Paul Tonkinson: War Stories
Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2004
Was Tonkinson airlifted in to Iraq on a mission to hasten the end of the conflict, or merely to goof around on stage entertaining the troops?
On first impressions, there doesn't seem to be anything particularly outstanding about Paul Tonkinson just your average funnyman. Yet earlier this year, for reasons that even he isn't aware of, he was asked to perform a series of military gigs for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, giving anordinary comic an extraordinary tale to tell.
Dressed head-to-toe in army-issue camouflage gear, it is therefore a little off-putting that Tonkinson opens his show in such a traditional fashion. He is a very pleasant chap, congratulating his front-of-house staff on their A-level results before engaging in some light-hearted, "where are you from? what do you do?" type banter with those at the front of the room and discussing the difference between Wayne Rooney and Tim Henman. It is this sort of harmless, yet effective comedy that one suspects led Tonkinson to be asked to embark on his mission into the war zone.
When finally encroaching upon his undoubtedly interesting experiences, Tonkinson proves himself to be an effective and engaging storyteller. He gradually creates types of characters for the audience to become familiar with (the squaddies, the officers, the dancers), establishing their different thought processes and behaviour.
When relating experiences to his audience, Tonkinson can jump from perspective to perspective, creating comedy in the different reactions of different groups. His perspective is almost always the aloof outsider, observing everything in a way that only comics can. When this aloofness does slip, in a particularly amusing story of his first journey in a Chinook helicopter, the results are drastic.
It is Tonkinson's mission to paint a picture of the war zone and how it all looks to an ordinary bloke, and he does go some way towards achieving this. The impression is one of a group away from the codes of society, the unique military lifestyle that others cannot begin to comprehend. An intensity that completely warps normal logic and decision making.
There are also several problems with this show, however. After beginning in such a traditional stand-up vein, his actual war stories are often not so amusing, leaving the show in a difficult position somewhere between comedy and dramatic monologue. Tonkinson attempts to remedy this, often by relating a wartime experience to a punchline rooted in something far more acceptable, rather than risk a gag that is closer to the knuckle. His stories, also, are occasionally jumbled, most significantly so as he neglects to properly distinguish between Afghanistan and Iraq, making a dangerous homogenisation between the two wars.
This is most definitely not an hour of political stand-up, as Tonkinson, more often than not, falls deliberately short of making explicit comment on his beliefs. What is offered is a selection of interesting stories, littered with gags of assorted quality, that will more likely leave you in thought rather than mirth.