Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Edinburgh Fringe letters held up by peopleOh heck. This is going to be a long one. I saw my usual 28 shows, but the standard this year was pretty good. It’s probably because I knew about a lot of good and promising groups from previous fringes, but the net result is that since I usually write about good and promising stuff, it’s going to be a hell of job job to write everything up. Most of the reviews you’ll find here will be a restatement of what I thought during my live coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe, but there are a few new reviews here too.

Since there’s a lot of good plays to report, I’m slightly changing my format. Until now, I’ve had two categories: “Pick of the fringe” for the good stuff and “Honourable mention” for things that could be better but still show promise (plus a few mentions of decent comedy). Since the former list would be a long one this time round, I’m splitting that into two, so there are now three tiers, with a very exclusive top tier. So, let’s go with the big one.

Outstanding fringe shows

Starting off with my first one – a show that was so good it need distinguishing from all the other good shows – I was really impressed with Chaplin. This was a Finland-based production from a pair on Finnish writers, but a British cast. The play covers the three things Charlie Chaplin was notable for: 1) the films, 2) copping off with his leading ladies with increasingly dubious ages gaps, and 3) being made a hate figure in the McCarthy communist scare for expressing some vaguely left-wing views. Being a biopic, this play is very much a conventional one – indeed, if there’s one fault I could pick it would be that it not too dissimilar to the 1992 film of the same name – but I don’t really care, because a lot of care has gone into this production. Everything from the ensemble acting to the production values to the use of Chaplin’s music to Christopher Page’s performance as Chaplin is top-notch.

My only complaint? 75 minutes wasn’t enough. There were many interesting chunks of Chaplin’s story which were skipped over that I’m sure would have made great additions to the play. So I really hope this tours. As a full-length play, and free from the hour-long format that’s expected in Edinburgh, this would be an outstanding piece that I would wholeheartedly recommend everywhere it goes. Having achieved this much at Edinburgh, it would be a crying shame if this play vanished into obscurity. Recommendation on this blog guaranteed if you come to the north-east.

Charles Adrian as Samantha MannAnd next, something I never expected to rate this highly – an act from the comedy section of the programme. It’s Ms. Samantha Mann: Stories of Love, Death and a Rabbit. I already highlighted this piece in my Buxton Fringe coverage, but to save you a click, Samantha Mann is a creation of Charles Adrian. On the surface, this appears to be a bit of fun,a middle-age spinster give the most inept poetry performance ever – so inept, she spends half an hour waffling about herself before she actually gets round to any poetry. But there is far far far more to this show than that. As she waffles away, she slowly gives away details on a mostly unhappy life – disinterested parents who extinguished her early ambitions, a caring brother who was taken from her too soon, and now a lifetime shunning any real attachments to anyone. There is a reason for her low self-esteem.

But it’s only now, having heard it a second time round, that I’ve come to realise just how good this writing is. There are plenty of solo performances where the actor simply tells a story in first-person with some moves in, but I’ve always felt the strongest ones is where the actor talks to the audience rather than at the audience. To have worked in such a detailed back-story into such a seemingly trivial piece of waffle is great work, but to get this story taken seriously in a drag comedy act, out of all things, is remarkable. And as for the acting – to keep up all the hesitation, deviation and repetition for a hour is an outstanding piece of acting. There are definitely plans for this one to tour – cannot recommend this highly enough if Samantha Mann comes your way.

And last but certainly not least, Dugout Theatre with Inheritance Blues. What more can I say? They were students not so long ago, and whilst the Edinburgh Fringe is plagued with mediocre student groups, they’ve been a cut above the rest with excellent productions of Dealer’s Choice and Fade in previous years. This play was a revival of a successful production from 2012, so I had good expectations, but I had no idea it was going to be this good. The production values of the play – the timing, the movement, the choreography, the music, and pretty much everyone in the cast playing an instrument at some point – is something I’d normally expect of  fully professional groups like Northern Stage. I’ve written a full review here, which I only every do at fringes for the most exceptional productions, but this one thoroughly deserves it. If you ever need inspiration that your group on a shoestring budget can be as good as the big players, this is the play to see.

Rest of the best:

I was invited to review two plays this year. Last year, the overall standard of the plays I saw was a little disappointing, but this time it was better, and my highlight was The 56 from FYSA Theatre. This was about the Bradford City Fire of 1985. It’s verbatim theatre told as the testimonies of three people – two survivors, and one witness from the other end of the stand, it recreates the build-up to the event, the fire itself, and the aftermath. There are many challenges to producing good verbatim theatre, and one particular challenge the visual element. In this play, the three actors sat on a football stand for most of the hour, and okay, it would have been difficult to make it more interesting visually, but it can be done – Steve Gilroy’s The Prize and Motherland are good examples of innovative visual effect in this kind of play.

