Reviewed today: The Marvellous Adventures Of Mary Seacole, Olaf Falafel And The Cheese Of Truth, Peter Buckley-Hill's Not-So-Classic Album Tour, Susan Morrison: Walking Dead Famous & Funny, Young Fathers.
But is it a joke? When we leave the flats this morning, the sun's beating down to a degree I simply haven't seen in this city before. It's nice, because our first event is actually an open-air one. Susan Morrison: Walking Dead, Famous And Funny is billed as a walking tour taking in some of the history of Edinburgh. Morrison's not a trained guide as such ("I've done the health and safety") - she's best known as a stand-up comic, most frequently seen compereing at Stand venues outside the Festival. She does have a historical background, though, and has done bits for the BBC in the past about the grubbier corners of Scotland's history, like the astonishing story of witch pricker Christian Cadell.
Walking Dead is very much in the same vein: it takes the less polite characters and stories from Edinburgh's history and lays them out in Morrison's entertaining fast-patter style. Although the show's billed as a walking tour, it's really just a gentle circumnavigation of St Andrew Square, a part of the city with a huge number of tales to be told about it. Morrison tells of how Edinburgh's New Town was built largely because residents were tired of the Old Town being ankle-deep in shit: the history of the Assembly Rooms, and its ballroom's role in the marrying off of society ladies: the scandals around Henry Dundas, the guy at the top of the Square's monument, a man equally happy abandoning wives or delaying the abolition of slavery: and the gentlemen's clubs of Edinburgh, places where men could get away from their wives and indulge in all sorts of appallingness. Morrison tears through all these stories with delightful relish, though it's fun watching her try (and fail) to customise her tales to allow for the couple of kids on our tour. (She's happy enough to get them involved in the stories about Edinburgh's sewage problem, less so when it comes to brothels.)
Today's a day for snap decisions in terms of things to see - the Monday is when many of the regular shows take a day off, and we haven't really made any plans apart from our final event of the day. A quick skim of the hourly Festival guide in the Scotsman (that's why people buy it, not the sun cream) while eating an even quicker lunch at the legendary Chez Jules gives us a vague structure for the day. For one thing, if certain shows are taking the Monday off, that sometimes means that other one-off events are taking their place today. Which explains the existence of Peter Buckley-Hill's Not-So-Classic Album Tour, in which the boss of the Free Fringe performs one of his albums from start to finish (skipping one of two tracks for timing purposes). His record The Songs Of 2006 was an ambitious one - an attempt to write at least one topical song a month for the whole of the year in question, and then release them on a single CD at the end of the year.
Ten years later, PBH has a box full of The Songs Of 2006, which he's handing out for free at the end of this show. So it's safe to assume that this project wasn't as financially successful as he'd hoped it was going to be. But as performed here, they're a rather enjoyable collection of tunes. My own memories of 2006 are a little hazy, and mainly dominated by being shitcanned from my first job at the tail end of 2005. But PBH is good at setting the historical context for the events he's singing about - funny songs about whales getting beached in London and the death of Slobodan Milosovic, and unexpectedly poignant ones about the Morecambe Bay cockle-picking scandal and the closure of the London Planetarium. (Wait, the Planetarium closed? Did I miss that?) It's all performed in PBH's usual haphazard style - he claims that because he had to sort out a problem with one of his other venues this morning, he hasn't had time to rehearse. Still, as he keeps threatening year after year that he's about to retire, we should celebrate that style and make the most of it while we can.
From there it's a short hop to Olaf Falafel, performing on the Laughing Horse free fringe circuit, the sworn enemies of Peter Buckley-Hill and his older operation. (Thankfully, last year's huge conflict between the various Free Fringe circuits appears to have settled down, and they seem to be learning to co-exist with each other.) Anyway, you remember Falafel from yesterday as one of the highlights from Mervyn Stutter - his five minute set there made us curious to find out what his full hour would be like. Inevitably, this means that five minutes of the gags here are already familiar, although I'm delighted to discover that the gloriously terrible joke Falafel used to open his Stutter set is one he saves specifically to grab an audience's attention at the start of a short slot. (Nope, won't spoil it here.)
