Review: Pass The Spoon, Tramway, Glasgow, 17-19 November

IF YOU ever doubted that artist David Shrigley was an egg-centric, look at his new foray into opera, writes Susan Mansfield

DAVID Shrigley enters the rehearsal room carrying a costume for a human-sized egg. There is something unaccountably funny about seeing a very tall man trying to get a large, fragile object through a set of swing doors, each of which is smaller than the object itself. He could almost have drawn it.

Once safely through (it takes a couple of attempts), he places it carefully on a table. Director Nick Bone and the cast of Pass The Spoon, “a sort-of opera about cookery”, Shrigley’s first foray into writing for the stage, stop what they’re doing and admire it. But there are issues with the egg.

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“Mr Egg has to do stuff,” Shrigley explains. “But as soon as you start cutting arm holes in it, it destroys the shape. I like the idea of it being an egg, with just his feet out the bottom, but it poses a lot of problems, not least that he won’t be able to see the conductor.” It’s decided that Mr Egg - Still Game’s Gavin Mitchell – will try wearing the costume and see how it goes.

This mix of the earnest and the ridiculous characterises everything I’ve seen so far about Pass The Spoon. Shrigley’s script, about a TV cookery show gone wrong, with presenters called June Spoon and Philip Fork and a cast which includes a schemingly ambitious banana and a sinister ogre figure called Mr Granules, is, he admits, “consistently daft”. But the score, by composer Dave Fennessy, is menacing and technically demanding.

“It feels like a very odd piece,” says Shrigley. “There is one level of pantomime comedy, and another level of this quite serious and edgy music in the background.”

Nick Bone describes it as “a taste tightrope”. “Because it sounds funny and is quite peculiar, we’re always having to strike that balance. Mr Egg is a depressive, which is funny because he’s a depressed egg, but it has to be played as quite a serious thing. I think that balance is central to David’s work, he’s always in that place where you’re never quite sure, where it is slightly uncomfortable.”

Indeed, whatever else it is, the show is “Shrigleyesque” (his popularity is such that his name has become adjectival). Shrigley warns people not to expect it to look like his drawings – the visual one-liners in felt pen which appear in books and newspapers, T-shirts, greetings cards and album covers. But there is something in its ethos which is distinctly Shrigley: silly and funny and sad and twisted all at once.

“What appeals about David’s sense of humour is that it always has a slightly dark aftertaste,” says Bone, “so you might laugh at something but then think: ‘That’s actually quite odd, disturbing.’ On stage, over an extended period, that can work quite well. Musically, we can establish that sense from the beginning.”

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It was a shared appreciation of the Shrigley sense of humour that prompted Fennessy and Bone, of theatre company Magnetic North, to approach him. They struck gold because Shrigley loves music – past projects include the album Worried Noodles, on which musicians from Franz Ferdinand to David Byrne collaborated – and had heard and enjoyed Fennessy’s work.

Bone secured funding from Creative Scotland’s Vital Spark scheme, aimed at cross-genre projects. The results will be performed this month in Tramway, with six actors and ten musicians from Red Note Ensemble. There will be puppetry, animation and talking vegetables. For Shrigley, the collaboration offered the freedom to write text which was “just gobbledygook really”. “I had a lot of fun with it, because I knew that a lot of it was going to be sung. Dave and Nick then helped to shape it.”

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Is there an element to opera that lends itself to absurdity? “Yeah, definitely. When you analyse a lyric that you find particularly profound, it can seem quite banal. And you can repeat things. You couldn’t just have people saying ‘soup soup soup soup soup’ over and over again. We were allowed to make up stupid songs about soup and gravy and chops.”

When people meet Shrigley, they always sound surprised that he’s so, well, normal. Instead of someone twisted, or angst-ridden, they get a mellow, baby-faced 43-year-old who talks about his work in a low-key way, as if all he were really doing was having a bit of fun. Not a person whose “crappy” drawings (his word) have made him a household name, whose fans get his work tattooed on their arms, who has made a video for Blur, and who has a show at London’s Hayward Gallery in February.

“It’s a big deal, a really great opportunity,” he says of the Hayward show, “but I’m trying to remind myself to enjoy it and have some fun making work for that space.” It will bring together drawings, sculpture and films; the disparate strands of Shrigley’s practice, which are often experienced separately. In recent years, he says, they have come closer together. Making films has helped. “It’s helped me understand what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the economy of telling stories. I guess the craft of storytelling is about that, knowing how much to say. I always struggle with longer narratives. I think what I’m good at is not saying very much, allowing that to be resonant.”

The content, he says, interests him less. “I think whatever I wrote, whether it was a romantic comedy set in a school or a war drama set in the trenches, it would probably still be about the same stuff, comic, surreal, non-sequitur stuff. I’m not really sure where that comes from, I don’t really care, that’s part of your personality, you can’t change that.”

Once he was given an advance to write an animated feature film, but ended up handing the money back. “It just felt really wrong to be wanting to make a 90-minute piece. I think, as a fine artist, the key to making a work is not to make it any bigger than it needs to be. The next film I made was called Ones, it’s a hand rolling a dice, and it always rolls one, and it goes on for two and a half minutes. And at that point I think I realised, yes, this is the story I want to tell.”

But it does beg the question, why has he written a 75-minute piece for the stage. “I was able to do it because I could write a narrative that was whatever I wanted it to be, and all the subtext and emotion and structure of it would be formed by the music. Also, in a performed piece, people don’t have any perceptions of what it’s supposed to be like. In the broadest possible terms, it hangs together as a story, but it’s so ridiculous as well…”

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Back in the rehearsal room, June Spoon (Pauline Knowles) and Philip Fork (Stewart Cairns) have finished interviewing the vegetables for the soup and are arguing about dessert. June’s suggestions – rice pudding, meringues, nut clusters – are meeting with nothing but retching noises. Then she strikes gold with banana custard. Bad news for the banana then. But I’m not too worried. He’s probably got it all planned out.

Pass The Spoon is at Tramway, Glasgow, 17-19 November