Musical battle of sexes

Written for the Oxford Times, 20 August 2009

There are just seven a cappella choirs listed among the 327 music acts in the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe programme, but almost half of those hail from Oxford. The presence of all-male Out of the Blue and all-female In the Pink in the same building, the main C Venue on Chambers Street, implies an undeclared battle of the sexes. Later in the festival the mixed-gender Oxford Gargoyles will provide relief for those who like their vocal harmonies without added gender politics.

Both Out of the Blue and In the Pink have an impressive festival pedigree. This is In the Pink’s fifth year performing at the Fringe (their fourth at C Venues), though Out of the Blue trump them with three consecutive sell-out years – and if ticket availability is anything to go by, that chain of successes won’t be broken this year. Out of the Blue have also won several awards and recorded an impressive seven CDs, compared to In the Pink’s two.

But none of this should suggest that the all-female group is in any way inferior to its all-male counterpart. The opening performance of In the Pink’s Festival run suffered from misplaced spotlights and unexpected blackouts, but even when plunged into darkness just before a crucial hook the group remained professional and held fast to the rhythm. Their vocal arrangements maintained a good deal of momentum in the basslines, in mellower numbers by Coldplay and Leonard Cohen as well as more upbeat tunes from Eurythmics and Girls Aloud. Certain soloists were almost drowned out by their colleagues, but prolonged and enthusiastic applause stamped the audience’s seal of approval on the run right from the first performance.

Also in C’s Chambers Street venue are the viscerally-named EatTheBaby Productions, with an equally visceral production of Anthony Burgess’s classic novel A Clockwork Orange (pictured). The same production has already enjoyed a sell-out run back home in Oxford, proving that Oxford’s theatregoers are unafraid of graphic violence on stage. The company’s practised and well-choreographed beatings, muggings, and sexual assaults disturbingly conjure up the unrelenting violence of the world in which the novel is set.

Some of the performances, however, are less real. The main character, Alex, has a superior expression, head on one side, which seems genuinely capable of driving authority figures to the extreme measures they employ to control him; but he is otherwise unthreatening.

The priest who provides the moral objection to the brainwashing Ludovico Technique is often too quiet to be heard from two rows back, and the characterisation of most of the minor roles is perfunctory at best.

The play seems populated not by people, but by types speaking lines, though this has little impact on the moral message of the show (that a person denied the right to choose freely between good and evil is no longer a person at all).

In unfortunate contrast, the flaws of the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s Doctor Faustus do obscure the play’s morals, as well as most of its plot. An apparent lack of consistent direction leaves the stage jumbled with images and tableaux, each one potentially profound, but isolated from any kind of overarching aesthetic; and Faustus, regendered to female with no discernible intent, has to be encouraged by a fellow in the front row to ‘speak up!’ Physical theatre company Idle Motion provide a welcome break from casual violence and Satanic bargains with their tender, ingenious look at life’s ironies and the importance of childhood, through the life of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and I (reviewed last week) is a highlight of Oxford’s contribution to the 2009 Festival Fringe.

The face of Oxford at this year’s festival is youthful, professional, accomplished, even progressive or innovative in some cases – but also almost exclusively white.

With the possible exception of the Lincoln Players, Corpus Christi organ scholar Dorothea Harris and jazz tribute band Miles Ahead, all of whom have yet to begin performing, Oxford appears to have sent only one or two non-white performers to the Fringe.

While this realisation shouldn’t in any way devalue the performers’ considerable achievements, it also shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.

This year, Oxford’s creatives have proven themselves capable and, above all, enthusiastic.

Perhaps next year they can go one better, and prove themselves diverse and inclusive as well.

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