2012 Edmonton Fringe Festival Village of the Fringed Review: The Saints of British Rock

The first fringe play of the year is always, frankly, a little worrying. If your week kicks off with seeing an impressively written and performed piece of work it really pumps you up for getting to see more and more of them. Even when you do eventually end up seeing a stinker or two, it doesn't dampen your enthusiasm since you knew you just had to wait for another piece o' quality.

Contrarily though, if you see a lousy play first, it makes you more than a little gun-shy...even a couple decent plays after that one and you are still left creeped out that every new ticket you purchase is another unfunny/unentertaining/unfocussed mess of live theatre you'll have to sit through.

The Saints of British Rock, tragically, fall squarely into that second category.

The gag is simple enough: legendary British rock duo "Rocco Hercules Somershire" and "Jib from Broffitts" sit down with an interviewer in 2008 to discuss their legendary career. Through musical numbers, video montages projected on a screen in the background, and a small amount of acting from the two leads, the story of a 60s British rock band's rise/fall/redemption is told.

What actually IS that story? Well, okay, this is where things get weird, disjointed, and ultimately fall apart. The plot is pretty much nonexistent. Their rise comes standard enough: a pampered rich boy leaves London and his family behind to form a rock band, meets up with a rough and tumble bass player from Broffitts (a fictional British city that is probably supposed to be Liverpool). Their fall comes...from some sort of falling out over a tiger hunt. Oh, and in the middle they travel to Camelot and rock with King Arthur and Merlin.

Wait, what?

Yeah, okay, so there's a gag in the opening videos that run before the play opens about the band travelling through time and space and apparently never aging. Along with some gag about King Arthur. As one scene recounts, while playing at Stonehenge the band ends up meeting Merlin who takes them back to meet King Arthur -- "the greatest King in the history of the world" -- who by the way is probably fictional. But I digress.

So the band ends up in 460AD, having sex with Guinevere, surviving a dragon attack, doing loads of drugs with Merlin, and basically reliving half of the plot to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure except the movie had a cheesy but existent point to it all, which this show doesn't.

The whole Camelot thing can be mistaken for what sends this play off the rails, but that's not entirely true: it's the limited plot and script focus issues which ultimately sink it: the Camelot bit was just an example: it worked fine as a 1-2 minute long gag (The Saints do so many drugs that they think they learn how to bend spacetime and travel into Britain's legendary past) but not so much when it literally takes up 60% of the running time of the piece. And the play plays it straight: the characters freak out when a magazine article claims the Merlin thing was a drug-induced fantasy being milked for publicity...but we're made to think that this entirely sensible explanation is really the asshole in the room.

So is there anything to save this mess? Well, actually there is. The musical numbers are all pretty well written and performed: Martok's theory is that a separate person was assigned to write the musical numbers. The songs are all vaguely parodic without losing their subtlety, and each song perfectly suits the moment in the story in which it is set (it's just the story bumping around with no rhyme or reason). The various performers play well together ("tight" as the lingo goes, I am led to understand) and can cover different musical styles quite well as the band's musical style actually various according to the era (1959-1973, with a possible 2008 reunion).

The concept itself was pretty sound, and the boys waxing about metaphysics and the nature of time and space is a pretty good parody of the sort of faux-thinking that the hippie movement was known for. "Are we playing the music, or is the music playing us?" Likewise the band's overt Britishness was a decent running gag: every song had to be about how they were from London. Which is in the U.K.

Also very well done (with one exception) are the video montages done on the screens behind the stage: they blend Monty Python style cartoons, live action, CGI, and photoshopped images together (again, almost) flawlessly. And like the songs, they do a very good job of telling the story (though I wouldn't have used a wizard puppet to represent Merlin at the end).

It's sort of a shame that a very talented video editor was found for this project, along with a very good songwriter and very good musicians while they couldn't be bothered to track down a decent playwright. (They even got a web editor to make their decently designed website which hasn't been updated since the Winnipeg Fringe). The Saints of British Rock is a show brimming with potential, and employing very talented people at their craft, but overplaying weak jokes, failing to have any coherent purpose or path forward, and missing opportunities left and right.

Final word: Unless you're feeling pious and a need to ritually self-flaggate yourself, you should skip the Saints.

Okay, now for the one exception: in one of the early songs the boys used their money from the "Rock and Roll Twist" to buy a "Rock and Roll Automobile" and they do a song about it while the video shows them driving their rock and roll automobile. And yes, it shows these very very very British boys driving a left-hand drive. I could barely contain my laughter. It's very very clearly not a road in Britain, and very very clearly not a British car. I thought it was kind of sad that the video editors, who showed so much promise elsewhere, didn't think to simply simulate a right-hand drive by horizontally flipping the video footage. I mean c'mon, this is a trick that 15 year olds know so that they can post copyrighted material onto YouTube. It certainly would have come in handy during a 4 minute long song of guys driving around the Vegreville area trying to pretend its Colchester.