Reviews London TheatreOWE & Fringe Published 18 July 2016

Review: I Heart Catherine Pistachio at The Yard

The Yard Theatre ⋄ 11th - 16th July 2016

Pony piñatas and something far cleverer: Ka Bradley reviews Encounter’s I Heart Catherine Pistachio.

Ka Bradley
I Heart Catherine Pistachio at The Yard.

I Heart Catherine Pistachio at The Yard.

A man in fantastically ugly drag is pacing the floor. He wears a tight grey top, a long, pale blue A-line skirt, obnoxious glasses and a blonde wig that looks like a form of punishment. The visual cues are writ large: the audience tonight will be watching something very weird, and probably something very funny. After all, there’s something intrinsically humorous about a certain kind of camp ugliness.

The pacing man is shortly joined by another in an identical get-up. Between the two of them, they are the eponymous Catherine Pistachio, as well as Catherine’s sideshow-nasty parents Lionel and Linda, and a host of other characters ranging from a crippled ballet-dancing grandfather to a dog.

Lionel and Linda Pistachio form the narrative backbone and comedic underbelly of I Heart Catherine Pistachio. They’re a repulsively funny couple, brilliantly portrayed by Nick Blakeley – whose Lionel is the quintessential culturally castrated beta male – and Carl Harrison – whose Linda is the all-too-real, affected, acrimonious harpy in Mrs Bucket’s skin. They talk while facing the audience in a couple of chairs, as if being interviewed for television; their weird, pun-filled and antagonistic conversations recount Catherine’s life, growing from a shy toddler to confused young adult. Linda loathes Catherine; Lionel has a troubling love-hate relationship with her.

In between telling us Catherine’s story, they also discuss their life as a couple in a gated community. At Catherine’s birth they are isolated (Lionel has a debilitating skin disease: “Basically, I wilt on contact.”), but after buying a three-legged pony they enjoy some popularity in the neighbourhood, which leads to them joining a group of swingers. (“You just smiled when he put his hand on your knee, didn’t you, Linda?”; “I, Lionel, was aroused. As I hadn’t been in years.”)

The pony is beaten to death during a swingers’ party, because it is so fat it looks like a piñata. It is replaced with a dog, which Catherine, at around the age of ten, persuades to perform cunnilingus on her by smearing food around her vagina. If you can’t decide whether these anecdotes are hilarious or grotesque, then you’ll already have a fair grasp on the tone that I Heart Catherine Pistachio starts out striking. As the play moves through Catherine’s adolescence and adulthood, it becomes clear that the cadence of sketch comedy it has adopted is actually at odds with the content, which includes paedophilia, incest, and psychological and sexual abuse at a level so consistent and vile that it is amazing the audience manage to laugh at all. But they do, and frequently, which is testament as much to the outstanding performances given by Blakeley and Harrison as it is to the anarchic (and sometimes downright preposterous) script.

Blakeley and Harrison’s dual role as Catherine is both amusing and saddening. Blakeley plays the ‘conscious’ Catherine, who moves through the world both defiant and anxious, peering through her hideous glasses; his Catherine is startlingly vulnerable, convincing and almost subversively nuanced underneath the crass comedy. Harrison plays the ‘unconscious’ Catherine, a mixture of a devil on the shoulder and the keeper of otherwise suppressed traumatic memories. He is a versatile and captivating performer, shuttling adeptly between comedy, tragedy and farce, and drawing on his dance training to give us a Catherine sometimes rendered vocally soundless but physically upsettingly eloquent.

By the end of the play, the ‘intrinsically’ humorous drag feels like a trap that the audience have willingly fallen in to. We have been tricked into believing that the silly stories, the silly script, the silly outfits give us permission to guffaw heartily at a genuinely disturbing story. Worse still, we are complicit in this trickery. We have seen men in ugly drag and we’re ready to call that funny, because it’s very easy to dismiss a certain kind of transgressive ugliness as funny. We’ve listened to Linda and Lionel’s broad regional accents and witnessed their mawkish social climbing, and we’re ready to call that funny, too, for more complex and shameful reasons of dismissal. I Heart Catherine Pistachio, despite being extremely funny, is a cleverer and more serious piece than it initially lets on. Although it can be unfocused, it is never without impact, and even its glancing blows strike home.

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Ka Bradley is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: I Heart Catherine Pistachio at The Yard Show Info


Directed by Jen Malarkey, Associate Director: Simone Coxall

Written by Encounter, Associate Writer: Lee Mattinson

Cast includes Carl Harrison, Nick Blakeley

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