We’re heading into another Fringe-packed weekend at Perth Arts Live, with six shows planned on the horizon! But first, let’s take a look at two shows we sandwiched in between weekend 1 and weekend 2: Ben Russell in The Tokyo Hotel and The Road That Wasn’t There.
I first took notice of Ben Russell at the Blue Room a couple of years ago with Weeping Spoon’s 2013 production of Trampoline. He played a few different walk-on characters in that one, and was absurdly funny. Some things never change: Ben Russell is still absurdly funny.
He takes us inside The Tokyo Hotel, a run-down joint that’s seen better days and better celebrities than the has-beens and weirdos that inhabit it now. He’s the hotel manager, the hotel piano man, a housekeeper, several elevator operators (including Caligula and Werner Herzog), and I’m not sure, maybe half a dozen other guys, I lost count. I was too caught up. I was too busy wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes. I was too busy checking in on the stage manager to see if she was tearing her hair out.
Russell’s material is sharp, and his style follows in the footsteps of some of the best absurd sketch comedy of our times; but make no mistake, he’s a one-man comedy band, doing all the sketching himself. And he’s pro enough to let little spontaneous, improvised moments happen without ever letting the show be derailed. He knows when to let a joke simmer for a couple of beats while the audience’s snickers turn to giggles, then to belly laughs. He slips in and out of character like a chameleon, but he always stays in touch with his audience, keeping his eyes and ears open for reactions like a stand-up does.
He’s got a door and a chair that serves as all the set he needs, the rest he mimes. His stage manager should be given a medal for managing the crazy light and sound cues and personalities on stage. He uses a few props, not least of which is one of the oldest in the book: the Groucho glasses. These he sticks on upside down to play a b-grade actor talking about his most famous role, Double-Nose.
It remains to be seen if Russell can make his catchphrase, “What a p*ssy guy!” a thing, but one thing is for certain, if I had another 9:30 slot free before the end of his run, I would see this show again. I know no two nights will be the same.
Ben Russell in The Tokyo Hotel closes tonight, Jan 30 @ 9:30pm
Trick of the Light‘s The Road That Wasn’t There rounds out Summer Nights’s trilogy of family theatre with a dark fairytale told through shadow play, puppets and song. The New Zealand-based company joins Fringe World for the second time, after presenting their highly popular The Bookbinder at Fringe World 2015. The Road That Wasn’t There, written by Ralph McCubbin Howell and directed by Hannah Smith, has travelled the world, so it’s a good thing they’ve got a portable set made out of cardboard boxes and small paper shadow puppets. With just a few tricks of light, they create a shadowy world straight from yesteryear that takes you on a journey to places you can’t find on normal maps.
In this world, a poor young girl (played by Elle Wootton via puppet) sets off to another town to find work as a seamstress, but stumbles upon a path to somewhere else completely with the help of a special map and a mysterious drunken man who points the way. She travels the previously unseen road to a town made out of white paper, where the people appear like cartoon sketches, everything’s pristine and picturesque, everyone is welcoming and friendly, and love is found in the theatre. She falls in love with a young man named Walter (Oliver de Rohan via puppet) there, and goes back to the paper town every day instead of going to her seamstress job in the other town, which soon lands her in trouble.
Her parents discover she hasn’t been going to work, so she runs away from home. She decides to go back to the paper town permanently, but can’t find the magical path this time, so she hurriedly draws her own map to get there. Only, once she arrives, things are much, much different; everything is the opposite of what it once was. Her love interest, Walter, is now Retlaw, and he tries to force her to stay against her will. At last she makes her escape, but learns that she will forever be stalked by Retlaw, unless she can find that old map that took her to the right paper town where Walter lives.
This spooky little story sits in the middle of a “real world” where a young man has to go back home to take care of his mother, who is behaving erratically, stealing maps all over the region. She explains her behaviour to her son by telling him this story of her girlhood, the story of the young seamstress. Dubious at first, he slowly begins to become enchanted by her tale, and in the end comes to terms with his mother’s penchant for wild fabrications.
On the whole, this is a finely crafted piece of family theatre. The shadow puppets are gorgeously wrought, the fairytale itself is neatly rendered, and the aesthetics are harmonious and pleasing to the eye, like looking into a sepia photograph. There are plenty of laughs in amongst the haunting other-worldliness, and lots of New Zealand local colour. Though the story within a story is a good premise, it may be just a few scenes too long in execution, and we might not need as much present day set-up as we’re given. The songs interspersed though the action are lovely interludes, and the puppetry is an excellent way to jump time and worlds.
The Road That Wasn’t There runs 27 – 30 January & 2 – 6 February at 6pm (and 4pm on 30 January), for audiences 10+