Jennifer’s Robot Arm debuts in London

An absurdist comedy in two actsand it’s a beauty!

We caught Paul Vickers’ first play, Jennifer’s Robot Arm, at a ‘rehearsed reading’ this week. It was not your average theatrical experience. Starting late, we were informed like so: ‘Sorry dahlings, the drag queen is still putting her make-up on’. You never hear that down the Barbican.

This was also the first Paul Vickers show minus the man himself, which threw the spotlight onto the material. Was it possible that Vickers’ hypnotic stage charisma has been papering the cracks all this time?

The storyline will be familiar to fans as a Twonkey tale from 2012’s album and show. Jennifer is a girl who thinks she’s the sister of Pinocchio and made of wood. She tries to prove it by using her father’s circular saw to cut off her arm. Blood, blackmail, sex and hilarity ensue. The play develops the piece from a barely 3 minute miniature to 40 minutes, dropping character names along the way.

IMG_1211Myra Dubois, Simon Jay, Miranda Shrapnell

There were actually five performers, but we couldn’t get them all in one shot. That’s the drag queen on the left, by the way. Don’t be fooled by the photo (taken before the start), or the description as a ‘reading’ – performers got up and were bang into it. Bizarrely, after our tenuous pre-show comparison to Richard III, director/actor Simon Jay  as The Inventor was practically channelling Olivier’s Richard, all hunchbacked and swinging arms.

Jennifer herself (Miranda Shrapnell) was all in, lying across the floor, hellbent on staying in character. She even refused to use her right arm to turn the script pages after it had been sawn off! Respec’ due. And Connor Jones opened the play as Horatio Nelson with one eye resolutely shut.

A side effect of it being a ‘rehearsed reading’ was probably speed. Advertised as 60 minutes, it finished just shy of 40. The prose scene settings (read out by Nathan Cross) seemed more like a screenplay than a stage piece. It would work well filmed, albeit only with a big fuck-off budget. Unless, in the name of art and cost cutting, Miss Shrapnell could be persuaded to lose the arm. Couldn’t hurt to ask.

Myra Dubois, the drag queen, played Jennifer’s mother in such a way that it’s hard to imagine it played by a real woman (sorry Myra). She had perfectly droll delivery for Vickers’ distinctive writing style, the Christoph Waltz to his Tarantino.  In a sex scene she claimed she was ‘nobody’s trick walrus’. We’re still pondering that one.

If the future of the play was a 50 minute Fringe slot, it might be too long in full performance. But it’s probably not long enough as a standalone play either. We say MAKE IT LONGER, don’t cut it. Vickers mostly kept to the narrative with only two diversions (including Horatio Nelson’s appearance). He may have been reining himself in here, as this is what he does better than anyone as Mr. Twonkey. But we reckon the play could easily survive a few more of these interludes.

Just like his radio play, Vickers is messing with the form and not just trying to get through it unscathed. All sorts of chicanery seemed to be going on with the timeline. Jennifer dreams of being on a steam-train before she finds out about the steam-powered arm. And she initially collects her new limb from the bottom of a lake for reasons unstated. But that’s where the arm ends up at the end. Spoiler Alert!

It finished with a new Vickers song, possibly entitled Zig-Zag Man. Which we loved and hope to hear on the next Twonkey album. It did, however, mean that he failed at presenting a Vickers-free evening on a technicality. After a show of faith in these five fine performers – which was not misplaced – he bottled it at the last minute with a bit of audio-based insurance.

But the bottom line is we loved it. It’s everything we have come to expect from His Twonkeyness. Hilarious, endlessly inventive, deceptively clever and utterly, utterly bonkers. With top marks also to Simon Jay and his wonderful cast. Glad we got to see this unique debut. London, not garlic bread, is the future.

No mention was made on the night, nor on any of the various Twitter updates, about what’s next for poor Jennifer. However, a quick search reveals that she will be back in two months! Thurs 18th – Sat 20th April. A new venue, but still in London. Tickets can already be booked. We shall return!

http://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/jennifers-robot-arm.html

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