Saturday, August 15, 2009

Edinburgh: Blondes

Denise Van Outen has a very versatile voice. She can belt them out Broadway style and she can do honey-throated intimacy with equal ease. Unfortunately, her solo show, Blondes, requires her to do more than just sing, it requires a measure of charm and warmth, which Van Outen simply doesn’t deliver.

Structured as a tribute of sorts to iconic blondes, to Marilyn, Kylie, Madonna and Britney, the show is full of poorly scripted and ineptly delivered quips and misguided brassy banter between Van Outen and various audience members. She perches on one man’s knee and invites another on stage to do press ups. At one point, she waves a toilet brush in the face of someone in the front row, which feels like a rather apt gesture given what follows.

Dressed in a clingy crimson dress and spike heels, she sets out to prove that blondes are not as dumb as people think, but the iconic names she invokes are granted only a token mention. There’s no reverence here – though she confesses a grudging admiration for Dolly Parton – it’s just an excuse to ransack their back catalogues and Borderline, Like a Prayer and Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend all get an airing.

In between songs, she reminisces about her Basildon childhood as photos of her eight-year-old self flash up on a screen. Even these little autobiographical snippets, and her later description of the love she feels for her new husband, are delivered in the same oddly hollow, hard-eyed manner, her face devoid of emotion, her mouth just making words.

The show feels as if it was supposed to be a celebration of Van Outen’s down to earth likeability, but Jackie Clune’s script sabotages any chance of that – it infects everything with an air of unease.

If the director, Clarke Peters (yes, Lester Freamon has a lot to answer for), had let the music do the talking, this could have been passable hour – accompanist Michael Moran is skilled and Van Outen knows how to milk a song for all its worth – but the show in its current state is stilted and joyless and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

It was so strange and awkward in tone that, towards the end, I began to wonder if it might be some kind of exercise in meta-theatricality and that I might be witnessing one of the most subtly subversive things on the Fringe. About five minutes towards the end the lights went out and the sound failed and I thought, ah, this is it, everything is about to twist around and reveal itself. But no it was just a power cut and sound was quickly restored. Van Outen strolled back on stage and did her last few minutes with the same uneasy film still over her face.

Oh, and...and...during the enforced sing-along section there were misplaced apostrophes in the projected lyrics which just tipped things into a whole new sphere of wrong, maybe...

Reviewed for The Stage.

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