But that doesn’t really matter, because the play is easily strong enough to stand up on the script alone. The three stories were well chosen, they were edited well, and the three actors did these stories justice. It was a pity that a play suited to silence was disturbed by noise bleed from a production next door – this was outside of their control, but Underbelly might want to look into this when allocating times and spaces. Other than that, it was a dignified and moving tribute to the victims of a tragedy. And when you consider how few people remember this one now after it was sadly eclipsed by Hillsborough, it’s good for someone to bring it back to our attention.

Robert Cohen as QuintI saw High Vis for the second time, having previously endorsed it at the 2013 Brighton Fringe. My review from last time stands, but for those of you new to this, this is a solo play where writer/performer Robert Cohen. He plays Quint, a traffic warden temporarily assigned to training of new starters following a blowpipe attack, and the entire play is snatches from this training session. Now, I personally feel traffic wardens are unfairly stereotyped, and have a job to do keeping roads clear and parking spaces free. Unfortunately, Quint misses the point and thinks all these stories in the tabloids about catching people out after three minutes is how they’re supposed to behave. Worse, Quint doesn’t seem to realise that this and other things is how he makes so many enemies inside and outside of work, and why he such a lonely life.

Robert Cohen says the script has been tightened in the last year – I can’t remember any clear difference with last year’s version, but the pace seemed about right and he can be happy with his performance. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the venue. He was moved venues twice, and the second time got moved time slot as well, which can’t have done his audience figures any good. He did get a four-star review from Quentin Letts (unfortunately you’ll have to go to Mail Online to read that – I’m still not living down the shame), so that’s a highly worthwhile thing to take up, but it must be said his experience isn’t a good advert for Freestival. The Free Fringe was a good choice for High Vis, but I fear the lesson learnt here is to stick to PBH or Laughing Horse. (UPDATE 15/09: Robert Cohen has leapt to Freestival’s defence – see comment #1 below.)

One Free Fringe show that’s had better luck with audiences is First Class from Relief Theatre, at the much more reliable venue of Espionage. This was one three shows I heard good things from at the Buxton Fringe, but the only one I got round to seeing (so apologies to the casts of Shrew and Back Door) – but I was glad I saw this. It’s billed as a train journey with three passengers and three different tales: a young mother, a stressed teacher, a tennis player unfairly billed as letting her country down. You might think at this point it’s a bog-stand three monologues in one play until – wait a second, the tennis player’s sending text messages, and the young mother’s been told about this new medicine called Thalidomide. It them emerges these three passengers took the same journey in different years. So what connects them?

With so many fringe shows giving away the entire plot in the first ten minutes, it’s good to have something that keeps you guessing to the end. Will they go ahead with the same thing they all set out to do? It’s a fast performance, with the three stories sometimes separate, sometimes in parallel, and they step into supporting roles in each other’s stories effortlessly. The ending was slightly let down by being complicated for the sake of complicated – during the dramatic climax with all three stories going on at once I think I may have lost some bits of story – but I still picked up enough to follow what the play was about. Oddly, the reviews for this play were only lukewarm, but the big turnout when I was there suggests the people rate it higher than the reviewers, and I’m glad they have, because the two years of work put into this deserves credit.

Scene from The Duck PondNext, a play that I went to on the strength of reviews and recommendations: WithWings The Duck Pond. This was the last thing I expected to see: a re-telling of Swan Lake transplanted from a Russian Palace to a fairground, with a magic plastic duck on a magic hook-a-duck stall who turns into a prince at night. There’s quite a lot of fringe productions whose main agenda is to outdo the others for randomness, but – believe it or not – this is actually a decent fully-polished musical, with a story you follow from start to finish. I don’t see many musicals at fringes, but those I have seen tend to be either student groups embarking on something that outstrips their ability, or fully professional productions trying to be outrageous and poor taste. Not here – this is a group who know exactly what they are doing, and, like Inheritance Blues, they are up to the standard of the best professional groups in a group dominated by recent students.

