Here for The Crack

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

The Crack is the more chilled-out cousin of cabaret sensation La Clique, trading some of its stablemate’s elegant, vibrant sleaze for a more artful, if sometimes less thrilling, line-up.

PVC-clad sword-swallower Miss Behave hosts this six-night run in the South Bank’s Udderbelly, with the help of frequent inserts from Doctor Stewart’s staccato dance vignettes, perfectly lip-synched to mashed-up club tracks.

All live shows involve some level of conspiracy between audience and performer, but it’s crucial to a decadent underground cabaret such as this, requiring both sides to believe they are part of an almost illicit happening.

Some acts are better at building this relationship than others, but following the opening routine by Kalki Hula Girl, Phil Kay created a lovely rapport, thanks to his improvised ten-minute song about people who catch his eye in the audience. As someone who regularly talks for hours at a time – not always advisedly – this slot was barely enough to let him hit his stride, but his benign playfulness worked as an impeccable icebreaker.

A more mellow musical offering came from Earl Okin, who might not look the part as a self-proclaimed sex symbol with his squat frame, distinctively outdated dress sense, and scouring-pad hair. But close your eyes and you could almost be listening to a vintage scratched 78, with his sultry lisp and mellifluous voice. The way he rolls his consonants sounds like creaking wood – and the audience (which tonight included one Eddie Izzard, incidentally) was suitably appreciative when he produced the brass section to his bluesy numbers My Room and Bessie using his mouth alone.

Dutch clown Mr Jones was something of a disappointment. In baggy checked suit and carrying an outsized suitcase full of props he proceeded to go through every staple of the street performer’s act, pulling out juggling clubs, a lasso, a whip and diablo in a deliberately desperate attempt to win our attention. His shtick is that he’s a bit of a rubbish entertainer, far too willing to please – but there’s a fine line between faking that and coming across as the real thing; and in his overlong set, Mr Jones fell the wrong side of it. You’d be better off in Covent Garden.

Jon Hicks initially appeared to be another slow-burning act; coming on in paint-splattered decorator’s suit, and attending to some silent comedy business at a snail’s pace. But when the soundtrack kicked in, his true talent emerged as he started chucking paint at the 6ft canvas behind him. He’s a speed artist, and created a mighty impressive portrait in just a few minutes, with a sort of ‘can you guess what it is yet’ tease as the image gradually formed. Eat your heart out, Rolf Harris.

Nina Conti was a crowd favourite with her polished post-postmodern ventriloquism, cleverly deconstructing the deconstructions and with an ambitious, funny and very impressive finale – as seen in her last Edinburgh show – more than excusing any of the obvious-but-effective ‘hand up the backside’ jokes. She is a consummate entertainer, with some brains behind the banter, almost guaranteed to go down well in any room.

She was followed by Andrew Lawrence, who quickly divided the room. He began with a rather odd description of a lump of snot that had lodged up his nostril, delivered without his usual fierce intensity. The site of a strange, whiney man discussing his mucus unsurprisingly failed to catch the attention – so when a heckler interjected, it was hard to predict on whose side the audience would fall.

But by the pure force of his diatribe, Lawrence won at least a narrow majority of the crowd, to enable him to continue with his planned routine: a savagely aggressive rant he imagines giving to the petty traffic cop who once pulled him over on the outskirts of Leicester.

What you can say of his act is that it brought a genuine frisson to the marquee, creating an atmosphere that could so easily have turned nasty. But as he demanded a standing ovation, the cheers outnumbered the jeers. Just about.

The best was saved to last, however, with the brilliantly ridiculous anarchy of Woody Bop Muddy; a barnstorming act who probably hasn’t been seen in the comedy clubs for a decade or more, although he does make occasional appearances on the outdoor festival circuit.

His bonkers Record Graveyard act is easy to describe, but hard to explain. He chucks around great handfuls of rice, then produces an Oxfam shop’s worth of cheesy, ancient LPs whose fate is decided by mob rule. Will these vinyl atrocities be destroyed by his golden hammer, or allowed to ascend into record heaven?

It’s a superbly daft act combining inspired madness, irrefutable high energy and liberating audience participation, sold with 100 per cent conviction. It’s a genuine joy to see him back.

To say he’s worth the £17 to £21 ticket price alone might be overstating the case, but he does provide a barnstorming finale to this eclectic variety line-up.

Review date: 17 Jun 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Underbelly Festival

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