Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/09/2003.
From my original introduction: "I didn't go to Edinburgh this year, invoking my usual one-year-off-in-three rule: but that didn't stop Spank's Pals from making their regular visit to the world's greatest arts festival. Nick, Diane, Rob D and one of the Muses discuss the best and worst shows here."
So no Spank this year, but the rest of the monkey troop made the annual journey from a hot and sweltering London to err.. a hot and sweltering Edinburgh, but of course this did not last as Sunday came along and it rained. In all the years we have been going to Edinburgh it always rains on a Sunday, this also heralded a change of weather for the rest of the week to grey overcast conditions, yes Edinburgh as we know it. Already this review is rambling away, but nothing like that doyen of ramblers - no not Janet Street Porter, but Arthur Smith, who (like Brian Appleton a few years ago) came to Edinburgh with an idea but no actual show, and discovers he has about ten minutes of material on Dante’s Inferno, with another fifty minutes to fill. So what does he do? Employs a gay bloke who yodels and a fit bird in bondage gear with a huge strap on dildo, apparently you could possibly meet them in purgatory. Of the ten minutes on his chosen subject, we learn that of the nine rings descending down into the 3000 miles of the inferno, the first ring was reserved for all the people who had the misfortune to be born before Christ. Now that really is a bum deal.
So what of our favourite watering hole, the Filmhouse bar where Mad Dog Rob D was ejected all those years ago (and where the normally very nice security lady keeps a special eye on our troop every year, should Mad Dog ever reappear). There were two disturbing incidents, not sure which was the worst, but apparently the film festival had all the excitement of a damp squib, causing the bar to close every night at 1am. FilmFan, monkey friend of Spank, who normally holds court to a bevy of impressionable young lovelies, was this year reduced to talking to three blokes with beards. Spank, you chose the right year to put your feet up.
So what was hot and what was not;
Twelve Angry Men: the one theatrical perf. that towered above all others was a project that Guy Masterson had been planning for two years, and it was a total triumph. The cast included a number of well known comedians: from Russell Hunter, who appeared as a comic at the very first Edinburgh fringe festival back in 1947 and was thus well qualified to play the old bloke, to Phil Nichol, one of the younger comedians who played the ranting young bloke.
Gary Le Strange: a masterful recreation of the 1980s pop star, the music sounding better than some of the originals like Ultravox, with only the lyrics changed for comic effect. He wins Perrier Best Newcomer award on our recommendation.
Hair: the American High School production of the sixties anti-war musical. Ground breaking in its time, it completely threw out any narrative coherence and opted for a looser structure to mirror the free thinking times. It starts and finishes with two great numbers, Aquarius and Where Do I Go, here given a rousing production by the ever reliable high school students.
The Tiger's Bride: an adaptation of an Angela Carter short story, it featured themes explored in a lot of Carter's work, the deep sexual repressions buried in the subconscious. Well acted by a young cast with a minimal amount of props, it well conveyed the fairytale world of Carter.
Pluck: a recommendation from The Muses who saw this trio at Mervyn Stutter's Pick of the Fringe. They are all very accomplished classical musicians who poke fun at the po-faced world of classical music, witty inventive string trio.
And finally the best; The Boyle Family and Monet The Early Years, an interesting pairing of shows that had similar themes on the shifting effects of time. The Boyle family recreating the same patch of Camber Sands twice a day for a week, as it is affected by the tides: to Monet painting the same scene at different times of the day and throughout the seasons, even in winter, when his contemporaries preferred to work in their more hospitable studios.
The worst show we saw was by common agreement Julian Clary, a man resting on his laurels. For the first ten minutes he was at his best, looking through the shopping that had been bought in by the front row of the audience - but thereafter when his two helpers appeared the show descended into a formulaic format, more suitable for a seaside summer show. It is most likely the show he has been touring around the seaside halls, but not an Edinburgh show.
So what of next year, will the monkey return? We all hope so.
It seems that all comedians are reliant on Microsoft or Apple Mac these days, as most of the comedy performances I saw were "computer driven". This year's Festival got off to a very good start with Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure. My last attempt to see Dave live in London was scuppered by technical problems, obviously a danger with this type of show. Thankfully, there were no glitches in Edinburgh and I was very impressed. Dave is a brilliant raconteur and had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand - we all became fellow "google anoraks" willing him to achieve his goal of meeting his fellow "googlewhacks".
