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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

Olive Copperbottom — Penny Ashton

As a general, unspoken rule of reviewing theatre, it is customary and even expected to commend one-person shows that don’t end in utter disaster. The sheer scale of planning, the gruelling rehearsal period, the necessary charisma and repertoire required with different audiences each night, and the added anxiety of being unable to see how others might deride your creative genius is awful enough when spread out, and can be near excruciating when piled upon one person.

Not content with one layer of stress, Penny Ashton, the titular Olive Copperbottom, is credited as writer, publicist, producer, designer, concepter, and researcher in addition to performer. The fact that Ashton manages to get through one hour and ten minutes, portray about 20 different characters, and reach a resolution that makes sense deserves commendation in of itself. Yet her eye for satire, the consistently high level of laughs throughout, her marvelous physicality, and her sheer likability even when dealing with hecklers and slip-ups raises the bar for one-person shows everywhere. Oh, and it’s a musical, too.

In brief, Olive Copperbottom is a satire of Dickensian tropes and narratives from A Tale of Two Cities to Little Dorrit, with a wickedly dark edge (the piece is bookended by a sung ode to orphanages). We follow Olive from her tragic beginnings as a povertous child, to her occupation as a much maligned carer at her orphanage, to her runaway success as a star ukulele (or “midget guitar”) player, all the while trying to find out the identity of her mysterious benefactor. If that sounds all over the place, that’s because in a sense it is, just like much of Charles Dickens’ back catalogue (come at me, English course directors). But even with the addition of songs arranged by Robbie Ellis, Ashton’s performance carries us through on waves of laughter, exploiting with glee the number of outright stupid words in the English language and anachronistic references to Ticketmaster, Russian interference in the American elections, and New Zealand’s 100% green policy.

Even though the musical element of Olive Copperbottom was the most stressed in its marketing, I found this the least compelling aspect of the performance. Ashton sings with conviction when not trying to cram in her usual 20 jokes a minute, but they only served to slow the breakneck pace Ashton seemed most comfortable with. The real delight came through her characters, each one with a different stance, accent, moral compass, and ability to draw laughs. In comparison to Hand to God, which I reviewed last week, Olive Copperbottom hit its stride early on and maintained its energy and mischievous attitude all the way into what Ashton herself admits, as an aside, is a ridiculous finale. Her asides throughout indicate that even with the pressure of repeating the success of Pride and Promiscuity, she is not afraid to laugh at herself and the potential plot holes she gleefully creates.

Through Olive Copperbottom, Circa Two was turned from a Bleak House into… a not-as-bleak house. See, parody can be hard, but if Ashton can keep up her streak of delivering satire with a refreshingly non-serious edge, I have Great Expectations for what she and her team can do next.


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