retrospective on her life, with particular focus on facets of her sad love life: a loveless marriage, being cheated on, meaningless sex and true love squandered. Sound pretty heavy? Well, to an extent it was. But it was also genuinely funny. It was, you guessed it, a black comedy.

And like all good black comedies, The Art of Catastrophe kept the audience on their toes with a compelling uncertainty as to whether what you are seeing is really funny. For example, in one scene Helen is talking to a funny little girl named Jude (both, of course, played by the versatile Rachel Blackman). Jude says many funny things. Jude says; “you know, if you had nice hair, you could get a boyfriend too”. It is funny and we laugh. But Helen doesn’t laugh, she is properly shaken. And we in turn are no longer laughing; we are uncertain on how to feel about that whole exchange. Very compelling indeed. The hour long play is full of these turns, where something really funny ends up not being quite so funny anymore. You are left conflicted, with knitted eyebrows and a smile dying on your face. I repeat, very compelling indeed.

However, not content with only being a one act, one woman, black comedy, The Art of Catastrophe is also very much physical theatre, set to the backdrop of some rather hardcore electro. To my mind there was a little too much physicality; though it worked very well in places, there were times where it felt forcibly inserted rather then being used as a dramatic tool to convey a point. Nevertheless, Rachel Blackman shone here again, for though she managed to keep her movements deliberate, they were in no way unnatural or forced. And while I’m praising her, I should say that her delivery of all four of the charicters was convincing, distinct and believable. Especially that of Helen, who was delightfully human despite being a right cold fish.

All in all, The Art of Catastrophe was solid, professional and convincing. Good stuff.

April 2, 2009
Exploring Oxford's Tradition of Fantasy Fiction
Corner Club
Thu 2nd April
Juliet E McKenna, our host for the evening, is part of a group of writers called 'The Write Fantastic' who aim to uphold fantasy fiction's reputation and generally spread the word to a public who sometimes dismiss it as idle escapism. This passion informs an evening investigating the influence of Oxford on four seminal writers who lived here; Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Philip Pullman. Unfortunately for her, the latter author was giving a talk elsewhere this evening, which may have had an influence on attendance - let's just say there were fewer heads here than there are surrounding the Sheldonian. But, hey ho, they were more animated and not nearly so old.

The lecture that followed gave us a whistle-stop tour of the lives and works of these figures - including a spot of myth-busting. Lewis Carroll, for instance, may not have been as shy and retiring as posterity would have us believe - this may, she suggests, be more to do with the perception of what fantasy writers are meant to be like. While some local influences are evident in a chapter of Alice in Wonderland, it seems he was more influenced by his frequent trips to Newcastle and Sunderland, with local legends and place names from those parts proving quite common.

Tolkien too, seemed more influenced by other areas, notably the West Midlands from his own experience, and of course the Norse and Germanic myth that inspired his mythos. Lewis drew on the stories he read more than his own life story and little of Oxford seems to relate directly to his writing. Still, even if Oxford didn't directly affect the words on the page, the academic culture must have helped those words get written.

McKenna suggests Pullman was greatly influenced by his time as a schoolteacher, meeting a diverse array of kids and realising they are tougher than they're given credit for. Oxford features prominently in his work, but a half-Oxford, colleges in the right places with wrong names, and all kind of magical things.

Ultimately, she suggests, it is not Oxford as a place that is important, but its culture of asking 'What if?' - a city full of strange juxtapositions and surprises, totem poles and college gates and science labs and birds and babes - a city where people go to wonder. But all that said, if you look round one corner in particular, a stone's throw from the Radcliffe Camera, you'll see a Victorian lamp-post by a door flanked by fauns. What if...?

March 3, 2009
Festival Launch & Preview
2nd March 2009
Oxfringe started in 2007 with just 2 events. This year they are playing host to 147 events across Oxford during the first two weeks of April. A mixture of drama (some of it from the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes), comedy, poetry and music is on offer and last night we were given a sample of all but the drama at the Brewery Gate pub in St. Thomas Street, which will be the venue for some of the comedy events. The Brewery Gate is just one of 27 venues being used for Oxfringe events. Brakspear have even brought out a new beer for the occasion, Oxfringe Ale.

Stand-up comedy often leaves me cold - I don’t find swearing particularly funny - and last night was no exception so I will move on. The two artists I heard may not be representative of what will be on offer.

Three performers/groups of performers played their music for us towards the end of the evening. Without detracting from the others, I would highly recommend going to hear Mol Hodge’s amazing voice, wherever she is performing. I also really enjoyed the introduction to the evening by The Horns of Plenty, a self-styled community street band. I counted 13 players, of whom 2 were drummers and the others all had ‘horns’ of various kinds. Great fun.

