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chastity butterworth gemma whelan pres 2013

Chastity Butterworth & The Spanish Hamster review

Assembly Roxy

By Jonny Ensall
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Dressed like a 19th century governess, talking like a vicar's wife who's been at the communion wine, Chastity Butterworth appears, on the face of things, to be every inch the stereotype of apologetic, mousey, middle-Englishness.

As she sidles up to the microphone, ready to launch into a varied hour of performance that will cover poetry, philosophy and a lovely quiz, you expect stories worthy of Austen to spill out of her quivering mouth. But no, Butterworth hasn't been out riding, or at a piano recital, or helping the poor. She's still 'as buzzed as a badger' after a metric/imperial measurement mix-up caused her to overdose on mescaline at a squat rave, and now she can't feel her face.

Butterworth is the character creation of Gemma Whelan – a rising actress most famous for her role as hard-nosed iron-born princess Yara Greyjoy in 'Game of Thrones'. Here she's unrecognisable as the outwardly prim, inwardly deviant housewife, whose orgasmic on-stage excitement initially seems to be a function of her breeding, but is later explained by her proclivity for poppers and anal sex.

Whelan has been gigging as Chastity – a kind of parallel universe Hyacinth Bouquet – for a few years ahead of this Edinburgh debut, over which time she's mastered the art of making naff jokes sound extremely funny. Here she skips through a few abominable one-liners ('Hollywood? No she wouldn't!'), holding it together with a whole series of winks, curtsies and inappropriate breast honks. It works because Butterworth seems gleefully unaware of just how trite her material is. Of course Whelan knows exactly what she's doing, and there's acting genius in the way she skewers the faux self-deprecation and smug obliviousness of the chattering classes.

It's only a shame that Whelan concentrates so much on her character's vices, rather than her subtler quirks. So, while a NIMBY discussing the ins and outs of her rectal passage gets some laughs, it's when Butterworth drops bitchy comments like, 'sometimes it's better when pretty girls don't speak', that things become intriguing.

So too, when contrarily-named Chastity reveals she's auditioning for a man to make her marriage a threesome, and shows a montage of the audition videos (all Whelan, playing different seedy male characters), it's an opportunity to crowbar in a few more well-acted weirdos, and some fantastically lewd jokes, but it leaves the show feeling unfocused overall.

The importance of manners might be one of Chastity Butterworth's main lessons, but on this occasion she's too keen to let others go before her. And the Spanish hamster probably should have been left off the bill. Butterworth doesn't need any more co-stars, she just needs to gain the absolute confidence of her creator.

See 'Chastity Butterworth & The Spanish Hamster' at the Edinburgh Fringe

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