Friday, 14 September 2007

Live review – A Mystagogue Expounds @ Etcetera Theatre, Camden

GMS rarely deviates from its tried-and-tested formula of making flippant comments on indie antics and scribbling half-baked speculations about unpalatable rap platters. Only two things cause us to veer off course: ukulele fun and the solving of galactic mysteries. The promise of both of these has led us to the theatre (albeit a theatre above a slightly shabby pub in Camden, the indie heartland of London town). The title of William Tombs’ one-man show, What the Lobster Shouted As It Boiled: A Mystagogue Expounds, could belong equally to an arch Morrissey tune, an earnest emo concept album, a thoughtful Sufjan Stevens excursion, or a playful, elusive Devendra Banhart number. This unusual, wilfully odd play combines elements of all four.

Tombs, self-appointed mystagogue and native of rural Virginia, is given to seeing a universe in a grain of sand. It’s a strange, hostile universe, filled with sadness, absurdity and song. Faced with the challenges of adulthood, worrying but apparently unconnected considerations – the mysterious scream emitted by a boiling lobster, his younger brother’s impending marriage to a Mariah Carey fan, the indeterminate status of his vegetable patch – combine to provoke an existential crisis masquerading as a best man’s speech. Tombs’ illogical yet spirited response is to mount a philosophical quest, ukulele and crayons in hand, to discover the source of all the world’s sadness, and to speculate on the future of humanity (apparently there’s one of those techno-raptures on the horizon).

What follows is a strange, self-willed mixture – part stand-up comedy, part metaphysical lecture, interspersed with songs, and framed around the creation of a large artwork depicting the history of mankind, drawn from scratch each night. The delicate yet chaotic balancing act between the self-willed and the self-indulgent gives rise to much of the show’s humour. Tombs’ theatrical sense – combining energy, deft pacing and an arresting persona – convinces the crowd to buy into the quest; their indulgence is rewarded with inventive, daft, catchy songs about infinite bicycles, amoeba sex and the bombing of Nagasaki. Musical levity balances out the more serious implications of the explorations: Tombs bemoans the triumph of commerce and mediocrity, and the loss of respect for women, artists and mystics. Thankfully, the note of artistic self-interest is acknowledged, and the mystical-historical theorising is continually undercut by bemused excursions; at one point it is entirely abandoned in favour of an audience singalong.

It’s not an easy play to categorise or explain. Tombs avoids the conventional cynical, aloof, hostility of most contemporary stand-ups in favour of an air of naïve enthusiasm and childish wonder. He sets himself apart from the bulk of the Fringe theatre set, who tend to rely on sketches threaded together by smut, opting instead for big concepts and intimate revelations. His dark, ambivalent ending offers no easy answers, only admitting the essential silliness of the enterprise. But you’re left with a sneaking feeling that this might be what theatre is supposed to do.

Kyuss – ’50 Million Year Trip’ (live in San Francisco, 1994)

Go see the Mystagogue expound in London next week.

Even mystagogues hang out on myspace.

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