Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow, London Horror Festival

Freak Show by Chris BrockI’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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Home Free!, London Horror Festival

CRvG0L4WwAA3jO7Siblings Joanna and Lawrence live in 1950s New York City, a place brimming with promise and excitement for its younger residents. They don’t take advantage of it, though. Lawrence never leaves their little apartment; instead he lives vicariously through Joanna’s “adventures” to the market and her encounters in the corridor with their landlady “Pruneface” who has said they need to move out soon. Pruneface doesn’t like that Joanna’s pregnant, and with good reason. It’s Lawrence’s baby and the two refer to each other as husband and wife as often as they do brother and sister. Home Free!, whilst not a scary addition to the London Horror Festival, is a disturbing, excellently performed one-act showing the forgotten and invisible underbelly of an otherwise glamourous city. Untreated mental illness and agoraphobia has enormous consequences for these two innocent twenty-somethings, with Home Free! raising bigger questions about societies that let such a pair slide, unnoticed and unsupported, into catastrophe.

Lanford Wilson’s dialogue is deliberately circular and repetitive, serving to emphasise the cycle of fear that dominates Joanna and Lawrence’s lives. Though necessary, the repetition becomes predictable but this is fortunately a play in a single act. Wilson fully forms the imaginary friends the two have, Claypole and Edna, and Lawrence truly believes they are real – an unsettling device with a surprising impact on the play’s climax. Wilson was one of the pioneers of the New York City fringe theatre scene in the 1960s and it shows in this well-formed play, perfect for a tiny venue like the Etcetera.

This two-hander is adeptly handled by Lindsey Huebner and Rob Peacock, with direction by Courtney Larkin. Larkin focuses on Lawrence’s childlike mannerisms and instinct to see everything in his world as something to play with, occasionally emerging as aggressive attempts to get Joanna into bed despite her protestations. The two have some genuinely sweet moments, particularly when they give each other gifts from their “surprise box” that lives on the bookcase, made all the more unnerving by the awareness that they are brother and sister.

International company Theatrum Veritatus seeks to merge North American and British theatre traditions through their productions, a worthwhile effort in this American play performed in a pub theatre – a quintessential British venue. This production of Home Free! is a good one of a play rarely-staged here, but it’s inclusion in the London Horror Festival is an interesting choice. The horror this play contains is not the kind most familiar to Halloween. There are no ghosts, gouls, or things that go bump in the night. Instead, there’s incest, pathology and no support structure for vulnerable young people. Now that’s a truly frightening thing to imagine.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.