As usual, we have a 10am deadline for vacating our Napier flats today - it always feels like the evacuation of Vietnam in the last half hour or so, running round making sure all the keys have been handed in and all the bins emptied. Still, as always, we somehow manage to pull it off. From there it's off to the Traverse Theatre for breakfast. Though not Ravenhill For Breakfast, in case you were wondering. I was rather interested in the show when it looked like Mark Ravenhill was going to write an entirely new half hour play every day during the Fringe: once it transpired that most of the plays had already been written over a three month period, the idea became less interesting, as it lost that high-wire sense of danger. Besides, Mark Ravenhill's been on my personal shitlist since an article he wrote for the Guardian last year, spinning a huge tirade about racism on TV from an analysis of Life On Mars which was obviously written by someone who literally had never watched the show. (As the correction at the top of the piece may indicate.)
We consider nicking some of the pastries that have been laid out in a corner of the Traverse caff for Ravenhill's audience, but instead settle for buying some of their excellent sausage baguettes, as has become the tradition on Edinburgh Saturday mornings. Also visible in the cafe is Julian Rhind-Tutt, which is a bit iffy as it suggests that he may well have been in town for the Stardust screening but didn't turn up to say hello to us all.
While we're in the Traverse, we catch our one straight play of their 2007 season - Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce. Although, initially, it's touch and go as to whether it can be considered a straight play. In a grubby high rise flat by the Elephant and Castle, Irish father Dinny (Denis Conway) and his sons Sean (Tadhg Murphy) and Blake (Garrett Lombard) are commencing what appears to be a long-standing ritual. Using a series of rapid costume changes, they're performing a ludicrous play apparently based on their early life in Cork: a farce involving two coffins, a large quantity of money, and a whole roster of plotting relatives. It takes the appearance of an outsider - Tesco shopgirl Hayley (Natalie Best) - to reveal exactly what's going on and why.
Nobody ever came to a play by the writer of Disco Pigs and Bedbound expecting naturalism. But what makes The Walworth Farce so thrilling to watch is the way it wholly embraces its theatricality, to the extent that it verges on being primarily about theatre itself. Or, more accurately, about storytelling generally - the way we use narrative as a crutch in times of distress, to reassure ourselves that everything will work out in the end. Walsh's ambition in telling this multi-layered tale is hugely impressive, taking elements of farce and tragedy and intermingling the two so tightly that by the end you're not entirely sure which is which. It takes a committed cast to pull this sort of thing off, and director Mikel Murfi marshals them all perfectly. The Traverse doesn't appear to have had a full-blown out-and-out hit in its 2007 Festival season, but this may be the closest they get to one.
More theatre to finish off our week here, as we pay one last visit to the purple bovine teats of Udderbelly for Phil Nichol's production of Breaker Morant. Based on a true story, and filmed rather successfully about thirty years ago with Edward Woodward in the lead, it's based around the court martial of Boer War soldier Harry 'Breaker' Morant (Adam Hills), and his two comrades Handcock (Brendon Burns) and Witton (Heath Franklin). The three of them are members of the Bush Veldt Carbineers, a commando squad dedicated to fighting the Boers using the same unorthodox techniques as the enemy. With the war coming to a close, these Aussie soldiers are becoming an embarrassment to the British High Command: and when a number of prisoners are shot by Morant and his men, political forces ensure that the ensuing trial can never really be a fair one.
As you may remember from a couple of days ago, the cast of Breaker Morant is almost entirely made up of comedians, taking a break from their nighttime jobs by acting in the afternoon. It's a formula that worked well for Guy Masterson a few years ago, until adding Hollywood stars to the mix drove him mental. Nichol was part of Masterson's troupe for those productions, and has learned from that mistake: there are no big stars here, just a bunch of willing performers who attack their roles with varying degrees of credibility. Hills and Burns come off the best, mainly because their established comic personas match up beautifully with the characters of the play. Hills, universally regarded as A Good Bloke who keeps a sunny disposition even in the most trying circumstances: Burns, the loose cannon brimming over with attitude, but with a good, possibly even award-winning heart buried under all the bluster.
