The day starts with the final visit of the week to the Cleopatra Internet Cafe on Dalry Road. For the past week they've been responsible for getting these reports to you, and also for providing Nick with the hard copies of those reports that he was complaining about not getting last year. For six mornings Cleopatra have done me proud, and if they actually had their own website I would be gratefully linking to it by now. However, tomorrow is going to be a problem, as it is every year - with all the mad panic of checking out of the flats on Saturday morning, there won't be time to visit an internet caff and write the report of Friday's events that you're reading now. So this is an experiment; I'm going to see if an entire webpage can be produced using just a mobile phone, a Bluetooth keyboard and some FTP software for the phone, and do it all on the fly. This does, of course, assume I'll have any spare minutes at all between Friday morning and arriving back in London. If the date at the bottom of this page is August 27th, then consider the experiment a success.
Our first port of call for the day is the Filmhouse, where lunchtime is traditionally the time for films in the Festival's restrospective season. This year, they're focussing on the legendary British director Michael Powell, and as usual Shane Danielsen introduces the film as if the entire ten-day season is an extended lecture course that we've all been attending. By the early 1950s, Powell and his regular collaborator Emeric Pressburger were starting to fall out of favour; Britain was going through a period of post-war austerity, and wasn't in the mood for their lurid Technicolor fantasies.
The film they produced in 1951, The Tales Of Hoffmann, didn't do much to enhance Powell and Pressburger's reputation on that score. Adapted from Offenbach's operetta, it was Powell's attempt at creating what he called a 'composed film'; a synthesis of visuals and music into pure cinema. His previous attempt at doing this was the twenty minute ballet sequence in The Red Shoes, which works magnificently. Hoffmann, on the other hand, attempts to sustain the trick for nearly two and a quarter hours, making it somewhat exhausting to watch. As we watch the poet Hoffmann losing his heart to an increasingly unsuitable series of women (a dummy, a courtesan and a consumptive singer), his adventures are never less than ravishing to look at, but are so stylised as to be emotionally unengaging at any level other than the purely aural and the purely visual; so it's not quite the synthesis Powell was looking for. Also, as in Klinghoffer earlier this week, having your narrative carried by opera singers who prize tone over clarity doesn't help matters.
Music next, and a confession. Over the years, I've attended a Public Enemy gig that nearly turned into a race riot, and six St Patrick's Night shows by the Pogues in a row, each one more alcoholically uninhibited than the last. But I have never feared for my life so much at a concert as I did when I saw Rolf Harris at Battersea Park about ten years ago. The gig was an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a German beer festival in a south London tent, which contained nothing more than long trestle tables, litre steins of Holsten Export and a music stage. The audience was falling-off-tables drunk by the time Rolf came on stage, and he worked the crowd into an utter frenzy. During the intro of Sun Arise he casually asked his backing band "any of you fuckers know what key this is in?", and the whole place went berserk.
Inevitably, Rolf's one-off afternoon gig at this year's Fringe is a much more restrained affair. Having said that, his instincts for working a crowd are still second to none. He opens with three of his biggest hits - Jake The Peg, Sun Arise and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport - and intersperses classics and new stuff throughout the set, with copious plugs for rolfharris.com and its online shop. Actually, some of the new songs aren't bad at all - in the hands of a decent remixer, Fine Day could be the sort of feelgood summer hit that the clubs are crying out for. Rolf keeps the whole show bubbling over nicely with his own surreal charm, at one point rewriting the end of The Irish Rover so that the dog is taken to the Animal Hospital and doesn't drown. And his encore of Flower Of Scotland, complete with piper coming in from the back of the hall, is as gloriously blatant a piece of crowd-pleasing as saying 'fuck' in front of some drunks was a decade ago.
I've talked elsewhere on the site about reactions to the London bombings on July 7th. Standup comedians have been the main people to comment on the events at this year's Fringe - they've got the flexibility to be able to do that. Other media have been hamstrung by having to decide what they're doing in time for a programme that was published back in June. Unless, of course, you do what Look Left Look Right Theatre Company have done - put together a show in a little under a month, and rely on word of mouth and good reviews (rather than a listing in the programme) to get the audiences in. Given the reasonable number of people in the audience for Yesterday Was A Weird Day, the gamble appears to have paid off.
The play borrows heavily from the format of recent collaborations between playwright David Hare and director Max Stafford-Clark - it's a series of transcribed interviews, performed directly to the audience by a cast of four. The interviewees are a varied bunch; there are cab drivers, people attending the Trafalgar Square vigil, the boss of Sky News, a former Iraqi colonel now living in the UK, and a couple of people who were actually in the tubes at the time they blew up. The latter are the most effective parts of the show, eloquently capturing the stunned surrealism felt by people who were in the thick of it. But the show saves its major, accidental coup for the end: its makers interviewed Robin Cook just a week or two before he died, and he sums up the links between our foreign policy and this atrocity - and what we should be doing next - with characteristic clarity. This is a beautifully crafted piece of rapid response theatre, and simply has to be performed in London as soon as possible.
