With pooch on a post Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh has its own tradition of rub-my-nose-for-good-luck animal statues (although not any more, please). Yet whilst the charming story of faithful Bobby waiting 14 years on his master’s grave is heart-warming in its own way, it’s not a patch on Cardiff’s Billy the Seal. Purportedly caught in trawler nets whilst they fished in the Irish sea, Billy arrived in the Welsh Capital in 1912 and lived out his days in the Victoria park pond. Providing enough fish for the animal during the First World War was a bit of an issue and there was even talk of returning Billy to the wild ocean. Luckily, he remained in the park and, arguably, more than paid his way. Memories of Billy include the clever creature performing backwards summersaults in exchange for fish heads. When his pond-dwelling days came to an end, it turned out Billy was actually female and, if you happen to be in town, you can go visit Billy’s skeleton in the National Museum of Wales.
Local details are always a nice addition to a play, I think. An accurate inclusion of a city’s geography or a few recognisable landmarks – smuttily named pubs or a notoriously ugly piece of post-war architecture, for example – can really enhance a work. Sugar Baby by Alan Harris has Cardiff-specific details in spades. Like a spilled pool of Brains Dark seeping slowly into the carpet, Harris’s play is saturated with street names, pluralised verbs and quick-fire anecdotes that leave you in no doubt as to where the plot is set. The best of these however, is the starring role of Billy the Seal. Far from being the static sack of bones in a glass box, the Billy in Sugar Baby is the resplendent golden statue commemorating his life in Victoria Park. And its his nose, most of all, that really sets the action going.
That, and Alex Griffin-Griffiths (pause and admire that surname for a moment) whose crackling, semi-manic delivery of Harris’s monologue explodes into the enclosed Roundabout space. When he first comes on, the Taz the Tazmanian Devil impression seems to slightly get the better of even him, but one he’s settled into it, it’s infectiously entertaining at times. Performing in the empty space, Griffin-Griffiths is particularly adept at the endless little bits of mime he uses to add detail to the story. A public bus crawls along the street, an armadillo appears from the ether, pockets are zip-zipped up and down, and the Baddie tries to look hard with a two-flake Mr Whippy.
To do it justice, Harris’s script needs a strong performer as the best bits of humour are in the seemingly normal but often incongruous asides. The momentary pause to explain that a kitchen knife being wielded to stab someone in the ribs is like “something you might use for slicing larger veg”. Along with all the extra-dry additions – cracks about a commemorative bench plaque and the like – are a few lines that catch you with their sudden poetry. “The tip of my tongue licks the tick,” intones Griffin-Griffiths just as the play’s events reach their peak. An odd corruption of Nabokov’s opening: “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta,” and one that suggests Harris has the ability to write more than one-liners should he wish.
Above all, though, it’s a fun piece of writing. The self control in limiting the running time to 55 minutes pays off; any longer and as with most works of comedy, the absurdity would start to wear thin. Despite the drug dealing, murder and blackmail, this is not hard-hitting drama. But a piece of theatre that revels in its own ability to entertain makes a welcome addition to the intensity of the Fringe – like a walk in the park to feed a back-flipping seal.
Sugar Baby is on at Summerhall Roundabout until 27 August 2017. Click here for more details.