The notion of a well-loved artist creating an indie-rock pantomime naturally draws a sharp intake of breath and a groan. For all the dexterousness of David Shrigley, this kind of idea has historically not been one strewn with genre-hopping success, more often illluminating the trappings of ambition over wisdom.
Fortunately, Shrigley has previous here. ‘Pass the Spoon’, his work with a composer, director and cast which toured from 2011, showed all the comic timing that makes Shrigley’s drawings so immediately recognisable. ‘Music and Words’, his frequently foul-mouthed album with the brilliant singer-songwriter Malcolm Middleton, who he has persuaded to make a rare live performance later in the Brighton Festival, was credible, if occasionally trying. Besides, Shrigley told interviewers, he had set the bar “really low”, remaining unsure, rather than rashly optimistic, about exactly how ‘Problem in Brighton’ would play out.
That his debut direction surpasses spoof hilarity is partly down to the two lead members of his seven-piece band. Hugely experienced actress Pauline Knowles has the dead-eyed sincerity of Diane Morgan’s Philomena Cunk. Stephen Kreiss (heavily involved with a manic-depressive egg in that previous collaboration) is the faintly glam frontman you never knew you needed, receiving a clomp to the back of the head from a spade-wielding Knowles for his troubles after the opening song. Both were also part of ‘Pass the Spoon’.
Kreiss, a member of the Brighton troupe Spymonkey, rants about dancing – more specifically, the difficulty of doing so with a broken ankle – and joins Knowles on a preposterous ballad about slippers and wading through rice pudding. The central themes are familiar to Shrigley fans: death, the dismal state of politics and all things disgusting and dark. The band ends up playing four single-string guitars, but there are interjections on a xylophone and, on a skewed national anthem about a regal imposter, a plaintive string accompaniment rather than orchestral pomp.
Within this hollowed-out little world, the performers become macabre puppets. They nail straight-up rock and roll riffs to the incongruous backdrops of Tory figureheads projected large, then turn bloodthirsty choir for ‘The Foreign Meat’ (“I will eat the human corpse”).
You wouldn’t expect an artist so innately wry and adept at bleakness to over-deliver. ‘Problem in Brighton’ is a short rollercoaster of bizarre ideas, played well and acted with all the over-posturing and silly gags of a true pantomime. There’s a caustic heart and an undercurrent of horror to the show, imagining as it does grim mundanity: funeral puddings and rabid dogs tied to posts. Just don’t ask the band if dancing to Jacob Rees-Mogg counts as low bar-setting.
The Old Market, Hove, until May 12 2018. Book tickets.
Words by Ben Miller.