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Edinburgh Festival & Fringe 2018 – part 1

Edinburgh Festival & Fringe 2018 – part 1

Michael has been to Edinburgh to see if he had the stamina to last a week at the world’s biggest arts festival.

I’m just back from Edinburgh. I was there with my partner and our two adult sons. I’m shattered. In the six days I was there I saw more than 40 shows, dipping between the International Festival and the Fringe. 

In a few months I’ll have forgotten most of what I experienced which is a shame because I saw some great stuff. To try to help me remember I thought I’d write a few notes about each show. These aren’t balanced reviews, they are notes to self, memory jogs to my future.

I’m not expecting anyone else to pore over the details but it seemed a shame not to share my enthusiasm for some wonderful events and the hardworking teams behind them.

Yes, I know I’ve written far too much to make it interesting as a read.

Saturday 11th

After the seven hour journey from our home (in the middle of Kent) we dropped off our bags at our B&B in Frederick Street, in the ‘New Town’ area of the city, and headed out for dinner and a planning session for the week ahead. We’d already got spreadsheets and hit lists but we’d left plenty of gaps to fill with new discoveries.

It was late in the day but never too early to squeeze in a show…

Jerry Sadowitz Make Comedy GRATE again!
The Stand’s New Town Theatre – Grand Hall

I was genuinely fearful of seeing Sadowitz when I first went to the Fringe in 1990. Then, in his late twenties, he had the reputation of a psychopathic madman. 28 years later he’s still got the same act: railing against everything, between genuinely great sleight-of-hand card tricks.

But the act feels less anarchic mockery and more bitter misanthropy now the man is in his late 50s. And when people started whooping to his (I’m sure sarcastic) praise of Trump my sensitivity was truly tested. I left a little deflated by the experience. Mostly, I was sad that he’s had to explain the joke of his title through capital letters.

Sunday 12th

We awoke to clouds so low we were walking through them on our way to breakfast. By the time we scattered towards our show choices, the rain was coming at us from every direction, simultaneous falling from the sky, driving into our faces and bouncing from the cobbles. Welcome to Scotland.

My first theatrical show was in the appropriately named, Rainy Hall…

The Approach
Assembly Hall – Rainy Hall

Written by Mark O’Rowe, The Approach is a 65 minute, three-handed play where we witness conversations between alternating pairs of women. Jumping through time we piece together the stories of their failed relationships, shared history and the stubborn misunderstandings that have, at times, divided them.

It is brilliantly acted by Cathy Belton, Derbhle Crotty and Aisling O’Sullivan and sensitively directed by the playwright.

From the back of the steeply raked seats I found the the deliberate emotional detachment difficult to engage with at times; revelatory comments were thrown-away as, of course, they are in conversations between friends. I enjoyed the play but do wish the women’s stories had been defined by more than the men in their lives.

Mile Jupp Interviews
The Stand’s New Town Theatre – Grand Hall

Back to the venue I’d been the night before, for a much gentler experience. Jupp had been interviewing an eclectic mix of friends (David Gower, Val McDermid, Jess Phillips). This was the last day and his guest was the underrated Les Dennis.

Jupp is a hugely affable interviewer and you can see why he has attracted friends from his varied professional engagements. This wasn’t a hard-hitting interview but it was fascinating and surprisingly revealing.

Amongst many funny anecdotes, Dennis explained that he and Dustin Gee had been the act who were ushered on after Tommy Cooper’s tragic collapse on live television. With refreshing honesty he told us of the conflict he felt after that performance had been such a huge boost to his career.

The interview finished with Jupp and Dennis engaged in a show-of-strength plank-off which is one of the most bizarre sights I witnessed in my week at the Fringe.

Everything Not Saved
Summerhall – Roundabout

Malaprop theatre’s show is both deep and shallow. On the surface it’s frothy, fast-paced, absurd, set in an idealised present, recreating a scene from the past – a glorious summer’s day. Three friends trying to recall the names of past lovers whilst faking a film of Princess Elizabeth writing to her subjects, ready to cut into an obituary reel (for when it is needed).

