Sunday 18th August, 8.30 p.m.: Before doing any more reviews, one bit of news on the side. I’ve previously said that if I don’t see 5 plays on day 2 of Edinburgh Fringe, I consider it a personal failure. I have done 6. Some people have schedules that squeeze in 8. However, author of my guest post Flavia D’Avila is currently on a challenge to see 12 in 24 hours. To see the latest on this, you can follow it on Twitter.
One other bit of news – I’m late to the party on this, because it’s been going on all fringe, and I’ve given my thoughts on this business before, but now that this has come to a head in Edinburgh I may as well repeat this. You might have noticed there are two rival Fawlty Towers-theme dining themed plays in Edinburgh this year. There’s Faulty Tower, the Dining Experience which is a “tribute show” and has been running a few years now – indeed they’ve got a good claim to have pioneered this form of entertainment. There is also Fawlty Towers Live Themed Dinner Show. This is new, and uses the original scripts. This is also officially endorsed by John Cleese, as the posters around town states, heavily insinuating the other ones are the impostors.
I must declare at this point I’m not entirely impartial here. Interactive Theatre International, who do Faulty Towers along with other shows has been one of the most generous companies giving me press tickets. Even so, I’m not entirely convinced they are entirely legally covered here. John Cleese has previously protested against the existence of this show, and had he taken Interactive Theatre International to court, I would have respected his right to do that. But the reason I’m losing patience with Fawdinex who do the “official” Fawlty Towers is that they’ve bought the right to Fawlty Towers dining and then used that to make legal threats against their rivals. They claim that they are doing it because the unauthorised show is causing John Cleese and Connie Booth a lot of distress. I’m calling bullshit on that. John Cleese is not a delicate little flower – if he really had as much of a problem as Fawdinex claims, I have no doubt whatsoever he would have taken legal action itself. It seems (well, it’s bleeding obvious) that the real motive is to get rid of the competition.
The other problem is where Fawdinex is taking their legal fight. In a straight lawsuit between them and ITI, I’d have said fair enough, may the best legal team win. Instead, they went after the venues, threatening any hotel thinking of hosting them with consequences if they didn’t cancel the booking – and naturally, some venues, not having the stomach for a legal fight, capitulated. That is a really cowardly course of action. With Edinburgh Fringe being the must lucrative place, I strongly suspect they tried to pull the stunt here – if so, I can only assume there was at least one hotel that was having none of this.
The other thing about this that rankles is the hypocrisy over ripping off ideas. Interactive Theatre International might not have created Basil, Sybil and Manuel, but they did pioneer the concept of interactive dining comedy as we know it. I do not believe for a second that this “official” Fawlty Towers interactive dining would have existed have ITI shown it was viable and shown how it was done. I won’t be moralising and tell anyone to boycott anything just yet, and if you want the classic episodes re-enacted, go ahead and see them. But the way they’ve behaved, I couldn’t bring myself to do it if it was me. You can please yourselves.
Sunday 18th August, 5.00 p.m.: I’m now taking a break from Edinburgh and you can currently find me checking out Linlithgow. This does, however, give me a chance to keep on top of the reviews before they pile up too much. My next review, however, is going to be a difficult one to write. HiveMCR have showcased what they can do in Stephen Berkoff’s East, and a fine showcase it is. Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same way about the play they’re performing.
I chose to see a performance of East because I wanted to see how the script translates to the stage. To be honest, I’ve read the script before and I didn’t get it. But there again, I didn’t get Caryl Churchill’s A Number when I read the script, and it was only when it was performed I understood how it was meant to work. I had a similar observations with Five Kinds of Silence: I’ve seen two different productions of the same play, and I discovered the second time round how much of a difference some good movement directing puts into a play for voices. You can achieve far much more than five people on stage doing monologues in turn – you can choreograph in the whole ensemble.
The same principle works here, and HiveMCR does the best possible job of this. East refers to the East End of London, and the five character are hard-as-nails cockneys: Dad, Mum, their two sons, and the woman they’re both trying to shag when they’re not busy fighting other men or shagging other women. The whole play is done in very, so it’s, if you like, Shakespeare for Cockneys. Instead of a dry set of scene changes where one actor at a time does a piece, the whole ensemble takes part all the time, whether at a tense family dinner, an all-out street brawl or all gather together to be a motorbike. All of the actors fit their characters very well – in a play like this the last thing you want is someone who’d look like he’d follow up a punch or stabbing with “Oh, I’m sorry, are you all right.” In that respect, well done for HiveMCR for giving this play the best it could be given.
