Reviewed today: Black Bo's, Dog Day King, Elena Duran: Mexico Of My Heart, Footsbarn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Grim, John Bishop: Cultural Ambassador, Music At St Cuthbert's, Peter Buckley-Hill And Some Comedians, Regretrosexual, Robin Ince's Book Club, The World's Most Futile Journey.
Free! It's the new Paying For Stuff, or something. Aside from that whole business of not being able to buy tickets without a computer in the Royal Mile exploding, the other big news story of this year's Fringe has been the continued rise of the Free Fringe. From small beginnings, it's risen to the point where the Fringe is now effectively a three tier operation: there are the Big Four venues, then there's everyone else who charges admission, and then there's a string of maverick venues who only ask that you turn up on spec and throw some money in a bucket on the way out. In a year when it's become harder to book Fringe tickets in advance, that sounds like a very appealing prospect.
So this year, The Belated Birthday Girl and I have decided to spend a day only seeing events labelled in the Fringe programme as 'free (non-ticketed)'. We originally planned to do this last year, but lost our nerve at the last minute. This year, it seems a lot easier: with a pair of leaflets for the two rival organisations running free shows, and a copy of the daily guide, we quickly come up with a short list of over a dozen events that we could see. Over the space of twelve hours, we end up catching six of them.
There are people out there who will claim they invented the Free Fringe, and we'll be meeting one of them later. But really, the idea of free events at the Fringe has been going more or less as long as the Fringe itself: churches, in particular, have been happy to let people in for nothing during the festival with the prospect of free music. So our day starts with Music At St Cuthbert's, a lunchtime organ recital in the church just off the Lothian Road. Today's soloist is Michael Bawtree, who performs a series of pieces where the only common element is that they're transcriptions of orchestral works, rather than being specifically composed for the organ. We get William Walton's Orb And Sceptre: Coronation March, Bach's Six 'Schubler' Chorales (you know the first one) and Bawtree's own transcription of highlights from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty.
It's an enjoyably relaxed start to the day, apart from reminding me that I don't like organ music very much. Maybe it's something to do with my specific age, or (given the presence of Bach in the programme) memories of Wendy Carlos: but I can remember that time back in the seventies when all cheap synthesizers were programmed to sound like pipe organs, and now I can't hear a pipe organ without thinking it sounds like a cheap synthesizer. Even an organ as magnificent as the restored one at St Cuthbert's, which manages to attract some fans who sit directly in front of its largest pipes, like a posh version of those nutters who stick their faces into the bass bins during a rock gig. Still, I can't really complain: it's all very nicely played in what has to be the most beautiful venue we've attended in the Fringe to date, and it's free. (Apart from the £2 I put in the plate at the end.)
When people talk about Free Fringe these days, though, it's primarily about comedy. The logistics are simple: you run a bar, you open up one or more rooms in it with stand-ups wandering in and out to a rough timetable, you ask for donations on the way out. Laughing Horse have been doing just that for a few years now - not as many years as some other people, but we'll get back to that. They have seven venues dotted across town, and our planned route for the day includes two visits to Espionage, a club that appears to have been designed in the style of Roger Moore's bedroom. That's the opinion of comedian Snorri Kristjansson, whose show Dog Day King is playing in one of the club's tartier rooms.
Kristjansson's from Iceland - a fairly unusual origin for the comedy circuit, and possibly even for the world, given the country's tiny population. The main theme of his show is looking at national identity, from the point of view of a former inhabitant of a country whose identity is a little bit vague. He's at his best when running through a potted history of his homeland: its initial formation by a clan of rogue Vikings ("the only thing that could be better than that is a coven of ninjas"), its shameful colonisation by the Danes, and its subsequent retaking by an army that was little more than "a football team with guns." There are some draggy bits elsewhere in his 45 minute set, but his charm and hard-to-pin-down accent get him through those. This is what I was expecting the Free Fringe to be like, I think: comedy that isn't A-list, but you don't feel you've had your time wasted at the end. So I gave him £3 on the way out.
Having said that, our next show probably does count as A-list after all. Robin Ince's Book Club has been running as a concept for a while now, and last year you could have paid a tenner to see it: this year, he's bringing it to PBH's Free Fringe for three days only, free of charge. The format is a simple one: Ince holds the show together with discussions of his personal obsession with bad books obtained from charity shops, and guest comedians drift in and out to perform show-and-tell lectures on their own favourite things.
For a free show, today's bill is pretty damn impressive. The main coup is an appearance by Josie Long, who whitters on in her usual fashion about her love of museums, and the collections of moths you can find in them. ("Moths are great. They all have names like pro wrestlers or supervillains.") Richard Sandling matches Ince's literary geekdom with film geekdom, as he talks about how VHS is a more fun medium than DVD ever will be. Wil Hodgson discusses his love of proper 80s impressionists like Les Dennis, Harmon Leon reads some of his insightful poetry about Just Juice, and Johnny Candon shares his essays on famous people in history (sample: an essay on Marie Curie entitled The Silly Woman Who Invented Cancer).
