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Ursula Burns: I Do It For The Money

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Jay Richardson

Oh dear, not another comic fusing stand-up with the Irish and Paraguayan traditions of harp music. The ukulele may be ubiquitous but I imagine Ursula Burns will retain this particular field to herself for a while yet.

Although she closes her show by more or less making literal love to her instrument, which she perceives as intimately tied to her humour, the Ulsterwoman is ambivalent about her vocation, dismissively likening our quiet audience to boring 'harpists', explaining that she's no cultured soul and simply a performer 'for the money'.

Like Rebecca Carrington when she performs stand-up with her cello, Burns explains a little about her Paraguayan harp for the unfamiliar. But the explanations are shot through with the jaded cynicism of one who's arrived at comedy late via divorce and a lengthy, on-off relationship with the circus. Music is in her blood via her harpist mother, and she plays a couple of gorgeous, non-comedic pieces. But her father is a fiddler of humorous tunes and there's a significant strain of eccentricity in her, strikingly so for such a nascent act.

For starters, she periodically flits between her native lilt, which is rich, deep and beguiling, and a dramatic, occasionally demented South American vocal that's part Carmen Miranda, part Margarita Pracatan. Entertainingly, the only logic to the switch seems to be that she's Irish when relating aspects of her life, exotic when berating the crowd for not being more impressed or getting more involved.

Her opening number is similarly wrong-footing, an Hispanic romance between two characters who ask sweetly of each other 'you like to go to hospital?' Yes, they do. But what's going on here? Is it simply because they appreciate the angelic nurses? In an erotic way? It's not clear and there seems to be a satirical subtext, with patients abandoned in the corridors at random. And wait a minute, this hospital's in Belfast?

Yes, the city of Burns' birth, a mistake she claims. Imploring God not to deposit her in the 'war zone' of the Falls Road of the 1970s, her beautiful playing becomes urgent as we learn the perspective she's reminiscing from. Another song, about taking her instrument through airport customs becomes a melodramatic ballad of white-hot, tremulous passion, on the death of one closest to her.

Enduring Celtic stereotyping, that with her red hair she must be an eager-to-please colleen who really enjoys cultural pursuits and her testing instrument, she waspishly and kinkily remonstrates, then yields to having a volunteer at least read Yeats's The Lake Isle of Innisfree, before completely subverting the classic verse.

Between songs, she's endearingly spiky, amusingly explaining how her bread and butter funeral engagements prompt the still-to-die to try to book her in advance. Dismissing requests for AC/DC and Nine Inch Nails, she reasons that the harp very demonstrably 'does not rock!', trilling her 'r's' for flighty emphasis.

Fond as she is of advocating divorce, Burns seems wedded to her harp and demonstrates as much with her graphic, down and dirty finale.

Review date: 23 Aug 2013
Reviewed by: Jay Richardson

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