We were also given a taste of performance poetry by two poets, Laura King and George Chopping – witty and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed Laura’s poem about listening to someone breaking up with her boyfriend on her mobile and George’s Haiku about the woes of not locking your bike – there’s an Oxford theme I can relate to!

Full details are on the website www.oxfringe.com which has a very comprehensive performance list broken down into genres so it is easy to find what you want. They are still looking for street performers if you are interested.

Don’t you just love living in Oxford?
If you are aware of Frida Kahlo, or indeed if you are not, this intense flux of near perfect script, production and acting is a must for you. Brilliantly acted by Gaelle Cornec, this one-woman play goes through the mill of emotions that was the life of South America's most famous woman artist, encompassing the loves, beliefs and weaknesses that transferred themselves into her works.

Reproductions of two of her paintings stand with Kahlo on the stage throughout, revealed and commented on as her life history unfolds. It's a brilliant show - do go and see it. I promise that you will leave the theatre better informed and deeply moved, as well as hugely impressed by the sheer emotional range of this succinct yet highly charged performance.
It did what it said on the tin! We left the North Wall with big smiles on our faces, a spring in our steps and beautiful music ringing in our ears. There was a very good turn out indeed for what most would have expected to be a straightforward concert of familiar Neapolitan songs. We were in for a big surprise. The Neapolitan lyric artist Oscar Mancino treated us to a spell-binding show full of humour, magically theatrical in parts, with opaque textile partitions almost hiding from view the very talented bandoneon player, Jérémy Vannereau, who eventually sneaked out wearing a Pulcinella mask and got a big cheer from the audience. A rear projection of slides and video images of Naples, and a nostalgic extract from Vittorio De Sica’s film L’Oro di Napoli accompanied by Oscar Mancino’s composition for piano, helped set the scene, transporting us into the heart of Naples. Another surprise was that the songs were all originals, specifically composed for Oscar Mancino, and taken from his CD ’The Voice of Naples’.

Oscar Mancino’s tremendous voice, passion and artistry overcame the language barrier and by the time we left the theatre we felt we had known him, and the songs, for ever : Comme si bella Napule indeed, Maestro!
Indeed, as described, a selection of 60s performance art pieces delivered with deadpan panache to 70s disco classics by Albert Pantygirdle. It was hard to know what to expect from this, but perhaps we should have just taken the flyer at face value, as what we got was performance art crossed with 70s disco, with nothing more and nothing less. Albert Pantgirdle is clearly a man who sticks to his word and delivers what he promises. A man falling off a ladder to Le Spank by Pamplemousse; a rendition of an obscure composition entitled "Piece of shit" (with added disco); a cream cake in the face. Will these things make you laugh? If the answer is yes, as in my case, then perhaps this inspired and highly original show is the one for you. If you take your performance art too seriously, then maybe best stay at home and iron some fruit.
I don’t think there is anything I can add to the plaudits that Gael Le Cornec’s performance in Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida has already received. This one-woman show, which lasts less than an hour, is a whirlwind snapshot of Kahlo’s life, which reveals her as a tormented, talented and generous soul with a great love of life – despite being in constant pain.

Kahlo never had it easy. She contracted polio as a child and was taunted for her disability. Worse was to come – she was badly injured as a teenager in a road accident and her abdomen was ruptured. The injury left her in constant pain, something she often focused on in her paintings.

Kahlo twice married fellow Mexican Diego Rivera, a well-established muralist twenty years her senior. The two had a volatile relationship; Kahlo was often referred to simply as Rivera’s wife and was not recognized as a great artist in her own right until after her death in 1954. Diego was violent and often unfaithful, but the two seemed unable to live without each other and they remarried within months of their divorce.

Le Cornec’s performance touches on all of these areas as she tells us (between gulps of Tequila) that she has had two accidents in her life, the first being the road accident, the second being her marriage to Rivera. She goes on to guide the audience through her painful journey (which included Diego’s infidelity with Kahlo’s sister, several miscarriages and abortions as well as numerous operations), without any sign of self-pity, just a terrible sense of loss for the man she could never really call her own, and the babies she longed for but never had.

It is a spellbinding performance that seems to be over all too soon – although I do wonder how a different actor would manage in the role, Le Cornec is Kahlo, I cannot imagine anyone else being as brilliant.

One word of warning, the performance includes a certain amount of audience participation – so if that is not your thing, avoid sitting on the first couple of rows.
Kafka’s Dick, Allan Bennett’s literary, postmodern comedy of 1986, has become quite popular in the years since, and this was the second time that I had seen it. But on a second viewing, I became less sure whether this play is worth the revivals. Perhaps I was drunk the first time, when I enjoyed it so much?

