Friday, 22 August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe 2014.
Twonkey's Private Restaurant
Fringe Guru Four Stars.
As the ship’s wheel draped in underwear reaches the furthest corner of the room… yes, you did read that sentence right. There really is a ship’s wheel, it really is draped in underwear, and just as it reaches the furthest corner of the room an uncomfortable silence descends. “If that music were longer,” observes Mr Twonkey, “it would make the act look just a little bit slicker.” He’s right – but making his act look slicker would entirely miss the point of this inexplicably compelling show.
Mr Twonkey – real name Paul Vickers – is something of a fixture at the Edinburgh Fringe, and this year’s instalment of his absurdist ramblings is as impossible to categorise as it’s always been. Perhaps it’s comedy, though there are few out-and-out jokes and they’re all truly terrible ones. Perhaps it’s cabaret; there are certainly plenty of songs, delivered with passable tunefulness and undeniable flair. But it is, in the end, just indefinably Twonkey, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Vickers’ character is itself an unmistakeable presence, clad in a bizarre combination of a faded dress-coat and a chef’s hat. We are, after all, in Mr Twonkey’s restaurant, and he duly introduces us to the remainder of his staff: an avaricious cat, a stuffed-toy lion and a clairvoyant, whose predictions are both very specific and spectacularly wrong. I venture to suggest there are few other Fringe shows where you’re invited to have your mind read by a pair of knickers, or randomly asked to insert your hand into a hollowed-out pumpkin. On the night I attended, the pumpkin seemed to like it.
At times, you suspect it truly signifies nothing. But then suddenly, there’s a heartfelt song about how Mr Twonkey’s wife was stolen by Mussolini – it makes a kind of sense in context – and you realise there’s a real rawness there, a real pain. Like the best nonsense poetry, the meaning is elusive, but feels only just beyond your grasp. Search for it if you want to, or just sit back and gasp at the unadulterated strangeness of it all; either way, your night will be both oddly entertaining and utterly bizarre.
Vickers’ blundering with props occasionally tried my patience – I’m sure it’s intentional, but it’s easy to go too far – and, at risk of over-analysing the whole experience, his constant fiddling with an iPod didn’t exactly help willing suspension of disbelief. So there’s a part of me which still can’t believe I enjoyed this wilfully lo-fi brand of storytelling… but if you let yourself surrender to it, the surreal nonsense that defines Twonkey’s Private Restaurant might just point the way to a slightly more joyful world.
Time Out Four Stars.
Mr Twonkey has the lolloping gait of an ageing dungeon master, the fusty wardrobe of a man reliant on charity shop cast-offs and the face of a potato. He speaks, almost exclusively, in epigrammatic statements, the logic of which originates from some dark place within the Twonkeyverse. He also sings. Or rather, wails like he can’t help it – with spluttering passion and closed eyes. He comes across a bit like David Bowie, except he doesn’t have the looks, or the slick production, or the magnetic charisma, or the anthemic songs. That just leaves the pomp and the nonsense, which, luckily, are the areas in which Mr Twonkey excels.
The word ‘strange’ tends to lose its meaning in Edinburgh. Ostensibly, it’s strange that this show works so well – it’s a dog's dinner of unexpected, absurd, even offensive content. But it’s also a classic Fringe show; a steaming pile of twaddle which feels right at home in this rainy city, and which, if you brave its depths, will leave you simultaneously shaking your head and grinning ear-to-ear. So who is Mr Twonkey? And should we be afraid of him? In that distant land, ‘real life’, he’s the character creation of Edinburgh’s own Paul Vickers, a musician who was once a favourite of John Peel, and who has released several albums of messed-up pop songs with his current band, The Leg. Since 2010 he’s also been on the Fringe, using his comedy alter-ego to stage absurdist kids’ shows-cum-cabarets, with typically batshit songs throughout. He is harmless (probably), though fond of a dark nursery rhyme and a challenging sexual concept. In this way, his act falls somewhere in between the dry, deviant poetry of Hilaire Belloc and the smutty northern showmanship of Vic Reeves. It’s a good place to be.
The show – which this year is loosely themed around cooking – comprises snatches of peculiarly resonant verse (‘The world didn’t end when you said it would. But sometimes the hand goes missing in the glove.’) Nods towards the psychedelic spookiness of classic kids’ TV (‘Oh look, it’s afraid o’clock!’) And moments of sex education (‘A wank is as harmless as a single cigarette. But a steel shoulder fisting can be as deadly as anthrax.’) All delivered with the help of a puppet called Chris Hutchinson, a bank of budget sound effects and a collection of questionable props. At one point a ship’s wheel is produced, covered in Primark knickers. At another a member of the audience is invited to fist a pumpkin – at which point an eager bald bloke leaps up and slams his hand into the gaping gourd. Mr Twonkey gazes on, unmoved. This is serious business, not an opportunity for stag do exhibitionism.
Take a step back and what you’ve got is an overweight bloke in a chef’s outfit singing daft songs. It’s all credit to Vickers, therefore, that when you’re faced with his ‘sexy ship’s wheel’, festooned with affordable lingerie, the impulse is not to recoil in confusion, but to lean forward and grab a pair. Point being: surreal comedy isn’t half as easy as it looks. To get it right you have to fully believe in the world you’re creating, and be generous enough to teach others its language.
