Angus James Russell, Bear Hug, Ben Glaister, Broadway Baby, Cara Mahoney, Coming Out, Edinburgh Fringe, Fay Morrice, Homosexuality, Isabelle Arnson, Mermaids Performing Arts Fund, Mermaids St Andrews, Paradise in the Vault, Rory Mackenzie, Sally Stott, Theatre Review, Tom Giles
By now, I would sooner trust Broadway Baby or the Scotsman‘s dragon Sally Stott to diagnose me with cancer than I would to properly review a Fringe show. Between them, Stott and BB’s Hannah Lucy Baker gave “Bear Hug,” a new play from St Andrews University, three stars. I was suspicious of this and so this evening I trotted off to the venue, Paradise in the Vault, to venture a third opinion. Naturally, “Bear Hug” was almost sold out and the play was a riot from start to finish. It is an exemplary demonstration of the power and judgement of Fringe critics.
I am buttered up from the beginning by “Bear Hug” because the music used in the scene changes is “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (1932), a silly, gentle song which is nonetheless sung with laconic BBC precision by Val Rosing. It is a song that my mother played to me in very early childhood and so, for me, a spell is cast immediately over this comedy. The innocence and silliness of the teddy bears’ picnic suits “Bear Hug” very well. A charming young man named Alex (Angus James Russell) wants to tell his friend Sarah (Cara Mahoney) that he loves her. He decides to throw a Halloween party, where the costumes and drunkenness will give him the necessary confidence. Unfortunately the venue is his parents’ home and, even more unfortunately, they have, or rather she has, arrived at the hypothesis that Alex is gay. They will infiltrate his party in disguise to gather intelligence.
The bar is set very low when it comes to the jokes. When the parents are in conspiracy, the father (Ben Glaister) demands, “have you got any poof, I mean proof?” This is fired off like a warning shot – you can’t expect anything better than this! When you write these jokes down, they are terrible, but within this weightless comedy, each one brings the house down. The audience groans along in ecstasy to the play but there are also a few genuine killers in amongst the blanks. A waspish line about Star Wars’ Jar Jar Binks is so far my favourite joke from the Fringe.
If Alex was a gruff earthy man, the carefree atmosphere of misunderstanding about his sexuality would require a more explanatory or apologetic tone. “Bear Hug” gets away with what it is doing because its straight man, Alex, is a shapely, twinky young figure, who could never in billions of years be straight. Rory Mackenzie, the writer of “Bear Hug,” has read every book in the Queer Theory department before blowing it sky-high. There is a very funny scene in which Alex’s mother deduces that her son must be gay from all of the books by gay authors that she has found in his bedroom. A box of books is duly produced and half of the literary canon flies across the stage, until the notion that homosexuals could have ever been a minority is left in tatters.
People are usually so timorous these days when joking about homosexuality that “Bear Hug” comes to seem refreshingly jolly and old-fashioned in its intrinsic relaxation. It has constructed a kind of fairytale world for itself out of different things. The configuration of misunderstandings and cross-purposes in the farce gives it a tight, distinctly Shakespearean dynamic (well, “bear with me,” as the guy in the bear costume keeps saying), but the climax is a chase straight out of the Benny Hill show. The flipside of this is that some of the more promisingly sinister or, ahem, adult possibilities of this play cannot be followed up. A scenario in which Tim (Tom Giles) unknowingly chats up his friend’s disguised mother (Fay Morrice) is rather wistfully abandoned.
When the Vault is full, it can be a punishing venue. The seats must be meant for children since there is no room for a normally proportioned adult. Several in the audience fled from the heat. But “Bear Hug” is itself the very opposite of discomfort.