One interesting discussion that cropped up afterwards is why WithWings chose to have a love story between a prince and a prince. I have been advised that this was partially a nod to Tchaikovsky. He was gay in a land and time when he was was persecuted for it, and there’s no way Swan Lake would have been performed as a same-sex love story. But the main reason was that they had more male actors available than female ones and just wrote the play around the cast. Anyway, credit to WithWings for doing what Edinburgh Fringe is best for: ideas you’d never imagine from groups you never heard of that make good theatre.

Now it’s back to Espionage, who seem to be having a lot of success from their few theatres acts in a comedy-dominated programme. I rather liked The Silence of Snow, another solo performance, this time written and directed by Mark Farrelly. He was up doing two solo performances, and this play was to some extent treated as a side-show to the more high-profile Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope, but I actually thought this play was the better one. This is the story of Patrick Hamilton, famous for Gaslight, Rope, many equally dark novels, and a catastrophic self-destructive personal life. It was, to some extent, a textbook solo biopic, but it was done so well. The play covered most of Patrick Hamilton’s dark works, and the events in his dark life that inspired them. The only thing that felt missing was any mention of Gaslight, so maybe that should be top of the list for any extended version. Most admirable of all, however, was a decision to give all of the donation from the show to Mind. Well done.

Buxton favourites Three’s Company have been in Edinburgh this year in everything but name. Officially, the two plays they did were down as “C Theatre Productions”, but it’s basically the same Tom Crawshaw, Yaz Al-Shaater and their trademark humour. Their main project was to do this years long-standing and popular Shakespeare for Breakfast that C venues hosts every year, but whilst they were up there they brought a second show, The Adventure Machine, with the same company in both plays. I had planned to see just the latter play, but I ended up seeing both, and I’m really glad I did.

Starting with The Adventure Machine, this was down as a Children’s show, but surely the real target audience in the generation who was brought up on Choose Your Own Adventure. This is a semi-improvised performance where the play stops at various points and options are read out, so that the audience can vote on A, B or C. And, just like real thing, you can metaphorically keep your thumb on the previous page just in case – you get three lives, although I’m told it’s rigged so that you always win before losing your last life, best not to upset the children. This play was largely overlooked in favour of the more popular breakfast play, which was a pity because this one was just as enjoyable. You certainly don’t need a child to enjoy this, and if you absolutely can’t bring yourself to see a children’s show without a child, kidnap one temporarily.

The goodies on Shakespeare IslandI almost didn’t see Shakespeare for Breakfast, because I’m not that enthusiastic about Shakespeare, but I decided to give it a go anyway, expecting an hour of Shakespeare excerpts, or maybe a new take of Shakespeare excerpts. But I should have guessed what Three’s Company treatment involved. The play starts with a woman washed up on a desert island. Hmm, might be The Tempest. But then approaches a stranger so she disguises herself as a man. Ah, must Twelfth Night. But why is she replying to the man’s Shakespearian-sounding lines with contemporary speech – wait a second, didn’t he introduce himself as Richard III? Yes, this is Shakespeare Island, where bad king Richard has teamed up with Iago, Third Witch and Tabitha (a character from Titus Andronicus whose obscurity annoys her no end) to take it over. Standing in the way are a moody Hamlet, Henry V, Kate from Taming of the Shrew and Ariel (famous for being a fairy as well as a popular font). Can the baddies rewrite history by finding the Complete Works of Shakespeare? Remember, a copy can be found on every desert island. This play might not appeal to hardcore Shakespeare purists, but it can be thoroughly recommended for everyone else. There’s bonus in-jokes if you know your Shakespeare, but you certainly don’t need any knowledge of the Bard at all.

Three’s Company was one of my accidental discoveries back in 2008, another one of their surrealistic comedies. They do the odd serious play too, which is also good, but the zany humour of Auditorium, The Importance of Being Frank and The World’s Greatest Walking Tour of Edinburgh has been consistently impressive. The critics have lauded Shakespeare for Breakfast as the best thing Tom Crawshaw has written by miles. I’m not so sure that this is the case as it undervalues The Adventure Machine and other works. Nevertheless, this level of recognition at Edinburgh is long overdue. Presumably they’ll revert to Three’s Company in future years, so I hope the recognition they’ve eared as “C Theatre Productions” goes with it.

Finally, I’ve left The Big Bite-Size Breakfast until last, because that was three shows on a rotating menu and there’s a lot to write. They’ve been a popular breakfast fixture at Pleasance Dome for a few years now, with their sets of five ten-minute plays (or fifteen if you see all three). Up to now, their shows have been a mixture of earlier successful plays and new ones. This year, however, they’ve gone for a set of fifteen all-new plays. (Actually, they’re not quite all-new: I recognised one from Brighton 2011, but new to Edinburgh).

