Reviewed today: Bad Film Club, Johnson & Boswell: Late But Live, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe (including Gamarjobat, God's Pottery Saves The World, Goodbye: The Afterlife Of Cook And Moore, Ivan Brackenbury's Hospital Radio Roadshow, John Bishop, The Magnets, Phaedra), Miss Meow Meow, Richard Dawkins, Richard Herring, Waiting For Alice, The Withered Arm.
It's been two years since I was last here: that's my explanation. After the morning routine of writing up day 1, washing, dressing, breakfasting and uploading day 1's report (via the handy free wi-fi at the Filmhouse), we head out for the Gilded Balloon Teviot Hall, and I take the wrong route by mistake. As a result, we arrive late for our traditional Sunday afternoon visit to Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, which starts for us roughly five minutes after it did for Merv. No problem, really: I assume we only missed his usual opening schtick about how his show is the best and widest-ranging compilation on the Fringe. And it is, absolutely no question.
The format is the same as ever: a couple of comic songs from Stutter open the show, this year's ones being less focussed on his advancing years and more on current events. (A neat gag about Prince Harry's alleged drug-taking, punningly set to a reworking of Pass The Dutchie, amusingly ends in a debate over whether it's just clever or actually funny.) And then, there are short sets from seven Fringe acts, each followed by a quick interview with Stutter who ensures that the shows get adequately plugged. Everyone's happy.
But here's a peculiar thing: we were last at Stutter's show exactly 104 weeks ago. And two of the acts who appeared that day in 2005 also appear today - maybe it's part of their promotional strategy to always do a Stutter in the lead-in to the final week of the Fringe, or something. Gamarjobat actually do exactly the same physical comedy routine that they did two years ago: however, it's still very funny, and we're promised that the bulk of the show Rock 'N' Roll Penguin is dedicated to new material somehow involving rock 'n' roll and penguins. (As John Bishop points out later on, "any time you go to a party with a dwarf or a penguin at it, you know you're gonna have a good time, don't you?") Meanwhile, the six-part acapella harmonies of The Magnets are still as sharp as their suits, and at least they perform a couple of songs that were written since their last appearance, including a show-stopping arrangement of Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out.
As for the other five acts: God's Pottery Saves The World is song-driven character comedy about a pair of scary American evangelists, looking to convert the world to Team Jesus while quietly hinting at murky depths below. They've got the glassy stares and smiles down cold, but they're a little lacking in actual jokes. Ivan Brackenbury's Hospital Radio Roadshow, on the other hand, does have the jokes - including a splendid running gag about his inappropriate song choices, such as dedicating Moloko's Sing It Back to the hospital bulimic ward. ("Bring it back, sing it back...") By its nature, though, it's a very fragmented
performance, which just about works in a bite-size portion but may become wearing over the full hour. Goodbye: The Afterlife Of Cook And Moore is an intriguing idea - having Pete and Dud continue their bickering after death in a limbo inhabited by other dead comics - but seeing the familiar characters deliver thumpingly obvious homilies about their personal failings doesn't really work.
Which leaves two acts that a) I haven't seen before and b) are really good. Offstage Theatre's production of Phaedra is a hugely ambitious site-specific affair performed in and around Craigmillar Castle, so fair play to them for managing to rework the play's opening five minutes to fit in the Teviot Hall. (Nice choice of excerpt, too: an atmospheric sung opening, a ferocious fight between two characters, and a sharp blackout immediately after the first spoken line.) The one stand-up comic of the day is John Bishop, and he gets the best reaction of all: his new show discusses the midlife crisis that made him give up his day job and move into comedy full-time, but here he talks about his experience of running a 10K marathon, and the huge ego boost you can get by giving your estimated completion time as 25 minutes.
We come to Stutter every year for his Sunday show, and he never lets us down: we always get a fine display of the range of acts available on the Fringe, and he does a terrific job at giving some coherence to a show that can switch from Greek tragedy to Japanese slapstick at the drop of a hat. One new development I've spotted this year, though: the show traditionally ends with the audience walking out of the auditorium only to encounter the acts we've just been watching, handing out fliers so we know exactly where to see more of them. It has to be noted that a couple of unscrupulous Fringe acts tacked themselves onto the end of the line and used the opportunity to push their fliers onto the Stutter audience, even though they weren't in the show - yeah, Triple Threat and Rogue Shakespeare Company, I'm looking at you. Also spotted outside the Teviot: Jimmy Carr, not fliering the audience, but making his presence felt by sucking all the comedy out of the air in his wake.
