The Congress of Oddities

Note: This review is from 2004

Review by Steve Bennett

Freak shows have undergone something of a slump since the demise of the Empire, which is bad news for former Siamese Twins Chlamydia and Calamine Lloyd-Haemorrhage, since that's the only line of work they've ever know. Nonetheless, invited to perform at a modern-day Victoriana Society, regardless of the rules of time, they attempt to adapt their 19th Century routines for a 21st Century audience.

That's the unique premise of The Congress Of Oddities, one of the more idiosyncratic female double acts at this year's Fringe.

Performers Margaret Cabourn-Smith and Zoe Gardner engagingly occupy the hideous personas of the grotesques 'unschooled in the ways of polite society' as they variously tantalise, scare and assault the audience with their awkward attempts to entertain.

It's essentially a one-joke piece ­ but the joke is a good one, and this deft duo pull it off with endearing, quirky style. Their attempt at applying modern stand-up sensibilities to Victorian-age material is the clear highlight, wonderfully deconstructing the comedian's warm-up tricks and rhythms of language to impressive effect. Their takes on a couple of pop classics hit the mark, too.

Other chunks of material seem to make very little sense, but that doesn't stop them from being as funny as they are bewildering, and the whole show is infused with a weird, sinister spirit that would do their sideshow-era forebears proud.

They do slip up occasionally, most notably when they extract bloody offal from beneath their petticoats in the prelude to their demise ­ a scene that strays way too far into the disgusting realms of medical student revue compared to the more imaginative work that precedes it.

The long-term prospects of such a peculiar entertainment may well be limited, having more the feel of a recurrent sketch along the lines of the Fast Show's baffling music-hall entertainer Arthur Atkinson than a sustainable idea, but as a quirky piece of 'only at the Fringe' sketch work, it's an entertaining break from the norm.

Review date: 1 Jan 2004
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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