Pretty much everyone else in the cast works just fine: I'd give you more details, but we don't get a cast list at this performance, so general praise is all you're going to get. One thing that indicates what good actors they all are: even after seeing their gay porn rewrite at Thursday's Spank!, the memory of that didn't distract me from the drama of the story. Nevertheless, it possibly would have been better if Adam Hills hadn't taken the hugely iconic last line of the play and used it as a catchphrase all through Spank!...
And then we're off. The Pals are taking various combinations of planes, trains and automobiles home: five of us (Rhian, Tomas, Diane, The BBG and me) get the GNER back from Waverley to London. Along the way, using the train's wireless internet, I manage to post up Friday's reviews at around 6pm on the Saturday: which has to be some sort of first for this site, as the combination of tiredness and internet unavailability normally means that I don't get the last couple of daily diaries out there until Bank Holiday Monday. Wireless rules.
Which reminds me: as this is my first wireless Edinburgh, a few useful venues for you to be aware of if you want to surf for free. The Filmhouse cafe is probably the one I used the most: as long as you're happy to watch an advert for Ford cars once an hour, you can stay on there as long as you like. Other places I've leeched from include Bar Alba and the Grassmarket Bar (both in the Grassmarket area), the All Good cafe on Morrison Street, the Traverse Theatre and the Book Festival area (though be warned that the signal strength inside the Book Festival Spiegeltent is utterly useless). Printing services (so the Pals could read the daily updates for themselves) came courtesy of Here, Cleopatra and the Edinburgh Internet Cafe. And, of course, the GNER train between Edinburgh and London also offers wireless, but it's a little wobbly and slow, and costs you money.
Highlights of this year? Possibly the two shows that had the biggest impact on me were Waiting For Alice and The Walworth Farce: both very different in tone, but both concerned with how important stories are to us. For sheer only-in-Edinburgh unconventional entertainment, I'd go with the party atmospheres of Simon Munnery's AGM and Bad Film Club, plus the somewhat darker atmosphere of The Container. Stardust was probably the best film at my last ever Edinburgh International Film Festival, though it was nice to finally see the Namikibashi Shorts in a fully subtitled form and with an audience. Having finally made it to a Spank! night this year, I'm really keen to return, possibly on a night which hasn't been hijacked by the entire cast of a play (fun though that was). And on the whole, everything was at the very least partly watchable, except for Captured by The Cakes.
This is all just my opinion, of course: and part of the fun of these Edinburgh reports is having Spank's Pals along to offer their views, whether they differ wildly from mine or not. As usual, you can expect a Postscript page in a week or so where they'll offer their summaries of the best and worst of what was on offer. Huge thanks to them all for their contributions and companionship. (And all our sympathies go out to The Cineaste, as that family illness I mentioned at the start of the week ultimately prevented him from getting to Edinburgh at all. Hope all's well with you, The C.)
And next year? Who can say. Will National Express take over the trains and ruin all of GNER's good work? Will the Film Festival survive the move away from the other festivals? Will the festering corpse of Ricky Gervais still be hanging from the turret of Edinburgh Castle, assuming his gig there this weekend goes as atrociously as his sets at Live Earth and the Princess Diana concert did? I'm hoping to be back in twelve months time to let you know. Being a monkey, and all.
Notes From Spank's Pals
[Additional notes to follow in the Postscript - Spank]
The Belated Birthday Girl - In the end, the Film Festival's World Animation 2 programme was the only event I went to without Spank, while he was locked in a container (of his own free will, I might add - nothing to do with me). A collection of 10 animated shorts from around the world, using techniques from sketch-like line drawn animation to CG, this made a fair alternative to the McClaren programmes, which we just could not fit in at all this year. In many cases you can follow the links below to see clips, and sometimes even the whole film.
