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A Betrayal of Penguins - Harmed and Dangerous
Published on Tuesday, 14 August 2012
4

4 stars

Gilded Balloon Teviot (venue website)
Comedy
1-11 Aug, 6:15pm-7:15pm
Reviewed by Liam McKenna

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Essentially, A Betrayal of Penguins is just your average story about a bearded 11-year-old orphan whose blood holds the key to the gates of Hell. I know, how many times have you heard that one before? We are whisked away down to ‘the catacombs’, which could be the Edinburgh catacombs, or could be any catacomb that springs to mind. The setting, to be perfectly honest, isn’t the most vital element of the plot.

Before the show the cast, three smartly-dressed Irishmen, address the packed-out auditorium. This, they say, is their last show. And they want this performance to go down as the “best ever” of all shows that have ever existed. It’s not too much to ask. It starts with a classic police interrogation: two American cops are trying to figure out why little Barry was in the catacombs, and what in blazing Hell was going on down there. The story turns and flips between past and present. Whether the audience is following the story or not, it’s hard to tell, but then again, it’s not entirely necessary in order to enjoy the show.

A Betrayal of Penguins does not take itself at all seriously, despite the obvious work that’s gone into honing a script laced with farce, constant rolling gags, and a range of characters (each more spurious than the last). There’s an old American governor with evil plans for the catacombs, a Spanish former spy who lives in a caravan with a duck, a one-eyed swordsman, a human rat, and a centaur. Yes, there’s a centaur.

The human rat comes in for a lot of stick. Two of the three members of the cast frequently veer off on tangents, cursing the obscurity of the character. They say they went to the trouble of coming up with easily identifiable villains (one-eyed swordsman, centaur, etc.), whereas the human rat constantly has to introduce and explain himself, and in turn break that much coveted fourth wall. It’s so cleverly done you never quite know what’s pre-meditated.

The action is fast-paced, often ridiculous, but consistently funny. There’s blind swash-buckling (complete with a string of eye puns that become funnier the worse they get). There’s a bit when the lights go out for a prolonged spell, which reminds you that behind all the farce and self-deprecation you’re experiencing some really well-crafted theatre. The best parts come from the ad-libbing; there’s always a comment to be made on how props such as the suit-on-top-of-an-identical-suit are working out. The entire theatre becomes part of the show; the action moves to the balcony, up the aisles, toying with conventions of space, re-affirming that, though at times it may seem to be going wrong, it’s definitely all part of the show.

It’s very self-aware, and post-modern, you just have to strap yourself in and go along with it. It doesn’t feel forced, and the metaphysical side never exhausts itself. In fact, without all the natural, free-flowing gags it wouldn’t have the same unique appeal. And if you’re wondering, apart from a penguin costume which is handed out to a girl who got up on stage and rode the centaur, there is no reference, directly or indirectly, to the betrayal of any flightless, Antarctic birds. And with the gates of hell firmly secured behind them in the fantastical non-descript catacombs, they take their final bow.

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FROM OUR ARCHIVES

These are archived reviews of shows from Edinburgh 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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