Greetings once again from Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, where thousands of performers and tens of thousands of punters from all over the world have gathered for the annual Fringe festival. For the month of August the city's conference centres, student union buildings and back rooms of pubs are transformed into venues for comedy, theatre, music and all sorts of other entertaining activities, as well as expressive dance installations.
That's enough of the bollocksy scene-setting. If you want that sort of idiot's guide you can tune in (though who tunes in these days?) to a late night BBC2 arts show with that long-faced Scottish woman (I'm going to assume she's a Kirsty). Suffice to say, Herself and I are again staying here for a week, cramming in as many shows as we can, with the usual mix of shows big and small, good and 'brave'.
And as before, I've stupidly committed myself to writing our adventures up every day, devoting a couple of hours each morning sitting on the bed with my laptop trying to give you an informative but entertaining, nay infotaining (enterformative sounds vaguely invasive) picture of life at the Fringe and shows and performers we've seen. In years gone by, I've spent far too long each day on this task, painfully adding in links to production websites, fact-checking performer names and scrupulously going over each comment for inadvertent (and sometimes just maliciously vertent) slurs, to avoid needless cruelty. This has proven (rhymes with woven, like the legal term, though it might be just proved. Oh, whatever) in the past to be a massive drain on my time and strain on my lower back (I'm hunched over my laptop on the bed), so for this year, I'm just going to bang out a few observations and knee-jerk reactions on the spot, then frantically rewrite the bugger later on and hope nobody notices. It will also be riddled with typos, I can promise you.
A quick note on our party this year: where once we were two, we are now three. We are joined by up and coming comedy performer person CJ Hooper; the Huggy to our Starsky and Hutch, the Barbara to our Bruce and Dick, the Poochie to our Itchy and Scratchy. He'll be doing various slots around the festival during our stay, affording us an exciting insight into the world of the jobbing stand-up cum musical impro poet type person on the Free Fringe. As and when, I'll be putting in a link to his side of the story here like a comedy version of Rashomon.
And as ever we'll be catching up with our fellow Fringers Dr Foot and his heterosexual Fringemate Mitch, playing phone-tag and comparing notes on shows.
Enough with the intros; on with the reviews.
Ah, no, not quite just yet. A short word on the Fringers' Survival Kit. This year, our levels of obsessive preparedness have been honed to an even greater degree. Once again we have the t-shirts printed with our timetable of shows, and handy laminated quick reference cards dangling stylishly (though with distressingly sharp corners) from our waistbands. But this year I have added an invaluable extra item to the kit: a daily map of the city with arrows directing us from venue to venue, stored with a sturdy tube in my backpack. You can imagine the envious stares of others as they stand in the middle of Chambers Street unable to remember where Venue 45 is amongst the cramped map covered in tiny numbers on the back page of the official Fringe programme (which, I might add, has rubbishly incomplete grid references around the edge. Unlike mine, which is better). Oh, and we also have laminated ID badges on lanyards bearing the word PUNTER (Herself) and BLOGGER (me). We are quite the sight.
Ok now, now, on with the reviews.
Casting the Runes
Box Tale Soup
The Space on the Mile
Two person (and one big spooky puppet) adaptation of the MR James classic (and not one of his rubbish, disappointing vaguely scary ghost stories). The one with the bloke who gets cursed by a black magician with the magic slip of paper and (in the fillum) the excellent monster at the end. Minimal props (a door, some suitcases, some papers), stylised costumes with
(Sorry, brief pause there to stretch the legs - been sitting cross-legged on the bed for too long. Ow.)
strips of text sewn in, and some music. Excellent acting from both performers, and very effective puppet work of the terrifying man-size Karswell in his black trilby and piercing blue eyes. His expression did remind me of the disapproving Sam the Eagle. The scene shifts were accompanied by odd little song and percussion numbers which felt slightly out of the genre, almost folky, but that's a minor thing. Oh, and there's some clever little bits of stage magic; sleight of hand and trick props like a spooky drawing of a dark figure menacing the hero and a door handle moving on its own. It's all jolly good stuff.
