Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen/The Donkey Show/
Cardoso Flea Circus/Puppetry Of The Penis
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2000

A number of offerings on this year's Fringe refuse to sit comfortably in any particular pigeonhole. This "novelty" perspective could, at its most extreme, even apply to Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Pleasance; venue 33), in which Balham's rumpled prince of ridiculous banter does exactly that. Of course, the banter still takes up the lion's share of this afternoon hour, ranging from George Steiner's views on American network TV scheduling to how expensive it is to hire a duck to appear on stage. Smith has a largely serviceable voice, especially for songs of this kind, but at bottom, there's a reason why Arthur's name comes before Lenny's in the title.

Seldom have I encountered such universal word-of-mouth raving from all quarters of the Fringe-going population as for The Donkey Show (Pleasance), an enjoyably ludicrous translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream into a '70s New York disco. Oberon's is a Derek Jarmanesque vision of Studio 54, "a place of freaks and fairies" in which lovers are deluded by psychotropic nose candy and a pair of identically dressed nebbishes called Vinnie are transformed into a single donkey-figure to pleasure the butterfly-breasted Titania in a "Cuban Superman" routine. The tale is almost entirely told by the characters singing along to disco hits, and the piece is more cleverly constructed than it superficially appears, but in such an atmosphere, hell, who's looking for cleverness?

As animal circuses decline in popularity on grounds of cruelty, it may seem odd that no-one bats an eyelid at Colombian Maria Fernanda Cardoso training her charges by tying them in wire harnesses and putting them in small glass tubes so that they concuss themselves whenever they try to do anything other than walk on all sixes. But then, her charges are the stars of the Cardoso Flea Circus (Edinburgh's switch2.net Garden Party; venue 50). The little critters' stunts are projected in extreme video close-up on a brace of screens flanking the stage of the Little Top in Princes Street Gardens. We see flea wire-walkers, flea trapeze artists, huma— er, flea cannonballs and so forth. She rewards her acts by letting them feed on her blood... but, as she points out, she lives off them as well. Her English-language patter seems assured, but her earnestness as she delivers it makes for a slightly odd combination.

The undoubted winners in the weirdness stakes, however, are the pair of affable Australians performing Puppetry Of The Penis (Pleasance). Put simply, this show does exactly what it says on the packet. The duo bound onto the stage and, after a couple of minutes, whip off their cloaks to stand completely naked, and proceed to manipulate their... well, their todgers and associated equipment... into a variety of unbelievable configurations. They do the Eiffel Tower, Ayers Rock, Gonzo from The Muppets. They do the Digeridoo, the Pelican and the Loch Ness Monster. They do the Australian coat of arms; they put a picture frame around the area in question and entitle it "the Duke of Edinburgh". Although the performance draws giggles, squeals and gasps of terror in equal measure, what really sustains it is the performers' charm. They manage to persuade us that this is a world away from gross Jim Rose territory, and just a bit of a laugh with whatever equipment is close to hand.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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