Sometimes, little bits of established wisdom do seep in, like the famous Dolly Parton quote: ‘It costs money to look this cheap’. It seems incongruous when it’s used by an ogre holding a flea-bitten puppet, but (as with everything in this show) the sense is buried in there somewhere, deep down. Over the years Vickers has perfected a form of expression which is wholly his, and it’s taken a lot more time, effort and money than you’d think. Here’s another quote from the show, this time a Vickers original: ‘It takes guts to be wrong.’ Again, he’s right. The Fringe is packed out with performers attempting to find bold new directions. It’s a braver man, however, who lets go of the wheel entirely. Or covers it in pants.
The Scotsman Four Stars.
What a delight to enter the inexplicable world of Twonkey. A red and white hot-air balloon flies over our heads. Fortunes are told with a ship’s wheel and some knickers. And we watch a German woman fisting a pumpkin.
Mr Twonkey, aka Paul Vickers, aka former front man of indie pop band Dawn of the Replicants, is a one-off. Wearing an old-fashioned black and red frock coat and a squashed chef’s hat, Mr Twonkey invites us into his restaurant for an evening of refined dining and entertainment. His characters are a moth- eaten Seventies lion, called Chris Hutchinson, a very hairy lady who has no name, and a revolting ragged cat called Hanratty. Twonkey fumbles with his puppets, attempts ventriloquism spectacularly badly and tells a bizarre and mind-boggling tale involving time travel, Mussolini and a disastrous dinner date.
There are lots of new songs. Vickers is in fine voice and he is more musically eclectic than ever before. He performs a duet with Hanratty, who sings in Italian, he croons a love song to the puppet lady, there is a Spandau Ballet-esque number and a Hawaiian-style remix of his popular song Hot Beryl. He even attempts a dance routine – jogging backwards and forwards across the tiny room, trying not to get out of breath.
There are, he says, very few jokes in the show. But there is something naturally funny about Mr Twonkey. If you get it you will laugh and laugh. If you don’t, you will be completely confused and slightly terrified. The trick is to sit back, relax, stop worrying about what any of it means and allow yourself to be carried away by a sublime cloud of nonsense. Once you tune in to Radio Twonkey there is no going back.
In the same way that Cheers is the bar where everyone nows your name, Twonkey’s is the one with a maitre d’ who knows where you live. Serving a clientele consisting of of “lost backpackers, the demented or murderers”, we’re welcomed into the surreal world of Paul Vickers. Clad in 19th century charity shop chic and a chef’s floppy hat, he’s operating a tiny balloon which, if you suspend disbelief, is central to the plot of tonight’s tale of time travel, puffer fish and dictators – the inedible in pursuit of the unfathomable. Or something.
It’s a musical with a difference – a string of strange set plays and stranger chat and decidedly sinister props, and when all three come together, well, that’s where the music comes into play. We’re served up duet between Vickers and gruesome rat / cat / head chef hybrid Hanratty, then a love song for what might be a lion called Chris and a unnamed hairy-arsed ‘green lady’ who isn’t, we’re told, all that keen on humanity.
Terrifyingly for the backpackers (though maybe less so for the murderers and demented present) there is also audience participation – a ship’s wheel festooned with Primark knickers from which Vickers divines the audience’s recent love trysts (and, eventually, becomes entangled in). There’s also pumpkin fisting (happily, not an euphemism)
The thing is, the tunes stand up as in the same way that even his most left-field material with Dawn of the Replicants and The Leg contained chart-friendly pop hooks – albeit done karaoke-style on this occasion, with accordion and off-kilter rhythms more likely to trouble a top 40 in another world where The Residents are kings of daytime radio.
But yes, Twonkey’s is the restaurant at the end of a parallel universe where a “hot beryl” (half beer, half gin with a Hawaiian-style pineapple in it) but whose effects wouldn’t rival the hallucinogenic properties of Twonkey’s musical menu.
Come the end the backpackers are sated and the demented are in fine fettle, and more than wiling to pay the suggested Free Fringe donation of a fiver – a punch in the mouth the other option offered by Vickers but seemingly even the murderers present have been entertained, or baffled, into submission.
And lets not forget those Four stars from Broadway Baby earned at Brighton Fringe back in may.
This show is mind-boggling from start to finish. Mr Twonkey (AKA Paul Vickers) dressed up, messed up and fessed up to looking a bit homeless. It was a dialectic of the believably unbelievable. During the first song, a hot-air-balloon containing ‘Sophie the Aeronaut’ was swung from a stick and Mr Twonkey’s mic cable propelled props off the table. We glanced sideways and raised our collective eyebrows.
The atmosphere changed from nervous to pure confusion and on to an acceptance of the crazy and quirky antics of the Private Restaurant. The hodge-podge of props, costumes, and strange songs played on Mr Twonkey’s mp3 player felt like the stuff of a primary-school kids party. Any stiff upper lips were determinedly creased into smiles as the nonsensical performance unfolded. Hanratty, the disgusting, balding cat/hyena/racoon, was full of surprises. He talked, sang (sometimes in Spanish), made squelching noises, and generally made his views known whether or not Mr Twonkey got the microphone to his whiskery mouth in time. Mr Twonkey’s other two side-kicks, a lion-jockey who bore an uncanny resemblance to him and a green… thing… with legs, chatted and flirted. If anything, they were a tad more conventional than Hanratty and Mr Twonkey .
From the song Ooooh Trifle, which consisted mainly of those two words, to the more lyrical Hot Beryl; Half Beer, Half Gin, the music was absurd to say the least. Anyone with sensitive ears or perfect pitch be warned. Even if you don’t enjoy the music, you certainly won’t be able to help yourself sharing Mr Twonkey’s enjoyment. He closed his eyes and danced like a stag at a karaoke club. If you’re lucky, you might get to clutch a pair of Primark knickers or get intimate with a plastic pumpkin. Anything’s possible…