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A MASTER OF UNPREDICTABILITY AND SUBVERTING EXPECTATIONS

Print Version

NZ International Comedy Festival
BARNIE DUNCAN in CALYPSO NIGHTS
presented by THEATRE BEATING

at Fringe Bar, Cnr Cuba & Vivian, Wellington
From 1 May 2013 to 4 May 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 2 May 2013


Being of a generation that thought Harry Belafonte was the King of Calypso, cried “Day-O!” from Wellington hilltops, sang ‘Island in the Sun' and ‘The Jamaica Farewell' around campfires and heeded his warning about that other ‘Matilda' who didn't waltz but took his money and ran to Venezuela, I thought I was Calypso literate. But that was before I encountered Juan Vesuvius.   

The latest creation of Barnie Duncan, the ultra-suave and very sexy Juan Vesuvius hails from Venezuela (could he be the son of Matilda?) and comes with his own applause and laugh tracks the via twin turntables and mixing desk atop a table adorned by … the flag of Mexico (because he couldn't get a Venezuelan one).

This we gather from his mucho speedy and fluent introductory chat in what I take to be Venezuelan Spanish (based on a Castilian dialect), in which Gloria Estefan gets a mention, I'm not sure why.

His on-mic vox pops with audience members suggests we all speak Spanish (or Creole or a convincingly accented gibberish; there are talented people at his opening night). Eager to get our measure, Juan checks out what we like and it turns out – amenable and malleable mob that we are – we like anything and everything, except the sudden and intrusive noise from the Fringe Bar fridges.

Despite our compliance, something tells him we want his show in English so he backtracks (think turntables) and on resuming discovers, with some consternation, that everything he does gets a laugh, albeit canned. I discern a critique of comedy audiences here, and/or the fabrication of audience responses on TV comedy shows.  

It has felt like a long warm up/introduction, saved from tedium by this audience's absolute trust in Duncan's judgement and skills. And now the show becomes more focused – on enlightening us as to the true qualities of Calypso. This he achieves – thanks to his two turntables and an admirable ability to juggle discs (not to mention album covers later in the show) – by comparing and contrasting Calypso with different genres, involving some surprising choices.   

We learn extraordinary facts about Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of Calypso; we're alerted to the mysteries of the maraca; we're initiated into the three essential qualities of Calypso music: sex, politics and making fun, and we discover how The Mighty Sparrow combines all three. (Google him.)

On the political front, we come to understand how the relationship – or lack of one – between Kim Jong-Il and Calypso has become a threat to world peace, via an ingeniously spun ‘documentary'.

Barnie Duncan is a master of unpredictability and subverting expectations so if you think you have the measure of this show from my indications, you haven't. You really do have to be there – and there are many elements which, by their very nature, will be very different in every performance.

Calypso Nights is ideally scheduled as a late night show. Treat yourselves.
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 Nik Smythe
 Dione Joseph