Reviewed today: Andreas Ottensamer & Kelemen Quartet, Erwin James, Holes, Macbeth, Mouse - The Persistence Of An Unlikely Thought.
It's a straightforward programme - Mozart's clarinet quintet in the first half, Brahms' clarinet quintet in the second, and a jolly Hungarian dance by Leo Weiner as an unexpected encore. The Mozart has more recognisable tunes to the casual listener, but to be honest I prefer the Brahms more: Mozart's perfection is all well and good, but some mornings you want a composer who ditches all the subtlety and just bombards you with every device of romantic music in a single piece. The performances are terrific throughout, although after a while I start becoming obsessed with a habit of violinist Barnabás Kelemen: he takes an audible deep breath at the start of every long phrase, as if he's the one on the clarinet or something. At one point, given that this concert is being broadcast live on Radio 3, I wonder if his breathing is as audible at home as it is in the cheap seats. Well, thanks to the unique way in which the BBC is funded yada yada yada, you can find out for yourself on the iPlayer until mid-September.
Happy accidents occur at the Fringe all the time. Here's one example. There are two plays called Holes showing at C venues this year, and they're completely different from each other. In order to differentiate between them, they've had to include the writer's name in the official title used in the daily listings - so the main C venue is showing Holes by Louis Sachar, while C south is showing Holes by Tom Basden. And it's a good thing they had to use Basden's name in the title, because that's what made me want to see it. He's the co-creator and writer of Plebs, the only decent sitcom to come out of the ITV network in the last decade, and he also pops up a couple of times an episode playing the water boy. (Water man.)
Anyway, I'm curious to see what a full-length work by him looks like, which is why we're here. The premise is simple: four people wake up on a desert island after a plane crash. Three of them are work colleagues on their way to a conference in Sydney, the fourth is a teenage girl who happened to be in the right part of the plane at the right time. All the other passengers are dead. In a situation like this, the trick is to keep calm and not overthink things. Ian, unfortunately, has chosen not to do this. A garbled conversation on the plane's broken radio leads him to the conclusion that the world has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, and it'll be down to the last four people on earth to rebuild civilisation by whatever means necessary.
For its first three quarters or so, Holes is terrifically entertaining. Plebs is very much a character-driven sitcom, and the four personalities here are similarly carefully drawn and developed over the length of the play. At the same time, Basden's comic voice comes through in their dialogue - there are turns of phrase and joke structures that wouldn't sound out of place in the mouths of Stylax or Grumio. The occasional dark twists in the plot add some spice to the gags, but unfortunately they overbalance the play in its final scenes, which use a descent into darkness as a replacement for an ending, rather than a way of steering the plot towards one. Still, while it's funny, it's very funny.
Elsewhere in the C collection of venues - more precisely, at the Chambers Street location that everyone has to refer to as Actual C - we catch Macbeth, as seen at Mervyn Stutter last Sunday. Produced by Twist, a graduate theatre company coming out of the Hackney Empire theatre, it's an attempt to marry Shakespeare's tale of ambition with an Empire-style expose of the cut-throat R&B music industry. I had minor reservations about the approach when I saw the scene they performed at Stutter: having seen the full production, I now understand what those reservations were, and why I really shouldn't have been worried in the first place.
The Stutter clip was a scene set at the MOBO awards. Legendary diva Lady M performs a song: her husband Macbeth accepts an award, and gives a lengthy speech containing shoutouts to all his friends and family. "I'm just sorry that my good friend Banquo isn't here to see this tonight," he says at one point. This line got a huge laugh at Stutter - because it's the first time that the Shakespeare original has been referenced in the extract. We laugh because we now know where we are in the plot and what's about to happen. On Sunday, it felt like a bit of an awkward gear change between the old and the new stories. In the context of the full production, it's not a funny moment, because by then we're completely on board with the concept - from the moment that the conflict between Macbeth and rival label boss Duncan King is set up, we know that what we're watching is a show that's both a music biz horror story and The Scottish Play at the same time, rather than transitioning constantly between one and the other.
What follows is a relentlessly entertaining 90 minutes, with songs, rap interludes and dramatic scenes all interweaving with each other beautifully. The modern updates to the original plot are smart and funny - this is probably the first production of Macbeth where the night porter scene includes a diss of Donald Trump - without disrupting the dramatic flow of the overall story. The young cast sing and act the living daylights out of this material, and if there's one thing I could complain about it's that, rather like Holes, there's no information supplied to the audience about who these kids are. It makes it more difficult to look out for them in the future, and believe me, we really should be doing that.
