“ The Zoo, 140 The Pleasance, Edinburgh „
Stuart Spencer's new play takes the notion of politics making strange bedfellows at face value, by presenting an intriguing, thoughtful and frequently cheeky version of United States history from the eighteenth century to the present day, dominated by a star-spangled bed in the centre of the stage.
For fans of American history, names such as Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Lizzie Borden and J. P. Morgan will require no introduction, but the rest of us philistines are provided with a handy programme that fills in the historical background without the performance itself having to waste time with a history lesson.
The five scenes move chronologically through significant historical events, albeit in alternative, potential or wildly exaggerated forms that see George Washington playing love slave to a randy King George III; black rights pioneer Frederick Douglass inspiring Emily Dickinson's verse; mad axewoman Lizzie Borden being pushed over the edge by her miserly ex-husband; Lee Harvey Oswald deciding to take revenge when his girlfriend Marilyn reveals that she prefers Presidents, and figure skater Tonya Harding receiving inspiring and confusing visions to lead her to her final victory. But you can't libel the dead. And is it even possible to libel Tonya Harding any more?
The first four scenes are essentially unconnected, though share recurring themes of civil rights and the pursuit of the American dream, and the five performers impress with a mix of light-hearted comedy and serious drama, before the whole thing collapses into a delightful crescendo.
These implied relationships are a mixture of urban legend, creative fantasy and downright lies, but each scene stands strong and independent from the rest, shifting the balance from humour to thoughtful debate where appropriate, but ensuring that the proceedings don't become too heavy-going for an afternoon audience by then having Wilbur Wright buzz around the stage pretending to be a fly.
The American accents occasionally wander, which is forgivable and presumably even deliberate by the time of the finale as everything breaks down, but this is a recommended event for an hour of your afternoon at the Edinburgh festival, regardless of your education in American history and pop culture (though you'll get more out of it if you take a quick glance at the programme beforehand). The central bed set-piece is incorporated into all but one scene, and the finale makes well-choreographed use of its design.
Plus, you get to see some people in just their pants.
Marilyn Monroe and Lee Harvey Oswald. Lizzie Borden and JP Morgan. Emily Dickinson and Frederick Douglass. A bedroom. Throw in notorious skater Tonya Harding - on ice - and you've got a farce torn from the pages of American history!