The play has Franz Kafka and his friend (later biographer) Max Brod appear by magic in a modern-day, suburban English living room. The dull and harping husband of the house, Sidney, has just been discoursing to his wife about various literary figures, and in particular the theory that Kafka was psychologically motivated by having a small willy. Then Brod appears in a puff of smoke! Then Kafka! Then Kafka’s famously repressive father! The suburban intellectual poseur will now have to face the very historical figures about which he theorises. Different characters will go running out of the room, or come bursting into the room, just at the moment that a secret was about to be revealed, or a kiss exchanged. Hilarity will surely ensue.

At the same time, Kafka’s Dick dabbles in grand ideas - literary reputation, posterity – while keeping up the patter of light situation comedy and leaden puns. For me, it is a very awkward combination.

Of course, it’s up to the players to breathe life into the play, and last night’s production by the Old Gaol Theatre Company was rather hit-and-miss. Brod (I wasn’t able to find out the names of the actors) was assured, and helped set himself apart historically by keeping up a mock-European accent throughout; Kafka was funny (though unsubtle) with his face always alive, and his skinny frame nervously shifting; the suburban housewife was solid, and naturalistic. The best performance, for me, was the old dad, who is constantly worried about being taken away to a nursing home. The harping Sidney made a great effort to define his character, but his use of a psuedo-professorial “funny voice” to achieve this was by far over-done. After the first couple of minutes we had all got the message, so to persist delivering all lines in this voice for the rest of the play was needless and exhausting.

I enjoyed the finale, set in heaven, with a camp Saint Peter pointing out the other famous people to Kafka: “Look there’s Gandhi… ease up on the cheese straws Mahatma, you’ve got to watch your waistline!” I found it a relief when the script finally left behind any pretence to be “exploring ideas”, and just let itself go in irreverent humour. The whole Kafka thing had really just been a dramatic burden all along.
What starts as slightly stilted action between Steve Hay’s exaggerated Scottish bird-lover and Alexa Brown’s poised but irritating English model, soon relaxes into an engaging and believable discourse. Hyperbole being a key feature of A Last Belch for the Great Auk, the reason for this over-action of each stereotype becomes clear when we realise that the script is making slick and fast-paced switches between reality and imagination.

Brown and Hay successfully distinguish between their different ‘selves’, displaying an interesting progression in their relationship during the one act and providing what becomes a brief yet entertaining glimpse of our worst habits, our flaws, and our intolerances. The tangents of the ‘Great Auk’ and the life of a fashion model add to the comedy of Halliwell’s script, and allow room for the actors to enjoy the potential of this endearing and amusing piece. This potential could be extended even further with more climax, pace and variety, but MakeSpace provided a very convincing and amusing start to the evening.

The second piece is something of a comic highlight of the evening. Joe Graham’s Dancing to the Sound of Crunching Snails draws some real out-loud laughter from the audience, and utterly deservedly. The cast are impressively comfortable in their onstage interaction, making this a very involving piece. The comedy is non-stop and if at times a little tiring, this is probably because the limitless energy of the actors is tangible to the audience.

Graham’s polished script engages us in the more poignant moments and undercurrents of complicated family relationships enough to create some suspense, without allowing us to wallow. Although the direction could be made tighter by reducing some unnecessary movement onstage, the wonderful dynamics amongst the cast mean that this does not detract from the conviction of the play. The characters are endearing as well as brilliantly funny, and the variations in pace and tone involve us completely in the fluctuations through sincere emotion and light-hearted hilarity.

The evening ends with an entirely frivolous musical show, Gregg Opelka’s La Vie Ennui. Imagine the decadent glamour of Bohemian Parisian cabaret, minus a measure of glitz and plus a very dry sense of humour. The effervescent energy of the two stars is warm and charming, and their voices, particularly the silky tones of Fatiguée, are a highlight. Forgive the occasional dodgy French accent or contrived dialogue, and the endearing Dominique and elegant Fatiguée provide a sparkling show. The solo songs of the two stars are wonderful, with both showing off luxuriant voices and a striking power of expression – each moment is full of character. The wry bitterness of Fatiguée contrasts against Dominique’s relentless optimism, providing a touching human element to the plot.
I couldn't disagree with Kathryn more. I thought the stand-up the only good bit. I don't recall either of the comedians swearing, and I certainly didn't find their routines the least bit offensive or rude.

I really liked the large bloke who went on second. Really made me and a lot of other people laugh. I didn't think I would like the girl, but she had a few good lines, and the crowd really loved her. She was certainly much better than the poets, who went on too long. That said, I would have enjoyed the poetry if I could hear it - a lot of people were talking by the bar (where I was). At least the comedy was only interrupted by laughs.

Horns of plenty were good fun though people talked over them.

Overall the evening could have done with some chairs (but the free beer was excellent!).
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