Oxfringe Festival 2012

Music, Comedy, Drama, Dance, Literary & Outdoor events.
Various Venues all over Oxford, Wed 30th May - Sun 10th June 2012

June 7, 2012

John Hegley | Old Fire Station, 7 June 2012

Did you ever have a teacher who grabbed your attention by being funny and also a bit odd? Someone who you listened to, attentive and alert, because you weren’t quite sure what they were going to say or do next? Who made you join in when you didn’t really want to, but you were pleased when you did? No, neither did I. But John Hegley’s show is a bit like sitting in a big classroom confronted by that curious teacher-entertainer, someone who clearly knows a lot, has done a lot, and is happy to share a bit of it with you. As long as you sing along.

Hegley is the archetypal fringe festival performer, having cut his teeth on the alternative comedy circuit of the 1980s - and you get the sense that that he has basically busked his way through several decades of spoken word, poetry, silly songs and wry observational comedy. BBC3 he is not. Nowadays he spends a lot of his time doing workshops to get kids to engage with language and poetry, armed with a mandolin and an inimitable sense of the absurd.

And Hegley has deservedly won that unusual tag of "much-loved". His comedy inspires because it is both simple and surprising. The songs and poems are apparently childish, but they are often underpinned not only by a delight in language, syntax and rhyme, but also by wry adult observations. Whether extolling the merits of having a bungalow in Luton, the advantages of being an amoeba, or singing a love song (in French) to the potato, there is a gentle intelligence to everything he does. Yet he also creates a sense of intimacy that only a performer with years of experience - and a deep trust of his audience, as well as himself - can achieve. Now greying around the temples and dressed in a comfortable jumper, he’s more quirky lecturer than bright young thing, but the role suits him. Most people don’t really want to take part when they go to see comedy, but pretty soon everyone was adding the choreographed backing vocals which are perhaps as much for Hegley’s entertainment as they are for the audience's. Even the slightly grumpy-looking bloke at the end of our row was, by the end of the evening, happy to follow Hegley’s instructions in impersonating a guillemot. From tentative beginnings, the evening took on a fuzzy quality with everyone smiling, glad to be in Prof. Hegley’s class as the last lesson of the day.

As an added bonus, Hegley was aided on this occasion by that other uber-cool poet-comedian (it’s a small band) - Simon Munnery.  Also appearing at Oxfringe, Munnery is typically unassuming, his poetry sharing Hegley’s warm delivery and gentle wit. They make a great combination, and although the encore sketch was perhaps written over a quick pint before the show, both perfromers were wonderful in their own right.  Poetry lives on - and it’s wearing sandals and a cosy-looking cardigan.

June 5, 2012

Isy Suttie: Pearl & Dave | Old Fire Station, 5 June 2012

The other day, I was in the supermarket, on the bus, under a bridge, having sex, when this humorous anecdote really, honestly, genuinely occurred. Or occurred to me. Delete as applicable. That’s the opening of so many stand-up routines, and the porous border between a good story and a true story was very much on my mind as I left Isy Suttie’s Pearl & Dave.

The show is named after a supposedly factual correspondence, between Isy’s long-time pen pal, lonely accountant Dave, and his one-time holiday crush, bored housewife Pearl. That doesn’t sound funny, true or not, but Isy uses it as the jumping-off point for a delightful show that tap-dances across the line between funny and poignant. Part traditional stand-up, part well-delivered songs (accompanied by guitar music from the multi-talented Isy), we got to see Pearl & Dave’s weird long-distance relationship blossom alongside anecdotes about Isy’s own love life- from constructing a papier-mâché penguin that tried (and failed) to save an ailing relationship to sifting London vomit-patches for omens.

At times, it feels like a meditation on the different kinds of love that people look for, and the differing (deviant?) places they find them in. Just when the funny songs have you laughing, the gear shifts into something more thought-provoking. Will Pearl & Dave manage to salvage something from two lives of quiet desperation? Telling both sides of the story, with voices & songs that really feel like you are hearing two different but true personalities shining through, Isy had the audience mesmerised.

