13 Feb 2012 in Dance & Drama, Showcase

Barony Bar, Edinburgh, 8 February 2012, and touring

YOU’RE sitting in your local and everything looks familiar: special offers chalked on the blackboard, neon advertising signs above the till, the various beer logos on the pumps.

BUT look closely and all is not what it seems. Those are not the usual brands of ale on sale, but a feisty selection with names oozing sexual innuendo. The sign you thought said “sloe gin” says something altogether more rude. It’s like a parallel-universe local.

Keith Fleming as Henry and Charlene Boyd as Vicki in Barflies (photo Richard Campbell)

Keith Fleming as Henry and Charlene Boyd as Vicki in Barflies (photo Richard Campbell)

Every real-life pub on this Grid Iron tour is being subtly reconfigured to match the vision of Charles Bukowski, the hard-drinking beat-generation poet and story writer. In the hands of adapter and director Ben Harrison, bars such as Hootanannys in Inverness, where Barflies plays on Sunday and Monday, become dark, edgy, dangerous outposts of the author’s reckless imagination.

Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski is the kind of guy whose night hasn’t started before downing a couple of bottles of wine plus whisky chasers. Played with grimy abandon by Keith Fleming, he is no mere hedonist, but a dedicated pursuer of existential excess. He is a sensual life-force hell bent on self-destruction.

Because of this, you couldn’t call Barflies a celebration of alcohol – it’s too bleak and desperate for that – but neither is it a condemnation. Rather, it is an evocation of the state of child-like freedom brought on by excessive drinking.

Chinaski has reached a point of inebriation that makes him open to anything, willingly accepting any opportunity, whether it promises terror or exquisite pleasure. Instead of casting judgement, the production captures the violent, impecunious, wretched side of alcoholism as well as its heady, sensuous joy.

It’s a combination echoed and enhanced by the live piano accompaniment of David Paul Jones, switching from the flamboyant arpeggios of the silent-movie player to the boozy lament of Lilac Wine. And it is matched mood-for-mood by Charlene Boyd, who plays a hapless series of girlfriends, from rock chick to literary groupie, all trying to take a bite of Chinaski’s charismatic nihilism.

The piece is more clearly shaped than I remember it from its debut on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, although I still feel it lacks a big dramatic question for the story to wrestle with. Barflies does a great job at capturing the compulsive thrill of alcohol (never touch the stuff myself, of course), but the story it tells has little development; bottle follows bottle, girl follows girl, hangover follows hangover. Like drink itself, however,  the performance is a sensory pleasure, vivid, vigorous and in vino veritas.

© Mark Fisher, 2012