CONCERT REVIEW – Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)

19 Jul

Usually, the stage is festooned with objects. Antique candlesticks, mutilated dolls, little aliens and masks and stuffed rats. Inflatable replicas of Munch’s ‘Scream’; drapes and toy guitars and candles and mirrors. A travelogue of places been, of people touched and gifts given and received. It’s like walking into a voodoo shrine when you go to one of Holly Penfield’s shows, with a Kurzweil keyboard synth as the altar and a most singular priestess creating sympathetic magic.

Tonight, though, it’s not like that – and, to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been for some time.

When I knew it in the early ’90s, the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ Show had set itself up as a Kilburn cult: blazing and guttering as a shredded star in the Black Lion’s lofty function room, an intense piece of performance art sitting oddly on the schedule among the jazz nights and the inevitable country and Irish bands. I used to be a regular, travelling an ungainly “v”-shape by Tube from Highgate to Kilburn via Charing Cross every few weeks to take in this precarious celebration of the outsider’s turmoil. I’d be hearing new audience members mutter “I’m absolutely fucking gobsmacked!” and “she’s a shaman, that’s what she is!” as Holly hauled her exhausted self offstage after the climax of every show, to meet the cluster of new converts. Or watching others sitting bolt-upright in their seats, uncertain as to whether they should move or breathe yet.

Kilburn has a long-standing reputation for nurturing street-fighters, poets and geniuses, but no-one was ever entirely prepared for the sheets of tumultuous emotion that blasted off that stage, winding the audience in out of their cloistered London selves. It was no crowd-pleasing assemblage of easy pieces. It was an exorcism, sung out of the psyche of an unstable California songwriter come to earth and berth as North London’s answer to Tori Amos, whose self-appointed mission was to celebrate the glorious awkwardness of being alive and being human.

She did it in style and with her whole heart, exploring our contradictory and troubled natures with her bag of striking songs and her full-on keyboards and singing. Part synth-pop diva, part 1970s rock siren, she came across like a full-throttle Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick invading and overwhelming a Laurie Anderson show-and-tell, and she brought a brace of personas with her. At times she was the enigmatic seductress, at others the knowing child or the wise fool, the little girl lost who sees with the clearest eye. Sometimes – especially in the wilder second half of the show – she was the liberating hysteric, encouraging the whole pub into primal screaming with her, or delving into the world of the compulsively needy in the sonic barrage of Cuddle Me.

Being a member of Holly’s audience meant being enticed into shedding those cloaks of cynicism and reserve we use to insulate ourselves, and opening your heart up to the rawest kind of sympathy and honesty. The show became a part of us, as much as we were a part of it, the church of the misfits she embraced. We dropped our guard, she sang: a voice for our odd angles and our visceral fears. OK, it wasn’t always successful. If you didn’t buy into her stylings and sounds, or suspected her for the years she’d clearly spent grinding away and trapped in the Los Angeles pop factory, you’d have been left cold from the start. Holly’s whimsical song-stories of peculiar goings-on down at the ranch burbled where they should enlighten. Her savage onslaughts on her inflatable Scream dolls did look like kids’ TV for psychos; and some songs fell across the line dividing the inspired from the self-indulgent. If you led with your sense of cool, or your cynicism, there was no chance.

But at full tilt, it was unmatchable. Banners unfurling, defining the nature of the misfit – and, years later, inspiring the name of this blog. The keyboard was caressed and hammered, abused and enchanted, responding with waves and roars of sound, chimes and ripples as those melodies cascaded out of it.
Inevitably, the show would climax in a crash of sound and fury as Holly’s rage and passion reached a colossal peak and she smashed at keyboard and walls with terrifying fervour. Some evenings she’d pull herself up from the floor to let us off the hook with a song of redemption. Some evenings she’d given out so much that she couldn’t…

And eventually, it died a death. The show’s welcoming inclusiveness coagulated, and shrank to one woman’s neurosis replayed again and again on stage as a stubborn loop. Locked into her ritual of combat and confrontation, Holly became unapproachable: stopped listening. People, reduced from being family to being just punters, felt that; they stopped listening themselves; drifted away. Eventually, one evening (watching Holly run through a show that had become no more than a process, a jukebox for the disturbed) I realised that everything that had drawn me to attend the Fragile Human Monster Show – to be a part of the show – had slid out of Holly’s hands as they contorted on her keyboard, and drained away.

