Daily Archives: August 6, 2008

Surviving Spike

Surviving Spike
4 stars ****
Assembly Rooms
Venue 3

THERE’S A BIG, satisying showbiz metaphor at the heart of this fine Fringe production of Richard Harris’s Surviving Spike; and it goes something like this.  Imagine a situation in which there’s a big male star who attracts a huge amount of attention, both positive and negative; and in the background, there’s a feisty woman, who – although much less well known – is actually more than his equal, in moral and emotional strength.   That was the situation between the famously tortured and briiliant comic genmius Spike Milligan, and his lifelong secretary and manager, Norma Farnes.  And it’s echoed in the relationship between the super-famous Michael Barrymore, who plays Spike in this richly enjoyable production by Richard Baron, and the fabulous Jill Halfpenny, who, in the role of Norma, is the show’s driving force, and at least an equal part of the double-act on which it depends.

For what Harris’s deft and richly enjoyable script does is to tell us the story of the second half of Spike’s life as narrated by Norma, from the moment when she arrives in his office as a temporary secretary in 1966, to his death in 2002.   A brisk, sensible Yorkshire girl – played by Halfpenny wiith a gorgeously sexy, down-to-earth 1960’s charm, all back-combed blonde hair and smart backchat – Farnes soon established herself as the indispensable power behind Spike’s tattered throne, the rock around which he could swirl his manic-depressive moods tormented him.

To say that Halfpenny and Barrymore make a fine job of recreating this powerful, bantering relationship is to understate what they achieve; for a 100 minutes that seem to pass in seconds, they simply are these two compelling characters, locked together by the need to keep Spike’s creative show on the road, and to turn his wild comic genius into at least some hard cash.  Barrymore’s efforts to recreate Spike’s solo stage presence are less successful than the scenes with Halfpenny, and towards the end, the tone inevitably becomes a shade sentimental.  But even in its more predictable moments, this is a fine, professional piece of work by everyone involved.  And at its best, it’s a warm, witty and deeply humane tribute to a great unpredictable genius of British comedy; and to one of those unsung and unromantic working relationships that are often, in fact, the real stuff of life itself.

Until 25 August


The New Electric Ballroom, Terminus, Married To The Sea

The New Electric Ballroom
5 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Married To The Sea
3 stars  ***
Assembly Rooms (Venue 3)

TO JUDGE BY some of the state-of-the-nation plays on view in Edinburgh this year, Britain now sees itself as a nation tired of its 40-year experiment with a sexual and personal freedom, and frightened of its consequences.  Just across the water, though, in Ireland, there is a nation still consciously pulling away from a hugely repressive and joyless past, towards a future in which the soul and the sexuality can sing loud, free and clear; and it’s striking that these first three major Irish shows of the 2008 Fringe all use the metaphor of a singing male voice as a symbol of a creative and erotic freedom for which some Irishmen – and women too – would sell their very souls.

In The New Electric Ballroom – presented by the fabulous Druid company at the Traverse – that most explosively brilliant of modern Irish stage poets, Enda Walsh, takes us back into the heartland of traditional Irish misery, into one of those small, narrow fishing towns on the west coast where ageing bachelors and spinsters once lived out lives of starving sexless barrenness.

Walsh’s genius, though, is to give the story a sharp and specific cultural twist; his two ageing sisters, Breda and Clara, and their much younger sister (or unacknowledged daughter) Ada, live in a world shaped by memories of a single night in the early 1960’s at the New Electric Balllroom, when a hugely seductive male singer in the Presley mould broke both of their fragile, yearning female hearts. Like the family in Walsh’s Walworth Farce of last year – and even more like the old woman in Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire – the three remain trapped in their narrative of that evening’s events, re-enacted on Sabine Dargent’s superbly stylised grey-and-pink domestic set, with all the net skirts, bolero jackets, hairspray and lipstick of a 60’s dance-hall night-out.

All of this and more is magnificently conjured up, both  in Walsh’s poetry – which soars to fantastic heights, veering between rapid and hilarious ironic evocations of town life, and a dark, bitter erotic lyricism – and in a breathtaking series of performances from Val Lilley as Clara, Catherine Walsh as Ada, Mikel Murfi as visiting fisherman Patsy, and an utterly magnificent Rosaleen Linehan as Breda.  Walsh’s new contribution to the debate about Ireland’s past lies in his understanding – through the brilliantly-written role of Patsy – of the crushed sexuality of the men of a defeated place, and of the vital role of rock-and-roll, and American popular culture generally, as a vector of erotic and creative liberation from that defeat; and it would be an even finer play if Walsh had had the courage to maintain the spark of hope born when Patsy briefly finds his big singing voice.  But as it is, this is shatteringly fine theatre, directed by Walsh himself with an explosive theatrical energy that puts most British theatre to shame.

In Mark O’Rowe’s dark, gothic triple monologue Terminus,  meanwhile, a tortured male creature – a modern Irishman, mired in violence and disgust at his own sexuality – sells his soul to the devil in return for a beautifully seductive singing voice.  Staged by the Abbey Theatre of Dublin at the Traverse, O’Rowe’s fabulous two-hour poem for three solo voices, full of startling and witty internal rhymes, traces his impact – or the impact of the demon he becomes – on the life of an ordinary Dublin good-time girl on a doomed night out, and on a lonely woman of forty or so, on a strange quest to save the life of a pregnant girl and her child.

The sheer lurid violence of O’Rowe’s metaphysical vision is sometimes shocking, and includes a depth of sexual violence that takes the breath away.  But it seems as though this is the price O’Rowe has to pay for passages of extraordinary pathos and beauty, and, at one point, almost thunderous erotic release.  Karl Shiels is in stunning, vocal and theatrical form as Voice C, the man, Andrea Irvine heart-wrenchingly fine as the older woman, Eileen Walsh engagingly overwhelmed as the girl.  Sometimes, O’Rowe’s language doesn’t quite soar to the heights his story demands; there are elements of bathos, the odd cheap joke, some overwriting towards the end.  But the boldness of this show – staged in a dark, shattered picture-frame like some post-modern religious triptych – is astonishing; and at the end, the Traverse audience roared its approval.

In Married To The Sea, meanwhile – a richly enjoyable and thoughtful small-scale show presented by new young Irish company Dragonfly at the Assembly Rooms – young Jo, our heroine, knows that her family is in trouble when she hears her father singing a beautiful, seductive song of the sea, and a wild woman from the circus singing along with him.  Married To The Sea is a story about the decay and death of an ancient community, the Claddagh fishing settlement outside the walls of Galway town, seen through the eyes of a feisty little girl, as the breakdown of her parents’ miserable marriage reflects the gradual collapse of a closed and oppressive but intensely vivid way of life.

Shona McCarthy’s play, which she also directs, features an exquisitely generous central performance from Siobhan Donnellan as young Jo, although the effort to stage the story with only three actors leads to some slightly awkward Fringe staging.  And unlike The New Electric Ballroom, this show leaves us with a spark of hope at the end; for reconciliation with the memory of lost menfolk, and for a chance, at last, to listen to their song, without fearing  that its energy will shatter our world.

Joyce McMillan
The New Electric Ballroom and Terminus until 24 August, Married To The Sea until 15 August.
pp. 218, 236, 215