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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Monday, February 13, 2012

Barflies, theatre review

Published by Northings
Barony Bar, Edinburgh, 8 February 2012, and touring

YOU'RE sitting in your local and everything looks familiar: special offers chalked on the blackboard, neon advertising signs above the till, the various beer logos on the pumps.

But look closely and all is not what it seems. Those are not the usual brands of ale on sale, but a feisty selection with names oozing sexual innuendo. The sign you thought said "sloe gin" says something altogether more rude. It's like a parallel-universe local.

Every real-life pub on this Grid Iron tour is being subtly reconfigured to match the vision of Charles Bukowski, the hard-drinking beat-generation poet and story writer. In the hands of adapter and director Ben Harrison, bars such as Hootanannys in Inverness, where Barflies plays on Sunday and Monday, become dark, edgy, dangerous outposts of the author's reckless imagination.
Bukowski's alter ego Henry Chinaski is the kind of guy whose night hasn't started before downing a couple of bottles of wine plus whisky chasers. Played with grimy abandon by Keith Fleming, he is no mere hedonist, but a dedicated pursuer of existential excess. He is a sensual life-force hell bent on self-destruction.

Because of this, you couldn't call Barflies a celebration of alcohol - it's too bleak and desperate for that - but neither is it a condemnation. Rather, it is an evocation of the state of child-like freedom brought on by excessive drinking.
Chinaski has reached a point of inebriation that makes him open to anything, willingly accepting any opportunity, whether it promises terror or exquisite pleasure. Instead of casting judgement, the production captures the violent, impecunious, wretched side of alcoholism as well as its heady, sensuous joy.

It's a combination echoed and enhanced by the live piano accompaniment of David Paul Jones, switching from the flamboyant arpeggios of the silent-movie player to the boozy lament of Lilac Wine. And it is matched mood-for-mood by Charlene Boyd, who plays a hapless series of girlfriends, from rock chick to literary groupie, all trying to take a bite of Chinaski's charismatic nihilism.

The piece is more clearly shaped than I remember it from its debut on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, although I still feel it lacks a big dramatic question for the story to wrestle with. Barflies does a great job at capturing the compulsive thrill of alcohol (never touch the stuff myself, of course), but the story it tells has little development; bottle follows bottle, girl follows girl, hangover follows hangover. Like drink itself, however,  the performance is a sensory pleasure, vivid, vigorous and in vino veritas.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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