Monday, August 30, 2010

Parting the Fringe

A healthy breakfast in Lauriston Place
Edinburgh was a fabulous experience again; plus I didn't have any black dogs this year. This didn't stop me drinking whisky, mind you, but that's more a form of cultural tourism, don't you think? As a breakfast, it can't be any less healthy than Coco Pops, and it's not like I had it every single morning. Not with so much leftover red wine to get through.

OK, that was a joke. We never left any red wine. I always had to open a fresh bottle.

I've blogged already about some of the shows I saw, but there were 23 in all so the rest deserve a mention.

After the disappointment of Pappy's we hooked up with the rest of the party who'd gone to see Noise Next Door and had a much better time of it than I did. The best way to finish the night seemed to be the late Storytellers show (Pleasance), in which performers got up and told stories. Sometimes the names of Fringe shows are refreshingly clear about what you're going to get. In the style of The Now Show, we had to fill in a sheet of paper saying the worst thing we did at school in five words or fewer. There were some pretty lurid tales, but mine ("I gave kids live ammunition") came second on the public vote. So I didn't win the prize, but it did intensify my enthusiasm for getting involved in the show – something that was to get us into trouble later in the week. 4/5

These crazy Aussies were bizarrely wonderful
Aside from some fabulous comics, Storytellers introduced us to the quirky yet wonderful Australian three-piece band Suitcase Royale, whose shit-kicking country folk seduced us into watching their full show The Ballad of Backbone Joe on Sunday. It was a bizarre story of love and death in a small Australian outback town, played around an imaginatively constructed set of toy buildings and half-made rooms, with shadow play and asides to the audience that made us love them all the more. Turning a suitcase into a car was a stroke of genius. But for all the shambolic humour of the show, they were great musicians too. 5/5.

The sun was bright enough on Friday to send me scurrying back to the flat to get my sunglasses, but I somehow got diverted into the Dragonfly bar, where we'd seen a cracking Quiz In My Pants two days before. Sad Bitch In The Corner was just about to start her free show, so I thought I'd look in. The eponymous heroine is 24-year old Rowena Haley from Bolton with her equally sad acoustic guitar. She regaled us with songs played badly and sung worse, all about her semi-psychotic and desperate life. The lyrics were rushed and didn't scan, while the rhymes were crude and obvious. It all contributed to a sense of amateurish crapness, which I'm sure was deliberate but was no less crap for all that. I don't care if your life is full of boredom and frustration, unless it's funny. Lines like "You're more annoying than period pains" will give you enough of a flavour. A particular low point was the story of the death of her pet hamster Maureen ("the only way I could get over it was to write a song about it"), with the immortal lyrics, "We used to have fun / But now we can't because you're gone / We can't any more because you're buried in the back gar-dun." The comedic high point was a pause: "A moment's silence because I haven't got enough material for 45 minutes." At least she saved the best for the last five minutes: Guilt Trip and her story about how the show was funded were genuinely funny. 1/5

David Mulholland counts his takings
By then the rain had returned and the red wine was becoming rather moreish, so I stayed for American ex-journalist David Mulholland's You Are Being Lied To, a show that aimed to uncover the truth about the lies you read in the press. Having been a journalist myself, I found it interesting and occasionally funny, but my companion was less impressed. Still, I loved the story about how an EU map of lifesaving stations in England, France and Belgium, whose only crime was to refer the English Channel as "La Manche / The Channel", became the tabloid headline "EU abolishes Britain". 3/5

iOTA and the band from Smoke & Mirrors
None of this prepared me for the amazing spectacle of Smoke & Mirrors, in which an almost Rocky Horror cabaret show from Australia (again) with a heavy dose of burlesque sent a packed late-night audience away from the Spiegeltent in raptures. There were magicians, acrobats, tap dancers, a dynamite band, a bearded lady and a leading man called iOTA who is surely going places. The whole 100 minutes was dripping with decadence and a sense of fin-de-siècle ennui that was compelling from start to finish, and a wonderful way to wrap up Friday night. While my companions were talking to the magician from the show, I was distracted by a charming American lady who was cadging cigarettes. She was almost as drunk as I was, but her friends dragged her away just as the possibility of moral hazard seemed about to emerge. Bugger.5/5

Tarot time with the Devil's Advocates
Early Saturday afternoon offered another free event: this time from the Sceptics On The Fringe organisation, whose panel game Devil's Advocate focused on science versus science fiction. It also provided another accidental encounter with guest panellist Laura Lexx, who probably now thinks I'm stalking her. Ash Pryce presided over events as Tarot readings, Zener cards and Star Trek all got an amusing going-over. 4/5

The same people (not Laura this time) also showed us How To Be A Psychic Con-Man on Monday, so I now know how to bend spoons, read minds and cure cancer (or perhaps not). A few more explanations would have been good, but it was a fun and free diversion. 4/5

Death of a Samurai
Possibly the oddest thing I saw was Death Of A Samurai, a crazy and highly stylised Japanese dance show backed by electronic beat music. It was a strange concept, brilliantly performed but with too much use of English, which occasionally robbed it of its magic. If you can't say "I love you" wordlessly, there's something wrong with your performance. The use of red confetti to symbolise blood was highly effective, as was the way darkness was used to leave a performer's image on the retina.

