In the second half of my week in Edinburgh, the weather turned from torrential into just constant rain. It was a relief as I didn’t think my cagoule could survive much longer.
I’d deliberately not booked much, in advance, for Wednesday and Thursday so I was able to fill the days with punts and recommendations. Some were unexpected gems, at least one wasn’t.
Don’t Kill Your Darlings
Oslo’s Det Andre Teatret (The Other Theatre) was founded a decade ago. They describe their offer as unpretentious, “almost like a real theater, just more fun”. This is their first trip to Edinburgh Fringe.
I was one of the first into the venue at ZOO Charteris. Every chair had a reserved sign on it – it was my favourite gag of the festival.
“Welcome to this performance where the end comes far too soon. Because the beginning is always the best. It’s easy to begin things. It’s easy to begin a hot dog eating competition. And it’s easy to start climbing a mountain. It’s even easy to begin a relationship. It’s much more difficult when it comes to an end”.
Ingvild Haugstad delivers the opening lines with a child-like innocence that draws us all in. During the next hour we are enthralled with her telling of the tale of a man who thinks he will never find love again after his partner dies, choking on a raspberry drop.
The show is sweet, silly, quirky, involves disco lights, Play People, audience participation and a microphone that plays the thoughts of people’s heads (mine went ‘tum ti tum ti tum’). It was a delightful way to spend an hour.
Wil Greenway: Either Side of Everything
Underbelly, Bristo Square – Dexter
I wonder if Will Greenway gets irked by always being described as affable (like that nice man Michael Palin). I doubt it, he seems too gentle to be irked.
Either Side of Everything is four stories emerging in different timelines and merging into one narrative. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, assembled in your mind; random sections are started, revisited and returned to until the areas join up and the picture is revealed. It’s subtle, heartbreaking, life-affirming, and a little bit motivational.
Greenway’s soft Australian delivery is beguiling. He’s joined on stage (well, in the corner of a small temporary space, away from the chairs) by his parter, the singer, Kathryn Langshaw and guitarist Will Galloway. They provide the musical bed from which the seeds of his stories sprout and bloom.
People tell me it isn’t Greenway’s best (because he’s trying hard to be comedic in ways he’s not done before). I loved it so I can’t wait to see his ‘better’ work.
Build a Rocket
Pleasance Courtyard – Beneath
Serena Manteghi has incredible energy in this one-woman play from Christopher York and Stephen Joseph theatre.
As the lights go up she’s a working class cliché in a vest and tracksuit trousers, gold chains, drawn eyebrows and a top-knot, standing astride a playground roundabout, dictating a letter to her cheating boyfriend, the one who knocked her up – ‘dear Dick’ead…’
There’s more to her than catches our eye. She’s looked up the words in a thesaurus and she loves the sound of them as they trip off her tongue.
The story begins conventionally enough: a schoolgirl, an alcoholic mother and absent father, a glamorous man with money and a flat in the posh end of Scarborough, pregnancy, betrayal, failed exams, potential squandered. But there’s more to this teenage pregnancy story than the stereotype suggests (as, of course, there always is).
We hear about Yasmin’s struggle to bring up an energetic young son, the sacrifices she made, the difficult choices, the paths less taken. The last 10 minutes fast-forward us through his life and her pride. It’s heartwarming, life-affirming stuff.
Jacqueline Novak: How Embarrassing for Her
Pleasance Courtyard – That
Novak must have a fantastic publicist; she’s been on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and the Late Late Show with James Cordon, and if you Google this show you’ll find dozens of interviews and a fair few four and five star reviews. But it really wasn’t for me so I’m not going to write more about it.
Pussy Riot : Riot Days
Summerhall: The Dissection Room
To some people the arts are just entertainment. But in ever more troubling times, it’s useful to be reminded how regimes crack down on free expression and opposition because the arts can be such powerful weapons for social change.
We booked this Pussy Riot event long before we knew what to expect. Just being in the same room as the icons of the protest movement would be worth the ticket price. It turned out that the show was a three-hour concert with support from the energetic Estrons.
The main event was a staging of Maria “Masha” Alyokhina’s book Riot Days, directed by Yury Muravitsky. He came on to introduce the set and rail against the UK government who had refused a visa to one of the other Pussy Rioters (I think Nadezhda Tolokonnikova). He described UK immigration as many times worse than Russia’s. It was a stark reminder of how we are viewed by the rest of the world.