First up was Foolish Girl (Devochka Dura), which was a charming line drawn sketched tale of a small girl trying to find a friend to play with. Next up, Moloch was technically accomplished CG, all metallic grey machines and cogs, but for me, unengaging. Sports and Diversions was an arty and witty semi-abstract black and white setting of Erik Satie's Sports Et Divertissements. Sweet & Sour was one of my favourites of the programme: the first official Australian Chinese animated co-production, using a mixture of 2D and 3D animation to tell the tale of a hungry stray dog's adventures in Chinatown. But my personal favourite was a French claymation, Premier Voyage. This entertaining film told the story of a young father's first train journey with his baby daughter.
The Great Escape was an amusing tale of a weather forecast's sun's attempt to escape from the television. Final Journey, one of only two of the films where the filmmaker was at the screening, was a clever story of a man's tragic journey into space, and how he got to be there. The other film where the filmmaker turned up, The Cleaner, was a sweet line-drawn tale of life going on around a street cleaner. Ark (Arka) tells a story of a desolate world and the ark containing the survivors. Finally, Even Pigeons Go to Heaven (Même les pigeons vont au paradis) was an original and very funny story of an old man being offered the chance to get to heaven before his scheduled encounter with Death, and made a strong end to the programme.
Old Lag - Havana Rumba consists of a band (Sonora La Calle) and a dance troupe from Cuba. Both are top of their class. This hugely colourful show presents a coaching in the main stylistic elements of the rumba, and a little of the history of dancing in Cuba. All illustrated with dancers from the troupe. Hugely effervescent, energetic and exciting. The many costumes brilliantly coloured. The band with electric piano, trumpet, drums and two singers. The audience is up on its feet for the last numbers, dancing in the aisles. Great fun.
Diane - No wonder Scarborough is the only sold out show at the Assembly Rooms. This small space only 'seats' 20, and when I say seat, most of the audience has to stand. A small space adjacent to the Assembly Info Desk has been transformed into a bedroom for the purpose of this play. We are ushered into a cramped room in a Scarborough B&B complete with fading wallpaper and naff pictures. The stage manager arranges us around the bed on which two people sit back to back.
As the play begins, we hear the reflections of Lauren, a 29 year old teacher, and Daz, her 15 year old pupil, on the end of their relationship. It turns out the relationship has consisted of snatched couplings in school lunch hours: but this is Daz's 16th birthday weekend, and Lauren is treating him to a weekend away in Scarborough. Daz wants to take Lauren out on the town, but she is scared about being spotted, even though she knows nobody in this seaside town.
As a result, they stay in the cramped room. Initial passionate sex sessions abate after Daz has opened his birthday present from Lauren - a computer game which soon takes precedence over sex with Lauren. When Lauren sends Daz for newspapers, he returns with Nuts and the Sun, clearly not her choice of reading matter. It soon becomes clear that, in spite of a veneer of sophistication, Daz is a typical teenage boy who can satisfy sexually but not intellectually. We discover that Lauren has a live-in boyfriend, Jeff, who is much older than her, and she reveals that their relationship started when she was Jeff's pupil. History is repeating itself.
After this revelation, the relationship speeds to its inevitable conclusion, so no surprises here. But the piece is a powerful one. Whether this play would be as powerful in a more conventional setting, I'm not sure. The fact that we were on the set with the actors gave a dramatic immediacy to what would otherwise have been a slight piece. We felt the claustrophobia of that seaside hotel room, and concentrated on the actors' every move and expression. Holly Atkins as Lauren and James Baxter making his first professional theatre appearance as Daz were believable and gave strong performances. Deborah Bruce did an excellent job of directing them in this confined space. A worthwhile 40 minutes if you can get a ticket.
