There's something very funny about Penny Ashton.
Which is a relief since GUSH: Love and Other Filthy Habits
is billed as a comedy.
It certainly is funny – very funny – but it's much more than that. Those who know Ashton's work will expect nothing less because Ashton is a consummate performer but this show packs a number of unexpected surprises with the most notable being Matthew ‘he's my boyfriend' Harvey.
Harvey is a Yorkshireman. It's hard to fathom why just being from Yorkshire makes someone innately funny but it seems to. He's tall – very tall – with many admirable physical attributes. Some of these are on show, some not, but Ashton leaves us in no doubt that those not quite so visible are pretty damned impressive notwithstanding. As this is an adult show we have to take her word for this and she is, as always, never short of a word or two. He is her boyfriend, after all.
Despite this being Harvey's first ever show – he is billed as the ‘virgin sacrifice' – he has a talent that is truly equal to the task of sharing the stage with Ashton, and that's saying a lot. He plays the ukulele competently, sings well, and performs, self-effacingly, a significant set of his own poetry with wee gems such as ‘What a Difference a Dave Makes', ‘My Question for God' and ‘I Want to Be Like Tom Jones' winning over a well-primed audience.
His love poem to Ashton ‘I Quite Like You, I Do' is totally scrumptious. Harvey is a likeable bloke and his writing is both accessible and articulately performed.
Following this set Ashton joins Harvey for a musical number based on the limerick form and their easy rapport makes this audience participation piece really fun.
Then it is Hot Pink Penny Ashton
at her vivid and rambunctious best which means no-holds-barred, tell-it-like-it-is, 21st
century comic brutalism. When Ashton has the stage no-one gets away, and we love it! Yet her loveable immediacy conceals an extraordinary craft and, while her audience doesn't get to see the wheels chugging away, they surely are as she lands comic blow after comic blow and builds our expectation (and need) for more.
She has a genius for short narrative delivery best witnessed in her set-up for ‘The Angry Poem' which ended with the audience joining her in chanting, with a glorious glee reminiscent of Eve Ensler in ‘The Vagina Monologues', that ubiquitous C word.
Surprise number two was realising the breadth of Ashton's current artistic reach: the Kiwi male, the sexual politics of hip hop videos (who could disagree?), epilepsy, a deeply moving memento to her long deceased grandmother, her ‘Preachie Poem' and some brief personalised reflections, as a Christchurch person, on the earthquake tragedy that is so much in our minds and hearts right now.
The emotional range traversed in a show of 60 minutes is simply extraordinary – rare in any form of theatre – and is perhaps best revealed in Ashton's funny, gross, witty, sexy, lustful, touching and just plain rude love poem to Matthew ‘he's my boyfriend' Harvey, who must have been just itching to get his delectable goddess home after hearing all that!
Despite the excellence of all the above and the wonderful freedom of Ashton's delivery, my personal favourite was the classically structured ‘Rohypnol Girl' which induced tears of laughter and an unwanted reflux all in the same moment.
Ashton's sublime understanding of her physical power and her dancer-like consciousness of the messages she delivers with her body is surprise number three. She gains maximum value from a freedom to move that she has acquired over time. Few artists get this much value from the face in profile.
The final surprise is realising just how tight this seemingly fluid and spontaneous production was. This is credit to both performers and the trust they have in each other, their material and their audience. There is no greater art than the recreating of spontaneity and this show really achieves it.
Overall, a fabulous evening at the theatre with one artist at the absolute peak of her powers and the other at the start of a career which has immense potential.
The Te Karanga Gallery performance space is attractive and intimate with the bonus of having good parking facilities nearby and a comfortable bar with excellent service.