Dame Dotty Toogood with Mayor Hazlehurst

Akina Women’s Wokely. Little Symphony. We Travel the Spaceways.

Fringe in the ‘Stings / 
12 October 2019 / 
By Bridie Freeman

It’s a full house down at the bingo put on by Akina Women’s Wokely. Pepper, the secretary, is busy snapping gum at her typewriter and answering mysterious calls from the red dial telephone between spinning bingo balls. It’s the 1960s and there are sausage rolls and egg sandwiches on the tables, red or white ‘tea’ poured from massive enamel teapots by Miss Tits (Kim Wright) in a pinny, with outrageous derriere and hair in rollers. Dame Dotty Toogood (aka Ian Thomas) presides over things magnificently in pink satin, one heeled and one slippered (gout, poor dear) foot, calling out numbers with admirable persuasion: “Number five, for Mr Greive; two fat ladies – 88; well bugger me, it’s 43; two little ducks – 22”, etc, etc. Bingo of itself is utterly inane, but this pre-Lotto luck-of-the-draw game is rich with social rituals to be plumbed for fun, and trimmings; we’re here for the company and the spectacle.

There are prizes and innuendo aplenty: plastic-wrapped meat packs (saveloys lewdly arranged between chicken flaps), signed photographs (in sepia) of the fabulous, bosomy dame herself. Between rounds she reads out Dear Dotty letters to the Wokely from “some of the desperate and lonely people of Akina”. The noisy crowd of players, in the spirit of the evening, contribute lascivious headline and horoscope suggestions.

As we head towards the 6 o’clock swill, and the 1970s, the bingo numbers speed maniacally up. There’s a dress change and a surprise guest appearance by Hastings’ freshly re-elected mayor, who clearly knows where her priorities lie – Fringe, festival, the arts!!  She’s greeted with applause and the perfect photo opp. Why, her scarf even matches…

Little Symphony

While the fullness of the evening for some is ripe with stand-up comedy from Welly and Palmy, and psychedelic rock, my line of Fringe takes me into the dystopic, spacey, ingenious, avant garde head of Anton Wuts, with Little Symphony and Revolutionary Arts Ensemble.

A quartet of horn-playing friends, fresh from Wellington Jazz Festival, have set themselves up in Taste cafe beside the coffee machine and WC. Joe Dobson’s on the drums; Anton leads the charge. There’s a small valiant audience, ready to be taken on an intense, immersive sound experience. The first half is a collection of “little pieces”, original compositions with names like ‘The Daily Grind’, ‘Floating an Idea’ (“That nearly did me in,” comments someone after, “the sound of thinking is hard to bear, I felt like it was pushing me down through the floor”) and ‘Life at the Zoo’, with its burst of cheerful Balkanesque freneticism. This ‘symphony’ for clarinet and sax is like a dinner-party of interjecting, overlapping conversations, each instrument with its own insistent voice.

What follows is the world premiere of a longer piece written by Blair Latham, based loosely (it’s explained) on Kurt Vonnegurt’s sci-fi novel The Sirens of Titan – the extract synopsis: someone gets tired of life on earth and goes to Mars but finds it’s not as exciting as thought, so flies back to earth on a spaceship that shrinks to the size of a squirrel, whereupon it’s found by a squirrel who feels maternal and loves it. Meanwhile an army that’s been set up and trained on Mars invades Earth…  

It’s a multi-layered, aural re-envisioning accompanied by visuals (an Apple Mac-projected slideshow of pencil and oil pastel drawings by an Mexican artist), making for a strangely satisfying, existential, cinematic journey, as our ennui with modern, consumerist life takes us out of space (Elon Musk’s beckoning vision), to melancholy (a sunset on Mars) and upon our return to accept, indeed be embraced by, the absurdity of life on earth.

We Travel the Spaceways

Nine-thirty at night at the Pipe Band Hall, and all who enter must be initiated into the Revolutionary Arts Ensemble’s show. Punters line up in drizzle to be adorned with face paint: third eyes, sparkly bindis, spinning planets on their brows and cheeks. There’s happy acquiescence, no one demurs, for this is the pinnacle of Fringe; who wouldn’t want to join the cult?

There are smoke machines and silver foil wrapping the prim walls of the 1950s community hall, an intergalactic star like a sunflower, running film in its centre – floating rubber gloves, underwater plants, trees, blossom; spliced images from the works of experimental, Afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra (to whom this show pays homage): the Egyptian sun god Ra, freaky space imagery. Costumes: Willie Devine like a shaman at the keys; Anton Wuts, wearing 3D glasses, a suit wrapped in winking fairy lights; drummer Joe Dobson with a hat like a lampshade, torches on his wrists; Max Parkes in a foil kaftan, with an extraction fan pipe pinning down (for a minute) his mop of hair. There’s a fan spinning out streamers, and homemade touches of weirdness. Delightful painted cardboard cut-outs (aeronaut skeletons) by artist and bassist Adrian Thornton.

We Travel the Spaceways is an exuberant, riotously joyous, crazy ride. Half the room is dancing – expressive, intuitive movements to music that’s shapeshifting unpredictably through an eclectic register of inspirations – jazz, funk, folk tunes, even pipe band riffs, art deco swing, metal – accentuated with audio intersplicings from Sun Ra’s trippy, esoteric teachings.  But for all its wild, seemingly impulsive swerves and about-turn changes, there’s a taut, compulsive current to the music that pulls momentum ever onwards. And a pattern of well-crafted arrangements, with refrains, like songs.

Asked to describe the genre of music Revolutionary Arts Ensemble perform, Anton has proclaimed it Hasting Folk. And while it’s easy to chuckle – folk, what?! – there’s a truth to it. It’s infused by the very place it’s created and performed within – quite specifically, Hastings’ east block. Part of the reason the Revolutionary Arts Ensemble experience is so ecstatically, resonantly uplifting, I’m sure, is the feeling that this is ours – a truly homegrown collaborative arts revolution that, while traversing galactic influences, musically, artistically, creatively, is not trying to be elsewhere but proudly speaks to, and is manifestly of, our wee, hyperlocal corner of the world.

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