Masha’s travel hadn’t been simple either. She’d been turned away at Moscow’s airport having failed to complete community service. She described how she’d driven to Lithuania via Belarus, and got a plane from there.
Two large screens showed footage of protests and court cases, and translated the shouted words from the stage. Masha was joined by Nastya (in sunglasses, leather jacket and gelled hair – like the Terminator with a saxophone) and Maksim (shirt-off keyboardist), from the band AWOTT (Asian Women on the Telephone), and actor, singer and bundle of energy, Kiryl Masheka from Belarus Free Theatre. They dance, shout, act, wear masks and of course don balaclavas.
It reminded me of gigs by Poison Girls, Crass or Flux of Pink Indians from the mid 1980s – hardly melodic but so full of energy that you can’t help but be swept away by it all.
It was a privilege to be there.
So you think you’re funny
Gilded Balloon Teviot – Wine Bar
SYTYF has been an annual institution since the late 80s when the Gilded Balloon was by far the most important venue at the Fringe.
We took a chance, on a free evening, to see if we might spot some talent for the future, The bill was expectedly mixed for this ‘semi final’ (one of seven).
Ray Bradshaw was our excellent host for the evening, introducing each act, filling in the gaps and encouraging some respect from the drunken school teachers in the balcony.
Bulgarian Martin Durchov was the clear winner on the night with some great lines about being over here to study Physics and steal our jobs, one more won’t hurt he says he already has two.
Traverse Theatre – Traverse 1
Set in an unnamed Scandi state (presumably Iceland as the family names end in -dóttir or -son) this three-header is hard, grey and stark. Illumination is provided by a lit crucifix, the symbol of state persecution.
It’s difficult not to make comparisons with The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 (or maybe to Pussy Riot). A dystopian Christian state where dissent is punished by stoning, where neighbours report each other to the state, where performing a love song is enough to lose your freedom, and maybe your life if you don’t repent.
The role of social media is interestingly tackled. A reluctant rebel, who might have been treated leniently, is forced as far as martyrdom by the ‘supporters’ who perpetuate her crime by releasing a recording of the offending song.
It’s also a whodunnit – who betrayed her? – but in a play of three characters (one of whom is the accused woman’s lawyer), the twist is not hard to predict, and is revealed with a slip of the tongue, like an ITV crime drama.
Refreshingly, in a Fringe that still feels very male and pale, this all-female cast featured two women of colour (Shvorne Marks and Amanda Wright) and the exceptional script was written by Penelope Skinner.
I’d struggle to describe such a bleak play as enjoyable but I did appreciate it and would happily see it again.
The Last Straw
Summerhall – Demonstration Room
Summerhall was once the Royal Veterinary College. The Demonstration room is an uncomfortable lecture hall with a semi-circle of raked wooden benches overlooking a concrete-floored area, big enough to operate on a horse. Today that space is filled with shredded paper. Words of truth are literally torn apart and scattered like animal bedding.
People Show number their performances since the foundation in 1966. The Last Straw is number 130. It’s not so much a play as a series of surreal theatrical sketches with two performers (Gareth Brierley and Fiona Creese) trapped in perpetual pleasantries and misunderstanding.
“I’m just going out to destabilize western civilization.”
“Can you take the dog with you?”
Language quickly spirals from spilled sauce to global catastrophe, from platitudes to murderous intent. Language is cut and torn, spliced back together into nonsense or perhaps they are authentic new truths.
I could not have liked it more.
Games by Henry Nailor
Gilded Balloon Teviot – Dining Room
Games is the true story of Helene Mayer, a German fencer who was once so famous that households had models of her on their mantlepieces. Amongst her fans was the play’s second character, the aspiring athlete Gretel Bergmann who was inspired to focus on the high-jump by a meeting with Mayer on a government organised school visit.
Following their persecution as Jews, Bergmann and Mayer each fled to the States. But when the US threatened to boycott the infamous 1936 Olympics, Hitler and Goebbels agreed to allow these two Mischlinge (half-breeds) to compete, and they agreed for their own reasons.
