"Are there any middle class women in the audience?" Generally a stupid question to ask at a show in Edinburgh, of course: but this is Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, so you assume he knows his audience by now. Regulars will know that this has become one of our traditions - spending Sunday afternoon with Mervyn's eclectic selection of acts from across the Fringe, providing a useful sampler for our first full day.
There are seven acts in today's show, and a chronological treatment seems as good as any. First up is Bongo Fury, two likeably showoffy percussionists whose highlight is a battle for control of a marimba during the Minute Waltz. Peter Aterman performs a monologue from his show Slaves Of Starbucks, playing a harrassed tour guide: there are some definite chuckles of recognition from Diane, as that's her day job. Bearded Ladies perform a series of somewhat predictable blackout sketches, the sort of thing we fought the alternative comedy wars against in the eighties. And Rob Deering performs just enough of his standup act to convince me that he's reasonably funny, particularly with his musical analyses of all the Bond films, but not quite funny enough to justify a full hour of my time.
The show hits a roll with its final three acts. There's an extract from the play My Long Journey Home: as Stutter says, it's the theatre clips that set his anthology show apart from its imitators. This one uses music and props in a sufficiently intriguing way to persuade me that it is worth an hour of my time. American Will Durst, whose political comedy was a big feature of early nineties Fringe, makes a splendid comeback just in time for the election. (Though it may be significant that his best gag harks back to the Dukakis election. "I want the support of all thinking Americans, Dukakis said. You idiot! You're supposed to be aiming for a majority...") Finally, Micheline van Hautem brings the house down with passionate renditions of two Jacques Brel songs. All this is presided over by Stutter with his usual winning mix of jokes and enthusiasm. "It looks like I'm here for life, so I'll see you here next year," he says at the end. 1pm on Sunday August 21st 2005, then. It's a date.
I upload the Saturday site update at Elephant House, the first of what may turn out to be a series of guest web cafes I use this week in the absence of Web 13. I can recommend their shortbread, specially cut into the shape of elephants: "do you just want a single one or a herd?" as they asked me. Then it's off to the UGC, to start off my Film Festival with two new British movies. The first is Dead Man's Shoes, the new film from Shane Meadows. It's a simple revenge tale involving two brothers, Richard (Paddy Considine) and Anthony (Toby Kebell). Richard has returned from the army to find that while he's been away, Anthony has been hanging out with a nasty collection of dealers, pimps and villains. Enraged at how his brother has been abused, Richard takes the law into his own hands.
A few years ago, I raved about Meadows' earlier film, A Room For Romeo Brass, because of its rock solid control of tone: veering from hilarious to grimly dramatic, but never feeling forced. His followup, Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, lost the darker elements and played as an all star comic romp, and was less successful as a result. The new film feels like a deliberate attempt to go the other way. Even the humour of the early sections, where Richard uses comic humiliation instead of violence, is uneasy because you know where it's got to end. Meadows has been accused in some quarters of just remaking Death Wish, but in his defence he's made a revenge movie without a shred of glamour to it: nobody's going to be cheering Richard on in his quest. Though thanks to The Great Paddy Considine, you won't be able to take your eyes off him. Dead Man's Shoes is seriously flawed in parts, and possibly too grim for a general audience: there was an embarrassing number of people running for the exits between the end credits and the Q&A session. But it shows we can't write off Shane Meadows just yet.
Amusingly, at the same time as Shane Meadows is taking the Ken Loach route of documenting the psychic torture of the working classes, Loach himself seems to be going in the opposite direction with his new film Ae Fond Kiss. It's as straightforward a romance story as Dead Man's Shoes is a revenge thriller. Atta Yaqub is the son of a Pakistani family living in Glasgow, with an arranged bride all ready and waiting for him. Eva Birthistle is the Irish Catholic music teacher he meets at his sister's school. You can probably guess how things progress from here, and you'd be right: predictable themes of love versus family loyalty.
However, the drama is never overdone: Loach has collaborated on his last few films with screenwriter Paul Laverty, and his script here has a pleasingly light touch. Everyone gets fairly represented in the conflicts, apart from a slightly stereotypical shouty priest. There aren't the big speeches that you might expect in this scenario: Loach is canny enough to realise that onscreen images of interracial sex speak louder than words (there's more shagging in this than any other Loach film I know). And his handling of actors is second to none, as ever, particularly the two leads. But despite the tremendous craft on display, it all feels a bit familiar, and the ups and downs of the central relationship can be as contrived as any romantic comedy.
Gimmicks work at Edinburgh. We all know that. The hottest ticket of the Fringe this year is A Mobile Thriller, performed in a moving sports car to an audience of three in the back. Tickets are so impossible to get hold of, someone's suggested having a rival production called Carjacking For Beginners. But at the opposite end, we have the gargantuan prospect of Mark Watson's Overambitious 24 Hour Show. It does what it says on the tin: Watson starts at 11.55pm and plans to do a comedy show that lasts a full day. He starts off with a carefully planned hour-by-hour structure, hampered by the fact it takes him 90 minutes to describe it. He moves to a different room in the venue within 10 minutes of the start, because he's more popular than he thought he would be. And he's performing the whole time: even when he goes to the loo, he arranges for a human chain to ferry jokes back to the stage by Chinese whispers.