From there it's off to the first of our two scheduled visits to this year's Book Festival. Is it significant that both of the big-name non-fiction writers we're seeing have major documentaries on British telly this week? Not sure, but there's no denying that Richard Dawkins has made a huge impact in the world of books: his treatise on the folly of religious belief, The God Delusion, has been a huge seller all over the world, even in the Christian heartlands of America. To his credit, he doesn't believe the book has converted many people to an atheist viewpoint: rather, it's given atheists a way of coming out of the closet, at a time when extremist religious views are making the world a more dangerous place in which to live.
This is typical of the Dawkins approach - even though his detractors call him hysterical and manipulative, he always takes the time to ensure his point is put across as reasonably and logically as possible, always acknowledging any areas of doubt. (Which must piss off those detractors even more, I'd imagine.) As such, the choice of Muriel Gray as an interviewer is an entertaining one, as her more hardcore approach to belief makes for entertaining contrasts. Whereas Dawkins insists that in debate, you can't just say to the other side "you are stupid," Gray wants to use that as the starting point for an argument.
The resulting discussion is an interesting walk through the key sections of The God Delusion. Dawkins talks about the main reasons why people use religious belief - as a tool of social control, as a consolation in times of need, and so on - and asks why we haven't considered more rational alternatives. Why are we in a situation where it's acceptable to question someone's choice of politics, football team or music, but not their choice of religion? Is the exaggerated respect given to religious belief something that's evolved over the centuries, or have people designed it that way? (Ooh, I like that one.)
Dawkins admits from the off that he's been accused of preaching to the choir, and the easy ride he gets from the audience in today's Q&A rather emphasises that. But a closing question from a representative of the Humanist Society does force him to admit that the problems of fundamentalism are too big to be solved solely by books like his. Fundamentalists are only really going to have their minds changed by the more moderate members of their religion: Dawkins' audience is more the sort of person who's always considered faith to be simply A Good Thing, as he wants them to question whether that's the case or not. It all makes for a very thoughtful hour, particularly on a Sunday.
Over at the Assembly, two similar-looking fat blokes are taking the stage. Phill Jupitus: a comic and poet who always annoyed me just a little bit, until he redeemed himself a couple of years ago by taking a job on 6 Music and doing the only breakfast radio show I could listen to without vomiting. Andre Vincent: last mentioned in these reports in 2002, as he miraculously whipped up an hour of comedy from his treatment for cancer. (You'll be pleased to hear he's much better now.) Both of them have been mates for years, both of them tend to get mentioned in the same breath: so it only seems right that they should play Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Waiting For Alice, a new play written by the pair.
The central conceit is given away in the title - two of the best-loved characters in children's literature are sitting by a tree, a la Waiting For Godot. They're waiting for Alice to arrive so they can recite long poems to her about woodworking and seafood, as they do. But whereas Tweedledum is happy with the way things are, Tweedledee is starting to have doubts about what his purpose in life is. Particularly as Alice hasn't passed by them in something like 69 years.
This is a wildly ambitious piece of work - it's educational (lots of kids in the audience), philosophical, moving, wildly post-modern, and (lest we forget) packed with gags both high and low. It could so easily have fallen flat on its face, but Jupitus and Vincent have worked hard to ensure that it's a fabulously constructed and performed hour of entertainment. It even pulls off a magnificent coup in its closing seconds that suggests - nay, positively demands - that you see it a second time. Hard to say much more without spoiling some of the surprises for you, so just take this as an unequivocal rave and go see it.
Standing in a queue at the Underbelly, we're approached by a young girl carrying fliers for the comedian Alistair Barrie. Rather than just handing us the flier and moving on, she insists on giving us a sixty second sales pitch as to why we should be seeing his show: but it's given in such generic terms that we could be talking about any stand-up who's ever appeared on the Fringe. ("He's a very funny man... he's dealing with a lot of issues about the way things are today...") The climax of her pitch is her confession that she prefers Barrie because "he's very sharp, he doesn't use a lot of swearing and crudity like a lot of comics do these days. Don't you find that?" Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have realised that she's pitching to a queue waiting to see notorious filthmonger Richard Herring, in a show that actually contains the word 'fuck' in big letters in its title.
