I’m watching Ben Whitehead play a socially inept Victorian playing a half-walrus/half-man creature, indicated by the wearing of a hooded grey sleeping bag, blue swimming flippers on his hands, and paper tusks precariously attached to his face with a false moustache. I’m pondering the life choices I’ve made that led me to this moment as well as whether or not the character-based stand up/absurd solo performance/live art/Victorian freakshow satire/old-fashioned variety show that unfolds before me is one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve ever encountered, or the worst. It may possibly be both. I still haven’t decided, and may not ever do so, let alone by the time I finish this review. Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow violently mashes up genres in a bizarre yet often-hilarious piece that manages to be both straightforward and bafflingly random.
Whitehead’s narrator Fred Strangebone cuts an imposing figure in a dinner suit, black shirt, and velvet bowtie. His rigidity and demeanor remind me of Lurch in the original The Addams Family series from the 1960s, but more well spoken and deadpan. Fred tells us exactly what’s going to happen: he will perform some comedy, then tell us a tale of unspeakable horror, and then, time permitting, he’s going to kill himself. His tale of unspeakable horror is more of a speakable mystery (so he says), where Strangebone goes to the freakshow and meets the walrus man and other oddities affiliated with the travelling show. These characters are a fantastic platform for accomplished voice actor Whitehead to get stuck into, and an enjoyably grotesque one at that. After a failed attempt to impress the freakshow to the point that they invite him to join them, he fulfills his initial promise…or does he? The meta-theatre from the stand-up clouds the levels of reality within Fred’s world.
Each of Whitehead’s creations could be a piece in itself, but he connects them through an overarching storyline. This structure could do with some work, as the narration between characters is often thin, with a tenuous link from one character to the next. The dwarfish property developer with pink wellies chewing on a cigar made of chorizo, whilst hilarious, only loosely fits into the established story. A scriptwriter or script consultant could have a positive influence on the story. His comedy is achingly funny, using absurdity and grotesque imagery to generate laughter mixed with disgust. Like when the demon bin-babies vomit all over mute clown cleaner, Sid, after he breast-feeds them to a monstrous soundtrack. (That was another one of those existential moments for me I mentioned earlier.)
Despite the rough structure and the script with predetermined characters crowbarred in, Whitehead has a fantastic sense for the absurdly funny and Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow manages to pay homage to several earlier popular performance forms – including the freakshow (obviously), variety, cabaret and travelling circus. There’s some audience participation, but the piece is more presentational than interactive. The event is a baffling, bizarre and uniquely wonderful one that refuses to be classified into one particular performance genre and certainly a one-of-a-kind contribution to the London Horror Festival this year.
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