Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 7 May
Twisted Theatre

Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

You can tell when you walk into the Studio Theatre, with toys and cider bottles strewn between the instruments on their stands, long-stemmed roses and little plastic figures arranged on the tables, that this is going to be an unusual night’s entertainment. It’s a musical cabaret, with some acting and storytelling mixed in. It’s different, and I liked that about it.

The theme is nursery rhymes – the dark side. Twisted Theatre have investigated the historical origins of those familiar childhood songs and from that research, written original songs (and a couple of poems set to music) that illuminate those stories with a sense of humour and pathos. I must say from the outset that the music that forms the basis of this show is amazing. Lead singer and compère Nuala Honan’s voice is incredible. In the first song there is a section where she is wailing, in the character of a mother whose baby has died, and I felt chills down my spine. She’s also funny. I liked her eye rolling imitation of a decapitated head. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.

It’s certainly not all about the laughs. They allow the sadness of the stories to come through as well. The end of Jill’s monologue to Jack (styled as a series of text messages) is heartbreaking. And their retelling of “Pop goes the weasel” as a tale of poverty is moving both lyrically and musically.

Twisted Theatre
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

The troupe’s musical style reminded me of Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band, which is the highest praise I can give, but I don’t just mean that they’re good. The combination of instruments (cello, viola, violin, drums and occasional glockenspiel) and the blues style of singing had the definite feeling of a New Orleans jazz club, though the stories being told are thoroughly European. Though Honan very much led the performance, all the musicians are great singers as well as being excellent at their own instruments. There’s a brilliant section when the four women descend on the one man on stage, drummer Robert Burgess, ousting him from his seat, and the women proceed to drum altogether, with cellist Jessica Macdonald doing a fine job of leading the rhythm.

This is not a slick, neat show. In fact, it’s a little…rough. I got the impression that the cast know they tend to the chaotic and decided to make a virtue of that, and their plan worked better in some places than others. I loved the meat cleaver chopping celery (I mean, it was slightly scary, in a frantic crazed way, but it was also funny and impressively rhythmical) but the pantomime of the electric leads getting tangled every time violinist Elizabeth Westcott and violist Emma Hooper moved around the stage got a little bit tiring. It’s good to see that the cast are having fun and that they grasp that what they are doing has its silly side, but a tiny bit more polish might not hurt.

They will certainly have plenty of time to add that polish before the end of their run as this show is touring for the rest of the year. Do check for details of dates and venues. To get a flavour you can listen to their song “Baby plug hole” on Soundcloud. I quite fancy a second helping myself.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

A Switzerland of the soul blanketed in snows of peace

Death and the Penguin
by Andrey Kurkov
translated from Russian by George Bird

I first read this maybe six years ago, I think for a previous book group, so it’s odd that I remembered so little of it. I think I remember it being funnier. Or maybe I used to be more receptive to super dry, dark humour? I mean, I still think it’s a very good book.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, aspiring writer Viktor lives in a city tower block with his penguin Misha. Not exactly a pet, Viktor took in Misha when the Kiev city zoo starting giving away animals that it could not afford to keep. They have a sweet, bizarrely realistic co-existence. Misha shows occasional curiosity and less occasional affection for Viktor, but mostly stands stoically in the coldest corner he can find, staring into space. Viktor, despite being given every opportunity over the course of this story, is close to no-one and seems happy enough with that, in an apathetic sort of way.

Not that you can blame him for keeping his distance once the story gets started. There’s a reason for that “death” in the title. Viktor is hired by a newspaper editor to write obituaries of prominent persons who are still living. Which seems harmless enough. But facts in these people’s files and a few untimely deaths lead him to realise that all is not as it seems. At the very least, warring factions of the local mafia are very very active. And warlike. Viktor’s life is almost certainly in danger and it may or may not be a good thing that some powerful people have taken a liking to his penguin.

Most of the humour, as you can perhaps tell from the above summary, comes from the surreal situations, especially those created by the presence of a penguin. And it’s hard not to smile at the image of a penguin. Kurkov’s manner of phrasing is unusual and yet familiar, for instance: “Progress was terribly slow. Words refused to deploy in battle formation, sentences scattered, only to be slaughtered by irritable x’s and reformed.” Isn’t that lovely?

It’s also a pretty dark book. In a bleak, run-down sort of way. Here’s Viktor pondering his obituaries:
“The pure and sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn’t easy to remain entirely honest and upright. Today’s battles were all for material gain anyway. The crazy idealist was extinct – survived by the crazy pragmatist.”

The darkness of mood and subject matter mean that the occasional poetic phrase stands out as a beautiful, rare thing. Which is not to say that the majority of the book is not well written, but it is for the most part written in a matter of fact tone appropriate to its main character. For a writer, Viktor is not a romantic. Not most of the time, anyway:
“He suddenly had the sensation of being abroad, out of reach of yesterday’s existence. This abroad was a place of tranquillity, a Switzerland of the soul blanketed in snows of peace, permeated with a dread of causing disturbance; where no bird sang or called, as if out of no desire to.”
(Yes, even the poetic bits are downbeat.)

I was glad to find that I still liked this book, even if I had mis-remembered it a little, and I’m now looking forward to reading the other Kurkov books I have in my TBR.

First published as Smert’postoronnego in 1996 by the Alterpress, Kiev.
This translation first published 2001 by the Harvill Press.