Being in the crowd for a Twonkey show is psychologically fascinating. It is impossible not to people-watch, clusters of the room bursting into laughter while other sections stare, discomfited chuckles mingling with appreciative silence as a ribald and nonsensical comedy routine is brought to close with a moving ballad about some golden-age Hollywood actor.
It’s hard not to psychoanalyse the sense of trepidation this can create. The show always feels like a collective experience of the uncanny: the audience experiencing a level of fear more because the strange thing they are watching harkens back to familiar traditions of popular comic performance, cabaret and music-hall. This sort of thing used to be popular, one feels, but in our era of clearly defined performance disciplines it now feels strange to be confronted by an unshaven, costumed man who, in his own words, is ‘deliberately seeking for people to go through a reasonable spectrum of emotion’ without ‘making [them] angry or sick’.
I meet Paul Vickers, aka Mr Twonkey, at a location which could also be called uncanny: a fashionable coffee shop and juice bar in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. The difference between his onstage persona and his actual comportment is slight. He is similarly unshaven, though not becloaked. He speaks slowly and carefully, as on stage, with his eyes to the ceiling. In conversation he is funny and considered. We spend much time speaking about what audiences get from the show. ‘I think people get a bit frightened when they don’t quite know where to place it in the overall scheme of things’, he suggests. ‘It’s not a standard joke a minute kind of thing, it’s more about taking people into a different world.’ He namechecks Spike Milligan as an inspiration for his mixed form. ‘He did essentially a comedy show, and then he played the saddest song I’ve ever heard on the ukulele at the end…and that was the end. It was a really beautiful thing, you know. So you can. It’s just variety, you can mix it up a bit. But I think people get nervous when they think, during the song, I’m finding it’s quite moving, should I be laughing? It’s like, well, no. Not if you don’t want to.’
Knowing Vickers’ background, however, one feels that just doing comedy would be a waste of his talents. He’s probably most well-known as the frontman of 90s indie rock band Dawn of the Replicants. Their story would merit a whole other article: among their fans was John Peel, who gave them significant airplay. This led to a deal with a major record label, from which they were subsequently dropped after failing to meet some kind of daft sales target. The roots of Vickers’ surrealism can be evidenced by songs such as ‘Hogwash Farm’ (incidentally, not a bad description of a Twonkey show), and lyrics like ‘There’s a town with the shutters down, there’s a place where the fields don’t grow, there’s a town where it only snows, there’s a land without grass.’ He tells me that he is ‘more experienced with the songwriting process’, which is ‘more instantaneous’: ‘very fast, because you hear the music, and then you imagine how you can fit in with that, and it just happens very quickly. So it’s more like when you someone scoring a goal, and then immediately after scoring a goal they often look quite confused, like what did I just do, there’s an aspect of that to it. I think songwriting’s more instinctive. There are times when I sit on something, just sit on a couple of lines, or have a basic idea about how a song can be structured, but when it actually comes back down to the crash of lightning moment, it’s very much all hands on deck, once it’s there it’s there.’
It is interesting that Vickers should draw a distinction between the strands of his creative practice in such a way. For instance, in his process the difference between a song and a Twonkey song is that the latter tends to contain some kind of narrative. He tells me a familiar tale of editorial toughness. ‘I’ve realised that the best way to do it is from the point of view that the show is king. Even if the song’s good, if it doesn’t work with the show then it has to go.’
Because of Twonkey’s shambolic exterior – the unpolished appearance of its officiator, the incongruous movement from one dilapidated setting to the next, the combination of ribaldry and tenderness, the self-described ‘rubbish’ puppetry – it’s easy to think of the show itself as the raw fragments of a disordered mind. In fact, Twonkey is both worked-on and worked out: each idea is considered for inclusion over a period of time, and many don’t make the cut. ‘Usually my best ideas come very early in the morning. I’m now of the belief that if you can’t remember the idea then it’s not worth remembering. It comes in very small bits. I’ll have a phrase like ‘clattering bishop’, and I won’t know whether that’s going to be a song, or a story about a clattering bishop. I don’t know what to do with it…but in a couple of months I might know what to do with it.’ Here is evidence of an editorial mind at work: Vickers’ next Edinburgh show, which he performed recently at the Brighton Fringe this May, is entitled Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop.
I ask Vickers about the difference between playing in the basement of a dodgy club in Edinburgh and the relatively plush Soho Theatre. He is circumspect about his success in having secured such a gig, having been previously promised the world on a platter as a musician. ‘I prefer not to think about it too much – the idea that all the opportunities are just falling through your hands like water…it makes me crazy you know. So in the past when the band was doing well, there was a point where we were told, ‘this is going to be the next big thing, you’re going to do really well’. There was a point where I allowed myself to get a little bit carried away with it, and the only way is down from there you know…’
I get the sense that Vickers’ combination of caution and ambition are serving him well: he is evidently comfortable with his own eccentricity, which is also that of the show. He distinguishes this from surrealism. When asked to locate himself within a tradition, he immediately speaks of Ivor Cutler: ‘He was naturally funny as a person, and his delivery had such depth to it. I remember interviewing him, and he told me that some people just thought he was a complete idiot, and didn’t understand it or like it or anything, and that was quite a common reaction. So I think there is an element of people…people can dismiss everything I have ever done as complete and utter nonsense, and they would have a valid argument.’
I reply that if these hypothetical people were to dismiss him they would also have to ask themselves to justify everything they had ever done, and they may have less to say. He says it would be cruel but reasonable. I say too reasonable, which takes us back to Ivor Cutler. What is British about his material (in the same way that Vivian Stanshall or Spike Milligan could be called British), is what he calls the ‘come into my parlour, the Captain Cook world of oddities’ aspect of it. He then says a wise thing. ‘There’s no skill in what I’m doing whatsoever, it’s nonsense you know.’
Twonkey’s Private Restaurant is at the Soho Theatre, 22-23rd May, and then goes to the Prague Fringe 26th-30th May. Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop debuted at this year’s Brighton Fringe and will be performed at the Edinburgh Festival this August.