Paul ‘Mr Twonkey’ Vickers is back at the free Fringe with a Tardis-like restaurant, a ditty about Mussolini and a new array of baffling puppets and toys. It’s his most ambitious show yet, he says. Just don’t call it surreal. Interview by Claire Smith
Paul Vickers, aka Mr Twonkey, stumbles into a pub in Leith hauling an enormous suitcase decorated with a Canadian flag. I’ve asked him to bring along a few props for the photo but Twonkey, eccentric darling of the Free Festival, seems to have obligingly brought along his whole show.
Inside the suitcase is a hot air balloon, a couple of rather menacing ventriloquists dummies, a threadbare model of a starving cat, some plastic seafood, a pipe, a telephone, a candlestick and a fake pumpkin.
“I like to think I have got a classier array of rubbish than when you first saw me,” he says.
Twonkey’s Private Restaurant is his fifth Fringe show. He is also known to music fans as the front man of Paul Vickers and the Leg – and was previously the driving force behind Dawn of the Replicants.
A dishevelled northerner now living in Edinburgh, Vickers has become a cult among Fringe goers for telling funny unsettling fables, helped, or sometimes hindered, by a baffling and mostly irrelevant pile of props. His early shows featured a talking loaf of bread – but it has been dropped from the act.
“It scared people. Some people were laughing like drains and other people looked at me really concerned.”
It is hard to describe what Twonkey does. He uses puppets but is not a puppeteer, he’s a humorist but not a stand-up and he tells fairy stories and ghost stories which are decidedly not for children. He also writes wonderful songs – about forgotten Victorian beverages, oranges and walking up hills.
It’s safe to say that he divides audiences – but he’s had something of a breakthrough year after becoming a finalist in the TOAST cabaret awards last Fringe. He didn’t win, but Vickers’ performance – in which he told fortunes using a ship’s wheel and a collection of Primark knickers – earned him a coveted spot at the Soho Theatre in March.
The stand-out moment of his show last year was a plaintive song called The Flying Tailor – based on the true story of a man who believed he could fly from the Eiffel Tower if he created a frock coat with wings. He died, but Vickers brings him back to life in the form of a bedraggled puppet made from an umbrella which flies above the heads of the audience.
It is a poignant and strangely uplifting tribute to a flamboyant and unnecessary death.
“I don’t really like comic songs,” he says. It is one of the reasons he feels at home in the cabaret section of the programme. We discuss how to describe his style. “I guess I am in the tradition of the English eccentric. But so was Ivor Cutler and he’s Scottish – so the British eccentric.”
Like Cutler he dislikes the use of the word “surreal” to describe humour – preferring terms such as “absurd”, “confusing” and “odd”. And there is depth, resonance and pathos as well as laughter.
“I still remember the first time I heard Ivor Cutler. I always hoped something like that existed and I was so glad it did.”
It turns out Cutler and Vickers were pen pals. “He used to send me letters enclosing Chinese bank notes.”
Vickers’ correspondence with Cutler came from his work with indie fanzine Sun Zoom Spark – set up with a group of friends from art school – who were also the core members of Dawn of the Replicants. Both the fanzine and the band were run from a disused church in Galashiels. The band was championed by John Peel.
“We did about six sessions with John Peel. He started off playing the B side. He had a thing about playing B sides.”
Their second album sold 15,000 copies and they were on the brink of becoming huge. But the band slid from a major to a minor label, and all the reviews started opening with the words: ‘Whatever happened to?’, which, says Vickers, “wasn’t very helpful”.
Eventually the band dissolved, the magazine bizarrely transformed into a lifestyle publication for Borders aristocrats, and Paul Vickers moved to Edinburgh to do a photography degree. It was here he met his partner and collaborator, Mary Trodden, an artist who helps make puppets and edits his writing. Trodden, like Vickers has an otherworldly air and looks like she may have wandered in from another century.