Bergmann was not allowed to train, set up to fail. Mayer was too big a star to treat in that way. She almost recaptured her crown but with the final thrust she was pipped to silver. All three medal winners were Jewish. The others saw that as a triumph but Mayer couldn’t comprehend the failure. To the disgust of the world she took to the podium, gave the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute and shook his hand. Her reputation never recovered.
It’s a tightly written, wonderfully acted piece. It’s bound to tour so I encourage you all to see it.
Stuart Bowden: Our Molecules
Underbelly, Bristo Square – Dexter
Stuart Bowden plays an alien called Natalie, Nat for short. In Australia the show was originally titled “When Our Molecules Meet Again Let’s Hope They Remember What to Do”. According to Nat, shortening names is a thing that aliens do that we humans wouldn’t understand.
Nat is dressed in what looks like a sheep-costume made from a bath matt. He’s on earth to kill all the humans… after he’s tracked down his nemesis Sammy, using the spaceship he controls with his toes.
It’s mostly surreal storytelling but there are also songs in which he harmonises with himself using loops. He gets amusingly grumpy with us for laughing in one of those loops and ruining the mood.
It’s a charmingly innocent show with some simple, naive messages. As Bowden’s title reminds us, we’re all just made of the same stuff – molecules, arranged in different ways to other things. So why can’t we get along and be nice to each other?
I liked it very much. He may well be the only performer who could induce me to hold a battery-powered tea-light above my head and sway to his music.
This is Akram Khan’s last ever full-length solo show. I saw it at Sadler’s Wells earlier in the year and immediately booked my ticket in Edinburgh. I deliberately chose a seat at the front of the upper circle to get a different perspective on the stunning sloped, blood-red set.
Xenos (it means stranger or guest in Greek) is the personification of the Indian story during WWI.
Khan is reliving the horrors of that war. We learn that he was a cable layer, fighting to provide communications in the trenches. Snipers fire, explosions rip apart the scenery, he’s mired in mud and bound to the earth by cables.
“This is not war,” a voice booms. “It is the ending of the world”. But it’s not a simple story, Khan is also the embodiment of the colonial struggles. A speaker become His Master’s Voice and morphs into a searchlight that scans the audience. And he’s Prometheus being punished afresh each day.
Khan plants a seed at the start of the show and the stage is filled by pine cones by the end. They flow down the stage in a torrent, brown on red like a Rothko. It’s one of the most stunning theatrical settings I’ve ever witnessed.
If it comes back to London, I’ll book again.
Barry Crimmins – A Celebration
The Stand’s New Town Theatre – Grand Hall
Barry Crimmins was a mainstay of the American comedy circuit until he began ranting against the Catholic church and making himself unpopular. He eventually announced himself as a survivor of abuse and spent decades campaigning to have images of child abuse removed from the internet, testifying to Congress and railing against the ignorant, apathetic US government. I only know all this because I happened to see a documentary on Netflix, released shortly after his death from cancer, earlier this year.
He was well-loved by the comedy community in the UK. Tonight’s show was both a tribute and a fundraiser for his wife, Helen. This was a mixed line-up organised (as far as I can tell) by Barry and Helen’s friends Robin Ince and Mark Thomas, both of whom appeared on the bill alongside Reginald D Hunter, Sophie Hagen, Jane Godley, Angela Barnes, Chris Stokes and Alastair Barrie.
The most moving part of the evening was when Helen Crimmins appeared and read a tribute to her husband and his friends. From a carrier bag she produced a gift for Robin and a small jar of Barry’s ashes for Mark to scatter where he felt fit. We all sat in stunned, awed silence.
Last minute additional Amanda Palmer came on afterwards and launched straight into her ukelele song. And then poor Mark Watson stumbled onto the stage to continue the comedy. He was hilarious, trying to get it together in an impossible situation.
It was a privilege to be in the audience.
In my last full day in Edinburgh I tried to squeeze in as many shows as I could. My day was concentrated around the Pleasance but I began just around the corner with two events at Summerhall (which was my frequently visited venue of the Fringe).
