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Doctor Brown

Wednesday, 7 September, 2011

Underbelly; Belly Button – 23rd August 2011 21:50pm

The lights go down then promptly rise to light the stage… the stage remains lit and a silence ensues, peppered only with unsure chuckles from the understandably inebriated audience at this night time show. After sufficient time has passed, the lights dip to darkness again and quick come back on, assuming the same position they had before. Strange as it may seem to say so, this flick of the lighting switch is possibly the most concise yet accurate way to summarise what Doctor Brown has in store for the next hour. What is advertised purely as physical comedy turns out to be an hour-long exercise in (mostly) silent, self-deprecating physical performance that probably has not been seen since the likes of Buster Keaton.  This start sends a divided audience into sporadic fits of cackling and guffawing and shows the nuance of control that Doctor Brown exhibits over his viewers; it is impossible to escape the feeling that he always has something up his sleeve for you. This makes for a rollercoaster ride of emotion, and yet an entirely unexpected show.

The first the audience see of him are movements behind a black curtain, playfully timed pulsations that correspond with O Fortuna, Carl Orff’s menacing introduction to Carmina Burana. Just as the music soars into its climactic apex Doctor Brown stumbles through the curtain, tearing it down and sending items ‘behind the scenes’ flying across the back of the stage. Some he just picks up and throws. That this is contrived becomes more apparent as his performance develops into his own brand of jolty, self-aware hesitation; he stands at the front of the stage and plays at trying to find the right pose to start his piece – every slight arm movement followed with an abrupt shake of the head or his trademark wincing look of either total disdain for his audience, or scorn turned inward to himself.

The same kind of deadpan exasperation showed by Buster Keaton as the entire facade of a house falls around him quickly becomes Doctor Brown’s calling card. What a great tradition to follow and to pull off so expertly. Doctor Brown must be the creation of a man who knows his art inside and out. Exemplified by the hack-job miming he attempts after lassoing his way upstage to a suitcase, he simply grabs it and looks at the audience in bewilderment. Such feigned amateur physicality performed with exquisite timing and a feeling that he’s never tried this before brings to mind the old saying that one cannot break the rules until one has learned them all. Doctor Brown knows the rules; he’s just far too good at breaking them. His approach to physical theatre/comedy may be like nothing anyone has seen before, and judging by the scattered laughter of the audience (scattered it may be, but there are those who can hardly stop to breathe), this is not comedy that necessarily matches the appeal of a stand up of the calibre of Michael Macintyre. Two people leave half way through, just as Doctor Brown is about to embark on the re-enactment of a scene from his favourite, The Peking Opera. He immediately stops what he is doing, scuttles to the back and adds two more to a tally, bringing the total to forty, half way through his final week. So, not to everyone’s taste yet as the performance continues it becomes apparent that he does not care for everyone’s taste. At one point he flicks into different scenarios in a matter of seconds, shining his shoes or delivering a package; he ends each scene with the garbled whine “Hey what is that?!” punctuated by a wincing sneer, this time revealing a certain level of contempt from the performer himself. This is a section that stands out as a pastiche of observational stand-up comedy, highlighted by the boring situation a comic might take in order to pluck some humour from it. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival it is easy to feel that you are drowning in observational comedy, this year we have become inundated with gags about the riots and Alistair Darling’s eyebrows, all punctuated, as Doctor Brown observes, with a recurring punchline; perhaps the material is different everytime but the delivery is not. Doctor Brown seems to have set out to create a show that subverts the comedic norms emerging from this year’s Fringe, particularly in his adoptive home of the Underbelly. Yet his performance goes further than this, perfectly timed, jaw-droppingly original and darkly crude, Doctor Brown does a thorough job of ticking all those never-before encountered boxes.

Performer: Doctor Brown

(c) Alexandra Kavanagh 2011

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