In his 2011 Fringe show The World Holds Everyone Apart, Apart From Us,Stuart Bowden brought us the lovely story of a man who chooses to live alone to save the world. This year, he brings us The Beast, the lovely story of a beast who has always lived alone, looking out over the small town near his cave. With this, Bowden confirms my opinion he is one of the most prepossessing and honest story-tellers we have the pleasure of seeing once a year.
In a ticket mix-up in the multi-theatred Tuxedo Cat, half the audience have been diverted to the wrong theatre. Bowden has already begun playing his ukulele for the small group gathered, when the audience is doubled. He quietly tells us to pretend nothing happened, he’ll start again, before looking out over the whole group and saying to us “I hope you’ll all fit!”
But fit we do, and we settle in to laugh and love the story of The Beast – or, as he prefers to be known, of Winslow. Winslow leads a life of solitude, a long way from town by foot, quite a diversion by taxi, not too far away if you own a helicopter. He alternates his pissing trees, he generally eats his breakfast warm, he wears sturdy work clothes except for when he needs to look a bit special and he wants to bring out his favourite flowered dress.
He is alone but he is happy; and he happily starts to discover a love and affection for people who live in the town. One woman in particular. We spend our time with him as he explores and discovers and learns and loves, as a bird has been shot up into the air before falling back and piercing his heart to take residence forever.
Bowden sits in a single yellow light under walls untouched for many years, paint cracking and bricks uncovered. He tells us Winslow’s story with the help of the ukulele, a Casio keyboard, and a whistle or a hum on his lips: sounds softly being looped and melded together as the space is shared. He tells us Winston’s story with a glint in his eye: a glint of joy, or of the light catching the corner of eyes on the edge of a tear. We don’t know him, but in this space Bowden makes us all feel like friends.
It’s imperfect theatre: twice a small giggle escapes from the audience and is trapped in the sound loop; once Bowden forgets the cords and must try and try again; once, Bowden turns his head away from his audience in laughter, before returning to us: “I’m going to cut that line.” But in this imperfection, Bowden manages to convey a unique honesty. You feel that he is taking this journey with us, he is facing the exploration of Winslow just as we are, he is absolutely there with his audience, glorious warts and all.
All too soon, the show ends and there is the black out. It’s a well needed moment to sit with our thoughts and gently and privately wipe the tears from our eyes. There is a hesitation to start the claps, because the claps mean we acknowledge that it’s over. But someone does, and we all join in, our hands pounding together and echoing through the space, our woops travelling towards Bowden and his smile. Then he leaves the playing space, and the claps die away, and the lights come up, and we know the universal symbol – the show is over, pick up your bags, it’s time to move on – but we linger. Our bodies can’t quite seem to leave the space, our minds aren’t quite ready to leave Winslow, our feet won’t move down the stairs. In the Tuxedo Cat we’ve found a safe place, a beautiful place, a place we wished was more of our world than not. But eventually we can’t linger any longer. We find the doors, we start to leave, and we softly smile into each other’s faces, knowing that while we have to leave Winslow, Winslow doesn’t have to leave us.