I have to say, I did miss the revival of the odd classic. I know that every successful play revived from a previous year is one less opportunity for a new author to step forwards, but I think the chance to pick out the odd play that went well in previous years and it them better does strengthen the overall production. Nevertheless, there were a lot of good new plays coming forwards and some of my favourites were:

  • Candy Likes Your Status: Saw this at Brighton, and essentially a cautionary tale of the mindless pap turned competitive boasting that is Facebook. Especially recommended for anyone who isn’t on Facebook as a reassurance you’re not missing out.
  • Raghead: One of the few serious plays in the set, this play follows a set-up date between a New York Fireman and a girl who turns up wearing a hijab. There isn’t outright racism as such – merely low-level prejudice – to be fair to the fireman, he lost colleagues in 9/11 so he’s naturally a bit jumpy about terrorists, but it’s an intelligent story about the dangers of clumping Islam in with terrorism.
  • A Great War: Back to out-and-out comedy, this was a parody of British 24-hour news coverage of World War One, told with typical stiff upper lip, wild optimism, and glossing over how many tens of thousands died in the latest offensive, featuring interviews through various points, ending with a certain disgruntled defeated soldier who has no intention to go back to his painting career. There were some nerves about whether a light-hearted take of such an awful war would go down well, but it’s such a long way in the past I don’t think there was any need to worry – after all, Blackadder Goes Forth did fine three decades ago.
  • Intertwining Monologue: This could not have come at a better time for me. Still reeling from a painfully pretentious piece the night before, what better way to start the day with a parody of a pretentious fringe play. Two actors stand. In spotlights and. Speak in. An Intertwining. Monologue. It goes through the stages: your sinking realisation of what you’re watching, the actress’s annoying that someone on the front row’s staring at her tits, you furtively checking your watch, and the slow bit then the climax or something or other. Thank you so much.

The Answer Man shows his ukelele.However, the thing that impressed me the most was Joel Jones. He contributed three plays: Tragic Hero, where a shallow modern wife starts dating a 15th-century Scottish Warlord who challenges the husband to a duel; The Answer Man, where woman is randomly selected by a ukelele-playing man who can answer any question; and Big Fish Little Fish, a film-noir parody where the clichéd detective is never without his saxophonist. Bite-Size’s biggest strength has been is weird and wonderful comedies that you can only tell in 10 minutes (before the joke runs thin), but he manages to work in believable characters into such surrealistic pieces. It’s hard enough to come up with an idea for one play – to have penned three is truly impressive.

And now, I’m going to give my thoughts on Big Game, because this a case study of the tough decisions a successful group like Bite Size still has to make. The story centres the morning after a one-night stand, where he – apparently as a result of a misogynistic game devised by his rugby team – posted naked photos of her on Facebook whilst she slept. When she finds out, he comes up with one excuse after the other about how the feminists brought it upon themselves. In partial defence, he does realise quite belatedly exactly what he’s done, but it’s about as close to rape as it can be and still be technically consensual. Certainly, if that happened to anyone I know I’d feel the same as if it was rape, and I have heard this play described as “the rape one”.

The problem with a play like this is that not everybody’s going to comfortable with it – and people who aren’t comfortable tend to find reasons not to like it. Normally, you can mitigate against this by giving some idea of what to expect in the publicity, so that the audience you get is the audience ready for this. But you can’t do that when it’s an unexpectedly serious play in a the middle of a comedy-dominated programme. On the other hand, there were a large number of people who thought this was one of the best. The reviews either love it or hate it, and so many people commented on this play without prompting, one way or the other. Perhaps a majority in favour, but I can’t think of another Bite-Size play that has been this divisive. Certainly it’s not an ideal play if you’re aiming to please all your audience. But when this play (along with Raghead) covers issues that need to be talked about, it would be a cop-out to play it safe. In short, you can’t win.

After much consideration, I think the right decision ultimately depends on what Bite Size wanted to achieve. Some people want more of what they know and love, whilst others push Bite Size to be more daring. You cannot do both. If Bite Size wishes to stick to a formula that works (and they’ve every right to do that having worked so hard to get where they are), then it’s not a good idea to take these risks. But if they want to go down the route of taking risks and exploring new possibilities – and I really hope this was the case given that they’d included this play in the first place – then yes, it is the right thing to do, even if it means putting out some of your audience every now and then.