On the night that Nick and co went to Julian Clary, I decided to give him a miss and see a performer who was new to me - Howard Read. His Big Howard Little Howard Show has echoes of the old ventriloquist acts, except this time instead of a dummy you have "Little Howard", a six year old stand up comedian and cartoon created by Read, a talented animator. Other cartoon characters appear including two elderly Brian Johnson type continuity announcers, a robot called HBox and Little Howard's manager who just happens to be a pigeon! The show consists of Read's interaction with his cartoon creations. His stage persona seems a little shambling at first but you soon realise that this is part of the act. The cartoon manager is forever threatening to get rid of "big Howard" and let "little Howard" take over the act. This novel show deserved the Perrier nomination it received, Read being the only British nominee this year.
Another Perrier nominee for "best newcomer" was Alex Horne whose show Making Fish Laugh also made use of computer technology. Horne has an engaging personality, which helped in a show which relied on the good nature of the audience and audience participation. It will be interesting to see how he develops his act in the future.
Although I enjoyed the comedy I saw, my first love has always been drama, and I took in several theatrical productions. The tried and tested Traverse came up trumps with two excellent productions of plays by Scottish authors - Dark Earth by David Harrower and The People Next Door by Henry Adam (soon to be seen at the Theatre Royal Stratford East). This was my favourite Edinburgh production, distinguished by some fine performances: particularly that of Fraser Ayres in the leading role of Nigel, a character who at times seemed like a mixture between Ali G, Derek Trotter and Frank Spencer! Ayres is certainly an actor to watch, so head for Stratford East.
Another favourite, this time at the Assembly Rooms, was Guy Masterson's much publicised production Twelve Angry Men with a cast largely made up of comedians. This play stands the test of time and is still as relevant as when it first appeared in the 1950s. Although they have said that this is an "Edinburgh Only" production I would be very surprised if we don't see this in the West End. All the performances were good and I was particularly impressed by the acting of Phil Nicol.
It would be easy to play safe and just stick to the major venues - Traverse, Assembly Rooms, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon - but I like to try some of the smaller venues and unknown names. Here you take more of a chance. I was lucky with Pluck (reviewed by Nick above) and Lewis in Wonderland, an inventive new play performed by a young cast mixing the life of Mr Dodgson with the fantasy of the Alice books.
Unluckier choices included We Need to Eat, a play that couldn't make up its mind whether it was a family drama or "theatre of the absurd". Young actors who thought that to play an older person you had to hobble around bent double and holding your back didn't help! However this was brilliant when compared with Lucky Stiff, a musical which could have been enjoyable if it wasn't for the fact that most of the cast including the leading man couldn't sing and were so under rehearsed that some of them looked surprised to be there. You can't win them all!
These were my only disappointments. A late night cabaret at the Cafe Royal including performances by comedians Fred Mcaulay and Will Smith (not the Man in Black) was enjoyable, Paul Hull in a Danny Kaye tribute show was entertaining and ex-Corrie star Tracie Bennet shone in Last Song of the Nightingale, a play based on the last days of Judy Garland, at the new Jongleurs. On a cultural front I visited the Britannia which is now in the Port of Leith (well worth a visit) and Mary King's Close, which opened as a tourist attraction last year and has been reinterpreted to show that there is more to the history of this part of Edinburgh than ghost stories.
My only regret was that I didn't have time to see more, so roll on next year!
A Muse Writes...
This year I was back for my 9th festival since 1989. A lot has changed since those days, when every other show performed at the Fringe (including my own group’s) seemed to be a play by Berkoff: notably the fact that there was virtually no Berkoff on offer this year; also there are far more late-night drinking places around now than in ‘89, when we used to struggle to find anywhere still open after our own late show finished. Sadly, the Film Bar didn’t fall into that league this year, where throwing-out time has now moved to the rather sedate hour of 1.00am.
Anyway, that’s far enough down memory lane - back to this year. If this was considered by the critics to be a relatively poor festival, I certainly wasn’t aware of it, and (nearly) everything I saw was well up to the high standard that brings me back year after year.
The Muse’s highlights of the week include the following:
12 Angry Men - Tickets for this show were like gold dust following the universal praise from the critics, but I managed to get one of the last available, and the praise was well justified. All 12 performances were outstanding, displaying the versatility of the comedians involved to be able to turn their hands to serious drama. The sense of claustrophobia in the room was tangible, and everyone was mesmerised throughout. Another triumph for Guy Masterson!
