Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Saturday 25/08/2007
Simian Substitute Site for September 2007: Stoop!d Monkey

Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Postscript 2007

31/08/2007: assorted final thoughts on the 2007 Edinburgh Festival from Spank's Pals - some last-minute reviews, and analyses of the week as a whole. There are contributions from Nick, Tomas and Old Lag so far, and I'm expecting a couple more to follow shortly, so keep checking this page. Meanwhile, I've got a few astonishingly random pictures from the week on my moblog, under the tag monkeyedinburgh07 (see left for an example, taken at The Outsider restaurant between Mervyn Stutter and Simon Munnery on Monday 20th).

01/09/2007: The Belated Birthday Girl has added her thoughts as well.

02/09/2007: and an update from Charmian too.

Woody Guthrie, in the promo art for Woody Sez. I wasn't trying to imply that this is Nick at all, it's just the way the layout happened. Nick

So the big roller coaster that is the Edinburgh Festival finally trundles to a halt for another year, and most of us cannot wait to do it all over again in 12 months time. On our first night I remember spotting the bewildered face of one of our Edinburgh novices in Spank's party, queuing up outside a packed Pleasance Courtyard in the pouring rain, having braved the drunks in Cowgate and not being able to get into any of the restaurants en route - it is like jumping in at the deep end - but several days later seeing that same face, hitting the exhilarated highs you get at festival time. I would count myself as a hardened festival goer, yet on our final day I was still unaccountably moved to tears of joy watching Cirque Surreal in the Meadows, followed by a lovely sunbathed session outside Barioja with views over towards Carlton Hill, drinking the obligatory glass of fino sherry with a bowl of Andalusian olives, it was one of those all too fleeting "take time to smell the flowers" moments.

So what about the shows this year? Well there was a lot of entertaining shows (Meow Meow, Classic Entertainment!, Bob Downe, Ivan Brackenbury, Phaedra), but the two standout shows for me were biographical accounts of Woody Guthrie (Woody Sez) and Edith Head (A Conversation With...), both entertaining and educational, a rare combination. My one big faux pas of the week was twisting the arms of the muses to leave the Breaker Spank show just before the first interval, for another session in the Blue Blazer, only to discover in these pages that the rubbish comic that drove us away was not actually a comic and we missed Adam Hills, but the 3am session in the BB was very pleasant.

Moving onto a quick round-up of the other stuff; best beer of the week for me was Tyneside Blonde from the Hadrian and Border Brewery available from the Filmhouse bar, whose obituary I may have prematurely written earlier in the week. We still frequented the place as it is an ideal venue to chill out at the end of an evening, but having the uncertainty of what closing time the staff were going to choose on any particular nite was unnerving, and is something they should improve on if they are going to open late next year. Since the EIFF has sold out to the corporates and moved to June next year, the role of the Filmhouse bar is uncertain, but we do have Old Lag to thank for the great find of the Blue Blazer nearby, the only drawback being it is very small and gets very noisy, but we put up with those for the great beers and malts. One of the big plusses this year was going up with a large group and listening to and reading their views in these pages, but getting into restaurants with large groups is a nightmare. Fortunately an old favorite the Bar Italia, and a super new Indian restaurant near our flats called Ignite, squeezed in most of us for the first 2 days of our stay.

And finally a big thankyou to Spank, who somehow manages to take our illegible scribblings, invariably composed under the influence of a hangover, and magically corrects all our spellings and grammar to appear in these pages, not bad for a monkey! We can only hope our favorite monkey swings into action again next year.

Simon Amstell, going for the moody and monochrome look Tomas

I caught Simon Amstell's final show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was a bonus show which had been scheduled only the previous day, but despite this it was a sellout - even in the enormous venue of the Pleasance Grand. (Amstell was quick to explain that the use of a huge venue was an act of generosity towards his fans - and certainly wasn't a bit of shameless profiteering. Glad that's settled.)

Most people will recognize Amstell from BBC2's Never Mind the Buzzcocks, where he replaced Mark Lamarr as host last year. Despite looking half the age of most of the panelists, he appears to hold his own very well on that show. Following up the poison-tongued Lamarr would have been no mean feat for anyone, but Amstell has lived up to the task, displaying all the brash confidence and cheeky humor necessary for the role. (He was sufficiently rude to one panelist to cause him to storm off the show earlier this year, something not even Lamarr has managed.)