But, having seen this play on action live on stage, in the full spirit of how it’s meant to be done, I’m afraid I’m not warming to it. The entire play strikes me as nothing more than a list of negative traits about the working class of East End of London in the 1960s. Les and Mike are thugs with little more in their lives than fighting and shagging. Slyv might be hard as nails but main role in the play appear to be getting shagged by everyone. Dad is a racist who idolises Oswald Moseley. Mum is a slightly more sympathetic character than the others, but her life seems little more than letting Dad and the boys do their thing, and watching daytime TV. All of this might be fine if there was some nuance to this, but it’s either non-existent of subtle to the point of undetectable, with reasons for the way they are being little more to a few nods of boredom. The closest thing I saw to any humanity was Les’s slight of a beautiful woman on the bus. This might have struck a chord if he thought about a romantic relationship people like her have with each other – but instead it’s more like a checklist of the degrading sexual acts he’d like to perform on her.
What I find most uncomfortable about this play is how something relentlessly negative about working-class London gets so much praise. I realise Stephen Berkoff came from that background so maybe that was his own memories of what things were like, but I really don’t like the swiftness of the rest of the literary world to leap on this as if the observations of one writer validates their idea of what the prole are like. I must stress for a moment that I don’t believe for a moment that is what this company thinks about the working class, and if there is any attitude problem it’s with the literary establishment as a whole, particularly those in the 1970s when this play first became all the rage. Now, I’m prepared to consider that there might be something I’ve missed. But I cannot imagine this sort of depiction being tolerated for any other disadvantaged group. And you would not get off the hook by saying you weren’t looking deeply enough.
It is a shame that such a good performance from the ensemble is mixed with very different feelings for the script. I have no doubts that they will do other performances which will cause the scripts to shine. And for the seeming majority of literary critics who see this as a work of genius, I’m sure they’ll approve of this adaptation. But for me, this was my chance to see this on stage as it’s intended to come across – and I don’t get it. Sorry.
Sunday 18th August, 9.30 a.m.: A landmark yesterday: my first full day of Edinburgh Fringe viewing done entirely on press tickets. So I’ve got some new reviews to catch up on, but I’m going to start with Princess Party because this one I think could do with some more publicity.
Princess Party is fun for everyone, but something I’d especially recommend to actors making money on the side dressing up as Disney Princesses for children’s parties. I’ve heard numerous stories of these parties, especially where the parents have way to much cash to splash. However, these anecdotes pale into insignificance compared to the stories from Beverly Hills, where there are obscenely rich people in their obscenely extravagant using their children’s parties, I suspect, to one-up their obscenely rich friends and show how much richer they are.
Open to a story of a little princess who lived in a castle where she had everything her heart desired, we are soon joined by Snow White and Alice from Alice in Wonderland. If you are pedantic enough, you will be aware that Alice isn’t a princess, but it’s her first day on the job and she left the costume until the last moment and this was the only one on reduction. Not that this matters, as they discover now that all the kids are dressed as Anna and Elsa, and they are now realise they skim-read the e-mail saying it was a Frozen-themed party. However, even this problem pales into insignificance against the more pressing issue – as Snow White digresses from the story when she says what happened after she married the prince it become clear her real marriage has just broken down, whilst Alice found come cocaine left on the back seat of her Uber and could’t bear to let it go to waste. I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story, because you can already guess.
Before we get to the inevitable ending, though, we will meet the little girls’ older sisters, then a pair of chefs, and then a pair of mothers we’ve been hearing who spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are. The drunk/coked princesses are by far the strongest characters, but it would have been difficult to keep the joke running for a whole hour to the character comedy format suits the show well. My only regret was not getting more of a story about the families. I could’t really believe that the two mothers schmoozing with a pair of prospective business partners would end up twerking in Ann Summers gear, but as this is in the comedy section so I’ll let that off. However, I did feel that after we’d heard so much about the two mothers congratulating themselves on what brilliant mothers they are (they are almost as angry over their princesses arriving 10 minutes late as they are for the mayhem they cause later), whilst their own marriages are in various states on breakdowns and/or infidelities, there was a missed opportunity to mix the chaos with more of a backstory about how this rich family has come this unhappy state.