Yesterday Was A Weird Day is being performed in the Sweet venue, which is actually a pair of function rooms in the Apex City hotel on Grassmarket. We take advantage of the location to grab a reasonably priced and terrific dinner at the hotel restaurant before heading off to my second appointment with Richard Herring for the week. The rumours have been flying around for some time now: he's given up on the themed shows to return to pure stand-up comedy, he's developed a much nastier edge, he's getting walkouts whenever he starts talking about why the Pope's death is a good thing or sings songs about raping monkeys. (Unfortunately, he seems to have dropped the latter routine since the early previews.)
In practice, none of this is really a big deal. Herring has always liked to see how far he can push an audience - go back to my review of Lee and Herring's 1998 show and you'll see the stories of how most of the people I had come with had left by the end, the last few being driven out by a reference to drawing a picture of an ejaculating penis in the Princess Diana memorial book. But Herring gets away with it through a combination of winning charm and intellectual rigour. He doesn't just say "isn't it great the Pope's dead?", he looks at the history of paedophilia in the Church and their attitude to the use of condoms in Africa to explain why. Nobody walks out on the night, apart from two highly confused punters who apparently think he's Omid Djalili for the first five minutes of his set. By the time he reaches the now-infamous yoghurt routine, the audience is entirely on his side, though those of us who've seen the 12 inch remix think it could do with elaborating a bit. Besides, if you want to see how to really alienate a Catholic audience, you need to see what Herring's old mate Stewart Lee is up to at the moment...
For several years now, I've dined out on the fact that following my review of the 1998 Lee and Herring show described above, I actually received an email from Richard Herring himself sympathising with me, as he didn't think the show worked that well either. Maybe I should start treating Mark Watson as my showbiz mate as well, given that he wrote to the site last year. This was following my review of his 24 hour show, a gloriously pointless exercise that summed up the spirit of the Fringe perfectly. He attempted to top it last week with an even longer 2005 minute show attempting to cover the whole of history since the birth of Christ, and it's interesting to note that nobody batted an eyelid at that one. His regular show, 50 Years Before Death And The Awful Prospect Of Eternity, uses a similar one-minute-per-year structure to analyse the fifty or so years Watson thinks he has left on this planet.
The big thing about the 24 hour show was the way that Watson managed to fill it on pure charm, without apparently telling any jokes. A more conventional show like this one has to have some proper gags in it, and Watson obliges with some fun material about the way that the world seems to be accelerating out of his grasp as he gets older. I like his complaints about the evils of predictive text messaging, where a simple message to the fiancee that "I'm going to be late back from the supermarket, fucking queue" becomes "I'm going to be late back from the supermarket, fucking steve." (Though when I tried it after the show it became 'ducking steve', which is less funny.) The framework of the whole show being a countdown to his symbolic death isn't really used that effectively, though: to be honest, it's more effective as a device for Watson to banter with the audience members he's put in charge of the timekeeping. The other main source of banter is trying to work out which people in the crowd might be Perrier judges, as he's up for the Best Newcomer Award. (As is now traditional in these end-of-week writeups, I'm now all tied up in Primer-style time loops, because I'm writing this bit back in London on Sunday morning - no, I didn't have time to complete the page on Saturday, but I'm still thrashing this out on the phone just to see if it'll work - and trying to pretend I don't know who actually won it. But I digress.)
Seventy-five per cent of the Pals manage to assemble at the Stand comedy club for The Stand Late Show, to celebrate our final night in Edinburgh for this year. It's Nick's choice of show, and he should be praised to the skies for it. Think about it: late night comedy during a Fringe weekend is normally the cue for all the arseholes to come out of the woodwork with the intention of turning any stand-up act into a shouting match. Any act with a degree of subtlety or quirkiness will be shouted down with demands for knob gags. But this is the Stand, one of the few Edinburgh venues that does comedy all year round, and their audience is there for the comedy rather than beery lairiness. Example one; Simon Munnery does a set of his usual brainy surrealism, even including a poem or two, and is warmly received. Example two; Zoe Lyons, previously seen here with The Monkey Butlers, does a set primarily about her own lesbianism, and is never asked once to show her tits. ("My girlfriend's got wonderful Germanic features - blond hair, sculpted cheekbones, little moustache...")
