Reviewed today: Absolution, The Aluminium Show, Arthur Smith's ARTURART 2008, Cannibal! The Musical, High School Musical, Mr IMPOSSIBLE: Philippe Starck, The New Electric Ballroom, Scaramouche Jones, Tim Minchin, Tracey Emin: 20 Years, Watson & Oliver.
Arthur Smith: he's been causing trouble on the Fringe for decades now. Whenever two or more Festival veterans gather together, they'll probably end up looking back fondly at the days when Smith would lead groups of people out on drunken late-night walking tours of Edinburgh. Ill health put paid to all of that, though, and in 2005 Smith performed what he claimed was his swan song: Arthur Smith's Swan Lake, a gigantic performance art piece that took in a large area of the city. It may have been the last of his public appearances at the Fringe, but there was no way we could ever lose him completely: hence ARTURART, which takes his interest in modern art even further.
As with last year's inaugural show (which I only caught in passing while seeing Simon Munnery perform), Smith has taken over a large Edinburgh townhouse and turned it into a three-storey art gallery, featuring the work of both himself and several of his comedy mates. It could be taken as a gigantic dig at the pretensions of contemporary art, but Smith claims his motives run deeper than that: an art gallery has become one of those places where laughter is forbidden, and he wants to change that.
He actually pulls it off, too: but at the same time, quite a few of the items on display work as serious art at the same time as being funny. The first installation you see, Angels Escaping, is a prime example of this. "Were you moved, sir?" the gallery's security guard asks me afterwards (curiously, he looks rather like Smith's old comedy partner Phil Nice but with a bad false moustache). I'm not quite sure, but I think I might have been, even if it was just delight at the sheer ridiculousness of it. At the other end of the show, the Archive room is a large scale display that rivals any other information-heavy installation piece you've ever seen in a gallery: you could probably spend most of an afternoon just in this one room, poring over the detritus of Smith's life, and realising from some of the heavier legal letters that Arthur Smith is actually his glamorous stage name.
There are several pieces by Smith's fellow comedians, although many of them are irritatingly lacking attribution. Still, some of them don't need it: the room of Simon Munnery paintings feature his distinctive comic rhythms in their text, while Tim Vine's contribution is based around a single magnificently bad pun. There's also some video art with a terrific punchline, lots of doors with surprises behind them, and - if you're there when they're available, we weren't - a limited number of audio guides with extra jokes included. Smith's days of turning up on Edinburgh doorsteps at three in the morning demanding tea for his walking tour party may be long gone, but this works as some sort of alternative.
While we're in a gallery sorta mood, we head up to the Inhouse posh furniture shop for another exhibition, one that was on our shortlist of free events for Monday but had to be dropped for pressure of time. Mr IMPOSSIBLE: Philippe Starck is, as the name implies, a small retrospective of the work of the famous designer. The Belated Birthday Girl and I have become fans of his work during our afternoons at home surfing the web for hotel porn: and by that I don't mean pay-per-view channels, I mean looking at the websites of hotels that we couldn't possibly afford to stay at. Although having said that, we have stayed at a couple of hotels featuring his design work, notably St Martin's Lane in London and the Royalton in New York.
This free exhibition is plonked down in the middle of Inhouse's ground floor retail area, meaning you have to check which pieces are Starck's and which are just stuff on sale. But it soon becomes apparent which is which: there ends up being a curious overlap with ARTURART, as the best of his pieces have a wit and charm to them that leaves you smiling. It could be a Louis XIV style chair made entirely out of see-through plastic, a table that converts into a full-length mirror, or even his design for a brand new pasta shape: whatever, there's probably something in this collection of 50 or so items that'll make it worth your while heading up to Howe Street.
We've not been having much luck with straight theatre so far this year: the only two plays we've seen have been Grim and Yasser, and both of those were seriously flawed. But as regulars will know, the main place to head for the best new theatre on the Fringe is the Traverse Theatre, and today we make our first visit of the season. When I say 'we', I'm not including The Belated Birthday Girl in that: when she finds out that I'm interested in the new play from the writer of last year's The Walworth Farce, she politely makes her excuses and goes elsewhere.
