Thing-Fish, BAC, London

By Rhoda Koenig
Friday 27 September 2013 03:40

All in all, this previously unperformed musical by the late Frank Zappa, the wild man of rock, was about what I had expected. I wasn't surprised by the woman in black underwear and huge plastic breasts and buttocks who proclaims that men have not been necessary for some time because "we've actually been able to reproduce ourselves by fucking our briefcases". (A demonstration, with a bolster-size phallus, follows.)

I did not, however, anticipate the mutant mammy nuns. These creatures, apparently created by eating tainted mashed potatoes while in San Quentin prison, are a combination of gorilla, duck, and baked potato. Their leader, larger than the rest and sporting a goatee, is Thing-Fish, who talks and sings - much of the time not very distinctly. Indeed, another character, Evil Prince, comments: "This spying potato with horrible diction/ Will rot in the garbage when this show's eviction/ Takes place." So my transcription of lines and understanding of plot and motive are probably not all they might be.

Though Thing-Fish never made the stage before now, it was recorded in 1984, and several scenes were set up and photographed by Hustler. There was no actual nudity in the BAC production, though a middle-aged married man in a dinner-jacket not only comes out but strips off, down to a transparent black shirt and PVC posing pouch.

Sexual upheaval may not have been all that attracted the Austrian company Stagecraft to, er, mount the piece. There is also a strain of political criticism, some of it contemporary (right-wing censors of rock lyrics, we are told, will burn in the fires of hell) and some up-to-date, the work of adapters. Dressed in a Santa Claus jacket, a woman sings, to the tune of "Jingle Bells", "Oh, what fun it is to ride to Baghdad every day."

I am no expert in Zappology, but I believe Thing-Fish, from whose gorilla head there issues the voice of a black man, may derive his name from the most popular American radio programme of the Thirties, Amos'n'Andy. The characters were simple, comical black folk, and the most outrageous of them was called the Kingfish.

The main note of Thing-Fish is a general howl of anguish at the blandness and repression of American life, and the hope that it might be improved by sexual exercise ("Don't let your meat loaf!") and the appliance of weird science. "During the intromission [sic]," says Thing-Fish, "the sisters be sellin' mashed potatoes in the lobby." There is no interval, but we don't go hungry. Evil Prince takes a break from the twisted neon cables and bicycle parts of his laboratory to hand out dishes of mashed potato to the audience and to throw it at those who are slow on the uptake. The mammy nuns, who sing like a close-harmony girl group, dance what I think was the mashed potato. Two actors playing a couple in the audience get roped into the action and, while the music rises to an onanistic frenzy, follow suit. (Unless this is part of the adapters' version, Zappa certainly had a bleak vision of the future of copulation.)

The bass player, drummer, guitarist and pianist were hidden from the conductor by a curtain, a pleasant surrealist touch which could have been improved by having the curtain stretch across the entire stage.

Sad days indeed for satire if this is what passes for it.

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