As for the rest of the bill, I have to admit things are a bit fuzzy, because despite what I mentioned above there's still a lot of beer being poured down necks, including mine. Compere Bruce Devlin talks us through the highs and lows of Edinburgh gay nightlife, though I can't remember exactly of which club he said "you've got more chance outside afterwards of catching AIDS than a black cab." Nominal headliner Colin Murphy is nothing special, though I think it was him who said "I'm boycotting the Royal Bank of Scotland because they advertise mortgages in The Big Issue, and that's just taking the piss." (Though it may have been one of the other ones, I'm not sure.) The one comic who cuts through my alcoholic haze is Stephen K Amos, who manages to totally freak out a teenager in the audience by getting the rest of us to sing the A Finger Of Fudge Is Just Enough at him. Actually, I suspect that most of your typical Late 'N' Live audience would be as baffled as the teenager by that reference - maybe that's the difference between the other clubs and the Stand.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Old Lag - S.W.A.L.K. is a physical theatre piece in the open air of the old university quadrangle. The set consists of two large video screens, ramps and towers. Despite the modern technology the story with three actors is of a woman chasing a man with the old technology of letters. Laced with effective fireworks, this engaging piece lasts for half an hour.
Nick - The real Bill Hicks died some years ago, so in Slight Return he is impersonated by an actor who has a huge advantage over his audience; none of them ever saw the real Bill Hicks. So what is his attraction? He was legendary for his rants on talk shows, mainly about politics and popular culture: and this show, rather than reprise his old stuff, imagines what Bill would have made of the world of today. So we get a long rant about the demise of rock music. He lays into bands like Coldplay as not embodying the true spirit of rock and roll, but do they claim to be? His rants on politics are more successful with a lot of witty asides. But the most striking thing about the rants is how Bill could reduce the audience to reflective silence, rather than go for laughs. I felt I had experienced something of what Bill was about.
Old Lag - Barb Jungr interprets a selection of Elvis songs by different songwriters. Barb has been around a long time. In the late eighties she toured the comedy circuit singing the blues accompanied by a guitarist. To have survived this long is a testament to the quality of her work. This show is her interpretation of some of Elvis' songs, with a nod to his preoccupations and the part of the country he came from. In this, Barb's dialogue is quite interesting. For example, Colonel Tom Parker did not want Elvis to record Gospel. Elvis did though, and it is some of his most successful work. The lifestyle Barb was living when she first heard Elvis was far removed from bobbysocks and open topped Chevrolets, it was northern Britain. The result of this carefully explained interpretation is a rather black and gloomy translation of all but the Gospel songs. You either like it or you do not. Barb's voice is great, well placed between jazz and pop.
Nick - Caimh McDonnell's show illustrates the frightening economics of appearing on the Fringe. Caimh is £10,000 lighter for covering his three weeks on the Fringe, and in the third and final week of the festival he has seven people in the audience. Does he deserve a wider audience? Well, he has twenty minutes of material that are really funny. Trouble is, like a lot of comics have found, he has a 60 minute show to fill. His answer is to go the Dave Gorman route - consult your wacky flatmate and produce a PowerPoint presentation of your latest wheeze. But where Dave kept things fresh and original, Caimh hits trouble with some of his hoary old material. Anyone doing stuff on David Icke smacks of desperation. Caimh was at his funniest observing the incongruities of consulting a medium or psychic - "it's like asking your dead granny what the future holds." As it says on his flyer, Caimh is blessed with natural charm. It will be interesting to see how he develops.
Old Lag - Tom Hodge's Confessions Of A Jingle Writer does what it says on the tin. A humorous description of the jingle writing business by someone in the trade. Tom plays examples on an electric piano and illustrates his talk with PC generated slides. Gently humorous and revealing of the business.
Nick - Edward Albee is well known for his plays about the battle of the sexes. Zoo Story concerns how important territory can be to some people - what lengths people will go to to defend that territory, even though it may be worthless. The first half of the play uses a clever animal story to give the human battle in the second half more impact. You suspect the quality of the writing would succeed whatever the quality of the production. But on a very simple set (a rickety park bench) which acts as a metaphor for the notion of territory, the two leads blaze away convincingly at each other until a final shocking conclusion is reached.
Old Lag - Blackbird is written by David Harrower and directed by Peter Stein. A former victim of child abuse at 12, Jodhi May, now an unsuccessful adult, tracks down her former abuser Roger Allam, now in his fifties and hiding behind his new identity. A confrontation occurs between the two characters, exploring the relationship and its aftermath. This often raises more questions than answers. One such was that the male protagonist was just attracted to her, and not children in general. His argument is quite sophisticated, but is it true as we move through his relationships in the play? How culpable was the female, even though she was only 12 at the time? Very powerful stuff, strongly acted.
This page was originally posted on August 28th 2005. Bollocks.
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