As for Ince himself, he's in entertaining form, taking some of his favourite works of bad literature and holding them up to public ridicule, culminating in a direct face-off between Guy N Smith's The Plague Chronicles and John Norman's Hunters Of Gor. He reads random extracts from both, and uses a stopwatch to determine which one gets the audience booing fastest. As The Belated Birthday Girl shrewdly notes, this turns it into a literary version of the Bad Film Club, particularly in the way it brings the audience together into a little private party (even at quarter past four on a Monday afternoon). I gave him £6 on the way out, and in retrospect wish I'd given him more.
As I mentioned earlier, Ince is performing on PBH's Free Fringe: and PBH stands for Peter Buckley Hill, who's probably got more reason than most to claim he's responsible for the increase in free shows. From humble beginnings compereing free comedy nights in Edinburgh pubs, he now has an empire of a dozen venues and over a hundred shows. He somehow still finds time to perform himself, mainly in the rather lovely Canon's Gait pub with its fine collection of Stewart Brewing ales. His one-man show, The World's Most Futile Journey, caught my eye because, like one of Spank's Pals (discretion demands that I say no more than that), he's just turned sixty - "I'm entering my pipe and slippers phase, smoking crack and spanking rentboys." He's now entitled to a free bus pass, which since April of this year allows you to travel on any bus route in the country for nothing. So on the day that legislation came in, PBH decided to abuse the privilege to the maximum by travelling from London to Edinburgh purely by local buses.
PBH is a very engaging storyteller - his slightly frantic style, as if trying to cram a 65 minute show into a 55 minute slot, makes me wonder if Richard Herring's been watching and taking notes. There weren't any major mishaps on his journey, apart from a few nights spent in Premier Inns: but his combination of hard information and light gags still makes for an enjoyable show. (Did you know, for example, that if a bus route has more than 15 miles between its stops it's technically a coach, and therefore can't be boarded with a bus pass?) And you've got to admire his reasons for making the journey: "not because it's there, but because it's free." The parallels are there if you look for them. (But I give him £8 anyway.)
Comedy makes up most of the Free Fringe: there's some music out there too, as we've seen. Theatre is less well represented, probably because the economics of supporting a full cast and crew on audience contributions alone are a little more tricky. Still, it would be a shame to get though a whole day of free shows without seeing any straight theatre, so we look through the programmes of the two Free Fringe circuits to see what's on offer. PBH's Free Fringe has a number of interesting items, but all their theatre has been moved out of town to a venue by Meadowbank Stadium, which is a bit out of our way. Laughing Horse has a similar sized theatre programme, but it's more conveniently spread across their central Edinburgh venues.
Which is how we end up back at Espionage watching Grim, a piece devised and performed by Goldsmith's Drama Society. A narrator who resembles nothing so much as a pissed Helena Bonham Carter introduces us to four short stories, all of them involving characters from Grimm's fairy tales transported into the present day. So Little Red Riding Hood works as a prostitute, Snow White is a bulimic supermodel, that sort of thing.
It's an idea with potential, and over the course of forty minutes everyone involved puts a superhuman amount of effort into throwing all that potential away. All of the parallels drawn between the original stories and the contemporary updates are thumpingly obvious ones, performed in the most hackneyed drama-studenty way possible. And yet, somehow, the bad writing and acting doesn't annoy me as much as the way I can't hear half of it. The cack-handed sound mixing loses most of the first half's dialogue in a mess of over-loud music, 50 Hz mains hum, and connections noisily falling out of amplifiers. It's a terrible thing to admit, I know, but one of the things I enjoy about the Free Fringe is the freedom to be able to walk out at the end of something like this and pay the people involved absolutely nothing.
To finish off the day on a happier note, we go back to the Canon's Gait and Peter Buckley Hill, whose show Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians is now in its twelfth year. This was the first major Fringe experiment in providing comedy for nothing, so it makes sense to end our day with it. PBH is as affable as he was earlier in the day, and even if he does end up repeating every single musical number that he performed at the bus show, it's not that big a problem. Of the four acts on the bill, Stuart Goldsmith asks me if The Belated Birthday Girl and I have a song, and admires the diplomacy of my response "there's not really just one...": Rob Heeney manages to come up with new material to satisfy the ten punters in the room who've seen his solo show there just an hour earlier: David Mulholland brings in a rare note of politics (something that's been lacking in all the Fringe comedy I've seen so far): and Yianni charmingly admits at the end of his set that he hasn't got a show in town himself, he's just turning up at gigs like this one to see what happens.
