The Evil of Tobacco/Swansong

Act Provocateur International’s latest show at the Lion & Unicorn comprises two monologues of self-revelation by a pair of rapidly unravelling speakers. Both works are stitched together from the work of an eclectic band of writers including Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, Wilde and Tarantino. Despite this shared pedigree, they meet with differing degrees of success.

In The Evil of Tobacco a pedantic schoolmaster prepares to deliver a lecture on the nastiness of nicotine, only for his talk to disintegrate into a bizarre confession of his innermost demons and desires. Geir Kjelland’s pedagogue is a picture of buttoned-up rectitude from the neck down. But his bow tie and black suit is bizarrely topped off with a frizzy red wig, a baroque hairdo out of a Restoration comedy.

The wig soon comes off, as does the speaker’s air of propriety as his talk quickly descends into the sordid disclosure of his sexual frustrations and fantasies. Kjelland’s stridently performed character, however, is too outlandish to be convincing and too squalid to engage our sympathy.

Swansong, the evening’s second one-man show, is much more successful. Andy McQuade plays an actor waking from a drunken stupor to find himself locked in the theatre after a performance. He has been celebrating 20 years on the fringe theatre and in his befuddled state isn’t sure which role he has been playing. We get a burst of Herod in Wilde’s Salome when he finally remembers, followed by snatches of Hamlet and Lear, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita and even Mr Pink’s Like a Virgin speech from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

As the quotations give way to more personal revelations, we get a glimpse of the existential despair of a jobbing actor staring into the black pit beyond the footlights. But there’s humour too, with lots of thespian jokes informed by McQuade and his co-adapter, director Victor Sobchak’s experiences in north London’s fringe theatre scene. Accounts of just missing out on minuscule parts in Casualty and The Bill are all too plausible. For the dignity of all concerned, though, let’s hope that the grubby tale of a casting session with a director from the National involving bright red crotchless panties is purely a flight of imagination.

Jason Best

Three Weeks


Act Provocateur International

“If you haven’t made it at my age, you may as well kill the actor.” This is the lament of a Fringe veteran contemplating his pitiful career in this adaptation of Chekov’s ‘Swansong’. Andy McQuaide’s performance as the drunken thespian was captivating and touching as he ricocheted between Shakespearean soliloquies and musings on life as a ‘Holby City’ did highlight the grim reality of an actor who knows he has not ‘made it’- sobering viewing for anyone currently struggling on a Fringe stage.



I really do have to say that Screen Four at C Electric is a pitiless venue for this show. For a start, it's so hard to find that there are bound to be latecomers, wandering to their seats as Andy McQuade performs heroics onstage. (The day I went, the latecomers then commenced taking photographs, too!) And then there's the stage itself. Where this one-man tour de force might flourish in a more intimate setting, up there, on that big old stage, McQuade was on a loser from the start.
Nevertheless, given that Swansong's theme is that of the actor's struggle in a world indifferent to his talents, the man certainly underlined his credentials to depict the same. Adapted from a Chekhov monologue, it is almost like an extended audition piece, interweaving highlights from Lear and Salome with 'autobiographical' resonances from Nabokov and the like, all delivered with unimpeachable commitment and technique (although I couldn't help being reminded of Jack Lemmon's comment about how to act drunk: you must remember that what a drunk man wants more than anything else is to appear sober). The piece also tingles with that eerie, undefinable weirdness that characterises an empty theatre, and the terror of being locked up with one's demons -- and quite a bit of booze -- overnight.
As an engrossing, involving theatrical experience, I don't think Swansong could ever work in this space. But, perhaps ironically, its failure can also be seen as a vindication of its theme. You want it to work because you intuit that it will be better for the actor if it does. Still, I was very pleased to return his beaming smile as he came and took his bows. Respect.

© Lorraine McCann, 17 August 2005 - Published on