The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

Hull Literature Festival 2002 
 the humber mouth  14th - 24th November 2002

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Tariq Ali

An Evening with Jon Ronson

Weird Sisters Get Around

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

Reality TV-How Real is Real?

Pete McCarthy

The Vagina Monologues

Reading the Metre

Canongate Crime

Robert Edric

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{ Critical Eye on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

Weird Sisters Get Around
Hull Truck, 22 November

These two abundantly talented performers nimbly play along the knife-edge that runs between the politically correct and the downright naughty. One sketch features a Thai beach peddler who offers first a massage, then a sarong, then a sun hat to an indifferent sunbathing tourist. Undaunted, she goes on to try to hawk her baby, then pulls out and offers her intestine, her liver, and, finally, her heart. She dies, leaving the tourist to deliver to the audience her pious message-do not give money to these women, as their husbands will only use it to buy drugs.

The anarchic yet high-minded morality that underlies the performance recalls the gloriously provocative South Park. Like this television animation, the Weird Sisters also revel in the total, gross-out spectacle. Another sketch follows two heavily pregnant yet scantily clad young women out clubbing, their attempts to pull on the dance floor thwarted when one suddenly and bloodily gives birth. Not wishing to let such a minor setback ruin a good night out, the new mum keeps on dancing, whirling the bloody foetus about her head by its umbilical cord.

The self-righteousness of those who consider themselves to be morally superior is frequently the butt of the joke. Their parroted worthiness is shown to be vacuous and totally undeserving of our respect or emulation. Thus the echoes of South Park continue, when we meet Shine, a wonderfully crackpot fitness and nutrition guru, who preaches an impossible yet supposedly admirable and exemplary regime of diet and exercise, while engaging in the most cringe-makingly horrible double-jointed manoeuvres it will ever be your sorry lot to see. Do you really want to be like her? No, I thought not.

Just as South Park challenges the right-on, multiculturalist viewer by forcing thought beyond the knee-jerk liberal reaction, so, too, do the Sisters present to us images that we are no longer supposed to find acceptable. Ireland is personified as a green-scarved, woolly-shawled River Dancing balladeer prancing about to the screech of a penny whistle while singing an homage to the humble potato. The skit is at once shockingly un-PC, yet it also reminds us of so many patronising 'tributes' to what Irish culture is supposed to be.

Of course, one of the things we are definitely not supposed to find amusing any more is the 'funny foreigner', yet much of the Sisters' material wades boldly into this minefield. Stars of German light entertainment Ken and Helga Muller appear before us. Part Von Trapp, part Eurovision nightmare, all fluffy crinolines, scarlet ruffles and cheesy grins, they take us through a song and dance routine so tightly choreographed that it eventually strangles itself.

The Sisters transform themselves into their globally diverse characters through a series of lightening quick costume changes. Poking their faces through two holes in a black sheet, they transform themselves into two Greek widows, obsessed by death and outraged by every aspect of modern life. Aisha, an Islamic comedienne clad in her traditional attire and with only her eyes visible, dies a death on stage, her trendy Mockney delivery unable to save her from her dreadful material and jokes that do not go anywhere.

What is the point of all this? Not that foreigners are inherently funny-that much is clear-but maybe that some people are. We laugh at the unfounded confidence of the cabaret couple, the morbid bitterness of the two old women and the hapless optimism of the stand-up. So why make them into controversial foreign figures of fun? Maybe in order to drum home the message that nothing is, or should be sacred.

Wisely, the sisters keep dragging the show back to self-deprecation, as they present 'themselves' between the sketches as two utterly self-obsessed luvvies clad in feather-edged satin dressing gowns. They spoof the highbrow seriousness of period drama by presenting to us, in the most excessively plummy enunciation imaginable, a drama that is-you guessed it-all about periods. With its meticulous gory details it manages to tell exactly what the Victorian novelists would never dream of discussing, and the incongruity is a delight. The messy facts of menstruation are related with all the gusto and pull-no-punches pride of an old Aussie surfer showing off his shark attack scars to a puking audience. Then they tackle that sacred cow of contemporary theatrical worthiness, The Vagina Monologues. Placing thumbs and forefingers together into a more or less labial configuration, they position their hands before their groins and by moving them allow their 'vaginas' to 'speak'. One 'mouth' spouts its poetry of vaginas that unfold like flowers, while the other interjects with banalities: "I quite like Tesco Mini-Kievs."

That these two women are massively talented and highly trained luvvies themselves is evident throughout their show. Hence it is all the more endearing that they continue to poke fun at the puffed-up pretentiousness one often finds in the profession. One sketch, 'Australia', consists of a series of creatures-a kangaroo, a lizard, a kookaburra and a koala-all instantly recognisable and immaculately realised through skilled physical theatre. That some performers do this sort of stuff as genuine art, and many not as well, is one thing; certainly precious few are as self-mockingly aware.

Though very funny, there is also a dark underbelly to many of the gags. One piece vividly recreates a film noir atmosphere, as an evil Lothario attempts to assault an English Rose on a train. The tables turn, and she kills him. When the lights come up, the actor is blithely sitting on stage, her quiet smile suggesting that this gross and strangely satisfying fantasy plays out in her head in a continual loop.

Without ever being preachy or po-faced, the show seems to have much to say about women, especially in the entertainment industries. Competing with each other as to who is the sexiest, the sisters flash bits of their bodies at each other. Annoyed by the fact that one woman has acquired a bright red, sequinned bikini, and determined not to be upstaged, the other woman proceeds to molest some poor chap in the audience. In her desperate need to feed her monster ego, she climbs over the audience to where the poor fellow sits cringing. She begins by flirting with him, but the action accelerates until she simulates loud and vigorous sex with him while the other Sister looks on with an expression that is as much horror as it is spellbound admiration.

Just as the show opened as a deliberate shambles, it gradually disintegrates before disappearing altogether. One sister leaves the stage, defiantly flashing her arse cheeks one more time before she goes. The other stays behind to reassure us that her breasts are not surgically enhanced. If you have seen Puppetry of the Penis, you will understand my description of this as ballet of the boob. I did not know the breast could be so alarmingly malleable, despite having two of them myself. She leaves the stage, the show is over, and the audience, after enthusiastically applauding, sits, blinking and bemused. What the hell was that? Sisterly? Possibly. Weird? Oh, yes. Definitely weird.