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Bluey | FWAM & Tin Shed Productions
Written by Jack Teiwes   
Friday, 24 April 2009 02:00
Bluey | FWAM & Tin Shed ProductionsStanding somewhere between the realms of a one-hander “storytelling” play and a conventional stand-up comedy routine, Bluey is an ostensibly (auto)biographical tale of British writer/performer Phil Spencer and his RAF sergeant father… who so happens to be a chimp.

No, this isn’t a weird offshoot of Kafka’s Monkey, but rather Spencer’s offbeat theatrical device for representing his father onstage, via the proxy of a three-foot puppet chimp, Alfred.

The effect is quite charming, with Spencer animating Alfred primarily with a vocal performance that is presented openly and without artifice. Spencer is evidently not a ventriloquist and makes no attempt to be one, and even the chimp itself is in reality more of a stuffed toy with a sock-puppet’s level of articulation. Instead, the performance works purely on charm and verbal authenticity, as his puppet lip-synchs to his very distinct, regionally-accented impression of his father. Between the simple puppeteering (which, although unsophisticated, still conveys a surprising amount of personality and emotion) and well-acted voice work, Spencer’s father-as-chimp Alfred completely comes to life as a distinct character with which the audience can connect.

Similar to a traditional wooden-dummy act, Spencer interacts with the chimp in his own persona, although mostly in the form of offering asides to the audience by way of explaining military jargon. When parts of the story relate to Spencer’s own actions, he puts Alfred down just offstage, maintaining some modicum of illusion despite all his quite open discussion of it being a puppet and other acknowledgements of the dramatic conceit.

The narrative, or perhaps simply just topic, as it has little in the way of any plot, concerns Alfred serving in the 2003 Iraq war and Spencer’s parallel experiences as a rather inept peace protester whilst attending drama school at the same time. Although on balance the play has an anti-war message, it does so with a light touch and does not focus on stories of combat or carnage but rather the monotony and absurdity of life on a military base in Iraq and the inane and inefficient use of military resources. Alfred recounts the incompetence of the British military and their observations of the much better-equipped but no less mismanaged American war machine, as well as other details like the presence of (and suspicion towards) Pakistani independent contractors who provide catering to the troops.

With many vignettes Alfred paints an evocative picture of the oddly stressful boredom of his time in Iraq, with a particular focus on the unceasing air raids that require all personnel to drop everything and quickly don stifling protective suits designed to shield them from radioactive, chemical and biological weapons, and pile into shelters that roast in the desert heat, sometime many, many times per day. By way of a demonstration of the difficulty of this, Spencer picks someone from his audience to try getting into a real example of the suit under flashing lights and blaring noise. I’m sure he would not have selected the critic out of choice, but that someone indeed happened to be me, and apparently I somewhat stymied his act by getting into the suit with comparative ease. Ah, the risks of audience interaction…

With a style equal parts charming and gently sardonic, and a self-reflexive and self-deprecating mode of delivery popular with many current comedians, Spencer has an engaging presence that guides us through both the humour and more dramatic moments with equal ease. What really makes the show work though is his technique of bringing Alfred to life, creating a character that is ultimately the most compelling individual onstage. Since he does not throw his voice, it is interesting to actually watch Spencer’s face as he delivers the lines in his father’s voice – his entire aspect changes and his theatre training becomes evident – and yet ultimately one can’t help but be drawn to watching the crude puppet instead, as it proves unexpectedly captivating when channeling this performance.

Bluey is a short, interesting show with something to say and a different, highly engaging way of saying it. Worth a look.

FWAM & Tin Shed Productions
Written and performed by Phil Spencer

Director Scarlet McGlynn

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre | 129 Dowling St, Woolloomooloo
Dates/Times: Thurs 16, Fri, 17 & Sat 18 April and Fri 24 & Sat 25 April @ 9.30pm;
Sun 19 & Mon 20 April and Sun 26 April @ 8pm
Tickets: $13, $17 and $25BLS OR Magic Monday $10
Bookings: www.moshtix.com.au

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