This August I went to Edinburgh as a writer for a project called The Sick of the Fringe. Commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and conceived by artist Brian Lobel, it’s a month-long programme that aims to inspire collaboration between science and the arts. I was writing ‘diagnoses’ of the festival performances I went to see, not straightforward reviews, but more issues-based articles exploring how things like human health, the brain, the body and medicine permeate our cultural consciousness. There’s a great article about last year’s programme on the Contemporary Theatre Review, and one about this year’s project on the British Medical Journal blog.
It was a fantastic, if intense, experience. I absolutely loved being at the Fringe, the wide-ranging types of performance I got to see, and the issues each show pushed me to consider. Our brief was to write about what we saw in a completely objective way, not to judge it on whether it was an artistic success, but to consider the issues it was trying to start conversations about. I found myself writing on all kinds of topics, including ageing, alcoholism, anxiety, childhood trauma, criminality, consumerism, climate change, dementia, depression, even why women fall in love with men on death row.
I was one of a team of writers, all of us with the shared mission to see and diagnose as many performances that were tackling health-related issues as we could. Links to my diagnoses on The Sick of the Fringe website are below, and my fellow writers’ diagnoses can also be found on The Sick of the Fringe website, under the ‘Diagnoses’ tab.
This review was written for the Londonist
Five musically minded men take on the task
Of using compact rhythmic, drumming, rolling verse
To tell a tale of trenches, battles, bombs and worse
In a 2012 Fringe hit that affirms war’s curse.
A shifting set of wooden planks and dirty sheets and screens
Conjure up an underground world where all’s not as it seems.
Our protagonist, an old miner by trade
Finds ways of coping in this dire, blood soaked maze
But a letter and bone shaking blast propel
Him, broken, into another kind of hell.
A series of puppets, operated by keen rods and hands
Join him on a terrible journey through a harrowing land.
Throughout, a guitarist in a Snow Patrol/Elbow style
Sings of the miner’s hopeless battle with death, his grim trial
Beneath the earth as reality fades, and all the while
Shadows and animation illustrate things truly vile.
At times the music drowns the narration, and the puppets’ hands lack attentive manipulation,
But, overall, this is vivid visual theatre for adults that’s unusual and engaging.
This review was written for This is Cabaret
Back from Edinburgh, with rave reviews up their tiny belts and a trail of crystal meth fuelled destruction in their wake, Boris and Sergey have returned to London for a series of adventures in the Arcola Tent and Soho Theatre. And who could resist the chance to spend an evening in the company of a pair of leathery characters with dubious eastern European accents, especially if they’re barely a foot tall?
Cabaret often creates a heightened world where colours burn a bit brighter and everything is a performance. Add puppetry to the mix and you get a show where the act of performing is laid bare more than ever. Our two hosts – handsome bunraku puppets stitched from slowly ageing leather – each require three humans beings to operate them.
The tiny stage is always surrounded by people, who all channel their focus and energy into bringing the foul-mouthed, devious brothers to life. One of the highlights of the show is the puppets’ self-consciousness. Throwing off the controlling hands of one of his operators, Sergey realises he is paralysed without her. Puppet existential crises are fascinating to watch.
On a chilly Saturday night in a half empty Arcola Tent, a somewhat tremulous audience is easily convinced by Flabbergast Theatre’s accomplished puppetry. There was never any doubt in Boris or Sergey’s stage presence, but there’s an awkwardness between the puppeteers and their audience as they improvise around invited interjections.
That said, the show is good fun and elicits loud laughs. The duo’s eccentric celebration of the golden age of Vaudeville features episodes such as Sergey balancing on a blood orange and then tumbling into a sea of thumbtacks; Boris doing an excellent impression of Kate Bush; and a hapless game of ‘Puppet Poker Pit’ where Sergey manages to lose his soul. Despite their foul mouths and the slightly awkward atmosphere, Boris and Sergey clearly charm the audience. And this is no mean feat – they don’t even have eyes.
This article appears in the Sept issue of Kitchen Garden magazine.
Anyone who keeps an allotment knows that these much loved, shared patches of land grow gossip as well as food. For a green fingered comedian, a vegetable plot is a perfect place to harvest new material. This summer two comic musicians will take their rich pickings to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, where they plan to woo Fringe Festival audiences with vegetable themed tales of love, slugs and skulduggery.