And that’s it. Phew. Well done to everyone who made this list, and thank you for making it a long list. But there are some other shows that also deserve a mention.

Honourable mention:

As well as my picks of the fringe above, there were a number of productions that I think deserve a mention. Some plays didn’t totally work out but still have potential to be something, and other shows (usually comedy) don’t fit in the scope of a theatre blog but nonetheless were good enough to be worth some recognition.

So, first up is Signal Failure. This is billed as a “twisted rom com”. Now, what I’m about to say is dependent on what this group wanted to achieve. If it was after a crowd-pleasing tick-the-boxes rom com, ignore this review. But if they were trying to do something different – and I hope this was the case – read on. This play had a very promising beginning of an accidental love-story. Recently-single Brian, for want of something better to do, embarks on a project of matchmaking commuters on the London Underground through fake adverts in Metro’s Rush Hour Crush. Lorna, bored of her job where no-one properly talks to each other, notices a pattern, notices Brian always present at the scene, and it goes from there. For the first 20 minutes or so, it’s an amusing and astute observation of tube eye contact rules and Rush Hour Crush politics. So far, so good.

And then – so annoyingly – the play suddenly loses the individuality it built up. I know it’s an inescapable rule of rom coms that you have to have the get together and then have a row and break up (so they can make up at the end), but between these two events it’s a generic plot that could be interchangeable with any other rom com. It’s only in the final ten minutes that a whole raft of interesting back-stories of the two characters is revealed. That’s good because it averted a predictable ending, but the play would have been a lot stronger had these back-stories been interwoven into the whole play. On the plus side, the characters are kept believable throughout the play, and it’s a nice play to watch. Dysfunctional love stories can make fantastic plays (Blink certainly did), and this one’s not quite there, but if you like you relaxing plays over the harrowing ones, you won’t be disappointed by this.

Next, the other show I was invited to review: Murder She Didn’t Write. I didn’t consider this for my top recommendations because I concentrate a lot of straight theatre and very little on improvised comedy – as such, I can’t really say how good this is as I don’t have other improvised comedy acts to compare them to. But it certainly was a good showcase for this format. The premise is that six Cluedo-esque characters start off with a story with location and theme picked by random by audience members, and murderer and victim picked by coloured cards (a colour scheme surely a homage to the famous board game). So this time it was a tense family reunion on a restaurant at the end of Scarborough pier. Pedants might point out that Scarborough doesn’t have a pier, piers generally don’t have restaurants on them, and – in the event there was such a thing as a pier restaurant – it would be impossible to have a cellar, but, hey, it’s improvised theatre so I’ll let them off.

The particularly impressive thing was that the performance was so slick, I just assumed it wasn’t really an improvised play, and the actors were actually working around a skeleton plot with multiple paths depending on chosen murderer and victim. Apparently not. Everything, so I am told, is planned one scene at a time, with actors planning the next scene on the fly in the wings, with clues worked in to solve the mystery. Again, in common with the board game, this means that one mystery in six gets solved with “So, if it wasn’t him, and it wasn’t her, and the two also have alibis … it’s must have me. Oh yeah, I remember. I did it.” If anyone really wants to scrutinise this improvisation claim, I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s seen this twice. But in the meantime, well done, good introduction to improvised comedy.

Rounding off that day was My Name is Saorise. This is a play set in Ireland and captures many aspects of life in conservative Ireland, such as their habit of spelling their names in a completely different way to how it’s pronounced. More relevantly, Saorise lives in a time a place where it is considered right and proper not to tell teenagers about the birds at the bees. So, inevitably, this education is left up to her irresponsible best friend who thinks she’s doing her a favour taking her out for a drink with three guys she doesn’t know very well. Neither do society’s approach to contraception and abortion do her any favours. The story is told as a solo performance, and whilst this maybe wasn’t the most original subject material, it covered a lot of interesting themes about life and attitudes in 9180s Ireland, and it was a decent performance from writer-performer Eva O’Connor.

However, there’s a lot of solo performances that come to fringe theatre, and as a result, I have to be choosy. I tend to look out for solo performances that are more than just a monologue, and sadly this one somewhat lacked this. I always felt the stronger solo plays tend to be the ones where the performer can somehow engage with the audience rather than just tell a story. It also helps to have something suitably visual about the play. She tried with Saorise’s attic sewing room, but there were only limited opportunities to bring this set into the performance. Maybe more could have been made of this with cunning and resourceful directing, but I wonder if theatre was the right medium here. I can see this piece being strongest as either radio drama or spoken word.

