Friday 12 September 2008

The Reluctant Cannibal

Cannibalism is not, you might think, an altogether appropriate subject for humour. And yet there are several examples of just that, from the Flanders and Swann song from which this review derives it title to Trey Parker's pre-South Park film upon which this Edinburgh Festival Fringe musical is based (though at least one of Parker's cannibals is far from reluctant).

The musical opens with silent film of a group of people being massacred in a wooded area. There is a nice use of written dialogue: "Oh, no" is the expression that appears on the screen for one of the actors, whose lips to me made a rather stronger statement.

We are then plunged into the courtroom where Alfred Packer is being tried for cannibalism and Polly Pry (a journalist) is attempting to coax the true story out of him. But first we need to learn about his unhealthy affection for his horse (played by a lady in a very low cut outfit), "the sky was blue when I was on top of you", he sings, and we wonder whether the RSPCA should be alerted to what's going on. This particular double entendre has now replaced my brother's previous favourite where a diplomat, returning to his wife after having left her with the natives, asks "Were you bored?" to which she replies "Only in the engineering sense."

Soon, however, we learn that Packer had agreed to take over when a group of miners lost their guide, though as the plot progresses it becomes clear his sense of direction is nothing to boast about, to make matters worse he seems more concerned about recovering his horse, Liane. As he leads them further astray, the eponymous cannibalism occurs.

Musically it is not the most distinguished work ever written, Stephen Sondheim need lose no sleep, but it is perfectly decent. The lyrics are by no means great either, but they are very funny. Filled with dirty jokes and double entendres, such as the offer of "Fudge, Packer". Essentially, this is a work of utter silliness and if viewed with that in mind is very enjoyable indeed. Quite why the writers felt the need to constantly compare everything to a baked potato is not clear, but it is amusing, and would doubtless make the sound basis of a drinking game.

The performances are strong. Unfortunately, I am unable to name the most of the actors as no programme was distributed. Bell, the preacher (played by our friend Andy Pugsley, and thus earning this review a shameless plugs tag), Packer and the Trapper are all excellent and Liana manages to act the part of a horse well, and also doubles up as the Indian Sudoku, which is presumably an addition to this performance as the craze hadn't struck when the original film was made. The wider supporting cast of gold prospectors is also a wonderful range of caricatures, from the sex starved young man (who has a very detailed list of the things he wants to do before he dies) to the one who refuses to sing, to the one who has an extreme eagerness to build snowmen at every opportunity and tap dance, and though it's not explained how this is meant to work in the snow the script at least recognises this and makes a joke out of it. It is this last behaviour that leads to Bell shooting him in frustration and leading them onto the road to cannibalism. When Packer returns from seeking help, Bell's descent to madness is complete and his refrain of "the Lord works in mysterious ways" even more amusing.

The set is sparse, but they make the most of it, and much comedy from it: "Look at all the teepees" says the Indian chief. The use of a projector helps give a sense of place much of the rest of the time. Other things, such as the bear trap in which Bell's leg is repeatedly caught, are entirely and convincingly mimed, and with Andy Pugsley timing his screams to perfection. Similarly when they leap into a river, the choreography as they are swept downstream and off stage is convincing.

One criticism would be that the journalist was much more obviously mic'd than everyone else and at one point Pugsley lost his microphone altogether, though such is the power of his voice that nobody in the audience actually noticed.

All in all, this is one to put your mind firmly into neutral, get a large glass of your favourite tipple, sit back, and laugh very hard indeed.

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