Jo Stephenson and Dan Woods keep allotments at opposite ends of London. Jo grows her own in Harrow, north-west London, while Dan tends the earth in Honor Oak, in the south-eastern edges of the city. They met a year ago at a ukulele night and realised they had allotments in common, as well as music. They’d soon planned an album and a show of funny songs, all linked to their vegetable growing exploits.
We meet at Jo’s allotment and she gives us a tour. It’s a little rough round the edges, but charming with it. She shares it with her flatmate and they’ve been gradually cultivating more and more of the plot over the last four years. A festering bucket of comfrey leaves – which they squish into foul smelling but effective fertiliser – adds a faint whiff to the air, but overall it’s a sweet spot.
This summer they have the likes of Jerusalem artichoke, broccoli, pumpkins, leaf beet spinach and strawberries growing. The carrots and celeriac haven’t gone well, but her potatoes and shallots are thriving. Dwarf French beans are slowly clambering a wigwam of poles with a Union Jack flying from the top. Jo loves fruit and has cranberries and blueberries growing in an old bath, alongside a couple of young pear trees, green gages and a quince. A rusty old wheelbarrow is filled with pretty nasturtium plants.
Dan’s had his allotment for six years and Jo accuses him of being competitive. He declines to comment. His carrots are certainly doing better than her, admittedly feeble, attempt. He’s currently growing potatoes, beans, courgettes, chard and has a much loved strawberry patch. His plot is on a hill and boasts wonderful views of south-east London.
Jo describes their ‘Can You Dig It?’ show and album as a collection of anecdotes and chat, combined with a series of songs. The conversation quickly turns to Alan Titchmarsh and a love song composed in his honour. “People do really seem to fancy Alan Titchmarsh” says Jo. “His wax work in Madame Tussaud’s has to be cleaned most often because people are always caressing it and having their picture taken by it. He’s an unlikely sex symbol.”
John Innes features in another song, a sinister one about murder and mystery on the allotment – a recurring theme it turns out. “It’s me”, confesses Dan, “I mainly write about death. There’s a song about John Innes, wondering why he’s in everybody’s compost – he’s potentially dead and in bags.” There’s another song about a very competitive gardener, who kills off his main rival by growing the world’s hottest chilli and feeding it to him. And there’s one about an evil pigeon that eats red currants and also comes to a sticky end.
Another song, taken directly from Jo’s allotment, is about the curse of a giant marrow. She explains. “I arrived on site one day to find a handmade sign that someone had clearly put effort into making. It said ‘to whoever stole my giant marrow, I hope it does you no good.’ So we have a song called just that, and it imagines the story behind the sign. My idea is that this was a curse, and that the thief comes to a tragic end.”
One song they feel might be highlight, simply because it’s one of the silliest, involves a rap between ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ and a slug. As Jo and Dan describe it, they decide Dan (who will be a hoody wearing slug in the live show) should crawl on the floor and do some slug break dancing during it.
Alongside the silliness, the pair believe they’re tapping into something people really care about. “Can You Dig It should definitely appeal to lots of people – growing vegetables and musical comedy are both very popular at the moment” says Dan. There’s a kind of ‘zeitgeist’ around vegetable growing these days. Why does he think that is?
“It’s an antidote to our hermetically sealed existences, where people drive around in air conditioned cars to air conditioned shops and offices. This doesn’t make people happy, but being outdoors does. Also vegetables in supermarkets are rubbish – everything is grown for its storage and transportation properties. Everything on the allotment is useless at being transported or stored but tastes great.”
Dan and Jo keep urban allotments and I wonder if they feel such spaces have particular importance? “They’re fantastic and unique and we’re so lucky to have them. They’re protected by law, otherwise this valuable land would have been built on” Dan enthuses. Both clearly care a lot about the land they look after.
At the end of our tour of Jo’s allotment, we meet a tiny plant that is very close to her heart. “Our friend John makes musical instruments out of gourds. He’s given us some seeds and we’re trying to grow him some gourds that will eventually be made into a banjos. They’re very slow growing and the gourd has to dry out for about a year – but when they’re ready they’ll be beautiful and sound brilliant.”
With Jo dressed in a strawberry printed 1950s prom dress and Dan in a three piece suit, they sit on the end of the flower bed bath and play me a tune. It’s about a patronising older gentleman, who gives Jo constant and unwelcome advice. The sounds of the ukulele and the accordion mix with the birdsong, and I wish I was going to be in Edinburgh to see them in action. Thank goodness they’re planning a tour.
‘Can You Dig It?’ plays daily at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh throughout August. Find out more and buy tickets at www.can-you-dig-it.co.uk.