The Epicene Butcher[author-post-rating] (2/5 stars)

The Japanese art of Kamishibai – which translates as ‘paper drama’ – receives a drastically modern incarnation in this curiousity arousing but ultimately unsatisfying work from Jemma Kahn. Now I’m not familiar with how the twelfth century Buddhist monks did it, but Kahn’s brand of Kamishibai is much like watching a morbidly slow flick-book, telling its story through static images and stagey narration. Add in an insolent Sailor Moon-style schoolgirl teenager to chalk up sarcastic subtitles (“perverts, this one’s for you”) during the transitions and you’ll be, very rightly,  quite perplexed.

I can’t stress enough the sheer volume of raw potential evident in The Epicene Butcher... Still, it’s difficult to admire potential when what is concretely there leaves us so underwhelmed. It can’t really be kindly called ‘rough-and-ready’, because it’s quite clearly unfinished – as if we’re watching a mark-through rather than the real thing. There wouldn’t be much use in excusing this rawness with some suggestion of purposeful stylistic intent, because, despite the punk soundtrack and kooky Harajuku girl costumes, the stories themselves are pretty traditional things. They rely on the audience’s wholehearted involvement to succeed as dramatic works with a life of their own, and though Kahn herself is an engaging storyteller, we’re left waiting for a sense of energy and momentum to overtake us, a vibrancy that never really arrives. The eponymous tale of the Epicene Butcher has the potential to be utterly horrifying, but the repetitive structure, the transitions that book-end each story, won’t stop reminding us we are watching rather than inhabiting the weird world of these tawdry tales.

There’s not necessarily a problem with the quality of the content – Gwydion Beynon’s stories, endearingly or artfully illustrated depending on whether Kahn, Beynon or Carlos Amato is responsible – are by turn, funny, filthy, poignant and enjoyably puerile. The Lament of Mario, in particular, holds our attention well – a nightmarish and hilarious monologue on the perils of living inside a video game, it is a genuinely brilliant tale that showcases exactly how much fun this show could and should be. Yet despite moments of  real success, The Epicene Butcher… elicits more frustration that frisson. Kamishibai, in this context, remains an intriguing idea that soon loses the grip it had on us once the initial novelty wears off.

The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults is playing at Assembly George Square until August 26. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe website.