Theatre / Secret encounters of the intimate kind: Paul Taylor on The Black and White Minstrels and Operation Elvis at the Edinburgh Festival

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 25 August 1992 23:02
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WITH THE same-day openings of Operation Elvis and The Black and White Minstrels, Edinburgh's dismal C P Taylor-fest takes two steps back and five forward. First, the reasonably good news. The Black and White Minstrels was written, and is set, in the early Seventies and, while time hasn't been exactly kind to the play, it hasn't been an outright brute to it, either. Often transmitting the feel of a period sitcom with added four letter words and right-on attitudes (a sort of Liberated Man About The House), Taylor's comedy focuses on two Glaswegian couples who swap partners on a weekdays / weekends time-share basis.

These are the days when a permissive sexual 'scene' of this sort likes to think of itself as a 'living revolution', as though it were possible to change the world by simply switching beds and not changing sheets. With appealing good humour, the play prises open the gap between the characters' professed ideals and their instincts and needs, a process that is accelerated when the main, semi-autobiographical character, Cyril (a blocked half-Jewish playwright, skilfully portrayed by Jason Isaacs), finds himself trying to evict Atara (Yvonne Gidden), a troublesome Nigerian lodger. The issue of racism is never quite integrated satisfactorily with the rest of the play's concerns (it's left irritatingly unclear whether the black woman really is objectionable). And, as with the satire in The Ballachulish Beat, Taylor's own position vis a vis all this is sometimes tricky to pinpoint. Still, it's the best play so far in the retrospective.

Fulfilling expectations, the indefatigably liberated, right-on Harry (excellent James McKenna) turns out to be a chauvinist lecher - who takes advantage of the black woman's plight by trying to seduce her - and a man who is touchier about his infertility than he is prepared to acknowledge.

There are some neat thrusts, too, at the absurdities and self- deceptiveness in the free-love ethic. The age-old cynical remark after sex, 'If you tell me who you were thinking of, I'll tell you who I was,' is turned inside out here to the suspect sanctimony of 'even when we're making love, Cyril. . . .we're thinking about all the four of us. . . .aren't we, Harry?' You can't help feeling that Cyril is at his sanest when he retires to a sleeping bag, alone, with a bottle of pop and a copy of William in Trouble.

Linda Marlowe's production is well acted (if under-energised) and makes a fairly persuasive case for the play's viability. But the best that can be said for Operation Elvis is that it is well intentioned. Emerging from the author's work with Newcastle schoolchildren, this 55-minute play tells the tale of a 10-year-old boy who thinks he is the reincarnation of Elvis and is eventually liberated from his obsession by friendship with a young girl suffering from cerebral palsy. Everyone else thinks she can't communicate, but Malcolm / Elvis, with his special understanding, knows that it is her big ambition to go out on the loch on a boat. Hence the secret 'operation': to create a custom-built pulley to hoist her from land into the vessel.

The nuts-and-bolts execution of such a task is just the sort of thing that would interest children and help ease the show's 'message' down their little throats; but the basic story-telling in this skimpy piece is so inadequate (and the convention of invisible props so often abused) that curiosity is thwarted at every turn. Though Andy Milarvie and Annalu Waller are engaging enough as the youngsters with the intuitive rapport, there is nothing in Maggie Kinloch's ugly, zestless touring production to suggest that Operation Elvis will help Operation C P Taylor.

The Black and White Minstrels continues until 29 August at The Church Hill Theatre; further performances of Operation Elvis at the Corn Exchange on 26 August, at 11am and 2.30pm, and 27 August, at 11am (Booking: 031-225 5756).

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