Oh, did I say this is a semi-improvised show? For anyone brave/foolish enough to be on the front row there’s quite a lot of roles you play, and the act works around this. I won’t give away everything, save to give a warning that this the 10.30 p.m. slot so you can expect to happen what you expect to happen in a 10.30 p.m. slot. I gather that in real life one or both of these women were moved off princesses on to evil queens because the evil queens get to be funny. So I recommend giving this one some support at Gilded Balloon Teviot. But sit on the front entirely at your own risk.
Saturday 17th August, 8.45 p.m.: Sorry about the gap. I’ve had a bit of a fright this afternoon that involves urgently needing to move money between accounts with two different banks, with one of them I can’t get to for several days because they have no branches in Edinburgh, and the other bank (HSBC) being about as helpful as a hedgehog in a condom factory. Anyway, with a temporary resolution established, I can keep going. Looks like I’m going to be gratefully accepting a lot of press tickets between now and Tuesday.
Anyway, let’s get back to reviews. I’m going to start with Father of Lies. This is an in-house production from Sweet Venues, for a pair who normally do comedy. I found that out after the play – if I hadn’t I’d have just assumed they were straight theatre actors. This is a true story of one of the strangest murders on record. In West Germany in 1973, an widower and ex-priest murdered his nest friend, and also – so he confessed – his late wife’s child, whom he apparently believe was fathered by his best friend. But the baby was never found, either dead or alive. There are other strange events: the baby was born prematurely as his mother died in childbirth, surviving against all odds; the mother was a runaway from her religious Israeli family and possibly spent time in a cult; and the two men both have their own memories of the war from the losing side.
It’s a fascinating true story to bring to the stage, but the one decision I don’t understand was to tell most of the story in the format of a presentation, with only a few key scenes between the two men acted out. Sometimes this format is necessary if you have to convey a lot of complicated or technical information (Hitting the Wall, a play about swimming from Scotland to Ireland is a good example), but here a lot of information were the characters’ backstories, where it’s quite normal to work these into dialogue. And the other puzzle as to why there was so little in the way of acting is that the few short scenes they did were done very well, keeping the tension up and suiting the simple stage and the small space available very well. What’s more, when they did allude to their past events, it was very powerful, such as the friend recalling the fate of his mother and sister at the hands of the invading Soviet Army. Whilst I doubt you could have dispensed with the narration completely, there is a lot that I think would have been more powerful talked about by the two men than just spoken in front of a slide projector.
But this is an intriguing play/talk to watch, even if the format is a bit unusual, and the fact that this is has been done by an act normally associated with different genres is of great credit to them. Sweet Novotel if you want to catch it, and runs for the rest of the fringe.
Saturday 17th August, 11.45 a.m.: Before doing any reviews from visit 2, something that’s come to my attention in connection with Mumblegate. No, it’s not The Scotsman this time – I think I’ve kicked them enough for one fringe – instead this stays relevant to cash for reviews. Word has already got round that The Mumble was refused media accreditation this year – and let’s face it, if even I’ve got media accreditation that’s a pretty low bar. But according to The Times (via Arts Professional), The Mumble wasn’t the only publication that met this fate. The other is Short Com. I can’t find anything that goes into detail of exactly what Short Com is meant to have done, nor can I find anything on Short Com’s own site. But if this is what this story makes it out to be, this news is far far far more worrying than anything The Mumble is doing.
The Mumble is, by all accounts, a dreadful publication in every way, and not just for the cash for reviews (details available from journos with lawyers on standby). But that what makes them relatively harmless. So terrible is their reputation, hardly anyone takes them seriously. Most people with a shred of credibility steer clear of them. They know that sticking a review from The Mumble on your publicity – even one they did as a freebie – damages your reputation more than helps it. Short Com, on the other hand, is a reputable publication. The closest thing we have to a list of top-tier publication is The List’s table of top-rated shows, and Short Com is listed, between The Scotsman and The Skinny. This means they can publish pay-for reviews as credible reviews. One small but notable detail is that Short Com does not publish reviews below three stars. That doesn’t necessarily mean the reviews are corrupt – indeed, other publications do similar things for perfectly legitimate reason – but it does make it easier to operate on pay-for-praise and get away with it.