Which is kind of the point, isn't it? In a Fringe that's becoming more and more commercialised and formulaic, it's nice that the various Free Fringe organisations are bringing back something of the spontenaiety and anarchy that you feel it must have had back in the day. If nothing else, it forces you to think long and hard about your enjoyment of a show when you have to set a price on it at the end. I give PBH and his crew £8 for their efforts, meaning that at the end of the day I've seen six shows for a measly £28. We're so pleased by this, we go to the Blue Blazer and blow all the money we've saved on beer.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Stephen - Regretrosexual (Sweet Grassmarket) is a funny and poignant tale about a man who is struggling to find the courage to tell his girlfriend that he was (but is no longer) gay. This was a well-acted two-hander which resisted the temptation to play for laughs too much. It treated the issues that it raised seriously, and packed a real emotional punch.
Lee - Regretrosexual is a really great show, consummately acted and a real emotional workout. Dan has something to confess to his girlfriend and can't work up the nerve to tell her - having a pretty good idea of how she'll take the news. Afterwards, go down to the hotel bar, enjoy a nice cup of tea and ponder the frailties of being human.
Nick - If there was any justice at the festival, John Bishop would be selling out with five star reviews. This guy is a gem we encountered at Mervyn Stutter last year, and this show is a corker about his home city of Liverpool, and how its culture has affected people's lives. A truly life-affirming show. Liverpudlian has a lot in common with Brummy humour in putting down their respective cities, and for the first half of the show he brilliantly pokes fun at his home city. Then like a conjurer he produces the metaphorical rabbit out of the hat, talking about how making Liverpool the City Of Culture has positively helped his family, and by the end of the show you are completely won over by the idea. We must all have our dreams.
The Belated Birthday Girl - One bonus of our day on the free fringe, shuttling between the PBH and Laughing Horse venues, was being in the right end of town for dinner at Black Bo's vegetarian restaurant. The menu at Black Bo's was interesting, and the food fabulous. As we were between shows, we only had time for a single course, which is my only regret as there were several starters I would have loved to try. But what we did have was terrific. I had the baby corn and brie balls with salsa, and Spank had the haggis in filo pastry, or "haggis en croute", as he likes to call it. The baby corn balls were nicely crispy on the outside, yielding with oozy brie inside, and the salsa was also delicious with just a hint of spicy heat. We weren't quite sure whether Spank's haggis was veggie - it wasn't advertised as such, but neither was it marked as non-veg, and I would have thought they would have had to distinguish it somehow if they were selling a meaty dish - but either way, he said it was very tasty, a rather posh haggis, neeps & tatties. We both had a side of the mash of the day, which was also very good and satisfying. Whether it was because it was a Monday, or because of the weather, or just because it's that little bit off the main drag, I don't know, but it was fairly quiet and we had no trouble at all getting in. This is a restaurant I would love to go back to when I had time for a relaxed meal, and would recommend seeking out.
Stephen - I trooped up Calton Hill in the rain to see Footsbarn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The cloud cover was so low that the top of Salisbury Crags, above Holyrood Park, was invisible. But all that was forgotten once I was inside the big top, where I enjoyed this colourful production. This was not Shakespeare for the purist - the text was heavily edited, and there were some contempoarary references. It was also a struggle sometimes to understand what some of the actors were saying in this multi-national production. In the end, though, the music and the spectacle won out. Helena's bewildered expression as she struggled to comprehend what was happening, and Bottom's outsize ass's head, were particular highlights.
Nick - I have no interest in seeing James Galway (other than watching his one eye dance to the music), so how did I find myself at Elena Duran: Mexico Of My Heart? Flute music with clips of old Mexican films, that's how, and you got exactly what was written on the tin. A self-styled cultural attache for Mexico, she does for Mexico what Sir Les Patterson does for Australia but without the laughs. So much of this show was sloppily done: her version of La Bamba had more pauses than a Radio 3 announcement when either the flute or piano should have been playing, something they should have got right in rehearsals. This and her tendency to name drop with every link between songs soon became a big switch off.
Lee - Elena Duran: Mexico Of My Heart is so Edinburgh. On paper it sounds strange: a flautist, old film clips and Mexican music - but for me it worked. Elena talks about her life, Mexico and the matinee idols that influenced her. It rambles about, she forgets the plot so we learn nothing about these wonderful singers, she embarrasses poor Simon Callow sitting in the audience. But once the music starts and the film clips roll out all that is forgotten, and you are transported back in time to the world of the Sunday matinee watching all those wonderful Bette Davis and John Wayne movies.
Elena is warm-hearted and big-hearted. If you want to know how she felt as a child sitting at her grandma's table listening to the sound of Mexico - go along.
The Belated Birthday Girl - In the interests of full disclosure, here's what I chucked in each of the buckets at the Free Fringe. Organ recital - £2 (probably about right); Dog Day King - £5 (possibly he got an extra quid out of me for a gratuitous joke about the Danish language); Robin Ince's Book Club - £10 (highlight of the whole festival for me so far, so definitely deserved every penny); World's Most Futile Journey - £8 (again, probably about right); Grim - £3.20 (definitely over-generous, possibly by about £3, but I felt I should reward the effort, and it still only works out at about 40p each performer); PBH and Some Comedians - £9 (a very satisfying end to the day). Total £37.20.