Old Lag - Game Theory is written by Pamela Carter and Selma Dimitrijevic. Selma also wrote Night Time, and there are similarities. Game Theory is about conflicts and resolutions. Game theory itself is about how two opponents behave in a conflict or negotiation. The play is in three parts, roughly described as Negotiation, Siblings and Reconciliation. Negotiation uses the three national delegates in a post-war conference, and the ideas and words (mainly vacuous) that are put into a communique. Siblings is the rivalry and experiences of two brothers and a sister when confronted with their parents' estate after the war. Reconciliation is the post-war mediated reconciliation between a journalist and the man whose life he destroyed with an article. A third party brings about a reconciliation between the two based on a series of questions from the man. A fascinating process. Like Night Time, though, this play just seems like a torrent of words at times, and it was sometimes difficult to hold my attention. But an interesting subject.
Nick - Rich Hall has been a great favourite on the Fringe for more years than I can remember. He has made the Music Hall at the Assembly (the biggest and best of the traditional performance spaces) his own since winning the Perrier award several years ago. Old Lag had seen RH earlier in the week and reported it had been a tired show, which was immediately flagged at our own show, when he fluffed his own off-stage intro. His biggest strength, as always, has been his interaction with the audience. But at times he was floundering in this area, something I have never seen before. I think his tiredness is due to performing in his own play Best Western earlier in the evening, or perhaps relaxing too much with a drink or three before doing his comedy slot. [Actually, he's only on stage for the first minute of Best Western, so maybe you should go with the latter - Spank] It's sad he won't be performing at the Assembly next year, as he is still a very engaging comedian.
Old Lag - Mutton is a full scale production - even jewellery designers and a hairdresser are credited in the programme. As such, it is a bit disappointing that there is only an audience of about 30. Certainly there were no reviews attached to the posters outside the theatre which punters look for. Anyway, it is a great play. It starts with a video of the girl band of the title performing their one hit in the 80s. We then transfer to a run down nightclub in current times, where we meet three of the now older members of the band having a reunion. Apart from the barman, the only other person in the nightclub is a guy in a wheelchair. Ignored at first as a perv, he turns out to be the president of their fan club who has called this meeting. What will happen next?
This is a popular play and more realistically written than some of the other plays at the Traverse, which are worthy and wordy. The dialogue is straightforward and fun. The characters developed well. Good fun to see, and I hope it goes somewhere.
Rhian - Comrades In Dreams is a film about people and their passion for film, and it traces the daily lives of cinema staff from Burkina Faso, North Korea (amazingly) and a tiny hicksville town in America somewhere. Along the way, we get a look at the local communities, but most particularly we get to know about the individuals who pursue their ambition to distribute films to their variously isolated audiences.
Of the four main characters determinedly sticking to their world of cinematic dreams, it is perhaps the female Korean projectionist who stands out the most - for her repeatedly stated commitment to the Common Cause, as well as the shy and touching admission of her personal dreams about cinematic heroes and lifelong love. There are repeated references to Our Great Leader and the Common Cause, and a wonderful moment when the two projectionists decide what the farm workers really need is an inspirational film about year-round vegetables.
The Indian travelling cinema is maintained by a young man whose sensitivity and social awkwardness belies a determination to stay in the business of cinema, against considerable odds. You see his family discussing a suitable marriage partner - which he clearly (but nicely) considers a mere distraction from the business at hand. There's a hilarious account of the local community's response to the showing of Titanic. It was generally agreed that a story about a ship breaking in two and sinking didn't make sense - and there was too much water.
Despite their hugely varied backgrounds, all four main characters share an isolation borne of their vision of an alternative world, and lives free of social, financial or political constraints. Comrades In Dreams is one of those delightful, gently understated films which might not keep you on the edge of your seat, but draws you into the lives of four quite special people. You find yourself sharing their small triumphs, and genuinely wishing that they might one day realise some of their dreams.
Old Lag - Mr Baker works in his little Oven Fresh Bakery on Morrison Street between 9pm and 6.30am. He has always had a backdoor trade, so during the Edinburgh Festival he opens during the night. This leads to the strange experience of buying a lovely crusty loaf, rolls, or a millionaire's slice at 2.30 in the morning. All freshly baked, of course. More power to your elbow, Mr Baker.