I need to keep reminding people of this: Spank's Pals are just all-round lovely folk. They don't need to contribute anything to my daily reports from the Edinburgh Festival, but they always do, and I'm grateful for it. So, once again, huge thanks to The Belated Birthday Girl, Charmian, Diane, Eve, Lee, Nick, Rhian, Stephen, Tomas, Anne, Jeremy and Roland for their contributions and companionship throughout the week.
Meanwhile, as the dust settles from Edinburgh 2008, people are inevitably thinking about the winners, the losers, and the ones in between. With that in mind, here are a few of Spank's Pals with their final thoughts from the Festival.
[Updated 02/09/2008: now includes additional notes from Charmian]
I had to check in the pages of Spank that I was in his monkey troupe ten years ago, but how could I have forgotten Die Ahnlichen, a good candidate for the direst play in the archive. This year did not look promising, we had taken a straw poll beforehand to identify the biggest name on the fringe and the best we could muster was Michael Barrymore.
After the disappointment of Mark Watson last year and the departure of Ross Noble and Andy Parsons from the fringe we had high hopes for Otis Lee Crenshaw as our first night show, but again Rich Hall failed to sparkle. Then Sunday arrived with a welcome return to form for Mervyn Stutter and his Pick of the Fringe show, and in the evening the wonderful La Clique, who are making their London debut in October. The highlight of the theatrical week was undoubtedly Scaramouche Jones, a bold attempt to create a modern myth about a clown spanning events throughout the twentieth century, it was a triumph from start to finish.
Of the little comedy we saw, John Bishop did a wonderful feel good show, but the highlight was undoubtedly Tina C, who we saw more as an afterthought late Friday night and gave a storming performance as the unheard-of third presidential candidate still left in the running for the White House. The show took the form of a political rally, with all the razzmatazz the Americans are famous for, and she made full use of a gospel choir, notably on her entrance into the Udderbelly while we were still queuing to get inside, and some hilarious paraphrasing of the lyrics from West Side Story. You could tell she was in top form in that the piano and guitar she had on stage to fall back on never got used, and one of the Muses not only had a question answered but was whooping on stage.
A quick roundup of the non-show necessities. It is my solemn duty to inform readers Hendersons trifle was not up to standard this year: one of the Muses has submitted a lengthy complaint form and we await their response. (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre got the accolade this year with their Parkway Scrunch, not technically a trifle, but something very similar.) Our biggest challenge for next year is to find a replacement late night drinking venue after the demise of the Filmhouse, who could not even be bothered to apply for a late night license this year, and failed to deliver any sort of contribution to the festival now they have gone all corporate and said goodbye to the people's festival. Like Spank I am hopeful of a return in a few years' time when they realise their mistake. Old Lag's discovery, The Blue Blazer, is simply too small to accommodate our party and always seems crammed with students, but it did supply me with my beer of the festival, Kelburn's Pivo Estivo, a pale, dry, citrus, hoppy session ale.
So it only remains to give the monkey a high five and wish him well in Panda land next year, but the Muses and I will be back for another roller coaster ride.
I've previously mentioned Regretrosexual and Footsbarn's A Midsummer's Night's Dream. I agree with the praise already given elsewhere for John Bishop. Other events that I particularly enjoyed were the following.
Cadenza at the Fringe. My festival events started on Saturday evening with this pleasant classical concert at Greyfriars Kirk, which was entitled Music for St Cecilia's Day. 'Cadenza' refers to the rather fine choir which formed the centre-piece of this concert (accompanied by orchestra and soloists). The first half consisted of Benjamin Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia and Song for St Cecilia by Ken Johnston, a contemporary Scottish composer, flanked by two Coronation Anthems by Handel (including the well-known Zadok the Priest). After the interval, we heard Ode to St Cecilia's Day 1692 by Henry Purcell.
The church has quite a high ceiling, so the acoustic had perhaps rather more echo than was ideal. Nevertheless, this was a well-balanced programme, which introduced me to music that was accessible but (except for Zadok) unfamiliar.
The Poozies. I heard this all female folk group at the Spiegel Garden on Tuesday evening. It was my first visit to this venue, which I found warm and intimate, and very suitable for the acoustic style of this five-piece group. All five members sang well, and between them played accordion, guitar, violin, and harps — the harmony of instruments and voices was a delight to hear.
Surviving Spike. I know that this play had mixed reviews, but I thought it was pretty good. Jill Halfpenny was excellent as Spike Milligan's long-suffering manager Norma Farnes; while Michael Barrymore was perhaps overshadowed, I felt that he did quite well in showing the contrasting sides of Spike's character.
Simon Callow - A Festival Dickens. My last event at the festival, on Wednesday afternoon, was Simon Callow performing two Dickens stories. I was not so keen on the first, Mr Chops The Dwarf, but the excellence of the second, Dr Marigold, made for a suitably warm-hearted conclusion to another enjoyable visit to Edinburgh.
The Belated Birthday Girl
When people have been asking "How was Edinburgh", I've found myself first off answering "Great!", but then revising it to "Well, it was a good festival, rather than a great one". There was only one truly great thing I saw this year, and that was Terminus at the Traverse. A quite exhilarating and surprising play, which I'm glad I knew little about going in, and which I'd highly recommend if it gets shown again elsewhere. The one other thing which nearly achieved greatness, but just failed to, was Mong Yeon (A Life In Dream). This certainly was the most moving show of anything I saw, and visually was stunning, but there were too many elements which were confusing to me. If those hadn't been there, this would have been up at the top of my list for this year.