An early piece when I returned for my second visit was Earnest, or much ado about muffins, which is basically a musical version of the Oscar Wilde classic. Musical plays at the Edinburgh Fringe normally fall foul of one of two things: either a student group whose ideas outstripped their musical ability; or perfectly capable professional groups whose only selling point is being tasteless. This group avoids both these pitfalls, and comes up with a nice light-hearted hour of Earnest-based fun, with a good standard of singing and a failthful homage to the play.

There were, however, a number of niggling things that could be improved. All minor points, but they add up. In particular, the three things I would have changed were:

  • Better use of the muffins. I gather the title was a marketing move made late in the day (and a sensible one – there’s countless Edinburgh Fringe plays called “X – the musical”), but the role of the muffins was to appear on some trays of food. Surely you need to fully integrate them by substituting muffins for all references to cucumber sandwiches.
  • For a change, I felt the play was a little too short. Most of the story was preserved, but there were a few of my favourite passages of the play that got cut to fit into the hour. I hope they can be restored outside of Edinburgh where time’s not so precious.
  • I would have cut the bits at the beginning and the end in modern dress – that didn’t seem to serve any purpose and confused things.

Do those tweaks, and I think they’d have a much stronger piece.

Now, let’s move on to The Ruby Dolls: Fabulous Creatures. The Ruby Dolls were one of my chance discoveries from two years ago. They are a four-piece female vocal group, and in 2012 they did Rubies in the Attic, which was a simple but highly effective piece of devised theatre with stories of the four women’s ancestors, interwoven with songs in their outstanding four-part harmony. This time, they have a got a lot more ambitious and are doing “a fabulous feminist fairytale”. They might have done something like a version of Cinderella where the Fairy Godmother thought Prince Charming might be using misogynistic body language so they burnt him to be on the safe side, but they didn’t. Instead, this is a kind-of re-telling of Fanny and Edmund’s story from Mansfield Park, with a feminist message to it.

Sadly, I cannot say what I thought of this message because I honestly don’t know what it was. Firstly there was something about women being known as “goats” in the fairytale (because goats have kids), then Edmund’s father organises a dating game show following the format of The Great British Bake Off (including rounds of signature, technical and showstopper), and when Fanny sang a song in round two called “I’m a metaphor”, I got completely lost. And that’s a pity, because their musicality and performance was still superb. All in all, I think this got too ambitious for its own good. I know from two years ago that the Ruby Dolls have enough talent between them to put on a great show without relying on complex storylines, so I’d advise them to keep it simple and allow their vocal talents to be their key selling point.

Next, Boris and Sergey III: Ashtonishing Freakatorium. This is a rather twisted puppet act which I’ve been following for the last two years, but then I’ve got an evil sense of humour so this appeals to me. If you’re new to this, you’ll either love it or run off screaming – I’d say it’s about a 50/50 chance either way. One thing that, in hindsight, I think might have been a mistake was to put this show in the “Cabaret” section of the fringe, as I suspect most of their fanbase would have been looking in either the Theatre or Comedy section. But if you’re already a fan of them, you won’t be disappointed.

This show is quite similar to the first one. I did miss the extremely slick puppet choreography of their second show when they escaped from hell, but one thing that was new to this show was improvised puppetry. It’s one thing for an actor to improvise some moves in response to an audience suggestion – for three puppeteers to improvise a move of a puppet between them, with no conferring, is highly impressive.

On my last day, I was really interested to see The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland from Ridiculusmus. With Summerhall in my bad books for an inexcusably awful play the other night, I came close to giving this a miss, but I’m glad I saw this because I’ve never seen anything like it. It is two plays in one, both running at the same time, and you watch one after the other. What is unique about this play is that you will watch it without any clear idea of what is going on – and, for once, that’s the whole idea. There are four characters who drift between the two scenes, and it’s impossible to tell who is sane and who is made, what is real and what is imagined – presumably, to illustrate what this condition is like.

There is a price to this format. When the key objective of the play is to confuse the hell out of the audience, you can’t really to say anything other than what it’s like to be this confused. I got the impression that Ridiculusmus were trying to achieve more than that and intended to educate the audience about their research on this condition, but if that was the case they were attempting the impossible. This is inevitably going to be a Marmite play where the audience will either love or hate the deliberately baffling format. But, either way, you can’t deny this was an admirably bold idea to put on stage.