Isy’s a fantastic performer, with just the right mix of quirkiness and vulnerability to charm the audience. One minute she’s milking her disastrous dating history for laughs (one relationship is described in positively Old-Yeller-like terms) the next she seems touchingly open, telling us that for the first time in her life, she’s actually in love. There’s no sense of pretence or performance here- when the audience laughed at an astrophysics-based punchline, we got a cheer from Isy herself: “Thank you Oxford! They didn’t laugh at that one in Maidenhead- because they don’t understand SCIENCE!” Occasionally this backfired- a bit about visiting Wales (complete with comedy voices) felt more like a friend’s holiday anecdote than a stand-up routine. But they're a very funny, likeable friend, so we’re willing to sit through it.

In the end, I don’t know whether Pearl & Dave’s story is "true"- and perhaps I’d rather not. Comedy is at its funniest- and at its most powerful- when it walks a thin line: close enough to real life to care about, distant enough to laugh at.

June 5, 2012

Contractions | Burton Taylor Studio, 5 June 2012

Contractions started life as a radio play, and this suits it to the Burton Taylor's intimate confines. It's written by local boy Mike Bartlett, alumnus of Abingdon School and now a playwright of some renown. Although adapted successfully for stage it remains small, not perjoratively but technically: it's just 50 minutes long, with a cast of two. But it covers such a range of emotions it seems much bigger than the sum of its parts.

It's set in a dystopian office, and consists of a series of short scenes, all interviews between Manager and Employee. The company is very strict about inter-worker relations and any event, act or relationship of a romantic or sexual nature is forbidden without express permission. It's in the contract. The play explores the developing relationship between Emma and her colleague Darren.

Darren never appears, but his views do: in a pivotal scene Emma admits she and Darren are having "a relationship of a romantic or sexual nature" and is asked how the sex was. She expostulates this is none of the company's business, but the manager insists. Finally Emma says it was good, and is immediately told Darren said "excellent". Could they compromise on "very good"?

Emma (Charlotte Salkind) has a hard role, portraying the whole gamut of emotions, from competent (occasionally outraged) worker into madness and despair. Her Manager (nameless throughout) is almost aggressively calm; icy and robotic whatever is thrown at her. Lucy Fyffe plays this role with beautiful comic timing. It would be quite fun to do this as a two act play: the second act would be the same play but with the actresses swapping roles. Salkind and Fyffe could probably do this standing on their heads.

The BT was perfectly suited to the play, small enough to create a common atmosphere, so you feel what others are feeling. Together we slipped almost imperceptibly from nervous laughter to belly laughs to awkwardness and almost the pricking of tears. For me this play says more about Big Brother and how inhuman and loyal companies would like their workers to be than about the nature of love and sacrifice: don't go expecting a soap opera!

Converting a radio play can often lead to slightly static scenes, but by keeping things very simple and an excellent use of sound effects to show time passing, the tweaks I'd make would be very, very minor. The play itself is a slightly odd mix of realism, unlikely actions (not least Emma acceding to ever more unreasonable demands), working conditions that belong firmly in the last century, but an emphasis on sales figures that's more recent. I was intrigued by the ratio of two actors to four directors, but the broth was not spoilt at all.

No play is ever perfect. But this one is subtle, quirky, and excellently acted. This is student drama at its best. You can see it all this week, in the early slot at the BT.

June 3, 2012

A Comedy of Errors | Oxford Castle, 3 June 2012

The Oxford Students’ ‘play in a day’ production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors was the last act on Sunday’s schedule at the Castle Quarter, and because of delays it started half an hour late. One of the major issues was the weather, with rain soaking the plastic ground sheet in the open air venue. The production was introduced as ‘one of the slidiest productions of Comedy of Errors you’ve ever seen’, and they weren’t wrong.

The concept of ‘play in a day’ or ’24 hour productions’ is that the cast is only given their scripts 24 hours before showtime. It works best when the story is well known and the dialogue is written specially for the performance. Most will go with modern language and a narrator, but this version used original scripts, meaning that actors had to carry a copy around with them.

There was some brilliant ad-libbing as actors forgot their lines. But equally there were some obvious faults, and breaks in dialogues when people turned pages were a tiny bit distracting. Ultimately, these performances are about having some fun with a play, rather than delivering pin point performances.