Quietly, and unmissed, I left. I heard that it ground on for maybe half a year longer – until Holly’s compulsion to keep performing it had finally ebbed – and then faded out. Radio silence.

That was then. Now… a tentative return to action. Holly’s show is no longer a monkey on her back, no longer a vampiric therapy devouring its own subject. And – by word of mouth, by phone – she’s calling back the family. There’s a new, one-off venue, in a more genteel neighbourhood. And there’s a gentler, shorter ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’. Less of a pitched battle this time. Testing the waters, for sharks and for soothing.

So… no decoration tonight. No Screams either. Just the keyboard, and Holly: still wand-slim, wispily blonde, petite; still looking as if you could break her between a couple of fingers. And, tonight, apprehensive as she works her way back into performing the show. When she takes the stage, however, she’s anything but insubstantial. That voice, that playing, those songs… are still intact. Little miracles of warmth and tension, instantly memorable as her astoundingly expressive voice curves little bluesy, jazzy curves round heartbreaking corners.

Penfieldia is a place to hide and be inspired, inhabited by characters like the homeless poet living in a box in Over The Edge or the unravelling lovers in the hollow urban landscape of City Of Lights. There’s familiarity to them, yes. These songs could conceivably have sat in the charts – or in piano bars. But, just as it all seems to be getting too straight, Holly twists it and it’s off in a different direction, or barbed with something unexpected that sneaks in and turns your heart like a doorknob.

Parts Of My Privacy unwraps the fears of the distrusting recluse. In Stay With Me slow coils of piano reach into the depths of loneliness, still the sound of a woman slowly sliding into the dark. Sea Of Love offers us respite with a slow sated love ballad and Don’t Hide sends out a rousing percussion call to faith. And Voices – a slow, winding sleepy version in which Holly leans on every note to push it home into the air – has the audience gently thrumming, always on the edge of a breath.

The clincher was always going to be the climactic ‘Misfit’ finale, the explosion which always blew the cork out of the frustration raging in the original shows. It still has that drama, that rage and stubbornness… but now it seems content to rest on its own worth, not to burst into hysteria and hallucinations. She’s keeping us guessing. Or, maybe, questioning herself about what her misfit resistance should be doing now and how its battle cry should sound, now that it’s escaped from the torments of the hall of mirrors.

Tonight, though, was something more important than just songs. It was the night that this most involving of shows gave itself back to the people who’d buoyed it up and who’d lived it as much as Holly Penfield herself. A collection of fragile human monsters found themselves, once again, with the sweet shared ache along the same shared faultlines.

No matter how much she could’ve dressed the show up, it would have been immeasurably poorer without that.

Holly Penfield online:
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The Washington, Belsize Park online:
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One Response to “CONCERT REVIEW – Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)”

  1. Dann Chinn July 20, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    This is probably the most nostalgic post I’ve put up so far… not just in terms of my personal connection with the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ show, but in terms of what’s happened since.

    At the time I originally wrote this (for the original ‘Misfit City’ webzine) it seemed as if Holly was likely to bring back the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ show long term. In fact, she didn’t. But she didn’t disappear either.

    Run a websearch for Holly Penfield now, and the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ show is not the first thing that’s going to come up. Instead, you’ll probably get something about Holly’s well-travelled cabaret show. A short time after this 1998 review, she reinvented herself as an interpreter rather than as an original performer. The stage-shrine and acting-out of personal demons were swapped for slinky dresses, wigs and sexier personas. A new Holly emerged, fronting a jazz quartet and coiling herself around traditional songs – All That Jazz, Fever, Mack The Knife… It was – eventually – wildly successful, enough for her to finally let the Monster slip away. Some of her own songs – the torchy Stay With Me, the jazz slinker Beauty & The Beast – stayed in the set, but the days of Kurzweil swirls and free association were long gone.

    The cabaret show is, for what it’s worth, fantastic – a cheeky, slightly post-modern spin on chestnuts, cheesecake and the expanding jazz songbook. I’ve seen it once or twice – most recently in 2005 on the Edinburgh Fringe, where I first encountered Holly and the FHM world back in 1992 – and its tremendously well done (her finale of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, in particular, is to die for). For me, however, something was lost when she gave up on the original show. That said, perhaps it had run its course after all. There are only so many times that a person can flog this kind of exorcism out of herself in public.

    One thing remains certain. Holly is one of the best singers I’ve ever been privileged to hear, and she’s still out there singing.

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