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Theatre Funhouse: Fringe Festival: Ian Curtis Wannabe a Joy at The Only Bar
2 June 2011
Everybody seems to be in agreement that Aaron Turner is storming it in the acting honours in The Only Bar, Alan Mercieca and Robin (Dance Animal) Henderson’s collaboration over at the Diffusé aux Verres Stérilisése watering hole on Rachel-St Hubert.
The play, about a swarmlet of bar-flies in a last chance saloon, is tootling along nicely with the odd song here and the odd boozy maxim there, when, half-way through, Turner’s tanked-up, ego-fuelled punkster crashes the party. He’s Fritz, a peanut-brained yahoo who thinks he’s God’s gift to the chicks and to rock history. He hates on the other customers, kicks male-female relations back to the Stone Age, then launches into a song he seems to have ripped from an obscure Billy Idol b-side, accompanying it with his own deranged version of that strange St Vitus dance the late Ian Curtis used to do with Joy Division (the actor was pleasantly surprised when I grabbed him after the show and told him I got the reference, but hailing from Curtis’ home town of Manchester does give me the advantage). It’s as big and brash a performance as I’ve seen for a long time and deserves a show of its own.
The rest of the play was enjoyable enough, and the authentic pub setting adds to the fun, what with the conversational buzz and the occasional drunken holler wafting in from the other bar area. I particularly enjoyed the songs bemoaning the actors’ bad dancing and bad singing when actually they were pretty good. But I didn’t feel Alain Mercieca (who co-runs Le Nouveau International at Theatre Ste Catherine) was firing on all cylinders here. A review from the Charlebois Post blog mentions the polish of this production compared to other Mercieca productions, as well as the the fact that it doesn’t have the writer’s usual gimmickry. But, for me, these “improvements” weren’t necessarily to its advantage. What I’ve enjoyed about Alain’s shows in the past was that sense of everything chucked at the wall in the hope that something sticks. When it didn’t work, it could be painful to behold. When it did work, it achieved something of that punk transcendance he aims for, what one reviewer described as “a beautiful train wreck”. I also missed his presence on the stage in this one. Alain isn’t exactly a shrinking violet in the ego stakes, and his performances in his own plays, all wolfish grins and knowing winks at the audience, are always big, brazen fun.
I think bringing aboard a director of the calibre of Robin Henderson was the right idea (she won, of course, a raft of awards for her incredible work with her own company, Dance Animal). Alain’s wayward talent definitely needs taming and shaping, and The Only Bar is in some ways a transitional staging post between the anarchic free-for-all of his previous work to more solidly grounded productions.The right balance hasn’t yet been struck. But Alain is so damn prolific that the sheer aubundance of opportunities for trial-and-error experiments can only push him in the right evolutionary direction. Let’s drink to that at least.