Has he got enough material for 24 hours? We'll have to wait and see. But with his easy charm, he somehow manages to make the first three and a half hours fly by without seeming to do very much. Part of this seems to be because everyone in the room - everyone - has bought into the idea of this being a one-off experience, and we're all willing it to succeed. Watson's attempt to make contact with everyone in the room by personally allocating them membership numbers probably helps with this. Of the celebrity guests who briefly pass through, Stewart Lee is the one who nails the appeal of the show on the head: this is exactly the sort of non-commercially viable lunacy that makes the Fringe work. At 3.30am, during a second rejig of the audience to comply with fire regulations, audience members 30 and 31 have to duck out to catch some sleep. But we'll be back...
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - It has been a tradition with Spank's Pals for much longer than I've been on the scene to go on the Sunday to see Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe. As Mr Stutter himself explained before the show started, of all the various 'Pick Of The Fringe' and 'Best Of The Fringe' type shows, his stands out as including acts from all parts of the Fringe, not just comedy. Of the seven acts on show today, none were real stinkers, and although I could easily do a Best Five (which would include the two musical acts on show), I did have a clear Best Three of roughly equal merit. Of these, one was a straightforward standup, one was a play, and one fell somewhere between the two.
First, then, the standup. Will Durst is an American political comic, highly accomplished, very biting, and extremely funny. His is a relaxed and gimmick-free standup style, just talking about Bush and the American people and other subjects, applying a highly political wit and getting lots of laughs. He's obviously been doing this for some time, and he does it very well. Next, the play. The New International Encounter theatre group gave us an excerpt from My Long Journey Home. Apparently they use all sorts of theatrical and performance techniques and devices in this play - in the excerpt we saw use of musical instruments and puppetry, as well as more conventional drama. Obviously an excerpt can do little more than give a taste of what the play will be like, but I saw enough to entice and intrigue, and I'll be curious to see the whole one hour play. It's difficult to say more than that on the basis of what I've seen, but it is one of the good things about Mervyn Stutter's pick that we get to see some of this sort of thing.
Last, but not least, Slaves Of Starbucks, written and performed by Canadian Peter Aterman. In the show, Aterman apparently portrays 19 characters, and through them gives a darkly comic critique of the rise of the influence of the US, and decline of European culture. We were treated to one of these characters, a tour guide in Rome leading a party of American tourists around St Peter's. His performance of responding to the unheard idiotic questions was extremely funny and well observed, and even if American tourists are easy targets (and I'm sure English tourists can be just as ignorant), it still made for an entertaining piece, and left me interested in seeing his other 18 creations.
Old Lag - What a fantastic show! Teatro Delusio by Floez was the story of three backstage technicians at a theatre. All the action takes place backstage with the three actors playing 29 parts. They achieve this by using masks and costumes to play the musicians, actors, ballerinas and management that come through behind the stage during an evening. The three technicians' working lives and dreams are fleshed out to provide substance to the drama.
Eve - From the outset of Fatboy the volume of the dialogue, the expletives and screaming insults the two main characters hurled at each other commanded attention. Fatboy and his consort Queen Fudge presented personas of gross monstrosity and vileness, enhanced by stylised makeup, padding and clothing. The very stylised and extreme presentation prevented the 'strong language' from being totally offensive. The message came over pretty definitely in the first five minutes and then was hammered home relentlessly for the next 65 minutes. The worthy nature of this message is commendable but I can't help thinking that it has been done better - if more conventionally - by Arthur Miller, J.B. Priestley et al. The actors worked very hard, gave excellent performances but were rather let down by the over-long play.
Old Lag - Chronicles: A Lamentation is a mesmerising physical theatre piece with enormous atmosphere. Despite being in Polish this piece was fascinating to watch and glorious to hear. For most of it, the cast sang a modern day Gregorian chant which created a considerable atmosphere and sense of urgency. Accompanied only by an accordion, it was a perfect accompaniment to the dancing of love, life and death. Fringe First winner.
Nick - A savage satire on the body politic, the production of Fatboy comes hurtling on to the stage, determined to take no prisoners. The grotesque style really hammers home the playwright's beefs. But by the third act and epilogue, the unremitting ferocity of the language has browbeaten the audience into submission. Something the playwright wanted, and it is left to the audience afterwards to find their own equilibrium. A deserved Fringe First winner, it packs a punch, but some may find the style wearing.
Old Lag - Punch and Judy. Outrageous and filthy. The Tiger Lillies are even more twisted than usual. The song set is a galloping list of perversions. It is in startling contrast to the music which is very good. Double bass, piano, piano accordion and small drums. It does not really work as a show. The songs do not provide sufficient narrative to the Punch and Judy story. The puppetry is not formed into a well organised story. As a piece of theatre it fails. As a set of songs it is the unique Tiger Lillies.
Nick - Chronicles: A Lamentation. A beautiful haunting lamentation starts this show, and then this talented Polish group use the form of the lamentation to tell a story. Neither Old Lag nor myself bothered to invest in a translation, so we could only follow the story through images, movement and the beauty of their lamentations. But that was enough sustenance to enjoy the spirituality of the performance. A special mention to the Aurora Nova venue, who specialise in putting on foreign works in a nice space at the back of St Stephen's Church.
Diane - An excellent show from Barcelona's Camut Band. Percussion, tap dancing, sand dancing - these six men make music with their feet, drums, a jar, voices, a microphone and the audience. Their vigorous style is reminiscent of Stomp and Tap Dogs, so I'm sure this isn't the last we've seen of this act. On their last night in Edinburgh the Camut Band had the audience on their feet and cheering for more.
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