Monday, 15 August 2011

The Return of the Chocolate Ocelot’s Fringe - Thursday

It should be a more sedately paced schedule today, according to our timetable. Thank Christ. Though I have to say that the prospect of a midnight ghost walk later on does not sit well with my aching limbs.

The morning is spent writing this here blog (OK, the previous one if you have to be pedantic, and of course you do, you little devil). My creative mood is interrupted by a flurry of emails and phone calls from recruitment agents, or as I like to think of them, commission-driven sales bastards. My hopelessly narrow set of technical skills has apparently been matched against a job vacancy, and this astronomically unlikely event has just pinged up on the search algorithms of several different (but I fear oh so similar) agencies. I let the first overly-enthusiastic suit that gets through on my mobile snap me up and start dancing to their tune, banging out yet another infinitesimally different CV for them. I’m on holiday godammit – curse you mobile phones and free Wi-Fi.

We then set off into the rain for a leisurely stroll over to the new town and The Stand Three on Queen Street (actually a police social club). Haven’t seen Mitch Benn for a couple of years, though we listen to him most weeks on The Now Show, so we are looking forward to seeing him in the flesh once more. Sitting in the venue, I start looking around for him warming up. No sign. There’s some skinny bloke with a guitar out in the foyer, but he must be a technician or another act. So imagine our surprise when this skinny bloke trots up on stage. Mitch’s warm-up? No, that’s Mitch’s voice coming out of the skinny bloke’s mouth. Must be a clever tr…

(And at this point I must apologise for using a frightfully overemployed device – that of separating each word in the sentence by a punchy period. I promise it will be a one-off.)

… Oh. My. God.

Mitch Benn, 25-stone leviathan of musical satire, has become a 12 or 13-stone rake of a man. The beard is closely cropped, the long locks have been shorn, the cheeks are ever so slightly hollow. You can hear the muted gasping and muttering from the rest of his old fans. It’s him – at least it’s his voice, and maybe his eyebrows. But the rest? He’s disappeared. Christ, he must have cancer or something. Poor brave bastard.

No. Apparently he’s on a diet, the same one as Pauline Quirke, and has been since January. Thank Agon for that. But it is still damnably odd, not unlike seeing someone dressed as a member of the opposite gender for the first time – there is barely anything familiar about him. Save the voice and personality, and silky musical skills, so we soon get over the shock and enjoy a brilliant hour of songs, jokes and obscure pop-culture references that only he, I and one guy in the audience get (for example, the use of his new-born baby as Quatto, his love affair with Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, and numerous references to Dr Who).

Highlights of the show for me are the rock opera of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the brilliant BBC song (imagine We Didn’t Start The Fire, but using every classic Beeb show instead of world events), and the update of his old Macbeth rap routine using his iPhone to record a live multi-track beatbox backing track – genius.

We buy both of his latest CDs, two t-shirts, act a bit fangirly around him, and trot off.

We pass a perfectly pleasant hour sampling the tea and biscuits of St Mary’s Cathedral’s tea room, reading the papers’ reports of the end of civilisation as we know it. Then it is over to the Playhouse at the Hawke and Hunter Green Room (what a mouthful), for to see Hamlet House of Horror, a musical adaptation of Hamlet (of course). It is performed by a young but talented cast from the Westminster Theatre Company, sporting whiteface make-up reminiscent of Chinese opera (or a stage version of Gormenghast I once saw, but that’s not much help to you).

Since I have never seen proper Hamlet, I couldn’t tell you how faithful or different it is, but it does seem to contain a lot of mad people behaving illogically and occasionally killing each other. I assume that’s what it’s all about. The dialogue is more or less original Shakespeare, interspersed with entertaining modern asides. The chap playing the ghost is also the main source of live music, usually sat at the back strumming his banjo like a caucasian Baron Samedi. But in a couple of memorable scenes, he surges forward in a cloud of dry ice and uplighting, surrounded by shadowy cast members playing the souls of the damned (I imagine) and it looks bloody good. The other highlight is the comedy interlude with First Gravedigger – very well done. Hamlet himself is played by a mad-haired bleached blond young fellow, who is half mad Danish prince, half Bart Simpson. His look can best be described as Shockheaded Draco.

We leave early – it is running 15 minutes longer than we thought. Oops. We will never know what happens at the end, but it looks strongly as if everyone gets either murdered or kills themselves. Like I say, I’ve never seen it for proper. I’m sure there’s a skull bit in it, but it with 15 minutes to go the play is still cranium-deprived. We try to sneak out the back of the auditorium quietly, but the seats are built on a rickety scaffold which does not accommodate the passage of our walking boots with good grace.

The reason for our bogging off early? I’ve arranged to meet a friend for a drink and have chosen as our meeting point the Black Medicine Coffee Company because a) I know where it is and b) ever since I met a different friend there last year I now assume that everyone in Scotland knows where it is. Stupidly though, I have failed to take into account the fact that we are on completely the wrong side of town from the coffee shop, so Herself and I must now powerwalk up to Princes Street, over North Bridge and up Nicolson Street, through the busy festival traffic. Tch.

Thus we arrive both late and panting at the coffee shop, having received the shaming ‘Where are you?’ text from my friend, which I was too busy hustling along to answer like a civil person would. Late and rude. I am a terrible person, as Raymond Babbitt would say (which reminds me, the Dog-Eared Collective used a Rain Man height chart for a sketch set in a theme park in the 1980s. Cracked me up).