And last of all Knightmare Live! Level 2. Another one of my discoveries from last year, this is really a niche show for people who remember the series on Children’s ITV in the nineties – but judging by how easily they filled one of the largest spaces in the Pleasance, that’s an awful lot of people. It is basically more of the same, as it should be. Admittedly, it was slightly let down by re-using some of the jokes from last year, but that’s a minor point. This one’s shortly embarking on a tour, so if you haven’t yet been able to re-live years, your chance is coming.

UPDATE 30/10/14: I wanted to catch Good Timin’ at Edinburgh but failed, but I managed to catch it when it returned to Live Theatre in October. This is a story written and performed by Ian Mclaughlin from Newcastle Improv group The Suggestibles. This is one of these autobiographical stories that would be dismissed as far-fetched were it not for the fact the story is true. It’s primarily a story about Mcluaghlin’s search for a father – a man he only found a few months after his death. And yet, from conversations with his father’s new wife, he discovered he had so much in common with his father such as their passion for Sci-Fi and especially Dr. Who, even though they never met. Sadly, Ian also inherited a self-destructive streak that he recovered from, but cost his father dear.

The story is well staged and creatively directed, but I felt the play went a bit too far with science and philosophy. A large part of this play had to be the science of what you inherit from your parents, and whether it’s down to nature or nurture, but this I feel was overdone and the same insightful phrases were repeated too often for their own good. In particular, I didn’t see the point of the two alternative endings (indeed, I wouldn’t have realised it was supposed to be two alternative endings had the programme not said so), because this dragged down what had been until then a reasonably-paced play. If it was up to me, I’d say stop worrying about all the intelligent insight and just concentrate on his story. Because it’s clearly a fascinating story that would easily stand up on its own.

But not …

… Looking for Paul from Wunderbaum Theatre at Summerhall. (Yes, this is the bad play I was referring to earlier.) There were a total of six plays I saw that I didn’t like for one reason or another. Normally, if I have nothing nice to say about a play I say nothing at all. Being a fringe participant myself, I don’t like to publicly talk down other people in a similar situation to me. But on this occasion, I have to make an exception. Normally, bad plays comes small groups with ideas that didn’t work out and/or end up out of their depth. But Wunderbaum are a high-profile high-budget fully professional group who ought to know better. And their play was inexcusably bad.

The premise of this play was meant to be a Dutch theatre group going to America on a grant, who choose as their subject an “artist” called Paul McCarthy (note my use of inverted commas), who kindly contributed, in the name of public “art” (note my use of inverted commas again) a statue of a gnome holding a butt-plug. They bring along a woman who lives and works in the street and has to look at it every day. Unfortunately, the group didn’t really have much idea what they’re actually going to do, spend three weeks procrastinating over half-baked ideas, and aren’t really that interested in helping this aforementioned woman speak out against the statue she hates so much. Most of the play is told through e-mails sent to each other. Up to this point, it was an okay premise and format, although the story was somewhat slow, and one might have expected such a high-profile group to make a little more effort than sitting on a stage reading e-mails for an hour.

Then came the ending. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The less said about it, the better. It was – quite frankly – disgusting to watch. I’m not a prude, and I don’t mind this if it’s appropriate for the artistic context, but there was absolutely no justification for something that vile. Okay, so the story goes that the performance date came, they hadn’t decided what to perform, and they had to think of something at the last moment, but is that really a sufficient explanation for why one man shat it in the toilet then smeared it on the wall, or what another men stuck his genitals into a straw mattress grunting “room service” in a silly voice? Also – why the hell would the woman they’d brought along take part in that? She’s supposed to hate the tasteless art outside her home, so why is she smearing tomato sauce over herself on stage? This is the sort of banal tasteless performance I would expect from a pretentious student group who think they’re cutting edge. For this to come from such a highly regarded international act – and get acclamation from it – beggars belief.

What is most alarming is that I suspect that if anyone from Wunderbaum or Summerhall reads this, they will treat this as a badge of honour. If there’s one message I think this play was trying to tell is, it was that a woman went to America to protest against a shocking provocative piece of art (or whatever adjectives arse-kissing art critics are using this week), and – oh, the irony! – they ended up producing something even more shocking and provocative! Aren’t you a genius, Paul McCarthy, provoking all this debate and causing the boundaries of art to be pushed even further! Look at how outraged those reactionary philistines are! It PROVES our point that they don’t properly understand it … Or something like that. Whatever their agenda is, I’m sure they’ll use the reaction of people like me as proof of their point, whatever their point is.