So when approaching this show, cryptically titled No Self, I was expecting humour in the same vein as Buzzcocks: caustic, bitchy, and smattered with pop-culture references. It turned out this couldn't have been a less accurate prediction. This was probably the most straight-faced, contemplative standup I saw at the festival.

The show opened with a philosophical theme, and after briefly toying with an existentialist crisis, Amstell moved on to dissect issues such as social awkwardness, relationships, loneliness, and individuality. It was clear that he felt the need to discuss ideas of genuine importance during his time with the audience. The honesty of the whole show was disarming; and although the more serious theme did cause the stream of jokes to abate on occasion, even these moments were fully engaging, because it was clear we were being given a glimpse into a very genuine and personal worldview.

The most startling revelation of all this is that Amstell in person is the opposite of his Buzzcocks persona: he considers himself socially incompetent, innately uncool, and lacking in worthwhile skills (the fact that his childhood talent was juggling is a self-depreciating joke he returns to throughout the act) . What's more, noisy dance clubs (those which Buzzcocks is styled on) are his least natural environment. His descriptions of these things are very funny throughout, with some great observations which certainly hit home for me.

Amstell's show didn't really resemble any of the other stand-up acts I saw at the Fringe. The painfully honest confessional style could perhaps be likened to John Bishop (with some added neurosis). However, even Bishop has a veil of smooth professionalism separating him from his act. Amstell's show lacked the polish of many of his peers, but I think this had a beneficial effect in some ways, making it seem even more genuine and affecting.

I will definitely be looking out for him again, if only to see how his train of thought has moved on from when he performed the festival show. He is definitely one to keep an eye on, because I suspect his show is only going to get better from here. Recommended for both fans of social paranoia and more contemplative comedy.

Cirque Surreal, in one of their less Surreal publicity shots Old Lag

Well what a great week. We were very lucky with the weather. It rained only on the Saturday afternoon that we arrived and was sunny for the rest of the week. There is so much to see that I did not even make it to the Film Festival this year. Saw a lot more than reviewed because other people have seen the show or did not get up early enough in the morning to write a review!

The last play of the week was Phaedra by Racine, a classic performed by Offstage Theatre in the grounds and buildings of Craigmillar Castle, a short laid-on bus ride outside Edinburgh. It is not a play I know. Part of the way in, I realise that the characters' names (and to a certain extent the plot) are the same as a play I saw earlier in the day called La Femme est Morte or Why I Should Not Fuck My Son by the Shalimar, a New York company. In the classic production you had a queen, her female courtier and a chorus of nuns. The American version was up to date with a female rock star, her female PR agent, and a scantily clad chorus singing songs as commentary on the play. Both had their merits, but the classic version rang truer and was far more atmospheric.

The last show we saw in Edinburgh was the Cirque Surreal in the Meadows Big Top. It was a fun way out of the festival. No animals, it was all acrobats, tumblers and trapeze artists. The most spectacular act is the most difficult to describe because of the equipment used. There was a giant frame, like a see saw but which could rotate 360 degrees. At each end of the see saw was a round cage like a gerbil wheel which could take a man standing up. This whole machine rotated in the air with the acrobats running in, hanging off and running on top of the wheels. Very spectacular and quite frightening.

Thanks for organising the week Spank!

'If you think we're wax-works, you ought to pay, you know. Wax-works weren't made to be looked at for nothing. Nohow.' The Belated Birthday Girl

The best thing I saw on the Fringe this year was Waiting For Alice.  Nothing I saw topped this.  Other shows I particularly liked were, in no special order, Woody Sez, 7 Spies at the Casino and Follow Me.  The absolute worst thing I saw, no question about it, was Captured, which was the only out and out stinker of the week.  I was also underwhelmed by The Walworth Farce, although it may be just a matter of personal taste, with just too much artifice and mannered style for my liking, as others seemed to like it.

