Reviewed by Kirsten Luckins
Review Date: 30/11/18

The SMOG (Work in Progress showing)

Scott Turnbull

28/11/18 @ ARC Stockton

Firstly, dear readers, I’d like us just to agree that Teesside Surreal is A Thing. Is that OK? The rest of the world may think Vic & Bob are an isolated phenomenon, but we know that Teesside Surreal is a bona fide comedic genre, a specific cultural expression. I’m here to tell you, if you didn’t already know, that Scott Turnbull is its king.

Now comes the part where you’ll want me to tell you what The SMOG is ‘about’, or in some way synopsise the plot. This is going to prove difficult. For one thing, there are lots of plots, because as Turnbull handily explains, this is a ‘portmanteau horror’ in which several short stories are loosely held together by a framework narrative. I suppose I could tell you a bit about what the fine young lesbians did with the thing they found in the sea cave, or what the teenage rabbit saw through her binoculars, or even hint at the reason for the water turning brown. But I can’t say a thing without ruining the jokes! The plots are thickly strewn with jokes, you can’t take a turn without stepping on a joke; hell, the plots are jokes! So sorry, I don’t want to find myself knee-deep in the vivisected corpses of jokes like Dr Moreau surrounded by dead dogs. (Spoiler – there are dead dogs. You’ll laugh at them. You won’t want to, but you will.)

Instead let me tell you about Turnbull’s USP – the OHP. He tells his stories mostly seated at an old overhead projector, combining pre-drawn acetates with live illustration. He punctuates the on-screen action with fantastically bizarre interpretive-dance-style stand-up theatre, sometimes with tights on his head. A man pulling tights off his head should simply not be that funny, but there you go, it bloody well is. The whole show is so funny that at one point I literally had to put my fist in my mouth and slide down the wall whimpering.

What I suspect he wouldn’t tell you himself is that the show is also very, very clever. Turnbull is obviously an intelligent consumer of narrative styles, conventions, and clichés. The graphic-novel quality of the live illustrations in his first show, Where Do All The Dead Pigeons Go?, is amplified by excellent incidental music here until it takes on cinematic qualities. Turnbull is fluent in the visual language of different shot-types – the build from long shot to close-up, the sexualised red-carpet reveal from the feet up (and it’s comedic potential). At one point there’s a spaced-out audio-collage of dialogue snippets worthy of Airplane!

This fluency is not just in visual storytelling tropes, but in literary styles as well. Turnbull is as pitch-perfect at the repressed hysterical tones of the 19th-century mad scientist’s diary as he is at disaffected LA teen. No sooner does he set up the type than he flips it, twists it, perforates it with absurdity and renders the whole thing hilarious. If like me you are also an intelligent consumer of narrative styles and conventions, you might find this show not only massively funny but also deeply satisfying because of this sure-footed play-about with form.

We have a year to wait before the finished piece is touring out there in the world, by which time Turnbull assures us there will be an ending. Will we find out what Charlie was doing on the roof of the Swallow Hotel? Will earth ever throw off the yoke of their alien overlords? Stay tuned, dear readers, stay tuned…