Wednesday 14 August
Good morning, and welcome to a blog which I hope will have the effect of making you all feel that, yes, you really are here at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with me, and together we’re embarking on a magical, theatrical odyssey.
Of course, in reality, I realise that this being the online world, you’re all far more likely to feel the need to make threats against my life and troll my as yet unborn children, but let’s give it a go shall we?
So, in short: I’m spending 48 hours in Edinburgh with a simple brief to “see as many weird and wonderful things as is humanly possible”. Assuming the inside of a National Express train from Kings Cross doesn’t count, I’ll start updating here when I’ve finally arrived (at around 2.15pm BST to be precise) in bonny Edinburgh itself.
From then on I’ll be keeping you up to date with all the peaks and pitfalls – inevitable given that this is my first time here – as well as attempting to review, at varying lengths, every single show I see. So, without further ado, let the journey begin…
So, I’ve made it… And already it’s become clear that Edinburgh is not a city built for quickly scooting from one side t’other, so expect increasingly irate updates about tailgating bearded theatre folk from here on in. Anyway, first show The Secret Agent at the Traverse is about to start so I’d better be off…
17:19 The Secret Agent, Traverse, Review
“Welcome to the Cabinet of Despair,” and so begins The Secret Agent, adapted from the Joseph Conrad book about 19th century anarchy and terror in London, which wholeheartedly delivers on that promise. The story of a cowardly double agent (Adolf Verdoc) whose ineptitude pervades his work and his home, where both disabled brother and wife are neglected with fatal consequences. Amongst the shadows we meet The Professor, a chemist and anarchist fond of grandiose, but muddled, rhetoric, a demented, tyrannical Russian spy (wonderfully played by Leander Deeny) and Inspector Heat, the chirpy copper whose job is to make sense of it all.
The production weaves audience participation, physical theatre and a haunting soundtrack together well to create an overwhelming feeling of strangeness and suspicion, and there are some gripping performances, not least from Carolina Valdes as Verloc’s put upon and, ultimately, maniacal wife.
There’s a slight sense of the piece meandering to its conclusion – shaving off a few minutes from the running time wouldn’t have done any harm – but there are enough good ideas here to make a significant, and mysterious, impact.
20:30 Tell Me The Truth About Love, Underbelly Topside
And in this instance it’s homosexual love, which was enough to send two of the more conservative audience members hurtling towards the exit after the first song.
If the squeamish pair had anything against mincing and flouncing, they probably made the right call: this show was full of the stuff. But, really, what else would you expect when pairing the words of WH Auden, an open homosexual, with Britten, a repressed one.
The result is a comic romp through what it means to be in love which covers, among other subjects, Auden’s unsuccessful attempts to uncloset his composer friend, they dying embers of Hitler and Eva Braun’s romance and perhaps Auden’s greatest hit – if you can call a lyric poet a hitmaker – Funeral Blues.
Uproariously camp, but rather fun and enlivened by pianist Jamie McDermott’s intelligent intersections.
Two shows down, on to the third…
Thursday 15 August
Good morning! So this is what the morning after the night before at the Fringe feels like when you’ve only had five hours sleep. I’ve got a bit of catching up to do this morning, thanks mostly to the fact that there appears to be very few venues up here that combine the facilities of WIFI and a table. Until I post my first review of the morning, a few other Fringe observations to ponder:
1. My press pass appears to be utterly worthless. Flashing it at the indifferent students working the box offices here will earn you nothing more than a look of disdain and a request for more cash. I’m now effectively wearing a fluorescent orange lanyard for fashion reasons.
2. The phrase ‘this is what the Fringe is all about’ get used a lot, often to excuse anything remotely uncomfortable or annoying that happens to you.
3. Comedy clubs at 3am will always be full of drunks. Even here, at the world’s biggest cultural celebration, there are the oiks in the front row downing rose (from the bottle in one case) and hurling abuse at any man, woman or child who dares get up to ‘entertain’ them. Last night at Spank – Underbelly Cowgate’s late-night stand-up show – Holly Walsh’s set was reduced to a twenty minute slanging match between her and an increasingly belligerent group of college boys. It descended into a bit of a scrap, which, I’m sorry to report she lost.
