Snap, cackle and pop

For the past two years, Frisky and Mannish have been the Smash Hits of the Fringe. Matt Trueman joined the perky professors of pop for a spot of karaoke

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Published 21 July 2011

In a karaoke booth in Mayfair, Frisky and Mannish can barely breathe for laughing. The list of songs currently unavailable is peppered with spelling mistakes and includes anything by the Pussycat Dools, Eric Clapton’s 'Tears in Vaven' and Michael Jackson’s famous sea-shanty, 'Bilge Gen'.

Fittingly enough, the booth itself is designed like a padded cell. After all, the cabaret duo—real names Laura Corcoran and Matthew Jones—inject a certain lunacy into chart hits. They’re the mad scientists of pop, mixing unlikely solutions from incompatible artists and distilling entire genres into their separate elements.  Without their research, we might never have known that Kates Nash and Bush attract one another or that Whigfield’s 'Saturday Night' can be boiled down to a torch song.

“It’s just taking something familiar and presenting it in an unfamiliar way,” says Corcoran, quick to point out that the technique is nothing new: “Rob Deering and Bill Bailey have been using pop songs for donkey's years. Rewriting the lyrics of popular songs was a massive part of Victorian music hall.”

Nor are they the only pop parodists working the comedy-cabaret circuit today.

What sets Frisky and Mannish apart, however, is the range of their references. Not content with inserting a few knob gags into 'Single Ladies', they manage to be both complex and comprehensive. It’s all about avoiding the obvious, says Jones: “Everyone I know knows that [Alanis Morrisette’s] 'Ironic' is not ironic. Everyone in the world knows that. Why say it again?”

It helps that together the 26-year-olds have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, as quickly becomes apparent once the karaoke begins. Everything from Miley Cyrus to 'Meat Pie, Sausage Roll', the 1998 World Cup song, gets a near-perfect rendition. Jones identifies The Corrs from a single chord, not without a flush of pride.

Admitting defeat, I hand over the song list, which they devour like hyenas might a dead gazelle. Suddenly, they’re in full swing, harmonising their way through Crowded House’s 'Don’t Dream It’s Over' as if it were the most meaningful song in the world. Then there are the off-the-cuff impersonations: Jones reduces Prince to nonsensical, high-pitched half-syllables; Corcoran turns Kelis into Miss Piggy, as 'Caught Out There' becomes a squawking hissy-fit.

From their enthusiasm, it’s clear that their act is born of fondness, not spite. Nonetheless, they’re frequently labelled bitchy or vicious, something neither can fully understand.

“People kept calling the Florence and the Machine thing cruel,” says Jones of a routine that reveals the singer’s roots in 90s hits by the likes of Peter Andre and The Tamperer, “but we’ve both got Lungs. It’s a really amazing album and she’s a phenomenal songwriter with an incredible voice. If anything, we’re fans.”

The problem of labels, particularly in reviews, recurs throughout our conversation as if they’re wary of misrepresentation. It doesn’t help that certain major critics have repeatedly qualified their praise, seemingly unwilling to allow such an unashamedly populist act any highbrow credibility. Though they joke about it, you can tell it smarts a touch.

After all, Corcoran and Jones are Oxford graduates. They’ve paired Nelly Furtado with Franz Liszt and made a choral fugue of George Michael’s 'Careless Whisper'. “We’re taking our intellectual training and applying it to pop songs. Sometimes we get too intellectual and find that no-one really cares,” says Corcoran.

Now that’s ironic, given that their shows use education as a framework. Their third Edinburgh outing, Pop Centre Plus, picks up where their last left off. “In the current economic climate, that’s the route, isn’t it? School. University. Job centre,” she explains. “In essence, it’s just more of the same.”

It was around that point in their own lives that they started collaborating. Waiting for respective acting careers to take off, Corcoran and Jones would tinkle away empty afternoons. One day they refashioned 'Papa Don’t Preach' as an aria and Frisky and Mannish were born.

In the four years since, their stage personas have become bolder and bolder. Their original aesthetic of buttoned-up Victoriana has long since given way to PVC, glitter and cleavage.

What began as an assortment of quirks has grown into a concerted campaign. For all they profess to offer it affection, Frisky and Mannish approach pop critically. Slot monosyllabic nursery rhymes into a Girls Aloud song, slow Chesney Hawkes into heartfelt depression and, like it or not, you’re on the attack. En route, they correct its grammar, chastise its indulgences and skewer its inanity.

Yet Jones is adamant that the act is politics-free. A Frisky and Mannish show is, first and foremost, a celebration: “When people say they don’t like pop music, I think, 'What do you think pop music is?' That means you don’t like music that a lot of other people like. It seems misanthropic and elitist and dismissive.”

“If we choose a song,” he goes on, “we believe that almost 100 per cent of our audience will know it, so in that respect, it’s a compliment.”

In this love-hate relationship lies the paradox of Frisky and Mannish. They look down on the very thing they worship. They do so not to show it up or undermine, but as a passing note on its inherent absurdity.

But when Lady Gaga pops out of an egg or Katy Perry launches feelgood fireworks from her chest, doesn’t pop make itself somehow spoof-proof? And if Ellie Goulding can cover Elton John, or Alexandra Burke Jeff Buckley, isn’t pop plundering its own past all by itself?

“That’s the thing,” says Corcoran, animated with fascination. “Pop is inherently tongue-in-cheek. There are times when it’s just so ridiculous that it doesn’t need anything doing to it. There’s nothing more to be said.”

Frisky and Mannish were at Karaoke-Box in Mayfair. www.karaokebox.co.uk