Which is a good job too, because The New Electric Ballroom is a companion piece to Enda Walsh's hit of 2007, and repeats all the things that The BBG hated so much about it. It has an almost identical structure, too. Three sisters - in alphabetical order Ada (Catherine Walsh), Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) and Clara (Catherine Walsh) - have more or less locked themselves away from the outside world, spending their days reminiscing about the nights they used to spend at the New Electric Ballroom, and the love they found and lost there. As in The Walworth Farce, storytelling has become their only means of getting through life: and again it takes the arrival of an outsider, fishmonger Patsy (Mikel Murfi), to break the cycle of their stories.
If you've seen The Walworth Farce, there's no way you can do anything other than compare The New Electric Ballroom directly against it: and Ballroom suffers badly from the comparison. Walworth had a tightly-constructed realistic plot, where its first act showed us the story the three main characters had built their lives around, and the second act unravelled it to show us the truth behind. Ballroom is a more free-flowing fantasy, where we're never sure even at the end what's real and what isn't. There are some lovely moments of absurdist comedy and some touching monologues, but they don't tie up into a devastating whole the way the earlier play did. Not a complete waste of time - nothing I've seen at the Traverse ever is - but I'm still waiting for the first great play of this Fringe.
And I'm not going to see it today, because the rest of the day is taken up with the most pleasantly ludicrous double bill of musicals available in Edinburgh this year.
First up, High School Musical - yes, the Disney one, stop looking at me like that - performed as part of the American High School Theatre Festival by the pupils of Moorhead High School in Minnesota. High School Musical performed by an actual High School: how could anyone resist that? Besides, Spank's Formerly Very Small Niece is a huge fan of HSM, just like every other nine-year-old on the planet, so I thought it'd give us something to talk about next time I see her.
If the programme notes are anything to go by, this production is as much a story of triumph over adversity as the plot of the show itself. It's taken them a year to get it all together, and during that year Disney withdrew their license for all amateur overseas productions, presumably because their own official one is still touring. After much begging and pleading, Disney gave permission for just one amateur company to stage the show in the UK, and it's this one. Which doesn't explain the existence of a second production of High School Musical in this year's Fringe, by Edinburgh's own Royal High School. Don't these people know what Disney's lawyers are like?
Anyway, I've never seen any of the High School Musical films, but this is damn good fun, enlivened by a packed young audience that knows all the songs already and is happy to overlook the lack of Hollywood gloss. Moorhead can't compete on that score, but like most AHSTF productions they can overcome the technical shortcomings with enthusiasm and sheer manpower (who else on the Fringe can give you a cast of 50 or so actors?). The story is entertainingly tongue-in-cheek (I'm assuming the huge pile-up of parallel events at the climax is meant to be funny), the songs are tuneful and well-staged, and the cast gives it their all. It's a shame that the Church Hill Theatre's bad acoustics result in some of the lyrics getting lost, but the kids watching the show here couldn't care less.
High School Musical was always going to be a sure-fire hit on the Fringe: there's an enormous pre-sold audience that knows the film back to front and is keen to see it recreated live. The same thing applies, on a smaller and more adult scale, to Cannibal! The Musical. Trey Parker's pre-South Park debut feature has amassed a small but loyal cult following on video, and was even reviewed here several years ago. As a tiny-budgeted film made by a few mates, it's probably slightly more condusive to stage adaptation than HSM: but it's still a risky undertaking, given that most of the film involves outdoor scenes of a gold prospecting party losing their way and their minds under the guidance of Alferd Packer, the only American ever to be convicted for cannibalism.
It's a challenge, but it's one that Rival Theatre Company just about manages to pull off. Part of their success is down to them taking the music seriously - as I said in my review of the film, these are genuinely good songs, just set in a very silly story. The backing may be taped, but the voices are supplied by people who've actually performed in real musical theatre, rather than the rejects from I'll Do Anything Mr Lloyd Webber Just Let Me Get My Knee Pads who clutter up most musicals nowadays. James Topping gets the balance of heroism and idiocy just right as Packer, Aimie Atkinson makes for a delightful romantic lead, and everyone else mucks in with just the right level of enthusiasm.