In my own unofficial Lee vs. Herring contest I run each time I'm at one of these things, this year's winner was Richard Herring, with probably the best of the stand-up shows I saw at this year's Fringe, while Stewart Lee had the most disappointing I saw.  A special mention is also due to John Bishop, who I would think is worth watching out for in future.

The best film I saw in possibly my last Edinburgh Film Festival was Stardust, which I highly recommend catching on its October release.  It's a difficult one to market, probably, sitting not quite as a kids' film and not quite as one for the adults (which would be why it bombed at the box office in the US), but it is bags of fun, looks great, and has a sensibility which should go down well over here, if only it can get the audience in in the first place.  It makes it into my candidates list for the Best of 2007.  I don't want to be too negative about Death Proof, because the second half is great, but I had hoped for much more, so it ranks as my one real disappointment of the Film Festival.  On a happier note, it was fun to see the Namikibashi Shorts, already being a bit of a fan of the Japanese Tradition clips: and the Irn-Bru discussion was both fun and illuminating, with its insights into how advertisers think.

Another successful year, with no-one having to call maintenance to release me from any toilets, or anything.  I should be back next August, although the Film Festival will likely have to do without me.

'EDINBURGH! Are you ready to ROCK?' asks Charles Dickens Charmian

A few months ago, I read a survey in the paper regarding quality of life in the UK’s cities.  The city that came No 1 in the list was none other than Auld Reekie itself (by the way, Bristol came second…). And I can see why - Edinburgh’s charm never diminishes: every time I come back I am struck by its magical quality.  (It’s lovely also to see it outside Festival time, when you can walk down the Royal Mile without falling over jugglers and Andean pipe players, or enthusiastic thesps bombarding you with leaflets!) 

And each Festival is different.  This year, there seemed to be no real high-profile, must-see shows (or not that I wanted to see), and so this year involved more taking more pot luck.  Despite this, and possibly because my expectations were not as high as a result, there was much to enjoy, the following worth particular mention:

  • Dickens Unplugged: From the founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, this was right back to the standard of their original Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged, and provided some of the best laughs all week.
  • Woody Sez: A delightful and poignant portrayal of the life of the influential Woody Guthrie, with a musical ensemble who worked beautifully together.
  • Phaedre at Craigmillar Castle: I have to admit, I didn’t think the extract shown on Mervyn Stutter was a very good advertisement for this – I think you had to be there to appreciate it, and appreciate the whole experience I certainly did.  The performances were powerful, the Castle gave it tremendous atmosphere.  This would be a great venue for future productions.

Other gems included Classic Entertainment, which cleverly sent up the genre of racist/sexist Bernard Manning-style humour; the more you thought about it subsequently, the better it was. Phill Jupitus, reading Dickens, had a clear affection for his subject matter and reacted very well with his audience; I liked him a lot better live than on TV.

On the art front, the Andy Warhol exhibition was well worth the visit, and there was no queue by the time we went!  Many of his Pop Art works were there, and some interesting earlier works as well.

Although I didn’t experience any real turkeys, probably the greatest disappointment was Mark Watson. He has had great reviews, and I imagined this might be something of Ross Noble-standard: indeed, he started promisingly, but then seemed to rather flounder, and didn’t know how to end the show.  In fact, he commented that the audience were rather quiet for a Saturday, which was telling: he just wasn’t that funny!  And yet, given a smaller venue and a tighter show, I’m sure he could be.

Another disappointment, for what I didn’t see than what I did, was the non-appearance of Andy Parsons, who has been a highlight in previous Festivals.  [Actually, he was performing here throughout August - Spank] Never mind, to compensate, he’s coming to Bristol in November, and the tickets are booked!

A few hellos and goodbyes:

Welcome to:

  • The excellent Indian restaurant Ignite, in Morrison Street, which takes the place of the formerly excellent Shezan Tandoori, as the favourite Indian to go to; their pilau rice is to die for.
  • The Blue Blazer (when it’s not too crowded) – great atmosphere, helpful staff and extensive selection of real ales and malt whiskies, although sadly I like the latter more than it likes me!

Farewell to:

And finally… one can’t see everything, but based on Pals’ recommendations, the shows I’d most like to have seen and didn’t:

That’s about it; thanks to Spank for all his organisation. Auld Reekie, we’ll be back!

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