Falafel's show, Olaf Falafel And The Cheese Of Truth, turns out to have several elements to it that we didn't see yesterday. For one thing, it plays heavily on the fact that Falafel is an internet celebrity thanks to his huge selection of hilarious Vine videos. Given the average age of a Mervyn Stutter audience, Falafel had to spend quite a bit of his slot on that show explaining what Vine is, and didn't have the technical capability to show any of those videos to us. In his own show, he displays quite a few of them on a projection screen, and they're all terrific. The six-second maximum length of a Vine video forces you to tell stories in a massively compressed way: Limmy's developed a style all of his own inside those limitations, and Falafel's done something very similar yet different. Given how many of them he presents in the show, maybe you should only look at Falafel's Vine channel if you're not planning to see him in Edinburgh.
But there's more to his show than just six-second video sketches. It's a carefully structured hour of silliness based around his desire to answer some of life's big questions, and how a mysterious packet of cheese slices gave him a way of answering them. Falafel tells this story through his various Vines, with frequent breaks for digressions in all sorts of directions, and keeps his hour bubbling very nicely thoughout. He's a charming chap, and his inclusive approach to audience participation means that even if he picks on you for a bit, you'll have had a fun time at the end of it. Though I do wonder sometimes why I only ever get dragged on stage during events at the City Cafe? Not as much as Patricia, obviously, but still.
After a quick coffee break, and the realisation that we could fit in one more thing if we hurry, we scoot over to C nova and arrive there ten minutes before the start of their next show. Which is sold out. Boo! But it has a returns queue, and we get in with a couple of minutes to spare. Hooray! The Marvellous Adventures Of Mary Seacole is a one-woman show telling the story of a Jamaican Creole woman who had one hell of a life. She decides early in her childhood that what she wants to do is care for people: and if that involves travel, then so be it. She crosses the world several times over in the years that follow: visiting London, trading in knick-knacks between multiple countries, dealing with a outbreak of cholera in her half-brother's Panama hotel. But she's most famous for her nursing work that she did during the Crimean War, work that was largely overshadowed by that of the more press-friendly Florence Nightingale.
Seacole's efforts were largely forgotten after her death, but in recent years her story has come back into the limelight again, all the way up to her own Beyonce-referencing musical number on Horrible Histories. It's a terrific tale, and the storytelling team behind this production - writer and actress Cleo Sylvestre, co-writer Judith Paris and director Sarah Berger - tell it without any gimmicks: just one woman, a simple set and a subtle sound design in the background. It's one of those unexpected delights you frequently stumble across at the Fringe, and lots of other people seem to be stumbling across it too, so get there early if you want to see it for yourself.
We wrap up the day with our first event at the Edinburgh International Festival. It's a bit of an odd one, really. You see, back in the nineties and noughties, the Edinburgh Fringe always had some sort of sub-festival where contemporary bands could perform, whether it was the Edge Festival or the more heavily sponsored T On The Fringe. These days, there's no place on the Fringe where rock bands and so on can do a one-off special performance to an Edinburgh audience. And surprisingly, it's the posher International Festival that's stepped into the breach: since last year, there's been a large section of the programme dedicated to a range of contemporary non-classical music. This year, for example, the section includes acts as diverse as Youssou N'Dour, Sigur Ros, Anohni and Mogwai.
It also includes Young Fathers - whom I last saw in one of those Fringe contemporary music slots back when they had them in 2008, supporting no less than Dizzee Rascal. Eight years ago I had them down as 'a Fun Boy Three for the noughties', and on a superficial level that's still the case: a racially mixed trio of vocalists, minimal instrumentation, maximal percussion, and (this time) even a couple of female backing singers in the Bananarama role. But somewhere between that 2008 show and their Mercury-winning album Dead in 2014, they matured explosively. Nowadays, they're all dark chords and seat-rattling basslines, with a battery of strobe lights and heavy dub effects ramping up the intensity even more. It's only near the end that the mood lightens slightly with a few tracks in a major key. But the Fathers always make sure that no matter how dark the instrumentation or lyrics get, the result is always danceable as hell.
We're seeing this show in the splendour of The Hub, which seems a ridiculously fancy venue for a show like this. But you can't help but notice quite a few old people - and I mean properly old, not our age - in the audience: is there really a core audience for the International Festival that will literally go to every single show they put on? All those old people - and us - are in the one seated area in the balcony, which provides an excellent view of the band until a bunch of half a dozen arseholes barge to the front of the balcony and stand in front of us all night. The worst offender is some sort of frizzy-haired genetic freak of nature whose mother was obviously frightened by a giraffe during pregnancy, and not by a giraffe that could dance either. Still, the intensity of the show even manages to somehow navigate its way past his idiot head, climaxing in the most spectacular exit-to-feedback ending I've witnessed in years. Let's see you follow that, Andreas Ottensamer and the Kelemen Quartet!