By BRUCE DENNILL
El Blanco: Tales Of The Mariachi / Starring James Cairns / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
There’s an art to making a one-man show really fly. If it is a pure comedy show, that obviously has to do with the quality of the set. If it is – like El Blanco – a mixture of comedy, physical theatre and music, it has to do with not only doing all of those things well, but maintaining an absurd energy level throughout.
James Cairns is a performer capable of all of this – no small feat – and El Blanco: Tales Of The Mariachi has had a couple of years of festival touring and other runs in which he’s had time to further refine his craft and, with scriptwriter Gwydion Beynon, tweaking the material to flow even better. This latest incarnation then, bar one fluffed line on opening night, is about as polished and on point as it’s possible to be.
For all that development, there’s still room for improvisation, thanks to there being no fourth wall and El Blanco communicating directly with his audience. The opening three or four minutes of the piece, for instance, involve onlookers reacting to the way Cairns shows off his character’s daft costume, and him responding in kind.
Beynon’s writing is fantastically off-the-wall, combining El Blanco’s narration of his own vaguely forlorn life story with musical interludes and longer, enthusiastically surreal tales that combine the over-the-top antics of Indiana Jones and the dippy interactions of Hollywood royalty to gut-aching, belly laughing effect.
The longer stories and their rambling, wide-screen perspectives recall no less than Steven Wright, the deadpan American comedic genius, while the frenetic delivery and unwillingness to concede to theatrical norms remind of another in that pantheon – the late Robin Williams. Cairns is also a more than capable singer and strummer, skills which he has to rein in to some degree to allow for El Blanco’s gaucheness.
This is a show that will continue to succeed in a number of contexts, as it works as theatre production and a comedy show, and is also essentially about the significance of stories in giving those who tell them value. In among the guffaws and the posing and the non sequiturs and the bald-faced lies, there is also a connection to a man – El Blanco being a flawed, insecure, possibly quite dim man, but still – who it’s possible to care about, with that affection based on an appreciation of his commitment to his art and his honesty in presenting himself in all his wonky glory.
El Blanco: Tales Of The Mariachi is a simple idea matured into an uproarious, affecting yarn.