Reviews Edinburgh Published 9 February 2012


Barony Bar ⋄ 6th February - 1st March 2012

Liquor and love lost.

Colin Bramwell

Scotland has often been referred to by politicians as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The reasons for this extend far beyond our propensity to deep-fry confectionary. The real issue has always been alcohol. Although it is perhaps clichéd to admit, alcohol has been emblazoned upon our popular consciousness, and sobriety will never be one of our national characteristics. The propensity is mirrored in our literature, and Scottish artists have always utilised the state of drunkenness as a springboard for art. Any production that takes place in a watering-hole will therefore be of relevance to a Scottish audience.

Grid Iron’s Barflies, based on the works of Charles Bukowski and staged in the Barony Bar on Broughton Street, was one of the hits of the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe. In Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s autobiographical creation, we find a paradigmatic example of a barfly. The production begins with brooding, live piano music, and Chinaski sitting at the bar. It then proceeds to thread together a series of Bukowski’s stories and poems, which provide the framework for a series of sexual encounters that elicit specific changes in Chinaski’s life, all of which contribute to a ‘portrait of the artist’, and a final epiphany – of sorts.

This production makes understandable the impressive reputation for site-specific work that Grid Iron have cultivated for over a decade. The bar is not mere backdrop and the space is used to its full potential. Every change in lighting is refracted through several rows of glass-bottles: a subtle touch, but one which amplified the audience’s susceptibility to atmospherics. The space became a playground for the performers: every surface was there to be walked-on, spilt-on, or fucked-on. A few subtle changes have been made to the decor; aphorisms were written on chalk boards, a neon ‘Sloefuck’ sign lit up the centre of the bar: even the ale labels have been changed to amusingly gross titles, like ‘Cum XX’ and ‘Goose Ale’: this all helped capture the seediness which is part-and-parcel of Bukowski’s style.

The cast were more than capable of doing their surroundings justice. Charlene Boyd comes hot on the heels of her memorable performance as Isa in last year’s impressive revival of Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep by the National Theatre of Scotland. She inhabits a series of different female characters with impressive vigour: given Bukowski’s tendency towards misogyny, the fact that she stole the show was in itself entirely appropriate to a reinterpretation of his work. Watching her performance was a joyful experience.

Truthfully, Keith Fleming’s Chinaski looks a little too well-kempt when he first makes his appearance, and his accent often wavered somewhere between a John Wayne drawl and a Perthshire lilt. Perhaps this was more a problem of forcing Bukowski’s language, which is heavily rooted in the grime-soaked vulgarity of certain Americanisms, into a different vernacular. This was a small gripe, however. There was something very satisfying about Fleming’s performance, particularly the way in which he allowed a thick mixture of red wine and spittle to drip convincingly from  his chin throughout. He seems to very much understand Bukowski and he re-spoke the man’s words with conviction: his reading of the poem ‘Roll the Dice’ was a particular highlight.

Ultimately, given the recent excitement of national fervour that is currently going on north of the border, it is perhaps significant that that Ben Harrison should have chosen to animate the words of Bukowski – rather than those of Burns, MacDiarmid, or even Irvine Welsh. Perhaps this should serve as a reminder that it is not only in Scotland that we will walk into provincial pubs to find dilapidated men and women who nevertheless seem touched with a bizarre genius, and are content to ‘explore the world from their barstools’.


Colin Bramwell is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Barflies Show Info

Produced by Grid Iron

Directed by Ben Harrison

Written by Charles Bukowski

Cast includes Charlene Boyd, Keith Fleming




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