Herring has been a mid-life crisis on legs for several years now, but Oh Fuck, I'm Forty! is his acknowledgement that he's now officially too old to keep chasing after one-night stands. It's also a confession about how he can't stop doing it. He talks about his hellish experiences trying to pick up women in bars - one of them insists "I wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire," which he tries to recover from by asking "but what about if I wasn't?" He talks about how he's managed to get to his age without raising any children, mainly because he detests them. ("Surely if the paedophile is the most hated member of society, then someone who's the polar opposite of a paedophile should be the most revered? But no...") And, as ever, he takes simple ideas and stretches them well beyond breaking point, getting close on ten minutes of reflections out of the t-shirt slogan "Give Me Head Till I'm Dead".
It's only in the last couple of years that Herring's Edinburgh performances have moved from themed lectures to more traditional standup - and even though there's a rough theme running through the hour, this is definitely more standup than performance. His confidence in his ability has increased quite a bit since I last saw him: he bolts through the set at high speed, as if trying to cram in as much as possible, and gleefully exploits the presence of a 15-year-old boy in the front row during some of the dirtier bits. Thankfully, I've got out of the habit of reading Herring's Warming Up blog, so unlike in previous years I've not been spoilt in advance for the sections of the act drawn from his real-life experiences: the story of his rubbish fight in Liverpool, defending the honour of three women he wanted to sleep with simultaneously, makes for a fine climax.
Our first proper bit of late night fun for the year comes from Bad Film Club. The format is a simple one: comics Nikko and Joe, plus an invited guest, show a terrible DVD on a big screen and heckle it as it plays. They've done occasional one-off shows across the country with this, but I believe this is the first time they've come to Edinburgh for a full run.
We're not told in advance what the film's going to be, though someone in the queue before the show lets slip that it could be a choice between Basic Instinct and Shark Attack 2. And I have at least a couple of witnesses who can vouch that I said "they should show Shark Attack 3, it's got John Barrowman in it." So imagine my delight when we get inside, the DVD player is turned on, and the menu for Shark Attack 3 comes up, starring a young Captain Jack From Doctor Who. I should point out that I don't collect the Shark Attack films or anything: the only reason I even know of its existence is because of a clip compilation that was flying around YouTube a couple of months ago. It consists of a whole string of moments from terrible films, and has two jaw-dropping sequences from Shark Attack 3: a special effects setpiece that looks like it was digitally composited in Microsoft Paint, and a John Barrowman chatup line that even Richard Herring would reject as beyond the pale.
The whole film turns out to be a 90 minute cavalcade of almost similar rubbishness, and would probably work as a late night Fringe show if they just played it in a room with an open bar. But Nikko, Joe and guest heckler Glenn Wool do a fine job of pointing out the worst gaps in plot logic, the most poorly designed shots, and the uniformly terrible dubbing. Nikko and Joe have obviously seen the film before, and anticipate its most appalling bits for our benefit, but Wool gets in some fine riffs of his own. He starts off by taking issue with the shark's bite radius being compared against the size of a bus - "a bus is not a measurement" - and takes the idea to surreal heights, claiming by the end that the shark is "as powerful as a dozen Jesuses".
The bar to aim for with this type of show is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which uses a script produced by a team of half a dozen writers, where the gaps between dialogue and heckles are precisely calculated in advance. By its nature, Bad Film Club is a lot looser and more improvised, and quite a few lines get lost as a result. But it's all about creating an atmosphere where anyone can say anything (though the audience contributions are rather limited at this performance), turning it into a bunch of drunk mates laughing at a lousy movie. And Nikko and Joe create that atmosphere to perfection, making this an ideal late-night show.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Old Lag - Thanks to Nick I got to help international avant garde cabaret singer Miss Meow Meow undress at the beginning of her act, carry her across the audience during the middle of the act, and do the can can. Accompanied by an excellent pianist, the cabaret songs seem to be largely in French, one of which was translated by a member of the audience as it was sung. We were treated to an extra half hour of music, presumably because it was the end of the run. The contracted hour was rung out by an alarm clock. A good fun time was had by all.
Nick - In interviews Miss Meow Meow has been very cagey about her past. Not knowing is more intriguing, but presumably she's a regular on the NY cabaret scene. She is, like Taylor Mac last year, an extraordinary artist. From ear-splitting high Cs to affecting cherubic tableaux with members of the audience, she carries all this off with comic aplomb. The knockabout comedy between the songs is brilliantly handled and builds to heighten the power of the songs. Effortlessly moving between French, Polish, Spanish and English, the evening will also be remembered for watching Old Lag perform the can can and splits on stage with MM, using the pretence of being too down on her heels to afford professional dancers. A fine job he made of it too.