A fine hour or so of fat mastication passes with my chum before we bid farewell and scamper just across the road to the Royal Oak pub for our annual dose of Folk At The Oak. To compound our previous tardiness, we are now late for this as well, and have to put on our most puppy dog expressions to gain admission to the cramped Wee Folk Bar downstairs by the genial Paddy, a giant of a man with a curious Highland/Island fluting voice. I suspect his last name may be Dumbledore.

We huddle on stools round one corner of the bar and enjoy an hour or more of instrumental goodness courtesy of Bellevue Rendezvous, a trio consisting of Cameron on the guitar/ sitar / balalaika thing, Gavin on fiddle and Ruth on a bizarre Swedish stringed instrument which looks as if an 18th century violinist tried to recreate a Thompson machine gun from memory. Apparently it’s called a knickerbocker or a nickelbacker or something, but I privately decide to call it a whojumagog. (Ok, ok, it’s a nyckelharpa. And the guitar thing is a bouzouki. Happy now?).

We are treated to some fabulously foot-tapping music from Sweden (polskas, I believe), Serbia and home-brewed concoctions of the group’s own devising. A very fine way to pass the evening, marred only by the claustrophobic dimensions of the Wee Folk Bar and the extra special body aroma of someone sat a few feet away from us. So powerful is the sickly citrusy tang of their sweaty body, that we and a few other audience members are visibly breathing through their mouths whenever he raises an unclean arm. So, a good night at the Oak, but do like the coroners do in autopsies, and rub a little Vapo-Rub under your nose beforehand.

I am fairly pooped by this point of the evening and would happily slope back to the flat and slump in front of the telly, but we have another event to go before bed, a 90 minute tour of the South Bridge vaults, starting at midnight. It’s called the Midnight Paranormal Haunted Underground Experience. Oh great. Grumbling under my breath, we splosh along the length of Cowgate and climb up Blair Street to the Tron on the Royal Mile, where we join a handful of fellow terror tourists. Presently we are joined by our guide for the night - Natasha, a charming petite young lady decked out in the requisite pale facepaint, fake scar and black frock of the Edinburgh spook host. And of course, like 90% of Edinburgh tour guides, she is English.

What follows is a damn spooky hour and a half. Natasha escorts us back down Blair Street and through some innocuous doors in between a couple of dingy club bars. After a short look at the torture instruments exhibition, where Herself excels herself (hmm, that sounds weird if you read it out aloud) by identifying an eye-crushing device, we pass through into the vaults themselves. Curiously, this abandoned level is actually both below and above still-inhabited properties. This is why the entirety of the tour is accompanied by the constant bass thudding of music from the club below us. So while we’re stood in near total darkness, with water dripping from the arched tunnel ceiling above, listening to Natasha tell us tales of paranormal phenomena that has ‘like actually really happened’, the soundtrack to Blade seems to be playing beneath our feet. I find it strangely comforting. It certainly takes the edge off the spookiness.

One young scamp is apparently ‘touched by something invisible’ several times during our tour, but he is young and a bit silly. At one point, we are brought into an empty chamber to hear a tale of a spectral child-murderer (as I recall) that a party of Welsh nurses summoned up with a Ouija board. This is the only time I get really uncomfortable, because Natasha separates us into men and women for spurious ghost-paedo reasons. I hate those moments. I know I don’t really fit in and am hoping that Natasha and the rest of the women don’t object to the troll freak joining them on the girls’ side of the room. Not only that, but I am a little worried that the phantom kiddie fiddler will make a play for me and complain that I’m not ‘as advertised’. Such is life. And afterlife.

Our tour ends on a dramatic note when Natasha backs out of chamber and leaves us in the dark, only to scream piercingly in the blackness. We all jump (I assume we all do – I couldn’t see), but she then reappears and says that her fellow guide Angela just jumped out on her. Curiously, we do not see this Angela, as she has apparently pissed off down the spooky corridor. Weird, considering that Natasha’s warned us off from mucking about earlier. Herself and I decide, as we emerge back onto Blair street, that this is a bit of theatre to end the tour with a jolt. Fair play to our guide, we deserved at least one moment of genuine fright.

Knackered, we shuffle off home, but decide to watch telly instead of sensible going straight to bed. The constant rain seems to have shagged up the freeview reception, so I lob in an Alien Nation DVD, which I subsequently fall asleep through.

Today’s SlebWatch: Hardeep Singh Kohli around the bins outside the Black Medicine Coffee Company. This is the third time I’ve seen him so far. I think he must just constantly patrol the streets. Perhaps he is a superhero. If only other celebs wore brightly coloured headgear so we could spot them as easily. I hear John Malkovich is on town. I see him wearing a bright yellow fez.


Fractalgeek said...

Mitch's change is quite radical, isn't it?

Come and see his "Distraction Club" - first tuesday of every month, at the Phoenix nr Oxford circus. £7.50 advance, in a good venue, with good food (which also seems ironic)

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

Thanks for the tip-off, Fractalgeek. Will make an effort to pop along, if only to make sure he's not become a skeleton.

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

Thanks for the tip-off, Fractalgeek. Will make an effort to pop along, if only to make sure he's not become a skeleton.