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How does Tim Key follow up Slutcracker?

Friday, August 05 2011

Tim Key faces a particularly tricky task on his return to the Edinburgh Fringe ...

Tim Key

A few thoughts on the return of Tim Key to the Fringe this year. This is the first time he's been up since he trousered the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Slutcracker in 2009. Touring that show and TV work kept him so busy he wasn't at the Fringe last year.

The question is, how does he follow up Slutcracker? Any artist who has a smash hit show/album/book has to try and do it all again, with all that additional expectation, and without the benefit of the impact of the new. One option is to do a Harper Lee, but then she never had the carrot of doing three nights at Warwick Arts Centre.

I would posit that Key doesn't just have expectation and familiarity to contend with – he has a stylistic and artistic quandary as well. Without wanting to demean straight stand-ups, this isn't just a matter of a stand-up winning an award, then having to write a bunch of new material.

The reason is that Slutcracker was such a unique show; it felt like nothing else. If you've not seen it, it's tricky to describe but I'll give it a shot – it was an hour of poetry, video and the odd stunt. Key took the not particularly original idea of the pompous, deluded poet and made it gentler, weirder. And by nesting the show with all manner of props and videos, it wasn't just him you were invited to see, it was a whole world.

It was a show that came from years of knocking his stage persona into shape and it therefore felt unforced. It was the culmination of something – and that's very difficult to replicate. Whenever a band has a massive debut record, spends a number of albums meandering through different styles, then announces they are going "back to basics", it's never quite the same as that original moment because they're trying to replicate something that occurred naturally. It's artistically dishonest, and that tends to result in art that feels hollow.

Key's situation is a little different as this is the immediate follow-up, he's not several shows down the line, but the principle remains the same – repeating the same trick can so easily come out as a pale facsimile.

Another option is to do the complete opposite of Slutcracker, something orthodox, even. Be the true artist. Never consolidate, always innovate. "Do a Kid A". But that would surely be throwing the baby out with the old bath water. Comics would give their right arm to find themselves a unique voice, so if you get one, you don't just ditch it immediately for fear of diminishing returns.

Key told EiF that he had actually considered this nuclear option: "Yeah I did [think about doing something completely different]. I thought about writing a one-man play about a guy drinking with his work colleagues outside a pub near Liverpool Street station. It would be a tragedy, about how his evening goes to shit and how he strains to put a brave face on it. It would have been very bleak but funny. I may write it at some point.

"The fact is, I love doing new poems and stuff. Gradually this stuff starts looking like it might be the beginnings of a show. Then I bite the bullet, thing of a title with the word Slut in it, and start whacking it into some sort of shape."

Delicious gimmick

If I were Key I'd be thinking I was fucked every which way I turned. But then I'm not Key, I'm a journalist and a fan, and sometimes you just have to put your faith in an artist with proven pedigree to navigate their way through such a minefield. I only hope Key hasn't been overthinking this follow-up show, because as far as I could see, one of the aspects that made Slutcracker so special was that he clearly enjoyed performing it. Nor should he try and second guess what criticism he might get (I know this is a bit rich coming from a reviewer), because another vital ingredient of Slutcracker was the courage Key showed in his convictions to plough on with some pretty out-there ideas.

I have actually seen a preview of his new show, Masterslut. I won't give too much as away as it was a preview, and things may change, but as it stood, it was similar to Slutcracker in tone, but more stripped back. Less ambitious you could say (that's not meant as a euphemism for "a bit boring"). The poet persona remained firmly in place, possibly slightly evolved as it was a little more energetic, though that could have been nerves. There was the odd delicious gimmick and I did find it a very funny show.

So what are Key's thoughts on this whole business? He said to EiF: "The fact that it is 'a follow-up' is tough. Not so much in terms of perception, but more personally. I want to make something that has the same spirit as the last one but also one which is its own man.

"The Slutcracker hangs over this show like a cheeky cloud the whole time. Every decision I make I can't help but think about what was going on in that show. I've tried to make it have its own identity (that one had a fridge, this one has a bath) but it's difficult.

"A few times when I was writing that show, the right idea struck me at the right time and increasingly it just started to all slot together like magic. With this one there are also ideas. As yet it feels less connected than The Slutcracker. But I think it will turn into something rather fine. I did the last one a hundred times and it was changing right to the end. So it's exciting to see what will happen to this one."

Some people will cry "genius" every time he farts, others just do not see the appeal of Tim Key. Whatever your point of view, the fate of Masterslut is one of the most interesting subplots of this year's Fringe, and in the bigger scheme of things, another building block in an increasingly fascinating career.

Tim Key: Masterslut is on at the Pleasance Dome at 9.40pm/11.45pm.


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