The production may have a few rough edges here and there, and if they're serious about taking it to London's West End it'll need seriously tightening up first. But - without wanting this to sound like an insult - it's good enough for late night at Edinburgh, and makes for a fun ending to a Fringe day. Which makes it a shame that this show is rattling around inside the 400-seater George Square Theatre, and drawing audiences of (based on last night's sample) twenty or so. Disturbingly, their current plan to boost numbers is to promise a guest appearance by Jim Bowen at this Friday's show...
Notes From Spank's Pals
Jerry - The content of Absolution seemed a little unsavoury to many: killing, castrating and beheading Catholic priests was potentially strong stuff. However, whilst graphically described there was no sense of revulsion felt - all very technically described and I was intrigued to find out why this strange man did these terrible things. Owen O'Neill played the man with an intensity that opened a window into the mind of this avenging angel. The play finishes with a twist that is totally unexpected and makes sense of the plot.
Rhian - I'm still not sure what The Aluminium Show was trying to do. The first 15 minutes was quite funny and the row of aluminium worms singing Bohemian Rhapsody did make me giggle, just because it was so silly. However the audience reaction to this one was a bit luke warm, so I'm clearly in a minority.
After that the show really left very little impression. We saw the occasional glimpse of some good dance moves, but I found myself getting increasingly irritated with the endless aluminium 'special effects' which were never quite special enough, and just seemed to get in the way of a potentially good dance show.
The Belated Birthday Girl - One of the things I couldn't help noticing is that very few female comics have made it onto our list this year. And to be honest, my decision to see Watson and Oliver was prompted by a failure to get into another male act who'd sold out while I was waiting in the ticket queue at the Underbelly. But I had noticed some warm reviews, so when I had to make a snap decision on a show around the 5pm slot, I dashed down to the Pleasance Courtyard and was lucky enough to get what seems to have been one of the last tickets (it was pretty much full) with only a few minutes to spare.
Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver are a pair of female comics doing fairly gentle, character based sketches, and as such the comparisons with French and Saunders are inevitable, and not entirely inappropriate. There was nothing in this set to shake anything in the world of comedy - although the people sitting next to me were almost in tears of laughter at the final extended Bond-themes skit - but it was an enjoyable show. When Oliver corpsed to the extent of completely blowing the end of a Wuthering Heights sketch, the audience found it endearing rather than annoying, and it was just a nice time.
Jerry - Tracey Emin: 20 Years. Next time I want to be exposed to the immature ramblings of a disturbed teenage mind, I'll find a 15-year-old girl's bedroom and get it for free. At best Emin's exhibition is an artistic rant, full of immature expression and devoid of any artistic merit.
Rhian - I'd seen Tim Minchin before and found him amusing, but definitely not hilarious. So it was with some reluctance that I agreed to see him again. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. Apart from anything else he's a gifted comedian - which I'd somehow previously missed. And although the targets for his humour don't initially seem very original (religion, marriage, fatherhood, alternative medicine) the delivery and execution of his songs is spot on.
He clearly relished performing his song of revenge against a particular Guardian journalist who made the mistake of writing a bad review three years ago. I imagine the journalist in question might be regretting it now - the song was uncompromisingly vicious and absolutely hilarious.
We noticed a couple of people walk out of the show during the equally entertaining rendition of the Good Book, but I guess if good comedy isn't controversial it probably isn't worth seeing.
Nick - Scaramouche Jones is the best thing I have seen at the Festival so far. But its origin is something of a mystery, that the programme notes do little to enlighten. The play attempts to create a myth about the life and times of the wholly fictional clown of the title, by using a totally believeable biographical narrative. It is split into seven parts or masks, and spans one hundred years of his life, from his birth in Trinidad in the mid nineteenth century to his arrival at Waterloo Station at the time of the Festival Of Britain.
The play succeeds in giving his life an ageless quality, in witnessing events that spanned the century of his life, and those of others. If you saw the production with Pete Postlethwaite, I urge you to see this again, as the writer and director Guy Masterson give the play new life.