The Orphans of Oxford

In the summer of 2009, Peter Duncan asked me to be in Jack And The Beanstalk at Oxford Playhouse, the coming winter.  His idea was that I could repeat something of Dave Bladgett – the Midland's Rocker from On The Island Of Aars, in the role of Fleshcreepy, a traditional name for the Baddie, apparently.  Fleshcreepy is the Giant's henchman, who has two tasks needed for the plot; buying Jack's cow for a handful of beans, and the kidnapping of Jill.  Jill, Jack's paramour, is not in the original story but is in panto to prevent the only love-interest being that between a boy and his cow.  (See “I'm a Boy, You're a Cow” for a lyric regarding this pure, bestial love).

We thought that Fleshcreepy, to carry out his nefarious jobs, might appear in different disguises and it might be fun if we could genuinely fool the audience with them.  I think that a few particularly credulous six-year-olds were fooled. 

For capturing Jill, we hit upon his pretending to be an old peasant woman, collecting alms and selling trinkets in aid of orphans.  She would win Jill's trust sufficiently to get close, wrap the girl up helplessly in a very long scarf, before hauling her off to be the Giant's plaything. 

Peter scuttled away, started honing the panto script on the back of a nearby envelope, and I agreed to write a song for the old woman. 

In rehearsals I started pissing about with a demented crook-backed hag of a characterisation, walking on knee-shoes and yelping in a somewhere-East-of-the-Urals accent which wandered happy-as-a-rail-pass all over Europe, sometimes doing so within individual vowels.  The rest of the show was developing into a fairly straight-forward parade of old routines, gags and snappy dancing to popsongs, and Laura Pitt-Pulford - playing Jill - was taken aback by the extremes of my idiotic playing.  Oh my fucking God, tell me you're not going to do it like that is, I recall, the jist of her initial appreciation, as she reached for her phone and tried her agent.

Towards tech-week, I turned, accompanying myself on uke, with this jaunty, unpredictable number with Balkan overtones (the smart amongst you will spot in the dots, something of Bartok's playful bi-tonal centres, with a dance melody in E major, and a ground in C ) and the lyric went thus;

I come from Slovenia/
Or somewhere nearby:
Mysterious woman/ I..
I come from afar
With my plaintive song:
Please buy somefing to save the orphans

This orphans is lonely
And don't have no hands
Or uncles to take them/ Cinema
Please buy somefing to save the orphans

And now I sing middle-eight
In my own languages:
Horst! Plinky plinky
Vorst! Minky linky
Borst!

I come from Croatia
Or somefing like that,
I'm wearing traditional
Hat.

Eastern Europe is full of three-syllable countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Dalmatia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, so I was able to relocate from performance to performance, always ensuring, however, that the place in verse one was different to verse three, thus making it obvious that this little old woman wasn't really from anywhere of the sort, but Fleshcreepy pretending.

A few performances into the run, however, we got a letter of mild complaint from a Oxford primary-school teacher, who said that having an evil, child-snatching hag explicitly coming from the Balkans was not a positive image for her refugee pupils struggling against racist bullying in the playground.  Although I considered posting to this teacher my seminal essay Irony: a Weapon Against Fascism, and pointing out that it was the panto ­baddie feeding off racial stereotypes and therefore an ideal springboard for a classroom debate about propaganda,  I reflected that doing so would make me a bit of a cunt, so I changed Slovenia to Siberia and Irskutskia. No-one -surely – in Oxfordshire schools - was a refugee from Krasnoyarsk.  Sometimes, when small ones were in the audience, at a suggestion from Richard Stacey,  I had the old woman come from Sylvania.  As in “n families”

I'm afraid that I never fully committed to the idea of having the song – or indeed any of my lines - set in stone, and as the run progressed Laura had to put up with the increasingly bizarre sparking of my unlikely synapses as I thought up new and ingenious tortures for the orphans.  She corpsed every single show, which was delightful, and we both got to look forward to the scene. 

So, the middle eight was a free-for-all, really.  Occasionally I would bark Horst and Borst, as written, and strike some random discord on the uke; sometimes I would keen and wail like a banshee, other times ululate like it the deepest-rooted folk memory was come warblingly to life, (and how fortunate we are that Kodály recorded so much for us) and sometimes fix to the end a plaintive request that belied Fleshcreepy's Midlands origins, some of which were;

Do you know of a Haberdashers in Kidderminster?
Where have I put my map of Droitwhich?
Is there a Brasserie in Redditch?
Why do you complain about Solihull, stranger?
Can you recommend a tailor in Dudley?

It was with the second verse that we had most fun, however.  During rehearsals, there was always a slight worry that orphans having no hands, might prove too much for some tastes.  Consequently, I came up with a more dilute alternative;

This orphans is lonely/ And don't have no friends
And only gets sandwich on/ Saturdays

Wherein I delivered (as I had in the first version) the last tri-syllabic word to Jill with a sudden and quite un-called-for ferocity, thus not only creating a contrast for returning to the sickly, pitiable pleading of the chorus, but getting a laugh on the unexpected word.

For a few shows I alternated between the two versions, judging (although upon what criteria I really do not know) whether or not an audience were hard enough for handless orphans, or needed the softer option of their starving, weekdays.

But if two versions, then why not three?  Oh, dear reader, before long I was delivering a fresh quatrain with every show, and took a perverse pride in doing so. Laura never know what I was going to come up with.  Naughty work, but nice.  The rhythm and form was always the same, with “The Orphans” always in the first line, and a three-syllable surprise always barked at the end.  Here are some of them;

The Orphans is sad because/ All of their toys
Were sold for a shed load of/ APRICOTS

The O's must sleep with their/ Heads in a fridge
And only get bread made by/ BARRY WHITE

The O's is hungry and/ Sleep in a shed,
And only get vests made of / AUBERGINES

On Wednesdays the O's must/ Dress up as mice,
And dance on the top of a/ PILLARBOX

The O's are woken at/ Twenty to four,
To dive in a tank full of/ GOOSEBERRIES

At weekends the O's must/ Stand in the rain,
Whilst shopkeepers pelt them with/ WATERCRESS

At weekends the O's must/ Stand on their heads,
Reciting the bible to/ PELICANS

This Orphans is forced to shout slogans in Welsh
Whilst strapped to the side of a CARAVAN

This Orphans is frighted and live in the dark
Their light-bulb is stolen by KANYE WEST

The O's are sulking and/ Sleep on the shelf,
And only wear socks made of/ SELLOTAPE

The O's is grumpy and/ Live in a sink,
And only get clothes made of/ SODIUM

The O's have nothing but fireworks to eat,
And thus have incendiary WINDY POPS

The O's is lonely and work through the night,
Scraping the Marmite off GUINEA PIGS

This O's is tiny – just four inches tall,
And live in a house made of BROCCOLI

This O's is homeless and covered with lard,
To help as they swim to AUSTRALIA

This O's is lonely and live in a van:
A van which is fill up with BUFFALOES

And there were more, but I can't remember 'em, now.  So there we have it.  The audience were pleased.  Management in the theatre were frightened by the anarchy of it, but that's why they're management and I'm up there in the stupid costume.