I’m currently counting how often my ten common mistakes appear, and trying to be clever has appeared a lot this year. I may write a whole article about this at some point, because there’s a lot of different ways to try to be clever which ruins a play. Up to now, I’ve been laying off groups who’ve done this, but this really takes the biscuit. I really hope this isn’t the direction Summerhall is going in – it’s certainly enough to make we think twice before going there again.

And a final special honourable mention …

Okay, Looking for Scene from The CityPaul was a bit of a downer, but that’s an inherent risk of an open arts festival. The far darker cloud that overshadowed this festival was the return of political censorship, backed by some of the most powerful figures in the world of art. I’ve already written about what I think about these people in two articles so far, and I’m not done with them yet.

But this is an article about the plays at the Fringe and not the politics. So it wouldn’t be right to close this roundup without a a special mention to the cast and crew of The City, the target of the censorship whose only crime their nationality. Of course, I couldn’t see it, so I will leave it to The Stage to say whether they think it’s any good (click-saver: yes, they do). Incubator Theatre behaved with dignity and restraint throughout, considering the abuse they had to put up with.

The story does have a sort-of happy ending though. Thanks to all the attention created at Edinburgh, venues came forward to host them in London, Leeds and Glasgow, which naturally all sold out thanks to the Streisand effect. According to my rough calculations, the combined audience of these venues is about the same as an average Edinburgh Fringe audience over the month. So, in that sense, the mob failed. They failed to stop the message that Israelis are ordinary people not too different to you and me, and, if anything, the message was picked up by even more people (who would otherwise have not noticed the nationality of the performers). The mob will claim they they won the moral argument, but that saying invariably means that you got your mates to agree with you.

There are two things I hope happen next year. Firstly, I hope Incubator Theatre come back. The people who attend these rent-a-mob demos have very short boredom thresholds, and by next year I expect the majority of these people to have moved on to another target for their hatred. But they might not. Which is why the other thing I hope happens is that the Festival Fringe Society does everything in its power to ensure nothing like this happens again, and does whatever it takes to ensure that nobody should ever have their show cancelled this way. If it means setting aside a venue space in a location specially chose to be easy to police, so be it.

This year, we have seen an ugly side to the Edinburgh Fringe that I thought didn’t exist. I am used to the tactics of these so-called left-wing demonstrators and that doesn’t surprise me, but ir’s appalling that the likes of Liz Lochhead and David Greig are prepared to get their way through threats of violence, as long as someone else does their dirty work. But the early signs are that the rest of Fringe aren’t going to stand for this. Next year, we must be prepared to rise up as one. The open format of the Edinburgh Fringe, and the other fringes that follows, is, I believe, the best thing to have ever happened to theatre. To take this away and allow censorship from an unaccountable elite would be the worst.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Roundups

One response to “Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2014

  1. Hi Chris. Thanks for the kind words about High Vis; thought I should just say, however, that though I was certainly unfortunate with all those venue issues I had, Freestival were also unlucky, being let down not only by Phones4U with regard to my original space, but also by the people who were meant to be building several of the other Freestival venues – and who, as I understand it, were still on the first day of the festival to make any meaningful start on building said venues. So if I felt myself all too often to be struggling single-handed against a sea of troubles, I can say with the benefit of hindsight (and the magnanimity that comes with knowing things turned out kind of alright in the end) that the Freestival folk were struggling with much bigger troubles of their own; thus, in my traditional liberal bleeding-heart see-all-sides kind of way I can understand why I wasn’t always top priority.
    That said, my experience is arguably less important than yours, and you were unfortunate enough to see High Vis in a venue whose shortcomings were by no means limited to the hideously noisy air-con system which severely restricted the subtlety I was able to bring to my performance. I’m greatly sorry for that, though things I heard along the way suggested that that disused shop at the Waverley Mall was by no means the worst venue on the Fringe; someone I know who did a show with one of the other free fringe outfits had to perform in a room whose sound insulation consisted of a flimsy curtain over the door – and when that curtain one day disappeared, to be replaced by a bin-bag, there was no-one to talk to about it. There’s evidence to suggest that, by and large, the Freestival organisers were much more hands-on than the top brass of the other FF organisations. And for me, at least, there was something of a happy ending, as a slot eventually came free at the King James Hotel, so that I ended up in one of the nicest venues on the Fringe, where your colleague Mr Letts was able to see the show in much greater salubriety. ‘Salubriety’ – is that a word? It is now! Anyway, long story short: for all my difficulties in this, their first year, I’d give the Freestival another go if the opportunity were to present itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s