Sticks and Stones
Summerhall – Roundabout
Vinay Patel’s latest play for Paines Plough begins with character B congratulating her go-getting colleagues on a great presentation. She’s relieved and a little smug, she knows they nailed it, they didn’t know what hit ’em. There are high-fives and celebratory dances before an aside, from character C, suggests that B’s parting joke may have been a little misjudged, the use of ‘that word’ may have been inappropriate. Which word? B doesn’t understand, she meant no offence.
We never get to hear that word. To signify a potentially offensive word the characters throw shapes, accompanied by sound and light. A string of expletives looks like a robot dance and sounds like the dinging of a fruit machine. And there’s some fun between the production desk and the characters when each forces or ‘forgets’ each other’s cues.
It’s farce and satire. Can one word cause such offence that it should end a career? Should we apologise for language used without malice? As language evolves, who has the right to give potency to words? Are some people offended on behalf of others, to further their own career or increase their standing?
As an audience we’re making judgements about which words we’d put into which category. Our allegiances shift as we learn more about the context of each character’s life. But is that right, should language be subjective? Isn’t that what’s landed B in the language retraining sessions?
I very much enjoyed this show. Charlotte O’Leary, Katherine Pearce, Jack Wilkinson work very hard as A, B and C and Stef O’Driscoll’s production gives the play real potency. It’s on a national tour. Catch it if you can.
Flight is an immersive experience that takes place in a converted shipping container, decked out like the interior of a budget airline (but with more leg room).
With headphones on we are taken through the familiar routine – seat belts buckled, trays in upright position, take a moment to view the safety card. But this is a twisted experience, the safety card shows a plane split in half.
The lights dim and then go out completely, the rest of our flight is in total darkness. Through the headphones we hear crying children, people rushing around, spilt drinks. An announcement tells us to move to a luckier seat but a voice whispers in our ear – ‘you are already in the luckiest seat, you don’t need to move’.
The flight gets weirder, more existential. We’re told we’re like Schrödinger’s cat: until we land we are both alive and dead, in reality and in infinite possible alternatives.
It’s a great idea for an experience. My only issue with it is that Flight seems to have been done on a budget – the headphones aren’t great so you’re never quite sure whether sounds are intended or not; and the script isn’t as tight or considered as it might be.
Flight is the second show from Darkfield, a company run by a team with Shunt and Punchdrunk credentials. I’ll be looking out for anything they do in the future.
The Vanishing Man
Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance Two
Created by Simon Evans and David Aula, The Vanishing Man is the story of two magician friends who are trying to discover the secret behind a famous disappearance – the Edwardian magician Hugo Cedar who vanished from the top of London Bridge (in Arizona).
It’s clever, slick and ever more complex. The audience are involved in every aspect. Secrets are shared, individuals are given names and called on to speak with words put in their mouths – ‘you say…’ We jump through time and spaces. We’re close friends at a first performance, we’re an audience in Portsmouth, we’re an audience in Greenwich where the story begins to unravel.
We learn of tragedy, we begin to understand why they are compelled to understand the mystery. It all becomes very meta with the audience called on to recall the magical secrets that were ‘revealed’ earlier, we’re no longer playing the roles we were assigned, we’ve switched to the characters of this show, in Edinburgh.
It was a great show but I sat in almost constant fear that I’d be called on to participate. I knew I would struggle to follow my role in their plot. If I’m honest that slightly spoiled my enjoyment but it wouldn’t stop me from going again (and sitting closer to the back).
The Extinction Event
Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance Above
An accompanying show to The Vanishing Man, The Extinction Event was across the Pleasance Courtyard, half an hour later. It’s a standalone show but one follows the other. I guess they’ll be able to stage them either side of an interval at other venues.
We pick up the characters and the premise of their story but there’s a twist, Simon is no longer the lead, he seems to be losing his power, perhaps losing his mind.
There’s talk of artificial intelligence. Is it true that only humans have the imagination necessary to conceive a magic trick? Is it that same power of imagination that makes us susceptible to being fooled? If something appears real, is that any different to it being real? What is reality?
The Extinction Event had a significantly smaller audience. I don’t know why, I enjoyed it just as much.
Still, my partner and I sat near the back, along a row, far enough to feel safe from the action. We were further protected because, as often happens at the Fringe, we were sitting next to an actor. We’re not sure if David had realised or he’d just picked her out because she seemed to so enjoy the show so much. But the final, big reveal of the show was read by the woman in our row – Juliet Stevenson.
Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance Two
I’ve seen Les Enfants Terribles do some joyful, darkly funny shows, including the large-scale immersive Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland experience at Waterloo. They are often family focused so I wouldn’t normally go on my own, but I had time to spare and gave it a go.
Flies was hilarious. It definitely wasn’t aimed at kids. The staging was clever, the script was funny and story was absurd but it was the character acting that made it so special.
Harry Humberstone is a beat-boxing musician and loose-limbed clown. George Readshaw is our weedy protagonist with a fly phobia.
The third actor, Piers Hampton steals the show as the louche, sexy fly in a white blazer, whisky glass in hand. He had more than a hint of Kenneth Branagh about him. “I took a shit on your food, then I vomited on it and then I stamped around in it with my little sticky feet. And all because I don’t like you. I don’t like your stupid face. I don’t like your stupid life. I don’t like anything about you.”
An Evening with Amanda F*cking Palmer
The Queen’s Hall
My third Fringe encounter with Amanda Palmer (less than my family who had squeezed in another impromptu show) was a three hour, frank confessional journey through her life story, punctuated with the songs she’d written about abortions, abuse and the disappointments of life.
It got pretty sad and dark at times. Palmer invited us to let her know if it all got too much, and she would sing us a happy song on the uke. She sang Radiohead’s Creep for light relief.
Apparently she invites guests each night. Sometimes that’s her husband, Neil Gaiman. Tonight it was the burlesque dancer Kelly-Ann Doll. Kelly-Ann told us her own story, including her abusive and controlling relationships, before expressing her empowerment by dancing and stripping. I found the stripping pretty uncomfortable. It meant I’d seen strippers as often, at the Fringe, as I’d seen Amanda Palmer.
Kate Lucas – Tetchy (work in progress)
Laughing Horse @ The Counting House – The Loft
I first saw Kate Lucas as a late night punt last time I was at the Fringe. She was hilarious. I saw her again at Soho Theatre last year where she did the same show. So I was excited to see she’d be trialing new material this year.
The venue was a tiny attic room that held around 20 people. It wasn’t full and most of the room was drunken men who’d been brought by friends. Lucas had to work hard to keep control but she did so, brilliantly.
I can’t understand why she’s not more popular. She looks sweet and sings sweetly but her lyrics are laced with dark profanity. She’s the only comedian I can think of who uses the word ‘forlorn’ and has a song about having sex with an elderly woman on a heart monitor. I’ll keep an eye out for any occasion when I can see her perform again.
Tim Key: Megadate
Pleasance Courtyard – The Grand
I’ve failed to catch Tim Key’s Megadate show at any of the numerous smaller venues he’s toured it, in and around London. So it’s my own fault I ended up in the hanger of a venue that is The Grand, late on a Friday night. I wasn’t the only one, the huge space was packed. Key is quite a draw.
He played the room brilliantly, pacing the vast open stage, eying audience members as they took their seats, disarming potential hecklers with a lad-like toast of his lager. He left the stage and reappeared at the back of the raked seats (right next to where I was sitting) and bounded down the stairs, following his tossed carrier-bag of beers.
After months of touring this is a slick, clever and very funny show. There are some surprisingly high-profile guests who appear on video clips, dotted throughout. Some of the off-mic subtlety was lost in the space but he made up for it with volume and energy.
My train was booked but I couldn’t leave the city without one last show.
Summerhall – Main Hall
Part of a series of Belgian productions, Unsung features Valentijn Dhaenens as power-seeking politician.
The opening in what at first appears to be a typical motivational speech at a conference – we must find ways to push forward, refocus, drive ahead, galvanise our collective thought towards a new vision where we create a new future. We’re five minutes in before we realise he’s not saying anything; it is a typical conference speech, entirely devoid of substance.
A fresh shirt and a new city and we follow this charming man through a never-ending non-stop tour to gain support. We’re reminded of Blair’s rise to power, that restaurant deal with Brown, the games people play to convince themselves they are making sacrifices for the greater good.
It’s a play about human fragility. Should we ever elect the sort of people who seek to be elected? Is it possible for an honest politician to survive in the media frenzy of modern life? Is style always more appealing than substance?
It gave me a lot to think about as I raced to the station for my train back to London.