Andy Parsons - This half of the Naylor & Parsons duo had us bent double with laughter when he appeared at the Fringe a few years ago, with his inimitable dead-pan demeanour and hilarious observations on life, and it’s good to see he has lost none of his touch.
Hair - The American High Schools turned up trumps again with this superbly sung and choreographed version of the 1960s anti-Vietnam musical. The costumes and atmosphere of the period were spot-on, and the cast injected the degree of spark and energy that has been seen in so many American High School productions. Long may they continue!
The lowlights? Not many this time, only two in fact worthy of mention:
Julian Clary - Natural Born Mincer - Loved the outfits but I’m afraid not the show. If Julian had carried on in the same vein as the first 10 minutes, we would have been in for a treat, but he didn’t and we were disappointed.
Reduced Shakespeare Company - All the Great Books (Abridged) - Set in an American high school, where all the great works of literature were to be covered in 1½ hours, there was a lot of scope for an extremely funny show on the same lines of their brilliant Complete Works of Shakespeare. However, they did not capitalise on this enough, and there was too much seemingly irrelevant dialogue which was so quick-fire you couldn’t hear half of it!
The biggest lowlight? The non-appearance of the wonderful Bob Downe who, with his Apple Fresh Dancers, last year delighted us with his kitsch 70s-style humour. You broke your promise to come back this year, Bob!
Never mind, all in all another great festival: plenty of good shows, food and imbibing, and the usual dose of exercise, the calf muscles being seriously tested climbing Arthur’s Seat on the last day. Long may it continue!
Great round-up, Nick. If you'd mentioned the "fit bird in bondage gear" at Arthur Smith I might have gone anyway!! For the record, my best experiences were:
I went to this based on a flyer that someone shoved in my face outside the Teviot. Weird theatre, great music, strange machinery and the finale involves being showered with marshmallows and confetti if you sit in the front rows. I was so impressed I got the CD, a T-shirt and a gift of a poster from the woman with the piano accordion.
Flamenco, Flamenco by Ricardo Garcia
'Real' flamenco played on two guitars with the rhythm supplied by the heels and hand claps of two dancers. The guitar playing is incredibly technical and the dancing is dramatic without all the flounces and castanets you usually get at these gigs. Again, CD copies available to them that wants.
Songs of Jacques Brel by Miche en Scene
Great songs sung by an attractive woman with a great voice and a good band, followed by a few G 'n' Ts and a curry. What more could you ask?
Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane
Two events grouped together because they had a similar effect on me. 4.48 Psychosis was written by Kane shortly before she killed herself and, strangely, is a monologue performed by four people. The play describes her thoughts during bouts of depression and I found it frightening - the only time I've been allowed a glimpse into the mind of the mentally ill. The venue (White Belly at the Underbelly) was appalling; so damp that two de-humidifiers were running full-on during the performance, making it hard to hear some of the dialogue (and I was in the second row). Cleansed is set in an institution ruled over by Tinker, who casually tortures and mutilates the occupants. This is expressed on stage by soaking cloth in red dye, tying it around parts of actors' bodies and cutting it (mutilation) or Tinker banging a staff on the stage while the actor writhes in pain (beatings). Tinker spends time in peep shows where girls dance for money and his need for love is directed to these girls who, until the end of the play, refuse even to look at him. It says a lot for the power of the performance that the final scene, involving one of the girls writhing around topless like some lapdancer, produced no signs of arousal in any of the audience (myself included). These two plays remain at the cutting edge of British theatre and I'd recommend them to anyone with an interest in serious theatre, a strong stomach and a reasonable hold on their sanity.
.....and the worst?
Folk as F**k
Hey, I'm a dolphin loving folksinger and a lesbian; I'm going to scare the young female members of the audience by talking graphically about lesbianism and then inviting them on stage. Complete bollocks.
One Two at the Traverse
Two narrators and a (not too bad) group of musicians climbing up their own arses for just over an hour. I have nothing more to say on the subject.
Favourite watering hole? For the large glasses of glorious cool crisp Chablis, the genuine Victorian interior, the friendly bar staff and for many other reasons it has to be the Café Royal.
.....and the overall impression? Probably my best Edinburgh Festival. The reviews told me it was weak compared to previous years but I enjoyed it hugely. And I didn't have to write reviews of everything I saw (sorry Spank). Certainly back next year.
(Previously Mad Dog, now Old Dog) Rob. WOOF!