I've mentioned The Late, Late Show in a previous post. One high spot (literally) was the acrobatic dance of Circus Trick Tease, but I can't let the 77-year old female San Franciscan comic Lynn Ruth Miller pass without mention. She was terrible, from her granny raps to her jokes, only some of which were younger than she was. Her sub-Joan-Rivers shtick relied entirely on the shock value of a septuagenarian telling sex jokes, but the jokes wouldn't be funny if she were 50 years younger. 1/5

I had to see Colin Hoult's sketch show Enemy of The World at the Pleasance on my own because my friends had started to run out of money. He knocked me out – not literally, because I had to sing later in his show. Backed by a graceful young woman with a triangle, a grubby older man on guitar and a mad, swarthy homunculus on bongos, he acted out the parts of several deranged, damaged characters with a heavy reliance on audience participation. His stock in trade is arrogant, deluded men. Most disturbing was Len Parker, an ex-squaddie from Nottingham with some psychotic ideas for film scripts and the loving, aggressive Glaswegian father, terrifyingly interrogating his son on what he wanted in his Christmas box. The funniest was the camp film impresario, complete with feather boa, asking the audience their names: "John? Oh fuck, I love that. How do you spell that?", then asking his companion, "Is he your boyfriend? Look after him. Never clean out his trough." 5/5

It's just possible I won't get back to the amazing theatre show Bound, the slightly misfiring Taking Liberties and Aude, Vide, Tace, the always hilarious Shakespeare For Breakfast (hilarious except for a dreadful Lear) or the sublime Micky Flanagan. If not, I can tell you they were alternatively amazing, misfiring, hilarious and sublime. And maybe you'll never learn how my penchant for sitting at the front and getting involved led to an obscene online incident involving an unsuspecting female friend.



Friday, August 27, 2010

Debauchery and dissipation at the Fringe

Just got back from the Edinburgh Fringe and have already broken my promise to review everything I saw. I managed to review Pappy’s, largely because the spiteful little comments I scribbled in my notebook seemed to sum it up well enough but also because it’s so much more fun to slag something off, isn’t it? Journalism must be in my blood.

Smoke & Mirrors

I saw a good mix of genres and quality, from the sublime Smoke & Mirrors to the lamentable but perfectly named Sad Bitch In The Corner. A lot of my personal highlights came from the shenanigans of the people I went with and don’t bear repeating here. In the spirit of journalistic discretion, I can only offer highlights of the conversations without naming the guilty parties:

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone it was you that unplugged the fridge.”
“I’m not wearing anything under this towel.”
“I’ve had some very disappointing wanks.”
“Why have you taken your shirt off?”
“True, but they said the same thing about anal sex.”
“I was so disappointed when he took the sock out of his pants.”
“Honestly, I don’t always have whisky for breakfast.”
“Someone was wanking at me on the internet!”
“Weren’t they were supposed to kill us all?”
“Our friend is drunk – and married. We’d better get her home.”

Context, of course, is everything. That’s why I’m not going to provide any, except to admit that I was the disappointed target of that last comment.

Very occasionally the clouds cleared, and the city was rent with the wailing of fearful Scots, crying: “The yellow ball of doom has returned to destroy us all!” Most of the time, the climate of Edinburgh successfully probed the weaknesses of our footwear, revealing leaks that had gone un-noticed in London for months. It was the same last year. Edinburgh is where my shoes go to die. The rest of my footwear huddles in the corner, knowing they will never see their departed friends again and wondering whose turn it will be next year to take the long walk to the Lothian Footwear Abattoir. But I won’t go on about shoes, because I can’t be as funny on that subject as Reggie Hunter was. So, on to the culture.

Itch (at the Pleasance) was a great way to kick the week off. Unusually, it consisted of half-finished sketches performed by actors who were mostly still holding their scripts (“Itch”: scratch theatre, geddit?). The highlight was Mike Haley – a Geordie actor who I can’t seem to find on the web – performing as a pompous, fake, upper-class English mystic whose reading of the supposed log of the ship that brought Dracula to England was pure genius. 5/5

After an Itch, you need Soap (Assembly): a show with dancers, singers and jugglers in baths. It sounds crazy, and it was, but for the most part it was also breathtakingly brilliant, although they need to come up with a better way of linking scenes than singing Splish Splash to various classical music tunes: Rimsky-Korsakov was amusing, but the joke wore very thin after that. The girl juggling with her feet was astonishing, as was the guy who juggled seven balls at once, bouncing them on an upturned bath while standing on it. But the Assembly venue deserves special mention for having no bloody idea how to run a show. The seats weren’t allocated, which means that the best were the same price (£17 – phew!) as the worst, where pillars meant that some of my friends saw very little of what was happening. 4/5