Floating above are the disconnected voices of children asking probing questions, making statements about memory. Is our understanding of history, even our own memory, based on objective truth or our assimilated memories of retold stories and imprinted images?

What do we know about Rasputin? Was he really killed several times in different ways or do we really only know he was lover to the Russian Queen? Cue the dancing ‘girls’ and Boney M soundtrack. This is the show I‘ve been most trying to keep fixed in my head but I suspect that my future recollection will be based on the words I’ve written here.

Waiting For Godot
Royal Lyceum Theatre

I’d never waited for Godot. I know it’s a key part of the theatrical canon, I’ve just never felt drawn enough to a particular production. When I saw that the Becket play was being staged at Edinburgh International Festival I knew it would be good. No more excuses.

Of course it was good. Druid theatre’s production is impeccably staged, masterfully acted and (to me) surprisingly funny. The protagonists are trapped in the frame of a minimal, Dali-esque setting, killing time that never dies. I’m not sure a production will ever draw me in again but I’m very glad to have witnessed their waiting.

Frustratingly the show overran by 15 minutes  So, despite a desperate run around the corner to the Traverse Theatre, I was too late to get into Underground Railroad Game. Bloody Godot!

Midnight Marauders
Assembly Checkpoint

As I was at a loose end I tracked down my family and joined them at this midnight show, hosted by Australian cabaret artist, Carla Lippis.

Midnight Marauders is a good-time hedonist party, pulling together guests from across the fringe. On the night we were there we saw Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret, Lolly Jones lip-syncing as a stripping Theresa May, a woman who battled her voice against a theremin, and more strippers than you can shake a tit-tassel at.

The night was more about quantity than quality but it was fun to be there. Highlight for my family was Amanda Palmer’s full-throttle cover of Should I Stay or Should I Go, complete with a dive into the mosh pit she’d commanded.

Monday 13th

Monday is a day off for lots of shows at the Fringe so I’d had to plan carefully around availability. It was actually a nice excuse to see a lot of shows I might otherwise have overlooked. The weather hadn’t brightened, I was actually starting to feel sorry for the leafleters and ever-cheerful street entertainers. Well, a little bit.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Pleasance Dome – King Dome

This show was exactly what you’d expect of the Fringe. Accomplished, posh, young people staging a play about the stuff their education has told them is culturally important, under the banner of a theatrical company with a slightly silly name (Pants on Fire). There was multi-part singing, quick costume changes, illusions, puppetry and slapstick. What you might not expect is how good the show is. Beautifully presented, cleverly staged and genuinely funny.

Century Song
Zoo Southside

Soprano, Neema Bickersteth, inhabits the characters of black women throughout the 20th Century, singing and dancing between them against an ever-changing projected backdrop. The result is powerful and moving. If I’m honest I could have done with a little more exposition. The show was apparently inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens – I’ve read neither. It was a hugely enjoyable hour’s performance despite my ignorance.

Pickle Jar
Underbelly, Cowgate – Big Belly

I’d seen Maddie Rice being brilliant in the recent tour of Fleabag so was really looking forward to this show, written by Rice and directed by Katie Pesskin. I wasn’t disappointed. Rice is wonderful as an everywoman school teacher who is single and struggling with the responsibilities of being a grown-up in charge of girls who are more confident than her. It’s an affecting and effective comedy that starts light and gradually descends to tackle the darkest issues of modern life.

It is bound to have a life beyond the Fringe. I’d encourage anyone to go and see it.

Andy Barr: Neustadt
Black Medicine Basement & Heroes

Andy Barr plays a visionary architect recruited by the Soviets to build an idealised socialist city in undeveloped swampland. He’s simultaneously recruited by MI5 as a double agent to bring down the USSR from within. Neustadt is an extended, low-budget comic skit with plenty of physical humour, clever gags, and an awful lot of audience participation. Barr’s dry delivery is very funny and he coped well with the extra complexity of trying to perform the piece in the bar of a pub.