We kind of messed up with the Book Festival this year. The booking period opened while The BBG and I were on holiday, and by the time we'd got back all of the good events had gone. We ended up having to choose something from the Festival purely based on ticket availability and general degree of interest, which is how I ended up spotting an event featuring Erwin James. Guardian readers of a certain age remember James fondly - for several years, he contributed a regular column to the paper called A Life Inside, in which he described his experiences as someone serving a life sentence in prison. "So he was like The Secret Prisoner, then?" suggests The BBG, delightfully. Well, yes and no: James was writing under his real name (or a close variation on it), but the Guardian kept the nature of his crime under wraps until he was released some 20 years into his sentence. Since then, James has continued writing and arguing for prison reform: he's recently published the self-explanatory Redeemable: A Memoir Of Darkness And Hope.
Originally, this event was meant to be a double-header featuring James alongside fellow writer Tom Gash, who has his own book out about the reasons why people turn to crime. Sadly, Gash has had to pull out at the last minute because of a family emergency: but on the bright side, James gets more time to expand on his theme, and his 30 minute opening lecture is electrifying. He begins with his conviction and the assumption that his life was over at that point, and then jumps back to the broken childhood that led him into a life of petty crime. He spent time in a children's home, where the language and culture of adult prison life was already in place. He dispassionately looks at the criminal mindset, and concludes it's a selfish one: criminals take actions to solve their own problems without considering the effect on others. It's a mindset that led to James being involved in the murder of two people. In prison, though, he starts seeing the possibilities for him to make himself as good a person as he should have been in the first place - which leads him to taking OU classes, which leads to him writing for the Guardian, which leads to him talking to us today.
You suspect that James has given this talk many times before - as interviewer Andrew Franklin notes, it follows the arc of Redeemable - but it's still an extraordinary thing to experience. James is obviously deeply ashamed of the crimes he's committed, and as such he's desperate to make sure other young men don't go down the same path. The Q&A session that follows covers reconciliation, rehabilitation and the problems in the prison system, but James keeps pointing the finger back at a society that doesn't really understand what prison is there for. "We send people to prison to physically isolate them from society. What we end up doing is psychologically isolating them from society. If we keep doing that, we'll never solve anything."
It's Edinburgh: let's do some Kitson. Daniel Kitson has two things on at the Fringe this year, as he seems to most years now. There's a comedy show at the Stand, with a £5 entrance fee and a series of warnings that it's going to be rough as shit. Meanwhile, over at the Traverse, he's doing Mouse - The Persistence Of An Unlikely Thought, which is one of his storytelling shows that's been constructed and finessed to within an inch of its life. You find yourself wondering if he'll ever do something that isn't at one of those two extremes of effort.
As ever with Kitson's storytelling, there are multiple stories at play in Mouse. A man called William spends his evenings in a warehouse writing a story, and has been doing so for several years. A chance phone call gives him the opportunity to finally tell this story to someone else. Every so often, Kitson breaks off from this narrative to tell us about some of the past events that have made William what he is today. And if you want a fourth layer of story on top of all of these, Kitson frequently breaks off from his breaking off so he can comment on how well it's all going so far.
There are some big ideas buried in all of these layers. There's a strand looking at how our apparently insignificant decisions shape the rest of our lives, which is a theme that's been done to death over the years: but there's another one looking at how the nature of friendship changes over a lifetime, and Kitson finds some interesting angles on that. But most of the pleasures of Mouse come from the ways in which the multiple layers of story mirror each other, or intersect in unexpected places.
This leads to the one problem I have with Mouse: there's a simple narrative device that Kitson has used in several of these shows, in order to misdirect the audience regarding the relationships between some of his characters. If you're aware of that device, and you spot how it's casually used again a few minutes into this show, then you can work out roughly how the rest of the play will proceed from there. (And don't get me started on the whiteboards.) Still, Kitson's storytelling skills are as strong as ever, and for once the show ends not so much on a dying fall as on an explosively funny punchline. The novelty may be wearing thin on Kitson's stories, but it's still hard to think of a better way to wrap up a Fringe day.