And the other problem? There’s not much the Festival Fringe Society can do about this. I’ve no objection to refusing to accredit review publications wanting payment, but this isn’t banning them from the fringe – as we’re seeing now, this isn’t stopping Short Com reviewing, nor is it stopping The List treating them as a reputable source. Short Com could be the first step to normalising paying for reviews, and as soon as you blur the boundary between independent reviews and paid for PR, this massively undermines the integrity of the entire fringe. All I can suggest is that we normalise public awareness first. We might not be able to stop paid reviews if Short Com is doing it, but we can make sure prospective punters know about this. If we can make it a basic expectation that paid reviews have to be declared – and yes, that will have to mean naming and shaming the artists who don’t declare this – it might not stop the practice for paid reviews, but it would at least keep it in check.
Friday 16th August, 9.00 p.m.: Here I am. Press tickets collected, first show this evening, so let’s get these last two reviews from visit 1 done. These were both senn on my last day chosen from the half-price ticket hut to fill in two gaps. And the two are connected by the most unlikely theme.
So I’ll begin with The Red Hourglass. Spoiler alert attached to this review: if you’re already planning to see this, don’t read this review, because the opening minute is best seen if you don’t know what to expect, but I can say one thing without giving the game away: this is my unexpected gem of the fringe so far.
Spoiler warning established, this is a solo performance from Alan Bissett, who plays different characters trapped an a mysterious research facility. What the description doesn’t mention is that these characters are spiders. Indeed, when the first character talked about being part of a proud and ancient race – coupled with the fact that this is being told in the Scottish Storytelling Centre – it had me fooled. Not that the first spider sees much difference between the two. This common spider is pretty sure it was one of his ancestors’ persistence in spinning a web that inspired Robert the Bruce himself to never give up and go back outside and defeat the English.
I probably should warn you (not that this warning will do any good if you’ve already heeded my advice not the read the spoiler), this play sets out to taunt you if you’re scared of spiders. Next up is the recluse spider, who misses his wife and three thousand kids, and mostly liked to spend time to himself. Except when they swarm, because that’s fucking mental that is. My favourite line of the play, as a non-arachnophobe was “So we swarmed into the flat of this broad … We weren’t going to kill her … although we could have if we wanted to”. If that doesn’t put the willies up you, the black widow might. That was Bissett’s funniest performance of the whole lot, as the black widow spider was a complete psychopath.
I suppose one complaint you could make about this is that for small number of people who truly have a problem with spiders, they might be landed without warning into something they really don’t want to watch. I sympathise, but this is genuinely one of the play where content that some people might find distressing works best if it comes out of the blue. This is a case where I think the Edinburgh Fringe site could do with a content warning hidden behind a spoiler alert. But, honestly, put your fears aside if you can. Very clever and very funny character comedy, with similar humour to Made in Cumbria. But with spiders. Unfortuantely, the run has already finished, which is a shame, because this doubtless would have sustained sales over the full fringe had it run three weeks. So keep an eye out for it instead.
And the other play I caught was Bang Average Theatre with Lucille and Cecelia. This time, the two characters are sea lions. And just in case you missed the bit in the programme saying they’re seal, as you take your seat you will see these two seals (embodied by two women in black leotards and moustaches) wriggling about, balancing on balls and excitedly performing sea lion-like stunts for the audience. I loved that performance and this opening is one of the best openings I’ve seen of an Edinburgh Fringe play.
But then what do you do? No matter how good your weird and wonderful idea is, you have to sustain interest for a full hour. Many years ago I saw a similarly-styled play Howard and Mimi, where the characters were a dog and a cat, with a story structured around moving in together, fighting like cat and dog, then learning to like each other before some unexpected events drive them closer. The Red Hourglass structured the show around one character at a time. Here … I can’t work out where the story was meant to go. The ringmaster announcing the acts sounded a bit shifty, but that plot-line never develops. The sea lions start off barking, then learn human words, and then they’re suddenly speaking to each other in English, but it’s not clear what that was meant to signify. One of the sea lions has a crush on her human trainer and flirts with other random humans, and the other one wants to escape, but I couldn’t establish either sea lion’s motives.
I still think this is worth seeing for the sea lion performances, but for this to fulfil its potential, we need something more. I might sound like a screaming pedant when I ask what the rules are of this setting, but even the most surrealistic setting work best when you establish what the rules are and play out believable characters in these absurd scenarios. At the moment, I feel this has gone for a scattergun approach to writing a plot. I would pick out the strongest plot element, concentrate on that, and write a story around that. There are few plays that give you a chance to identify with sea lions – this is an opportunity not to be wasted. Continue reading