Square Go
Summerhall – Roundabout

The publicity poster for Square Go features what looks like men in shirts, ties and Mexican wrestling masks. I can see why that makes a good poster but it’s a slightly confusing message because the show is actually about two young school friends who spend the best part of an hour waiting for the bell, the signal that one of them must face his demons and meet the school’s hard-man for a fight (a Square Go).

On the surface it’s about bravado, about boys growing up, but underneath it’s about realising that everyone has a back story that shapes them and pushes some young men so far out they can’t come back. It was made all the more poignant when I found out that the music had been composed by Frightened Rabbit whose lead singer had lost the fight against his own demons. A great show that deserves to be seen beyond the Fringe.

One Life Stand
Summerhall – Roundabout

I came out of the Roundabout and went straight back into the queue for the next show. One Life Stand is a three-person play about hyperconnected lives across a long night.

A childlike man who wants to play games on his phone is interrupted by orders to deliver food on his bike, he thinks cat gifs equal love and video porn equals sex. His girlfriend is playing at being a grown-up by sleeping with a sleazy older man. Along the way there’s a schoolgirl who can’t understand the fuss she’s caused by videoing herself having sex with a teacher.

I admired the ambition but it’s always a struggle to like a play when you can’t find a redeeming character in any of the characters.

Daniel Kitson: Good for Glue
The Stand Comedy Club

These ‘work in progress’ shows sold out in minutes because Kitson has such a loyal following. We arrived 15 minutes early and we were almost the last in. There was a queue down the street for returns.

He was on good form and it was fascinating to see how much the set had changed since we saw him in Greenwich a couple of weeks before.

Tuesday 14th

On this day we woke up to a break in the weather, went down for breakfast and our daily planning session.

Over pancakes I saw a Tweet from my friend Rosie who announced she was making her Fringe debut at noon. I checked the map, did the maths and went in search of the Waverley Bar.

Rosie Luff (opening for Wedding Guest Extraordinaire: Sarah Southern)
Waverley Bar – Upstairs Lounge

Waverley Bar is at the end of the Royal Mile, a lot further than I’d expected so I had to get quite a spurt on to make it in time. I’m really glad I did. This was Rosie’s second ever stand-up gig and she was great. She did a short set, filled with bacon metaphors, about lop-sided relationships and parental disapproval.

Sorry to Sarah Southern whose show I hear is excellent; I had to leave straight away to wade through the crowds, past the castle, and over to the Traverse Theatre.

Mark Thomas: Check Up: Our NHS at 70
Traverse 1

You can’t help but admire Mark Thomas, he consistently finds humour in topics that he is genuinely angry about. And he seems to have a right laugh along the way. 

This show is based around a series of interviews with medical professionals and academics who all told him that NHS privatisation was nonsensical. He talks of the failures of successive health secretaries: Labour’s Frank Dobson (who, in an interview, says that Private Finance Initiatives were his biggest mistake), and Tory Andrew Lansley whose dogmatic drive to the market is based on the Thatcherite model of utility privatisation.

Thomas describes the traumatic day he spent in a trauma clinic, and a horrific day hearing horror stories of what might affect the health of an overweight mid-fifties comic.

In the hands of others this could be a depressing show but Thomas turns the tears it into a positive rallying cry, and we all have a right laugh along the way.

Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows – The Beauty

I wanted to see at least one circus show but I struggle to know how to pick the best one. I chose SHIFT largely on the strength of its conceptually consistent poster design. I love a two-colour design. The theme followed into the show with bright blue elastic creating a constant thread of literal tension (and release) in almost every set-piece of acrobatic movement.

There were gasps and moments of slack-jawed appreciation, but I think I was there on an off-day: quite a few moves and cues were missed and one set-up was abandoned completely after the blue elastic became too tangled. I didn’t really mind, I was mostly just impressed by the sheer physical strength and flexibility of these incredible performers.

Natalie Palamides: Nate
The Pleasance Courtyard – Beside

What’s so wonderful about Natalie Palamides’s show is how difficult it is to describe to people without making it sound awful.

