“Pip Utton as Dylan”, Edinburgh Fringe 2022

Jeremy Malies at Pleasance Courtyard
26 August 2022

They say only organists go to organ recitals. So were we all fellow travellers as Pip Utton, a consummate character actor, transformed himself into Bob Dylan preparing for a performance in his dressing room while fielding questions from journalists?

Overwhelmingly yes one would guess but I took two companions who were certainly well disposed but not necessarily diehards. They left enthused, curious, impressed and keen to see Utton’s other current show on the Fringe, his equally insightful, intelligent and gag-filled monodrama in which he is an incarnation of the twentieth-century Irish-British painter Francis Bacon.

When Dylan won his Nobel prize (and was perhaps a little tardy and less than fulsome in his acceptance speech) the default response was to liken him to Homer. It’s a vein that author John Clancy and Utton himself tap into as they depict the youth from Minnesota being saturated in poetry and, like Whitman, intuiting that much good poetry can be sung.

I believed utterly in the young Dylan as Utton presented him in thrall to Woodie Guthrie but always possessed of a unique voice and perspective. Batting away the standard interview question of what are his influences and inspirations, Dylan tells us: “Picasso, Woody Guthrie and Bugs Bunny!”

Utton doesn’t sing but much of what he says has a lyrical quality and there is a sequence in which he teeters on a fully-sung rendition of Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Similarly, we can hear every bar of “Forever Young” such is the performer’s ability to tap into and ignite collective memory.

I bought in immediately as Utton recalled the fundamental decency of his father and an upbringing that had him composing his own verse about “The Titanic” while still an adolescent. This was the Dylan who has been happy to be confessional about his working technique and muse but understandably enraged when strangers turn up on his lawn at Woodstock and terrify his children. There is a deeply democratic and collaborative aspect to Dylan’s working methods that Utton conveys effectively.

If I came away with anything it was a sense of the musician’s innate modesty by which he sees composition as being ideally collaborative in which a set of peers snatch at the essence of a story or melody, model it into shape a little and are then content to pass it down the line. The song always has a life of its own.

As Dylan invites audience members to choose his clothes from a rail for the performance he is about to give stage right, I sensed that each one of us was choosing our own version of Dylan; after all this is a man who has changed the whole trajectory of his work four times.

Catching the unassuming nature of his persona, Utton is never prescriptive; fulcrum moments such as the religious conversion and resulting spate of gospel-inspired albums are simply laid before us. If our interest lies in the earlier or the later secular work then those are the songs we hum as we leave the theatre.

A criticism? I was suprised to hear Dylan, as written by Clancy, claim to be apolitical. Isn’t this the man who demolished an American right-wing advocacy group in “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” and turned his attention to large-scale economic factors in Modern Times?

In twenty years of Fringe-going I have seen Utton as everybody from Chaplin to Bacon, Dickens to Shakespeare, Churchill to Hitler. I’m thrilled that he has staked out Dylan in a show that underlines his wit, charisma and breadth of interests. As with so many slices of political and cultural life, it is demonstrably Utton’s territory and he treats it with invention, flair and ingenuity.