Lloyd Evans

Crossing the divide

Edinburgh theatre

Crossing the divide
Text settings

TV or not TV, that is the question pondered by Edinburgh every year. An unseen faultline divides the audiences from the performers. Audiences want to get away from TV while performers — especially comedians — want to embrace it. Les Dennis, who has done telly already, transcends the rift in his new hybrid show which combines drama, mime and cabaret in a way that would never work on the box. Certified Male (St George’s West) is the sentimental story of four businessmen on a bonding holiday in the tropics. Laddish humour abounds. ‘Cover that up,’ says Dennis’s mate as he bares his plump belly, ‘before Friends of the Earth push it back out to sea.’ This schmaltzy examination of male angst was drawing pretty large audiences.

As was Dylan Thomas, Return Journey (Assembly at Hill Street), performed by a brilliantly versatile impersonator, Bob Kingdom. Plump, ginger and stout, Kingdom bears an amazing physical resemblance to the pop-eyed bard who described his visage as ‘the face of an excommunicated cherub’. He performs Thomas’s anecdotes and poems with such simple and affable authority that it’s hard to believe you aren’t watching the man himself. Kingdom is a consummate actor and after acknowledging the applause for Thomas he loosens his bow tie and instantly shifts persona. Now he’s Truman Capote (the subject of his companion show at the Fringe). His Capote impersonation is exquisitely turned. In particular, he gets that frail needling lisp just right. Thomas and Capote shared an agent and perhaps inevitably they became rivals. ‘What is it with those Celts?’ bitched Capote. ‘They go from the nipple to the bottle without changing diapers.’

Richard Dormer, an outstanding actor, has written a new play, This Piece of Earth (Underbelly), about the Irish potato famine. Alas, Dormer’s acting isn’t matched by his writing. The fam-dram starts with two white-faced bumpkins clutching pitifully at each other, moaning, groaning, quivering, shivering and generally starving to death. An hour later, little has changed and as the lights go down, so do the famished peasants in a welter of mutual esteem. It’s relentless, and oddly unmoving. But I was delighted to see that the two fattest audience members gave it a standing ovation. Perhaps it meant more to them.

Another dose of Irishry at the Traverse. Enda Walsh’s latest work, The Walworth Farce, is about three fellahs from Cork holed up in a Walworth flat. Mum has died and they’re struggling to cope on their own. The zany trio are enjoyable to watch but when they kidnap a Tesco’s check-out girl and force her to become their cook the show instantly self-destructs. Our sympathy shifts towards the prisoner and away from the men whose jaunty bluster suddenly seems sadistic and unfeeling. Amazing that the writer didn’t notice this flaw.

At the Assembly Rooms, yet more Irish whimsy in the shape of Jason Byrne, a stand-up who specialises in improvisation. He has the sort of bland pliability that makes him TV rather than not-TV. Doubtless he’ll flourish there.

But if not-TV is your taste then the thing to see is Jerry Sadowitz — Comedian, Magician, Psychopath at the Udderbelly. Sadowitz has been consistently rejected by television, and this failure has freed him to create the funniest and most audacious piece of comic theatre at the festival. Physically he is alarming — an angel and a fiend in abrupt collision. Large features, plump lips, bulbous merry eyes and pre-Raphaelite curls brushing his shoulders. But his gut is swollen like Mammon’s, his voice is an Exorcist rasp mingled with axle grease and his observations are crammed with swearing. Everything he says is disgustingly, refreshingly true. During a conjuring trick he plucks a surprise ace from the pack and then glares at us with hostile relish. ‘Why’m I deceiving you like this? Cos I’m a f***ing malicious c**t.’ Of course. All magicians are. Hatred defines him. He reviles every other conjurer, every other comedian and every other outlet for entertainment, especially the Montreal Comedy Festival, Just for Laughs. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘just four. In the entire festival.’ No wonder TV can’t handle him. He prowls the stage wisecracking about Islam, homosexuality, disability and immigrants. Paedophilia awakens his sickest rages. ‘In my f***ing day we didn’t have f***ing paedophiles. We had to buy our own f***ing sweets.’ That’s the least unprintable of his kiddie-fiddler gags. The overall effect is thrilling and unnerving, as if a demented child-prodigy were rampaging through your sitting-room cursing, vomiting and spewing out devilishly lucid prejudices which your secret heart recoils from while at some deeper level assenting to. After an hour you emerge wondering, did I dream that? Haunting. Haunting and unforgettable.