Pip Utton has turned his amazing skills as a dramatic impersonator to a new subject, Francis Bacon (Pleasance Courtyard). Critics hailed him as ‘the greatest British painter since Turner’ and yet many of his masterpieces look like deranged and violent monstrosities. However, the man himself turns out to be a sweet-natured, old-fashioned gent with a rare talent for friendship. One-liners stream from his silver tongue. Of a sponging lover, he says: ‘He only started to read and write when I gave him a cheque-book.’ His famous South Bank Show interview with Melvyn Bragg prompts this lament: ‘Melvyn’s questions were so much more interesting than my answers.’ Bacon’s life is animated by his nihilistic philosophy, and he insists that human existence is meaningless. Art, too, is pointless. For him the only thing that matters is beauty. And though he claims that his work has no purpose or significance, he adds a teasing footnote: ‘The artist’s job is always to deepen the mystery.’ Utton’s characterisation of this cynical but hypersensitive soul is compellingly watchable. The show deserves a run at its spiritual home, Tate Modern.
It wouldn’t be a return of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe without a performance from one of its lucky charms, world-renowned solo performer Pip Utton. In previous years he has revived works pertaining to Adolf Hitler and Albert Einstein. For 2021, in the contemporary era of offence and opinions, Utton is showcasing another of the controversial characters in his repertoire – artist Francis Bacon.
If you’re expecting a cheap tell-all biography, you won't find it here. Instead, be prepared to roll up your trousers and trudge ankle-deep into the murk, filth, and unexplored avenues of one of Britain’s pioneering contemporary artists. Bacon – whose personality and work have repeatedly been described as violent and unnerving – was a man with a life as complicated and fascinating as his art.
The script, developed from Bacon's memoir, is sublimely intricate. In true Utton form, his metamorphosis into this juggernaut of the art world goes beyond the superficial and into the realms of sculpture. Avoiding caricature, the direction reigns in any distortion which pushes the brink of believability – an accomplishment given Bacon’s reality-perverting demeanour. As expected, the more leeway Utton has to play with, the more intense the energy. The greater the outpourings of despair and sensation, the more engaged we find ourselves.
The chances are Francis Bacon would despise this celebration of his life, which is perhaps the finest compliment that can be paid to Utton. With this show, he has crafted a piece that serves not to flatter, nor to answer questions. Instead, Bacon leaves audiences with one simple request – to think for themselves.