4. The Traverse is a long way away from fringe civilisation, all the way over on the western tip of the city centre. Which is a shame because I’ve got quite a few shows booked in there and my girlfriend (who’s gamely accompanying) is growing increasingly impatient with me for frogmarching her there at breakneck speed, in a desperate attempt to make curtain call. We succumbed last night and took a cab back from David Greig’s The Events, a clever and insightful piece on the aftermath and effects of a shooting massacre (more on that later). It took just as long but there was welcome and balmy relief, at last, for our aching pins.
I’ll be back later this morning with a couple of reviews from last night’s shows, including a one-man show about the brilliance and delusion of Gordon Brown…
11:03 The Events, Traverse Theatre, Review
After all the fun of Tell Me The Truth About Love comes a real slap round the chops in the form of some serious theatre from David Greig. His new play is tackling big issues; multiculturalism, immigration, social cohesion and, The Events themselves, a mass shooting.
Claire is a village priest, haunted by the massacre meted out upon her multi-ethnic choir group by a ‘boy’, apparently in the name of some sort of right-wing ideology.
There are obvious echoes of the Anders Breivik story here, and it’s fascinating to watch Claire’s life unravel as she attempts to find reason in the madness. She confronts journalists and politicians who reportedly inspired the killer, and comes face to face with his friends and relatives in an attempt at closure.
None of this helps. She descends into a spiral of self-destruction, inflicting shamen chanting upon her confused and depleted choir group while in the meantime wrecking her own relationship with sustained introspection.
Greig’s real skill in this piece is illuminating a conversation about cohesion that is so often polarised and destructive. He understands the plight of the outsider – in this case the ‘boy’ killer – and the paranoid, who follow the questionable rhetoric of the ‘politician’ (think a cross between Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage).
The form is artful two. The main action plays out between two actors, Neve McIntosh as Claire and Rudi Dharmalingam who takes on all of the other parts, against the backdrop of a live choir which changes every night. It’s a gutsy technique which, notwithstanding a few bumps along the way from choir members throwing away their lines, captivates throughout, thanks to a brilliant script.
The Events poses a lot of serious and thoughtful questions about how we live together, but it’s realy beauty is in being honest about the fact that there are no real easy answers.
Longing For Grace, Hill Street
Two one-woman monologues with very different results this afternoon. Where Ciara was entrancing, almost hypnotic, with a vivid script deftly performed, Longing For Grace was essentially an hour-long, histrionic whine by a princess about the pitfalls of being… a princess.
Ciara is the daughter of professional criminal from the west end of Glasgow, who starts out busting butcher shops and ends up pushing the very heroine that kills his son, Ciara’s “baby” brother, Kierann.
The play, then, is not a great advert for the men of Glasgow – Ciara is let down by a string of them, repeatedly – but it does serve as a sort of twisted paen to the city. There is a regretful tenderness in Ciara’s reverence for the town in which she grew up.
The show’s two great strengths are the performance and the writing. Blythe Duff is utterly compelling in the role; you really feel she has become Ciara completely. Meanwhile David Harrower’s script transports the audience brilliantly from one location to another as Ciara flits back and forth through her story.
That sense of place is something Longing For Grace completely and totally fails to replicate; no amount of costume changes, dodgy props or hairstyles make you feel in any way immersed in the story.
Mind you, given that we’re ostensibly being asked to feel sympathy for Grace Kelly – a Hollywood princess who becomes a real one, then regrets it – perhaps that’s for the best.
The performance from Grace Kiley is honest enough, if a little stilted, but her script (she wrote this piece herself) is devoid of any guile and delivered in the shrill tones of a distressed dolphin – not exactly welcome if, like this critic, you’re still a little groggy from last night’s proceedings.
There have been some pretty testing moments so far between tour guide (girlfriend) and erstwhile blogger (me), mostly due to my absolute refusal to rely on maps to get around. My rationale: we’ve been here a day so what kind of self-respecting man would I be if I didn’t know the streets inside out by now. Also her Joey Tribbiani style map reading is not to my taste.
Anyway, it’s been ladies day so far today and after Ciara and Grace Kelly, we pitched up to see an ingenious and heartwarming piece of activist, art theatre Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, by Bryony Kimmings. Kimmings, through looking after her 9-year old niece Taylor, has recognised the lack of decent role models for young girls, and so set out to create one herself. Catherine Bennett is a new kind of popstar; part-time for starters (she doubles up as a worker at a dinosaur museum), she’s a creation based on values Taylor finds appealing (like kindness and motivation) and played by Kimmings herself.
