Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Islanders

Bristol Old Vic

The Islanders, launched without very much fanfare in the studio area of Bristol's Old Vic and transferring to Edinburgh for the summer, is a charming piece of performance art that does exactly what it says on the tin.

The tin, in this case, containing blue paint the exact colour of the sky on the Isle of Wight.

Amy Mason performs a spoken narrative, ostensibly about a holiday she and her boyfriend took in 1999, but spreading out into a general evocation of teenage life at the turn of millennium.  It's clearly real life that's being transmuted into art here: the post cards and snapshots which flash from the powerpoint are obviously the real McCoy. There is an impressive specificity to it: real and funny without seeming to try too hard;  two teenagers in a bedsit, living mostly off Hubba-Bubba ("please don't hate us") and eating only orange things, deciding to try to have a grown-up holiday.

The boyfriend in question, Eddie Argos ("he's in a band, they've done quite well") provides the other half of the show. He interleaves her narrative with his songs, telling his side of the story, accompanied on guitar by "our friend Jim". Amy mentions that she is relieved when they split up because it meant that she would no longer have to listen to Billy Bragg every day. Eddie's performance is perhaps what you might expect a Billy Bragg fanatic to mutate into after thirteen years of knowing better: very expressive, strongly rhymed, unselfconscious speaking songs. (He issued a killer cover of Between the Wars to celebrate the recent happy event, but wound up this evening with a record of the bard of Barking himself singing "I was twenty one years when I wrote this song...") Eddie's memories of the holiday are mostly upbeat; Amy remembers it as a disaster. She remembers being scared to death on a theme-park ride; he thinks she was weeping with excitement. I particularly enjoyed his description of staying in a hotel for the first time, not quite knowing what the rules are ("B &; B / Anxiety") which rang slightly truer that Amy's fears that the room was haunted.

I overheard some punters on the way out complaining that they couldn't see where the piece was going or what the point of it was, which seemed rather harsh. I suppose if you were expecting it to build to a  big revelation or plot twist, you'd be disappointed. I thought it was as nice a memory piece as I've come across: a poignant evocation of a particular time and place and sub-culture and yes, it does seem strange to us incredibly boring old people to hear grown-ups looking back on 1999 as the olden days. Like all autobiographical fiction, it's less about the memories themselves than about the process of remembering them.

I liked what that fellow was doing with his guitar, said a man I had been chatting to in the bar before hand.

He is a very famous folk singer, I explained.

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