With the temperature outside having crept towards thirty degrees during the day, there was a lingering intensity in the thick summer air as people headed downstairs into Bristol Old Vic's basement, eager to watch Rob Auton's 'The Sky Show’. Having performed the show extensively at Edinburgh last year, it was noted that this performance would prove to be its final farewell before Rob fully transitions into his new material in the run up to Edinburgh 2014.
Compere and Blahblahblah programmer Anna Freeman took to the spotlight, opening proceedings with a recital of a spoof job application she'd written as a response to the stack of formulaic, buzzword-heavy examples she'd been reading recently. There was clearly an enjoyable resonance within the crowd, their laughter growing louder with each new candid revelation and contrastingly hyperbolic self-appraisal, "Weaknesses? I'm just too efficient!"
With the room suitably warmed in enthusiasm (in addition to the sweltering temperature that was building within the basement arena), Rob Auton was introduced. Likened by Anna to a gem-like, glistening piece of plastic emerging from a beach full of pebbles, the expectation was quirkily set for something impressive yet undeniably unusual. For those that caught Rob's brilliantly weird 'Yellow Show' last year, this introduction will have made perfect sense.
Joining his pre-hung 'The Sky Show' patchwork banner on-stage, Rob - clad in a shiny blue jacket - immediately began laying out blue fabric across the floor, whilst remaining somewhat oblivious to the presence of the audience. A soundtrack of 'Mr Bluesky' by Electric Light Orchestra rang out from the house speakers before he killed their ambience abruptly to pose a direct question to the confounded crowd, "Do you like the sky?"
Having ascertained that Bristolians, though hesitant, were indeed admirers of the sky, Rob introduced his custom-made newspaper. A modified version of 'The Sun', ‘The Sky’ featured an unusual news agenda which included photographic updates of Andy Murray's shin, the depiction of Michael Owen being attacked by a dinosaur and some particularly extreme horoscope readings, supposedly written by Mystic Meg.
A mixture of laughter (some nervous and some knowing), rippled around the room with increasing volume. Straddling the line between surreal genius and mic-wielding madman, Rob's polarising effect grew stronger with each of his increasingly outlandish outbursts.
Soon interrupting the already erratic flow of his set, the steady growth of oppressive heat prompted a makeshift interlude within which a fan was to be fetched to cool the room. At this point, one disgruntled punter departed with their jacket in tow whilst Rob traced his path to the door with an outstretched finger, riffing extensively on-the-spot and questioning whether it was the abstract comedy or a particular distaste for electric fans that prompted his early exit.
Resuming his show with the welcome relief of a mains-powered breeze, Rob soon launched back into his copy of 'The Sky’. Mixing his readings with some brilliantly exasperated deconstructions of language and a few great deadpan interludes that teetered on the precipice of genuine discomfort, he pushed his performance to the boundaries of sanity and released the tensions just in time for maximum comic effect.
Further abandoning any remaining notions of convention and at times even waylaying his own narrative, Rob gleefully pursued tangents, wandered casually into the audience to test the recently tweaked airflow and even ended up dipping into an impression of a sexually aggressive pigeon. Undoubtedly odd, even for connoisseurs of the surreal, the disregard for traditional structure and format was both liberating and at times bordering on unnerving.
Not just enjoyably baffling and uniquely comedic hijinks though, ‘The Sky Show’ was also punctuated with the occasional story. Naturally these were stranger than the average tale, but beneath the surface-level quirks lay compellingly poignant undercurrents. Crafted and relayed with a refreshing, child-like simplicity, Rob’s innocent inquisitiveness questioned assumed norms, offered an inspired new viewpoint and highlighted the gaps between such a novel mindset and that of our own.
Variations in pace and volume kept things interesting, as did the unusual story-lines themselves. Often proving as spellbinding as they were ridiculous, they carved pin-drop silences amongst the room as the sometimes seemingly meaningless words were loaded with emotion and importance through their fervent delivery and resonant subtext.
Dips into musical accompaniment enhanced the earnest tones and dramatic tension that radiated from within the abstract narratives, peaking with Rob’s animated recollection of all the stepladders and staircases he’d had to climb throughout his years. Anywhere else, one could embrace the words as obvious metaphors for the obstacles one climbs in life, yet in ‘The Sky Show’, their inclusion seemed closer to literal. As a result, the swell of the music and the unrelenting passion of the delivery snowballed into a significance of its own that entirely juxtaposed the novelty of the words, creating a fascinating contrast that meandered within a spectrum of bewildering chaos and visceral storytelling. With the absence of a knowing wink or tell-all smile, one cannot be fully sure exactly how much of Rob’s nuance and impact was created by coincidence or careful design, but such perfectly-pitched madness suggests that his blunt, comedic stage presence must only be the tip of a razor-sharp iceberg.
Rob Auton’s performance at Blahblahblah was certainly divisive, that much was clearly evident in the early departure of one man towards the start of the night. For some, the sheer novelty of the experience will remain fondly etched in the memory as an innovative delight, whereas others may find it leaves them feeling shortchanged and confused for days to come. If you fall within the former category though, the broad range of highs reached by ‘The Sky Show’ were inspiringly artistic, fascinatingly surreal and compellingly unique.