views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

My Dad Sucked Lemons with Bela Bartok
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
10th August 2013


Alys Torrance

Photography supplied by Alys Torrance

Storytelling is historically vital to human development - it was used to educate, it became fundamental to religious practices and instilling social values. It allows us to share the sum of human experiences and understanding. There's no doubt that without the ability to communicate through allegory or reference, with clear narrative we, as a race, wouldn't have got very far. There's power in stories and to entertain it remains the simplest but often most powerful form of drama. In her very personal account of her father, Alys Torrance knows this and uses the oral tradition to great effect.

The show takes the form of a series of anecdotes about her Hungarian dad, Jozsi, interspersed with a long-form tale of archetypical anti-hero and trickster Jack (he of And The Beanstalk, Giant Killer and Frost fame). Torrance is accompanied, Peter and the Wolf-style by Caoimhe de Paor on all types of recorder. Seriously, I really didn't know you could get that many. By all accounts, Jozsi had quite a full life, wanting to become a doctor, but ending up as a lawyer, helping Jews escape Nazi control and settling in the UK. But this is less about his deeds and more about the character of the man as Torrance employs the aforementioned Jack, plus a tale of a troubled king and another of a raven, to build a portrait of her "daddy" in three dimensions.

With tales of such a personal nature, there's a risk of pomposity and self-importance in the whole endeavour. Why do we, as an audience, want to listen to one person yap on about a family member? Can't they afford therapy? Torrance pricks this bubble early on with her fun, winsome character that feels entirely genuine. You're never less than entirely enraptured by her off-the-wall physicality and disarming honesty. She seems incredibly excited to have an audience to tell her stories to, and this pervades every syllable, every mime and gesture. It also helps that much of the tales are shrouded in analogy - as well as giving us a deeper understanding of her dad, they can be enjoyed on their own merits and also become relatable, allowing us to consider our own family members in relation to both Jozsi and the tales Torrance spins. The final tale, which could have been particularly mawkish and saccharine, is elegantly handled and injected with the same good humour and winks to the crowd as the rest - it's a sweet story that never oversteps the mark.

It wouldn't be half the show, however, without de Paor's beautifully evocative recorder playing - tackling everything from Strauss' Blue Danube to more incidental music to set scenes. Some reverb and echo effect in the sound design gives a layered effect to just one instrument, necessary for capturing the desert plains of a mythical Arabia or the magical realism of Jack's time that never was. All on a number of the much-maligned recorder, detested by children (and later adults) across the land. Thanks, school, for ruining what is, when played as well as here, a shockingly versatile instrument.

Torrance is the first to admit she falters at times, forgetting her place and glancing hopefully at both audience and de Paor. The music, not only adding depth and texture, provide her with cues as to the next part of her story which is much needed. But in fact, this ramshackle nature just adds to the overall effect - this is an earnest and personal affair, warts and all. This is no stuffy recital. She quick-wittedly acknowledges when she's just ridden over her own punchlines and being so endearing, the audience is willing to give her the time to correct herself.

As you enter the show, Torrance presents you with a piece of paper - not exactly a programme, more a statement of intent plus one extra story to read at your leisure. It promises a full-length show in the future, with an interval and everything. I, for one, welcome that wholeheartedly as Jozsi is someone I would love to get to know better.

My Dad Sucked Lemons with Bela Bartok opened on 9th August and runs until 11th August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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