While at art school Vickers tried his hand at stand up. Everyone kept telling him to give it a go because his between songs chat always had folk howling with laughter. But his early experiments were marred with misadventure. He may still be banned from The Stand after appearing at the new act night Red Raw.
“I went on at Red Raw and got into a bit of trouble because of an incident with a jar of treacle,” he says.
At the time Vickers’ act centred around a strange little puppet called Twonkey. “I went on and Twonkey was hungry and I was trying to make her treacle waffles but it got a bit messy. I spilt a whole jar of treacle on the middle of the stage. That got me known as The Treacle Man and I was effectively banned.
“Daniel Sloss was on next and he was talking about treacle, so I thought: ‘That’s good, I’ve given people a bit of material.’ I also had a cottage on stage with me – which I thought made it memorable. But looking back I think if you go on at Red Raw with a cottage and treacle it is a bit too much for them.”
Vickers continues to perform at the Free Festival – partly because he feels at home there and partly for practical and financial reasons. During the off season he works as a tour guide at one of Edinburgh’s spooky underground themed attractions.
“There are disadvantages with free shows. The audience don’t necessarily know what they have come to see. And you are trying to do something delicate in a night club where the only choice is between darkness and disco lights. But there is something organic about the Fringe. You do something good and it grows naturally throughout the time period.”
He says his new show is his most ambitious yet. “I’m running a restaurant that travels through space and time. There’s a bit set in World War Two and a song about Mussolini, who starts eating in the restaurant and who has stolen my wife. The major breakthrough with this show for me is it’s got more of a theme. But I was a little bit worried there was going to be comparisons with ’Allo ’Allo!’”.
He shares the stage with a moth-eaten lion called Chris Hutchinson who Vickers seems slightly afraid of: “Chris Hutchinson is not very nice. He doesn’t like the show very much. He thinks I’m a bit of an idiot. He just endures it.”
There is also a strange lanky doll cat girl mouse thing with abundant pubic hair. Again, he seems hesitant to describe her. “She doesn’t have a name yet. I don’t know what she’s called. Mary made her and she’s very protective.”
The threadbare polystyrene cat in his suitcase is Hanratty the waiter, who sings in Italian and is too gruesome to include in the photographs. As well as performing and making music Vickers has also produced a book – Itchy Grumble. It’s a fantastic mind-bending mish-mash of dark earthy fairytales, and features a sexy witch with the leg of an octopus.
The tales in Itchy Grumble grew out of a backstory created to flesh out the details of a song cycle/concept album/opera written for Paul Vickers and the Leg about a colony of jockeys in space. It is a bewildering journey punctuated with descriptions which make you laugh out loud. “I remember going to the bar to get a drink but found no bar staff, just a woodpecker with his head buried in a turnip.”
Mary Trodden created the beautiful illustrations and helped with the editing – and Vickers is pleased with the result. “I’m more proud of that book than anything else I’ve done because I’m quite seriously dyslexic so it was really something for me to make a book. I don’t suffer from lack of ideas. Mary goes in and repairs it all.”
With such a profusion of wonderful strange images in his head I wonder why Paul Vickers continues to work with a suitcase full of puppets and props. Particularly as they seem to have a life of their own, don’t always do what he asks and frequently land him in trouble.
“I think it is because I have spent so much time playing in bands,” he says. “I suppose they are like the other members of the band.”
Twonkey’s Private Restaurant, Laughing Horse @ Espionage, until 24 August, 8:45pm, more info
Originally published in The Scotsman
Going to the Edinburgh Festival?
• How to make the most of the Edinburgh Festival
• 10 pop-up bars with the best Festival atmosphere
• Best places for a quick bite to eat in Edinburgh
• The Scotsman critics’ 30 Fringe highlights for 2014
• Everything you need to know about the Edinburgh festival fireworks
• Everything you need to know about Edinburgh Mela
• Everything you need to know about the Tattoo