At the Edinburgh Fringe
Dir. Rebecca Steel
John Robins: Incredible Scenes
Dir. Russell Howard
You have to wonder what course popular culture would have taken if the American magazine Popular Science Monthly had never coined the term “teenager” in 1941. Where would we be without the archetypal troubled adolescent enduring the tender trials of growing up, so often (and so often so predictably) spun into song, film, or fiction? Audiences of Apples, though, need not have concerned themselves with the archetypal or the predictable. The achievement of this dance piece, devised by its cast of 15- and 16-year-old boys, was to find a way through this familiar territory which both allowed the audience to recognise the experiences of male adolescence it portrayed, while avoiding the pitfalls of cliché. It did so in singular style, with wit, charm, intelligence, and great sensitivity.
Apples was a true ensemble piece. The trust that so obviously existed between the performers was part of what made it so strong. Set was minimal, comprising a few blocks at the back of the mottled green and brown stage, which was interestingly lit throughout; and costume was equally basic: non-descript jeans, shorts, shirts, and t-shirts in greys and beiges. It was by no means a cast of Billy Elliots. These dancing boys ranged in shape and size from the skinny and slight to the rugby prop. There was hardly any dialogue. Characterisation and plot shifts were conveyed solely through the way the boys moved, under the inspired choreography of director Rebecca Steel and accompanied by composer Tom Recknell’s excellent score.
The piece sought to represent the physical, emotional, and social developments which 15-year-old boys undergo, figuring these developments as apples. Some—the older-looking, jock-ish boys—had their apples and were already using them; others were trying to find or make sense of theirs, and the sympathetic weight of the piece rested with them. Two of these boys desperately sought to win female attentions in a song-and-dance-off for the girls (also played by boys, with handbags, bows and giggles). One offered himself with twirls and beseechings to the love ballads of Enrique Iglesias, Elton John, Take That, and others, but his efforts were repeatedly interrupted by the less euphemistic come-hithers of his rival, who stalked and thrusted with an outrageous knowingness to Justin Timberlake, Dizzee Rascal, and Arctic Monkeys. The scene balanced irony and ardour: clearly the performers were aware of what was ridiculous about their characters’ behaviour, but also what was genuine about it too. And at the same time, with genre-clashing brilliance, Recknell’s selection of many-splendoured songs played masterfully with the formulaic feelings that course through popular music.
The tensions emerged at those moments when boys found themselves detached from the main group, in situations which were challenging or isolating or frightening. It was at these points that you felt the real force of the absence of dialogue. Facial expressions were perfectly judged and timed—to convey distress and uncertainty when one boy is caught between loyalties towards the end of the piece, for example. Here the true odd-one-out, who has been carefully collecting other boys’ apples in his satchel—in itself, somehow, a desperately poignant prop—is found and taunted by the jocks, who smash all his apples on the ground. Again, it was the absence of words that made the scene so affecting: the taunted boy simply voiced an inarticulate cry, before starting to smash the precious fruit himself. One notable intrusion of language came, though, during the strange sequence, aurally punctuated by a dubstep beat, in which all but one of the boys fall under the influence of the jocks (and, implicitly, of drugs—but Apples is careful never to be explicit). The lone boy wanders among his friends who are completely insensible to his appeals, even though he calls them by name; the scene was made all the more effective by a glance at the cast list which showed that he was using their real names.
Other preconceptions might have attached themselves to this coming-of-age piece. Before arriving in Edinburgh, Apples had already drawn notice in the national press: these boys are Eton boys. It was one of four shows at the Fringe by Double Edge Drama, the Eton-founded theatre company. It was Double Edge’s twenty-first year in Edinburgh; former Eton troupes have included Eddie Redmayne, the current beau du jour. All the Double Edge shows were staged at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh’s premier venue, founded in 2000 by three Old Etonians. Apples certainly had a leg-up for its Edinburgh run, then, but anyone ruminating on the effects of these influential connections might have considered that, in a sense, all this only adds to what Steel achieved with her cast. They portrayed what is, after all, altogether a very different kind of masculinity to that which Eton is traditionally held to have cultivated on its famous playing fields.
From Apples it made perfect sense to cross the city and see John Robins: Incredible Scenes!, a stand-up show which offered one version of what might happen to a boy 15 years after he has caught his apples. Robins, a Bristol-based comedian, has been an Edinburgh regular for the past seven years. His is the most generous kind of comedy: there are no stooges in his jokes, with the sometime exception of himself. The show took the form of a digressive anecdote about how he was chosen to appear on a BBC panel show, and then dropped in favour of Amy Childs of The Only Way Is Essex who, the producers told him, had more “backstory” to which the audience could relate. He had to Google Childs to find out who she was; Wikipedia informed him that she is credited with bringing the word “vajazzle” to public notice. If the word vajazzle has to exist, only John Robins should be allowed to say it. The bewilderment and exasperation he packed into its three ridiculous syllables completely redeemed it, making it the keyword for everything that’s infuriating about this world.
That vajazzle set the tone for the show. With a perfectly pitched self-deprecation that seeks no sympathy from his audience even as he wins it, Robins’s initial reflections on the concept of vajazzling—which, for the uninitiated, Wikipedia defines as “the adornment and decoration of the pubic region”—gave way to expressions of gratitude for unvajazzled regions he has known, and opposition to unreconstructed male comics. He talked about shaving: his facial stubble, he said, gave the impression not of a strong, virile man who had spent all morning making hot sweet love, but rather of a man who had spent all morning comparing ISAs with Martin Lewis on moneysavingexpert.com. There was the story of the unfathomable Christmas gift from his Mum one year, a Philips bodygrooming hair trimmer. He tried it one day out of curiosity but went too far on one side, and found himself faced with the prospect of having to introduce a Bobby Charlton comb-over to his nether-region.
He shared, not without some horror in the recollection, his experience of the worst manifestation of performance anxiety imaginable: the time when, (reluctantly) stark naked on stage to cover for an anxious co-comic, he was alerted to the fact that one of his testicles had disappeared. Surely no performer ever wants to hear an audience member ask, “Mate, what’s wrong with your balls?”, but perhaps Robins is the only performer who would then assure his present audience that he had since checked with an expert from Bristol Zoo, and such one-sided retreat is a perfectly normal response to fear in the animal kingdom. He wound up his argument that he too can lay claim to backstory with another inimitably told disaster story, involving a pint of pee, a pint of shandy, and Reginald D. Hunter.
Robins is a brilliantly responsive comic, which is one of the things that makes him such a joy to listen to: he brings out what is ridiculous in things as they are. “I went to the University of Life,” he declared at one point, before adding, “and Oxford”. He has a fondness for an old-fashioned, very English sort of innuendo. He almost called the whole show “I’ve Never Heard It Called That Before” after his habit of responding with this phrase to turn the most mundane of his friends’ remarks into ooh-I-say smut. Even if he wasn’t a comedian by trade, Robins is just very funny, with his abbreviations like “brills” or “I’ll give you a few examps”; with what he called the “camp noise” he had to make every time he took a sip of coke; with the “yeah!” and the self-consciously light-entertainment 360-degree swing of the microphone flex when he delivered a punch line. Even the exclamation mark in the written-down title of the show is funny. With all this, he is also utterly reasonable in his perplexed, exasperated despair at an entertainment and media culture that can’t get enough of The Great Vajazzler. You can’t not be on Robins’s side. In one respect he is not unlike Amy Childs: he works his patch tirelessly, so if you missed him in Edinburgh, try and catch him somewhere else. You’ll be rewarded and then some.
Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.