Saturday, 3 July 2010

Exeter Fringe at The Bike Shed Theatre: 'Bloody Women' and 'Up the Gary'

Exeter Summer Festival is a curious affair, bringing together events at the city's main venues (the Phoenix, Cornmarket, Northcott, Barnfield etc) that would probably be happening anyway with a handful of set piece events such as the unleashing of Theo Jansen's strandbeest onto Exmouth beach and Princesshay, a craft fair on Cathedray Green and a party on the streets on July 10th.

This year it has its fringe - 65 productions by 20 companies in the 11 days between 23rd June and 3rd July at The Bike Shed Theatre with tickets mainly a fiver a pop and six shows from noon til midnight to choose from. It is a shame that the main festival organisers didn't see fit to give it more publicity in their programme, because it brings together a wide range of productions, many by innovative and multi-cultural touring companies who wouldn't otherwise pass through the city and includes comedy, music and dance as well as drama. 

Circumstances did deny me the opportunity to see most of them but last night I did what fringe goers do: turn up and catch what happesd to be on, knowing no more than the single line synopses that tag the posters that have been pasted up around town. And what I got was two productions that you'd rarely see booked at the same space, let alone back-to-back on the same evening.

'Bloody Women' is described as 'An epic tale populated by sexually depraved goddesses, witches, a dog-boy, warriors, a stoic wife and a lot of blood - Ulster myths dragged kicking and screaming into the present.' It began its life as a one woman show by Emer O'Connor but Kerry Irvine of Scenepool's direction and production has added an extra dimension with Charlie Henry on cello and vocals delivering Irish folk songs that give the dramatically realised folk tales haunting counterpoint.

The Ulster myths that inform the production are made present not so much by political subtext as an examination of the power of women in myth and society using archteypes of the mother, the daughter, the witch, the seductress and the warrior. The interlinking texts are delivered with real physicality and in direct and beautifully pitched language as ceremonies of retelling involving washing and blood and the laying out of circles of grain as an arena in which magic can happen. And it does.

The pitch for 'Up the Gary' - 'from top of the pops to the bottom of the barrel, the rise and fall of an ordinary Gary Glitter tribute artist - would seem to have more popular appeal as the Bike Shed filled to capacity and the glitter beat began to rock the house. Written by Andrew Barron with Jessica Beck this one man show delivers all that you might expect but less than it promised. Setting itself up as a very English comedy of embrarassment, the piece delivered on entertainment of the nostalgia for nostalgia kind, dealing nimbly with the rise, but was a missed opportunity to take-on audience expectations, by being clumsy in playing out the fall. For many in the house, the climax seemed to be karaoke Gary as he blinked wide-eyed into the spotlight. Plenty of pathos then, but not enough bathos to get beyond The Stars in their Eyes and into the private lives of the impersonated and impersonator and how the former brought both opportunity and tragedy to the latter.