The show is a journey of aunt and niece, which incorporates Katie Perry dance routines, spoof Disney scenes and Kimmings’ futile attempts to protect Taylor from the vagaries of the internet. It’s witty and inventive and, although it borrows a bit from the Richard Curtis school of manipulative sentimentalism at times, it’s refreshing to see Kimmings not just identifying a problem that should concern all of us, but going to the trouble of seeking a creative solution.
OK, so we’re entering the comedy heavy section of the evening here – I’ve developed a first rule of the Fringe which is that theatre is best seen during the day, while comedy rules the nighttime. This may or may not have something to do with me nodding off halfway through a play I will do the courtesy of allowing to remain nameless.
Tonights laughs kicked off at the Pleasance Courtyard where, after afore-mentioned map issues, I’m hoping to root myself for the rest of the evening, with award-winning comic David O’Doherty. O’Doherty’s a sort of young Bill Bailey in that it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine him spending long periods of time playing Dungeons & Dragons in his bedroom – in his pyjamas – and he owns a keyboard. He’s also extremely funny and here are a selection of his jokes from this evening (not necessarily his best, just the ones I could remember in lieu of a functioning note-taking device)…
“How do you bring a single lady back from the dead? Séancé!”
“I wouldn’t say I was annoyed about the Nazis – I was Fuhrerious.”
“If Jay-Z had just got a red balloon for each of his 99 problems he’d have had a totally different song.”
And so the show must go on. Finding both a reliable WIFI signal and any form of table proves increasingly impossible as the evening draws on here, so I can’t promise too many more updates throughout the evening… but do stay tuned to @edbearryman for the latest musings, pictures and hilarious hashtags (probably).
Friday 16 August
Good morning, and it’s a groggy one today. We may have got a little carried away last night at a jazz bar serving shots of whiskey for £2.75 a pop. That’s what the Fringe is all about, though, right?
As I write this I’m looking out from the window of a café, at the junction of South Bridge and Chambers Street, forcing down a vat of tasteless coffee and some dry toast. What is with cafe staff not buttering your toast before they bring it to the table? It’s bad enough that I have to order myself at the counter – thus removing a key facet of the waiter-customer experience – now I have to attempt the Krypton Factor-esque task of bludgeoning a block of rock hard butter into what, by now, is ostensibly a piece of crumby cardboard. Still, Rory McGrath has just walked past the window, so every cloud….
Last night started with David O’Doherty’s attempts to Fix Everything at the Pleasance Courtyard. O’Doherty’s got a slick set, and self-deprecation down to a fine art. He also pulls off the geek schtick without becoming boring or predictable.
There’s a great part of this show devoted to travelling back in time, to bring Leonard Da Vinci up to speed with our greatest inventions. “There’s a small box that fits in your pocket which allows you to know everything that everyone has ever thought,” O’Doherty explains. “Knowing everything?” Leonardo replies, “that would allow for the abolition of all argument, to stop war ever happening again. Is that what it’s used for?” “No,” replies O’Doherty, “we use it to watch videos of a Korean man pretending to ride a horse.”
After O’Doherty, we meet a BBC producer who claims to have given John Bishop and Sarah Milican their first breaks in television. The fact that he concedes to being involved with Ben Elton’s latest sitcom suggests he may be telling the truth. He recommends we see Jigsaw, but we say we don’t have time and so he pays for our taxi back to Bristo Square – it’s raining, come on – which is nice.
At the Underbelly Cow we file in for The Horne Section, fronted by stand-up comic Alex Horne. The show is backed by a live band which Horne uses with skill and dexterity to supplement his own brand of buffoonery. There’s a hint of Vic and Bob in Shooting Stars to all of this; the band play it straight throughout, which renders Horne’s slapstick all the more hilarious. Guest appearances from Shlomo (is this entertainment?) and Lee Nelson (legend) fall a bit flat but all in all it’s well worth checking out.
Afterwards it’s a short hop to the Pleasance Dome for a party hosted by Cassetteboy, promising to showcase the best of his mash-ups in accompaniment with DJ Rubbish. In truth the mash-ups fall well short of his early work (I’m thinking Alan Sugar on The Apprenctice, obviously) but the music is a nostalgic and welcome trip back through the 1990s.