One thing’s for sure though; everyone was going to get wet. It was showering intermittently all day, and while there was a marquee, it was open-sided. The actors made use of the slippery floor, skidding and sliding all over the place. Fair play to them for making the best of an unscripted turn of events and being prepared to get messy.

Another thing that should be mentioned is the food. There was at least one scene with a cast member being hit with a baguette, and another where they had a cheesecake thrown down their back. Actors sneakily licked their fingers between lines. A bottle of Lambrini and a couple of cans of lager were also consumed over the course of the play. They could be method acting, but it was possibly not the most professional approach.

The whole production could be summed up by the last scene (when twins separated at birth finally meet). In order to achieve it a mask of each actor’s face was printed and held on a stick. Actors swapped places in order to deliver each line of dialogue, swapping signature items of clothing in order to do so. It was by turns tiresome, hilarious, bewildering and brilliant. If you get the chance to see a 24 hour production, I’d definitely recommend it.

May 31, 2012

Flamenco Puro: Amarita Vargas & Guests | Simpkins-Lee Theatre, Lady Margaret Hall, 31/5 - 2/6 2012

Having been to Barcelona and seen Flamenco in the country it originated in, I was expecting a fiery heated affair full of sharp and energetic dance and music, however I had a somewhat different experience in Oxford at the Simpkins Lee Theatre last night.
On arrival, the stage looked sparse, with just four chairs laid out for the performers. The musicians and dancer took to the stage, the musicians sitting in a line facing the audience, the dancer in front of them. This (admittedly, traditional) arrangement felt a little uncomfortable to me in this theatre context. For the first song there was a long Spanish guitar piece to which the rest of the group clapped accompaniment whilst looking (somewhat nervously, it seemed) around the auditorium and at the crowd. Things picked up on the second piece though as Oxford-based flamenco dancer and teacher Amarita Vargas (www.amaritavargas.com) danced, the guitars played and cante flamenco vocals were slowly introduced to pick up the Spanish flavour. I was surprised though how little dancing appeared during the evening, with Vargas only dancing during four of the pieces. With few other visual stimuli on offer, I personally would have enjoyed much more dancing (perhaps even in pairs, though this isn't traditionally part of flamenco puro) to add to what was billed as ‘exuberant, fiery flamenco’. To me this session seemed much more informal - like a juerga (Spanish jam session).
The two men on guitar were clearly very talented and passionate about the music as their fingers swept effortlessly over the strings of their guitars producing wonderful melodies. They even joined in the baile (dance) stomping of the feet at the finale. The male singer also had talent, and reminded me of a Spanish Tom Jones with his deep passionate vocals adding to the guitar’s rich sounds.
On the whole the music was fantastic - however, as a show, I think it could do with a bit more development on the visual side, with maybe some more striking lighting and more dancing to bring out the passion which flamenco is famous for.

Sarah Archer's Constant Craving at the Turl Street Kitchen gave me and my husband an hour of laugh out loud comedy - and by the way, it takes quite a lot to make me laugh out loud! Sarah meanders through observations about our materialistic yearnings. Very insightful, original and funny. The show is going to the Edinburgh Fringe later this year. Well worth going to. The last night is Friday 8th.

I'd like to second the review below - I really enjoyed this. The direction is clean and clear, and the two performances are excellent. Charlotte Salkind handled a demanding role exquisitely, and her descent into near madness was heartbreaking. Lucy Fyffe, as the Manager, was perfectly cold, dispassionate and composed throughout. The sparse, simple set also really compliments the starkness of the play. A couple of fluffed lines, which I'd put down to opening night nerves, detracted ever so slightly, but very highly recommended all in all.

This week, the Old Fire Station is home to a production of Tom Basden’s Party. This witty and engaging one-act play takes place in a garden shed, where five would-be activists gather to form their own political party. The group are firm in their beliefs – despite not being entirely sure of what these are – and the audience watch as they attempt to put together their manifesto.

Apart from some slightly forced movement around the stage, the cast were all strong in their roles, which is not always the case with amateur theatre. I must note particularly good performances from Calum Mitchell, whose puzzled interjections and awkward persona had the audience roaring, and Simon Halliday, whose fluid and laconic delivery really made the most of Basden’s quick exchanges.

I’d highly recommend seeing Party, a funny and enjoyable play, on at the Old Fire Station until Tuesday.

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