Having failed to endear me with Soap, the Assembly added to my disdain with its Late Late Show, which started after midnight and went on for two hours. With a low stage and a highly visual show, the organisers should have offset the seating so that everyone could see. They didn’t, so, after 6’5” of Fringe-fast-food-fuelled corpulence spread itself out in front of me, I might just as well have been listening to the radio. Great acrobats, apparently. Co-host Mikelangelo looked like an outsize Mark Kermode and, with a Nick Cave-like darkness of delivery, was a compelling compère whose musical excursions were cheerfully Gothic. But there’s no excuse for doing Two Little Boys. Ever. 3/5

Killed off in the first 3%
The same venue had earlier shown Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death, in which “stand-up mathematician” Matt Parker was held in check by Timandra Harkness as they took us through the chances of dying from different activities, bumping the audience off one by one. My comment from the audience earned a sharp rebuke about Venn diagrams and an early award of a ‘Dead’ sticker slapped on my forehead. 4/5

Tom and Laura Quiz In Their Pants
We also found time for the delightfully silly Quiz In My Pants over at the Dragonfly, which had Tom Livingstone and Matt Grant (of Noise Next Door) as guests when we saw it. With regulars Nicola Bolsover, Laura Lexx and Dan Carter-Hope, it was a friendly, charming and bizarre afternoon, with the added bonus of being free. On that performance, Tom and Matt might actually convert me to improvised comedy. 4/5 


Rhod Gilbert is one of the country’s top stand-ups, which is why he got a proper theatre at the EICC for his sold-out show of increasingly surreal rants about how bloody annoying life is. It’s a hilarious half-hour show; unfortunately it went on for 60 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with any of it: Gilbert is a brilliant comic who takes the logic of irritation to gloriously ridiculous extremes, stretching the thread of logic as thin as he can without breaking it, but his dyspeptic tirades are all a bit too similar to sustain a full hour. (There’s also his mildly irritating habit of facing the stage-right wings for much of the show, such that some of the audience at the front mostly saw the back of his head). 4/5 

Reggie Hunter, on the other hand, was even better than last year. With his slow, drawling American delivery, alternately challenging and chummy, it’s always a pleasure to spend an hour in his company. This year he even told some memorable jokes as well. 5/5

I hope I’ll get to review everything I did. Let’s face it, I’ve got 11 months in London to recover.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Where did Pappy go wrong?

Pappy's All Business
Pleasance, Edinburgh Fringe, Thursday 19 August 2010

Pappy's – now shorn of one member and the ‘Fun Club’ part of their name – take to the stage in front of a largely adoring audience to the tune of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Takin’ Care Of Business. Only they come on too early, before the lyrics even start, and spoil the effect – unless, that is, you’re a sad old git like me and you already know the song. Most of the audience are too young to remember album tracks from unhip 1970s boogie-rock bands, unless there’s been a Don't Stop Believin'-style rehabilitation and I missed it.

Not that this is important in itself. I can go home and listen to my desperately outdated music collection any time, and I’d already heard more of it than I (or anyone else) deserved in Edinburgh when the dance show Soap played She Brings The Rainby Can.

I only bring it up because it’s a foretaste of the desperately shambolic nature of the show. You might say this review is just as shambolic, but I paid £12 to see Pappy’s and you’re not paying to read this.

The Pappy boys might argue that this is part of their charm, but there’s a limit to how far you can go by sniggering at your own crapness and hoping the audience can see that you’re not fooled any more than they are. There’s no doubt that they’re talented performers – especially the short, bearded Matthew Crosby, who shares more than just stature with Christopher Ryan as he lays down the law to the audience (“no refunds!”) – but the show itself is reminiscent of a 6th Form revue. You’d be impressed if you were 18 and these were yer mates up there, but a comedy team that’s been together more than half a decade should have moved on by now.

It’s not all bad, and some of the audience were screaming with laughter as the team moved from sketch to sketch while trying to maintain some sort of coherent storyline via some very forced and disjointed links. The jokes were usually telegraphed from a distance of several miles, and sometimes worked all the better for it. There were also some sublime moments, with three French sisters played by Tom Parry with a pole across his neck dangling a doll either side, and best of all when the trio wore t-shirts with designs that gradually became a fruit machine as they progressively took the shirts off.

The jackpot was three cherries, if you must know, but three lemons would have summed up the show. It came across like improvised comedy, but we forgive impro because we know the comic has just made it up. This was scripted, although they were sometimes funnier when they veered away from the script.

Ultimately, they’re still just a bunch of students larking about, and we’ve seen it all before – long before some of this audience were even born. You might still find it hilarious if you’re under 30; or at least, if your age and mental age add up to less than 30.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Further than anyone should go, or How I Gave Up Fantasy and Got Interested In Girls

A review of The Silmarillion

A Tolkien fan from the age of six, I got this as a present as soon as it came out, when I was twelve or thirteen.

It's a long, tedious work of background notes spun into something vaguely like a story by Tolkien's son Christopher. It comprises a turgid, invented mythology that is only suitable for insatiable Middle-Earth completists.

At least it did me a favour: just as puberty kicked in, I was able to turn my attention from hobbits to girls. For that, Christopher Tolkien I thank you, if for nothing else.