We wander, or perhaps stagger by this stage, on to the Jazz Bar on Chambers Street at around 2am (via a quick stop off for pizza – hey, it’s what the Fringe is all about) where we encounter a fantastic exponent of the jazz flute (minus the Ron Burgundy moustache) before Gustavo – a Polish man with apparently no friends, who attempts to engage me and my girlfriend in some weird, three-way flirtation. We take that as a very strong sign that, yes, it’s time to go home. One and a half days down, 12 shows seen. Pretty good going, I think.
Just bumped into some friends who have a show on at Summerhall. Inevitably there was an awkward frisson when I had to admit neither had I seen it, nor had plans to. I muttered something feeble about impartiality but still the guilt of neglecting my duties as a friend linger. So here you are, guys: it’s called Gym Party and I’ve heard its excellent (from at least three sources other than my friends who write and star in it), so if you’re in Edinburgh go see it at 6.30pm at Summerhall. If only to make me feel better.
Incidentally I’d spotted the Gym Boxers in an interesting little café-cum-artspace-cum-theatre called Hunt & Darton (on St. Mary’s Street, just off Cowgate). They served me up a pretty sturdy avocado and bacon on toast, but only after I’d tweeted my order because, of course, it was social media day. They even press-ganged me into Instagraming my food, an act which filled me with self-loathing instantaneously, but they were wearing cute pinafores and had broccoli strapped to their head at the time, so really how could I say no? This is the kind of place that would be scarcely credible outside of Edinburgh at fringe-time (or, say, east London) but here it absolutely works.
And that, as it turns out, is the last meaningful action of my debut Fringe, unless you count picking up supplies for the train journey home which I’m sure you don’t.
The last walk down the High Street serves as a sort of physical flashback to the – yes, you guessed it – what the Fringe is all about. The madness, frivolity and bravery; the craziness, the creativity, the downright absurd. It’s all here on this gauntlet of performance. Among the highlights of that final stroll were guitarists doing classical music in quick time, the cast of Macbeth idly, and serenely, plaiting each other’s hair, actors holding an impromptu conference calls, terrible jugglers, brilliant acrobats, they’re all here vying for attention, parading their wares (and, of course, their flyers) desperate to stand out from the crowd and articulating the cornucopia of art the festival showcases from sunrise to well beyond sunset. It’s breathtaking and breathless and I’ve loved every minute of it.
In total I managed 12 shows in a little over 34 waking hours which, by my own estimation, works out to around one show every three hours. Personal hygiene, diet and sanity suffered as a result. It was certainly attritional and I’d like to thank you for joining me for any or all of it. Hopefully it’s persuaded some of you to ditch the armchair and make the journey yourself, or perhaps you’re already going. If so here’s one final roll call, and digested review, of each and every show I saw…
The Secret Agent, Traverse Theatre
Meandering and not particularly thrilling thriller, with set-piece dances and some engrossing performances.
Tell Me The Truth About Love, Underbelly Bristo Square
Camp cabaret for the faint-hearted, showcasing the lyrical mischief of WH Auden.
The Events, Traverse Theatre
Challenging, thought-provoking post-massacre tale of a women priest’s life unraveling.
The Confessions of Gordon Brown, Pleasance Courtyard
Circuitous monologue from the Great Leader himself, delivered with panache, poise and guts.
Spank, Underbelly Cowgate
Rude, lude and occasionally funny, late-night stand-up with the bawdiness of Wetherspoon’s at closing time.
Ciara, Traverse Theatre
Bold and brutal paen to Glasgow, beautifully performed and written – a highlight of the week.
Longing For Grace, Hill Street Theatre
Bizarre one-woman tribute to Grace Kelly. Shrill, obtuse and an assault on the ears.
Credible Likeable Superstar Role Mode, Pleasance Dome
The rise of the alternative popstar, Catherine Bennett. Over-sentimental, but nonetheless charming and funny.
David O’Doherty, Pleasance Courtyard
The heir to Bill Bailey, weird keyboarding bolstered by a slick and well-crafted jokes.
The Horne Section, Underbelly
To paraphrase Partridge, this was just good entertainment. Rasping band, brilliant led – unadulterated laughs.
Junk, C Theatre
Raw and youthful production of a Melvin Burgess novel. Awkward, unpolished, but compelling.
Our Fathers, Summerhall
Poignant exploration of fatherhood incorporating some truly moving physical and immersive theatre.