It’s a show where the performer fondles the breasts of some audience members, and physically wrestles with another. There’s an axe, a tiny motorbike and a stretchy penis that hangs out of Nate’s shorts for an uncomfortably long time. Ultimately it’s a show about date rape and confusion of consent.

And somehow it’s utterly hilarious. I’m already planning to see it again when it comes back to Soho Theatre in November.

Little Death Club
Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows – The Beauty

I was back on the Meadows to see Bernie Dieter’s Weimar-style cabaret. She was excellent, parading around the Spiegeltent before the show, prowling the space in eight inch heels, a black cat suit and feathered shoulder pads, stroking and laughing with people as they entered her domain.

Between Bernie’s songs we were treated to a variety of variety acts. The never shy Jess Love performed part of her wonderfully filthy hula-hoop routine; drag-act Myra Dubois sang Elaine Page’s part in her duet with Barbara Dickson, I Know Him So Well, with great comic timing; and there was a disgruntled French mime (I think he was Marcel Lucont) who just wanted, for once, to be trapped inside a real box.

This slick show was in a different class to Sunday’s shambolic Midnight Marauders. Bernie owned the room, belting out torch songs, straddling chairs and audience members, and engaging in lewd acts to entertain and embarrass in equal measure. My only quibble was the venue. I don’t understand why sound-deadening tents have become the rooms of choice for cabaret.

Janeane Garofalo: Put a Pin in That
Gilded Balloon – Wine Bar

It’s a brave move (or maybe just obstinacy) to not feature your face on your Fringe publicity material, especially when you have such a recognisable face from TV and films. Garofalo’s mix of self-doubt, stubbornness and restless energy makes her both difficult to follow and utterly compelling to watch. She’s a stand-up who can’t stand still, and can’t seem to stand the boring set-up and delivery convention.

If she were a child she’d be on Ritalin. She jumps from topic to topic, between timelines, across continental pop-culture references. She begins stories and gets bored, picks up leaflets and begins riffing on an idea she seems to have thought of that day, before deciding it doesn’t work and giving up. She walks off the stage and into the audience, pointing out people who are leaving, not so much to embarrass them as to point out her own inability to entertain them.

She seemed genuinely incapable of adapting to the room (other than to register disappointment). As a paraphrased example: whilst registering frustration with the Silent Disco tours, halfway through a half formed idea about why it’s odd that Scottish households still have clan-type names, she changed direction, “do you know the ‘Ken Burns documentary, The Walking Dead?… no? She seemed both surprised and amused at the lack of laughs (presumably it’s a line that kills in LA). She dug deeper “in the documentary 28 Days Later, your undead were so much faster, that’s why I moved here…”

She may have left a fair few people non-plussed by I adored her routine. She is one of the funniest performers I have ever seen. I had tears in my eyes from laughing so much.

It was a privilege to see her in the tiny room she seemed to have booked in a mixture of self-doubt and wilful bloody-mindedness.

Shit-faced Shakespeare: Hamlet
Underbelly, Bristo Square – McEwan Hall

The central conceit (which is a word that comes up a lot in reviews about this company) is that these are classically trained Shakespearean actors who perform short versions of a key play whilst one of them is very drunk.

It’s a fun idea. Late at night, down the pub with your university pals. And that is where they’ve found their audience. McEwan Hall is huge and it was packed with people in their twenties. They found the perfect mix: it feels a little bit clever and cultured; there’s improv and slapstick; it’s a bit Horrible Histories; and there’s the opportunity to chant ‘drink, drink, drink’.

As a one-night event it was a lot of fun. The performers were all very good and funny and there was a ‘host’ who steered them away from too much self-indulgence, and kept the story whipping along in time to beat the venue’s curfew.

But I’m afraid I have a bit of a sense of humour failure, laughing at drunkenness (whether it’s real or not). To quote from the snooty psychiatrist Roger, in Friends – “I wouldn’t want to be there when the laughter stops”.

At the end of our third full day, I had 20 shows and 60,000 steps under my belt. I was pretty tired but up until 2am, booking shows for the next three days. I’ve written about them in a separate journal entry.