The other Korean show which we saw, Family, just didn't work for me. Much as I was thrilled by some of the breakdancing, the taekwondo wasn't quite at the level I would have hoped for, and the storyline used to hang it all together was, to me, unnecessary and even annoying. I have a feeling we picked the wrong Koreans, and I might have enjoyed Arirang Party more.
There were no really nice little surprises, with most of the other shows I really liked being things I was fairly sure I would before going in. The two stand-outs apart from Terminus were Robin Ince's Book Club and The Honourable Men of Art. If I were giving out "Spirit of the Fringe" awards, I'd probably give it to one of those. Or maybe to Peter Buckley Hill for the whole Free Fringe thing. His own show as part of the Free Fringe, The World's Most Futile Journey, was also a highlight. And I'd think Snorri Kristjansson, whose show Dog Day King we also saw in the Free Fringe, would be worth keeping an eye on in future. He's not quite got the whole tightness required for a stand-up show yet, but he's a very funny man with some good material, and I'd like to see more of him.
From last year's festival, someone I said should be worth keeping an eye on was John Bishop, and I'd say he's definitely justified that this year. His show John Bishop: Cultural Ambassador probably pips Richard Herring: The Headmaster's Son to the "best stand-up I saw this year" spot (as we didn't see Stewart Lee's show, my unofficial Lee vs. Herring contest was not held this year).
From this year's outing to Stutter, I'm really glad we got to see James Sherwood, and most sad at not being able to fit Stephen Grant, and also Pot Noodle: The Musical, which charmed me with what we saw of it.
The other highlights for this year were the two Book Festival outings, with both Chuck Palahniuk and Dave McKean delivering very entertaining (albeit entirely different) talks, and Cannibal: The Musical and On The Waterfront - both adaptations of films, it occurs to me: maybe they're my stand-in for the Film Festival.
Having commented in my postscript to last year’s Edinburgh visit that Auld Reekie had been voted the city with the best quality of life in the UK, conversely the other day I read that it was one of the cities with the highest level of discontent. I don’t know what this survey is based on, as the locals I’ve always encountered never give that impression – the taxi drivers are generally friendly and obliging, the staff in shops, bars, etc are pleasant and knowledgeable, and I think their character goes quite a way to making the Festival week the enjoyable experience it is.
Anyway, I would certainly express no discontent with my week there – indeed, although, as with last year, there was not a lot that really stood as must-see shows, the standard of what I saw this year was very high. In fact, I would say the majority of shows I experienced would, in previous years, have merited a mention among the “highs” of the week, but I have to be selective, so am highlighting the following:-
- Simon Callow: A Festival Dickens – two very moving short stories, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, performed with sensitivity by an actor who obviously has great understanding and feeling for the text.
- Scaramouche Jones – I saw a number of Guy Masterson productions at the Festival this year, of which this was the best. This was a mesmerising play performed by writer Justin Butcher, brilliantly choreographed.
I have often sung the praises of youth productions in the past, and this year was no exception, with the following highlights:
- Our Country’s Good – I have the Master Blagger to thank for twisting my arm to see this one, which turned out to be a real gem, played with great energy and maturity by the very young cast. It’s a real feat to be able to hold an audience’s attention for two hours without an interval.
- Animal Crackers – Ever since seeing their wild west version of Comedy of Errors back in 2001, I have been a staunch supporter of American High School productions, and this one did them proud – the Marx Brothers are a hard act to follow, but they handled this with great style and ability.
I did not get to see a greal deal of comedy this year, but overall the quality made up for this, and special mention must go to:
- John Bishop, who I planned to go and see last year, and didn’t get there in the end. This guy deserves all the success he can get – his warm, personable style created a great atmosphere and upbeat feel. [It's true, everyone loves John Bishop, apart from that one cretin at The Scotsman - Spank]
- Tina C – If the week started on a slightly disappointing note (see below) it certainly ended on a hugely enjoyable one. This show, presented as a US election campaign, was a brilliant way to finish the festival, from her spectacular entrance as we waited in the queue. The addition of the local Edinburgh choir also, surprisingly, worked really well.
The most disappointing show of the week turned to be Otis Lee Crenshaw, and it wasn’t really that bad – just not as good as I’ve seen him in the past. The material didn’t seem to be as sharp as previously, and at times appeared a bit “lazy”. As the teacher amongst us commented at the time: “could do better”.
No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without an art exhibition or two, and although Tracey Emin wasn’t what I originally had in mind, still I had to see it to find out what all the hype was about – it didn’t make me appreciate her work any greater, but I’m still glad I went.
As usual, there were plenty of good meals and drinks to sustain us during the week, including the welcome addition of Spirit of Thai, a bit of a find just round the back of the Usher Hall (so within staggering distance). There is one gap, though, which needs to be filled: a comfortable late-night drinking venue for the Pals to get together, preferably serving decent real ales, whisky, etc. With the Filmhouse Bar no longer having a late licence, and the Blue Blazer generally being a bit too crowded to seat larger groups, this will need some research for next year.
Thanks once again to Spank for all his organisation and the Pals for their company. Enjoy your year off next year, Spank!