Company Gavin Robertson
Unofficial parody of James Bond by the excellent Gavin Robertson. Another of his one-man shows spoofing a well-loved genre, following on from his hits like Thunderbirds FAB, Fantastical Voyage (my favourite) and Spittoon. His skills at mime remain undiminished, needing only three simple metal door frames as props to create an office, a motorcycle and the classic 'Bond shoots the screen' shot. His spoof of an archetypal musical Bond title sequence, with ladies dancing provocatively and guns going off, is spot on, synching his choreography to the music perfectly. You could argue that the plot is a bit patchy here and there and the laughs a little thin, but this is affectionate pastiche perhaps, rather than outright parody. There are rather too many shower scenes (though he does do a good lady in shower) and a couple of bits like the matchbox car chase could be much shorter but I always have time for Mr Robertson's physical work - nobody else can mime a villain picking his way through a web of lasers quite like him.
The Merchant of Venice - In Space!
Walsall Dramaturge Collective
The Frooty Goose
It wouldn't be the Fringe without several lazy Shakespeare reskins, and this production sadly fits the bill perfectly. Transplanting the action from 16th century Italy to the terraformed asteroid Venice-3 in the year 2169, and decking the cast out in cheap shiny 'spacesuits', is little substitute for witty dialogue and crisp acting, both of which are missing from this comedy-cum-tragedy.
And the casting of Shylock as a money-grubbing Ferengi is both anti-Semitic and an insult to those two greats of theatre - Shakespeare and Roddenberry. Avoid.
Some guys who didn't turn up
Well. We sat patiently in one of the C venues (one of the multi-level rotunda buildings that Edinburgh seems to have an embarrassment of) for a good 15 minutes past the start time of the medical a capella group before summoning the nerve to ask an official person (i.e. a student in a C t-shirt and headset) if we'd missed the show. No, they said, it's been cancelled. Why, asks I. They just didn't show up, says the official person.
Well. And tch. You just can't rely on singing doctors these days. Honestly. I like to think they had a medical emergency which required a close harmony rendition of Life on Mars.
On the plus side, the Fringe office were already on the case and refunded our tickets without me even having to ask. I got a nice email and phone message from a nice (I'm assuming she's nice. She gave me my money back, which is nice in my book) woman called Katie.
Also on the plusser side, this gave us a chance to catch up with CJ
(sorry, another break to see CJ off - he's off to do a morning podcast. It's all very showbiz)
after his first gig down at the Blind Poet, accompanied by his guitar Marjorie (who I like to think is named after the Fry and Laurie character). Over pizza and falafel at that triangular wedge of a cafe by Wee Bobby's statue, we exchange notes and convince him to come on down with us to the Gilded Balloon for our last show of the day.
Voices in your Head
Once more unto the Billiard Room dear friends, once more. Why are so many of the Gilded Balloons shows we see over the years in this room? I think it must love us. I am brave and sit us in the first row, as I've seen the show before and know that there's no unpleasant audience interaction awaiting. Or as Deborah (the Voice) herself puts it, 'I'm not going to mock you for having a job'. She actually comes out on stage this time round (last time she really was just a disembodied voice on the speaker system) and spends a good 10 minutes priming the audience with props, personal items and mass audio cues (chanting 'Mother') with which to disturb and wrong-foot tonight's participants.
As with last year, it's really good show - I'd describe it as 'directed improv'. So none of your lazy 'give us a genre, a household item and hopefully a really brilliant funny situation' requests for the audience - the Voice directs each of the four performers through little improvised scenes: a silkworm who's lived too long (Sara Pascoe), a murderous bird (Andre Vincent), a violent toothfairy (Jonny Lennard) and a woman at a nightclub (Milo McCabe).
Herself and CJ have been appointed as proper wranglers for a brain in a jar, and CJ presents it to Mr Vincent with understated aplomb. Good brainporting. Milo McCabe has an excellent moustache and splendid 40's trousers. He looks like a younger Jean Dujardin.
And we're done for Day One.
All that remains is to shout down the phone at Dr Foot and effect a surprisingly successful rendezvous with him and Mitch in the no-man's land between the Gilded Balloon and Assembly. We swap notes (they recommend reliable standards Frank Skinner and Richard Herring), CJ spots some of his fabulous showbiz pals on the street for a chinwag, and Herself and I pass judgement on the hordes of ridiculous young ladies tottering past in vertiginous heels and several metres of naked leg. Ah, Edinburgh on a Saturday night.