Reviews: Literary inspiration at the Melbourne Fringe Festival

Boon-esque
Boon-esque at the Melbourne Fringe Festival (c) Bobby and the Pins

Melbourne’s Fringe Festival is on, and as always, I love to look out for shows that are inspired by words and books.

Mark Butler brings the wordy goodness to the festival again this year. Last year’s Grammar Don’t Matter on a First Date was a delight for the word geek. This year, his Words Swallower presents his inimitable combination of clever word play and knob jokes.  The mooshing together of high and low humour is much more entertaining than sometimes it should be.

Butler’s show springs from his habit, as a boy, of inventing words, which he then wrote up in his own dictionary. Some of the invented words are classics, and I’m determined to use podger and gobfart in my own lexicon in future. Special praise goes to aggreviation for being both one of the cleaner inventions and for being a much needed word, meaning ‘abbreviations that piss me off’.

A section in the middle goes into some potentially transgressive ground, positing that some diagnosed mental illnesses are self-serving ways of simply getting away with bad behaviour. I for one am not convinced that sex addiction is a mental illness so much as an excuse to exercise absolutely no self restraint – but transgression is what comedy is for.

Butler’s on firmer ground with word invention, family members who just don’t get him, crass sibling rivalry and the world of the logophile.

The rise of burlesque in recent years is bringing a wealth of new shows to the festival, too. Boon-esque does a fabulous job of combining the tropes of the romance novel with the simmering sexuality of the burlesque review.

Starting with a re-enactment of the Victorian era bodice ripper, Boon-esque showcases different kinds of romance: the medical romance, the femme fatale, eras from the 40s to the 70s.  In between fabulous songs in four-part harmony and burlesque dancing, passages are read from actual romance novels, sending up the stereotypes of the kind of women who are thought to read romance too. My favourite was the snarky, ironic reading by the modern young girl.

The songs deserve a special mention for being so brilliant and lovely, as does the bridal anti-strip done to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. I loved the increasingly cross rendition of Mr Sandman, too, with the singers getting frustrated that Mr Sandman hasn’t yet delivered the dream.

Boon-esque is fun and clever and marries the sensuality/romance tropes of both burlesque and romance fiction superbly.

The improv show, Word/Play, didn’t really work for me. Using readings from a book by a Melbourne novelist as jump-off points for improvised scenes sounded good in theory, but I forgot how hit and miss improv can be. The absurdist flights of fancy were fun, but I found a lot of the scenes overly dramatic and lacking context.  Improvisational theatre that takes fragments and makes a new, on-the-fly whole is exhilarating, but I found that taking a coherent narrative and stripping it of structure didn’t appeal. The improv team were good and worked well together, but it turns out that the theatre form just isn’t my cup of tea. If it’s yours, it’s probably worth a look.

Still, if you’re at  Revolt anyway, you could take in another burlesque show, Aphrodite’s Bordello. Set in a modern version of Aphrodite’s temple, the goddess’s handmaidens are increasingly frustrated and annoyed by the lack of men coming to worship. There’s a loose story about loser-in-love Aphrodite being terribly bitter (Megan Salpietro and her powerhouse voice are amazing in the role). One by one, the handmaidens make their own arrangements to deal with the situation until the final angry fight.

There’s singing (I love the macabre Give a Little Love to the Dead People), dancing (the Fan Dance is especially wonderful) and wickedly funny little scenes aimed at subverting ideas of feminine beauty. The sequence with the world-shaking pelvic floor exercises and the household-chore inspired Doing the Martha Stewart were particularly entertaining.

So with a week to go of Fringe, if you’re into inventive rude words, romance novels or burlesque in general, these are the shows for you!

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.