Eve - Johnson & Boswell: Late But Live started promisingly. A kilted piper announced the opening of the theatre, then a kilted drummer took up position, then Boswell in full 18th century costume bounded onto the stage with modern fanfare and acclaim, and proceeded to address the audience. Despite his much vaunted Scottishness, Boswell (Miles Jupp) spoke in beautifully modulated "Queen's" English. His initial monologue was very entertaining and promised much for the rest of the performance.
Sadly it wasn't to be. Johnson (Simon Munnery) took a long time to arrive and spent the main time slagging off Scotland. The humour palled rapidly. The show then degenerated into pantomimic farce, with large yellow buckets filled with assorted rubbish being distributed amoung the audience, which were then thrown at Boswell as he described their sea journey to Skye. The words got lost at this point!! The counterpoint of Johnson's brief and non-hysterical description just did not hit the mark. A pathetic rendering by a less than enthusiastic crowd finished this disappointing show.
I felt the two actors had been miscast. Johnson (Munnery) was too young - despite his wig that he constantly adjusted. He lacked weight and gravitas, and his performance did not convey the reasons for Boswell's adulation. Boswell (Jupp) had more stage presence and charisma (shades of Stephen Fry), but by the end of the play his performance had petered out into an almost shrivelling subservience - not recognisably the same character who started the show. I thought that Stewart Lee hadn't quite decided which direction his script should take, and there was very little of the original written work of either author. A good opportunity wasted.
Old Lag - Poetry in motion. I have been meaning to see Bouncers for years. There are always productions at the Edinburgh Festival, and I have finally done it. Rarely in modern plays is there a sense of poetry, rhythm and fun about the text. Here the talk seemed poetry in motion, with the choreographed continual movement of the actors. The famous video porn scene got the audience clapping. As is traditional, four men played all the parts. I did feel the female parts were played a bit too camply. Actor Chris Arnold was recognisable as an actor from television. The programme was a bit scrappy, but a good time was had by all.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Waiting for Alice is an early highlight of the festival. Highly original, funny, informative, thought-provoking and very clever, this is easily the best show so I've seen far, and I would expect it still to be up there at or near the top by the end of the week. Without wanting to spoil any of the surprises it has to offer, not only would I recommend this show highly, but I would add that you might find you want to see it more than once.
Diane - I always like to go and at least one unplanned and unhyped show while I'm here, and was attracted by a leaflet for Thomas Hardy's The Withered Arm. Being a fan of Thomas Hardy, I thought that even if the production was below par, I would enjoy the story.
The venue was the Forest Fringe Studio at Bristo Hall, an old Adventist church. They are offering free shows and workshops - you just pop a donation into a bucket afterwards if you've enjoyed the show. The people running this venue claim to be returning to the original spirit of the Fringe circa 1948 when it all began. Many of their offerings are described as 'a work in progress', so I was pleasantly surprised that The Withered Arm was well rehearsed and professionally executed.
It was described as physical theatre but, in fact, the physical theatre element did not work that well. I thought that the company worked best when sticking to conventional drama and the spoken word to move along the action. The cast, consisting of mostly young actors recently out of drama school, varied in standard. Best of the bunch by far was Rosie Mainwaring as Rhoda Brock, a woman who has been abandoned after being made pregnant by the local farmer. She ekes out a humble existence working in the fields, while Farmer Lodge has taken a new bride, Gertrude, played well by Natasha Gostwick. When Gertrude's arm begins to wither, she asks Rhoda where she knows someone who can cure it. Rhoda directs Gertrude to Trendle, played by James Pasas, the most experienced member of the cast. Trendle reveals the secret behind Gertrude's ailment, and tells her of a cure which eventually leads to her demise.
Thanks to the two central female performers, particularly the brooding power of Rosie Mainwaring's Rhoda, this was a powerful piece once it got going. The slow start was due to the physical element, which meant a delay in getting into the story. The male performers were sometimes weak, and Steve Lennon, in two parts, gabbled his lines to such an extent that you couldn't always make out what he was saying. I enjoyed the musical element: several of the actors were musicians, and the use of folk music was effective.
The company, Beyond The Last Lamp, hope to develop this story of destiny and witchcraft and transfer it to London next year. I would advise them to tighten up the physical theatre element and recast some of the male roles, in particular the role of Farmer Lodge. If they do this, they will have a good show on their hands.