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Paul Vickers - Jennifer's Robot Arm and Twonkey's Mumbo Jumbo Hotel

Paul Vickers never planned to make his Edinburgh Festival Fringe act his main thing. As the former frontman of John Peel championed band Dawn of the Replicants turned collaborator with Edinburgh underground supergroup Paul Vickers and The Leg, his foray into off-kilter comic cabaret with his debut show, Twonkey's Cottage, in 2010 was meant to be a diversion from producing a Beefheartian stew of punk-folk clatter to accompany an increasingly fantastical series of narrative vignettes.

As it is, seven years on, the man now known as Mr Twonkey is in the thick of Twonkey's Mumbo Jumbo Hotel, the latest instalment of an ongoing and at times mind-boggling saga involving songs, puppets and an absurd set of interactive routines that may or may not involve a nest of knickers. As if that wasn't enough for this junkyard Edward Lear who last year was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, this year Vickers has branched out into doing straight theatre. Almost straight, anyway, as the title of Jennifer's Robot Arm indicates.

“It's about this little girl who thinks she's Pinocchio's sister and is made of wood,” says Vickers. “Her imaginary friend tells her to cut off her arm so she can see the rings in the wood, and her dad has to make her a robot arm.”

What Vickers describes as “a simple kitchen-sink drama” was born after he was approached by director and performer Simon Jay, a fan of Mr Twonkey's shows who encouraged him to write a play.

“He kept saying we should work together,” says Vickers, “and we had a rehearsed reading of an early draft of the play at the White Bear in London, and then we got a cast together and did it at the Bread and Roses pub theatre. That was really nerve-wracking to watch, because everyone in it put something into it that I never expected, Miranda Shrapnell who plays Jennifer especially.

“When I wrote the play I expected it to be a bit camp, but Miranda properly acts the part so you feel something for Jennifer. All the other characters are just grotesques, and I realised from watching it that it has a lot of depth. That's what stops me from being a straight down the line comic writer. I can't help but put layers of sadness in it.”

Both Vickers and Jay appear alongside Shrapnell in Jennifer's Robot Arm, with Vickers playing a crazed inventor in the play, which recently made it to the top twenty out of more than 900 entries in Soho Theatre's Verity Bargate award. This is testament to Vickers' sense of the fantastical which looks to Mervyn Peake, Roald Dahl and, in some of his shorter works, Ivor Cutler, for inspiration, but which is delivered with a ramshackle sense of absurdity.

Vickers was born in Middlesbrough, and studied performing arts in Carlisle. While he acted at college, “I soon realised I was a natural frontman for a band,” and early combos such as Irish Juice and Pennies from heaven mined a surreal blend of songs and performance art. “We were terrible,” says Vickers.

These efforts nevertheless morphed into the first incarnation of Dawn of the Replicants, by the mid 1990s, Vickers was living in Galashiels, where he wrote and drew cartoons for music zine, Sun Zoom Spark. With D.O.T.R championed by John Peel, the band were signed to a major label. Even here Vickers' penchant for off-beat storytelling came through, albeit much to their label's confused chagrin.

I used to send the A&R people all these stories,” Vickers remembers, “and they'd say they didn't want any of that rubbish, and tried to make us a dirty rock and roll band.”

After being dropped, Vickers decamped to Edinburgh College of Art “to reboot myself.” With the final D.O.T.R. Records released on local independent label SL, label boss Ed Pybus suggested a collaboration between Vickers and The Leg, a manic and equally maverick trio featuring former Khaya frontman Dan Mutch, classically trained cellist Pete Harvey and drummer Alun Thomas

“I showed the stories to The Leg,” says Vickers, “and they liked them and encouraged them.”

A first album, Tropical Favourites, spawned a set of jug-band punk narratives such as The Ballad of Bess Houdini and Chime Chime Cherry. The follow-up, Itchy Grumble, was a spiky conceptual fantasia involving the adventures of an immortal dwarf who ends up being fired from a cannon in order to revolve a lighthouse. While the band's live shows of this post-punk songspiel were ferociously intense affairs, Vickers developed his salty yarn into a play that required an epic staging which he saw as being potentially played out on the set of Robert Altman's film of Popeye.

“It was quite an ambitious thing to do,” Vickers says. “Like everything I do, it's got escapology, engineering and witchcraft in it, but the album didn't get much radio play. It's like we were doing our Trout Mask Replica,” he says, referring to Captain Beefheart's arguably most intense album.

With no takers forthcoming for a stage show, Vickers published Itchy Grumble as a novel along with some of his miniatures, and, inbetween recording a third Paul Vickers and The Leg album, The Greengrocer, channelled his performing energies into the Twonkey series. Twonkey's Cottage begat Twonkey's Castle, Blue Cadabra, Kingdom, Private Restaurant and Stinking Bishop before alighting this year at the Mumbo Jumbo Hotel.

“It was supposed to be a side-project,” Vickers says of a franchise which he has toured to Brighton and Prague festivals as well as sharing bills with the likes of Josie Long. “It was a scrapbook of ideas. I was originally obsessed with telling the story of Twonkey, who was half dragon, half witch, and the first three shows had all this Lord of the Rings stuff in it, but then I realised it didn't matter, because no-one really knew what I was on about. Once I abandoned all that, it really freed me up, and I became Mr Twonkey. It's a state of mind. When the ideas come, it's like a tornado, and I go to Twonkeyverse.”

Jennifer's Robot Arm may also be part of Twonkeyverse, but, while Itchy Grumble lays dormant, this new play marks yet another diversion in Vickers' anti career.

“I think what I've done my whole life is fall between stools,” he says. “That's where I belong. It took me a long while to embrace my own failures. I used to think if I put a brave face on things then people wouldn't notice, but I realise now that it's best to let it all hang out.”

As for Itchy Grumble, “I'm sure that it will happen,” he says. “There's unfinished business that needs tending to. I was trying to do this massive show too soon, but it will always be there. I have this image of how my life will end, where I'm hanging off a lighting rig trying to explain things and the hydraulics don't work. But Itchy Grumble will rise again.”

Twonkey's Drive-in presents Jennifer's Robot Arm, Sweet Grassmarket, August 4-28, 5.15-6.30pm; Twonkey's Mumbo Jumbo Hotel, Sweet Grassmarket, August 4-28, 9-10pm.

The Herald, August 23rd 2016

ends

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