Reviewed today: La Clique, Edges, In The Pink A Capella, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, Richard Herring: The Headmaster's Son, Samurai Spirit, Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved, This Show Belongs To Lionel Richie No 1: Sketch Show, X-Files Improv.
The big discovery of this year's Festival so far isn't an act, or a venue: it's a small length of yellow Ethernet cable. Because it's in my room in the Napier University flats where we're staying, connected to a working ADSL modem. I should have thought of this after The Belated Birthday Girl's study trip to Japan earlier this year. She spent nearly three months living in student accommodation, and these days students consider broadband access as much a necessity as running water and electricity, so she was able to use the internet from her room day or night. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that a similar deal is available for Scottish students: and, by extension, to anyone borrowing their flats over the summer.
For a reasonable £16 for the week - reasonable if you consider how much I'd have to spend in cafes before I could leech off their free wi-fi, anyway - I've now got broadband access in my room, and can put these pages together more or less at my leisure without relying on other people's computer resources. (Apart from the odd trip to The Ministry Of Gaming to print off hard copies for Spank's Pals. Hi guys, if you're reading this coming off the printer.) This could revolutionise the whole way in which these daily reports get to you, although I'd imagine they'll still be appallingly late by the end of the week as usual.
But some things, I suspect, will never change: and the group visit to Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe on the Sunday afternoon is one of them. Stutter's intro is a little bit grumpy this year, as he's been talked into buying his first ever colour advert in the Fringe programme (see above after turning head through 90 degrees). Has it had any impact on his audience size? Of course not: the room, as ever, is full of people who've been coming for years, and the friends they've dragged along with them (which is pretty much the case with the Spank section of the audience, too). Despite this financial setback, Stutter continues to hold the show together with a smile, a quip, and a rewrite of My Old Man's A Dustman that addresses the issue of fortnightly collections.
The show's format is the same as usual: seven acts from all artistic genres come to the Teviot Hall to perform a 5-10 minute extract from their show. Stutter has always been proud that his is the only Fringe compilation show that takes in theatre as well as comedy and music: the downside of that, though, is that more serious work sometimes suffers when placed alongside the frothier material. The Factory by Precarious suffers in precisely this way, but it's interesting to see how a high-tech multimedia piece still manages to hold up when all their toys have been taken away apart from two hand-held video screens and some packing material.
The rest of the show's split between music and comedy. On the music side, James Sherwood manages to overcome that creepy Richard Stilgoe vibe he gives off, and amusingly analyses some of the major mistakes made in popular music, such as the glaring split infinitive in the second verse of Sweet Child O'Mine. Kate Robbins performs a similarly traditional set based on her life in showbiz, with comedy songs and impersonations galore. Pot Noodle: The Musical has taken some flak in the press for taking corporate sponsorship from the Pot Noodle people themselves, but the extract we get here shows a fine sense of silliness at work. Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is the most impressively professional outfit here, but it's easy to see the techniques they're using to whip up a song from some audience suggestions. Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by their plans to collaborate later in the week with Ken Campbell, who could be just the sort of loose cannon they need to shake things up.
There are just two comedy acts this time round, which is a bit less than usual. For all my rambling on and on about how Richard Herring wrote to me back in 1999, I never mention how the less famous comic Stephen Grant wrote me a similarly nice email in 2005. Grant's still an engaging presence, curiously overlapping with James Sherwood in his pedantry: both performers complain about the lyrics of You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling during their sets. Probably the highlight of Stutter this time, though, is the ten-minute chunk of Pappy's Fun Club's new show, Funergy. I missed out on them at last year's Edinburgh, but I've seen them a couple of times in London since and enjoyed their sketch show. Funergy appears to be more of the same, but with a higher strike rate on the gags, so they're definitely going on the list. (Actually, they were already on the list, but I'll just underline them a bit more.)
It's during the post-Stutter pie lunch round the back of the Gilded Balloon that things start to go wrong a little bit. First up, the rain that's been hanging around over Edinburgh for the past day finally decides to drop all in one go. And then The BBG and I traipse across to the other end of town to catch the Bad Film Club's free afternoon show at the Mercat Bar, only to find when we get there that the whole run's been cancelled due to technical difficulties. These are the sorts of situations when you need to improvise quickly to ensure your entire afternoon isn't ruined, which is why we appropriately end up at X-Files Improv instead.
It's a one-man show featuring Dean Haglund, who X-Files fans may remember better as Lone Gunman Langly. Obviously, as a former actor in a successful sci-fi franchise, he's subsequently been getting lots of work in straight-to-DVD movies: but in his spare time he also invents laptop cooling solutions, and takes an improvised comedy show on the road. The idea is that over the course of an hour, he takes the typical framework of an X-Files episode and creates an entirely new plot, with the audience providing both suggestions for plot elements and more practical assistance on stage.
I don't generally see much improvised comedy, and I think I've worked out why: I end up spending too much time analysing the process, and not enough time laughing. It was a similar deal with Showstopper! at Mervyn Stutter earlier on in the day, where I couldn't help wondering how much of their song was pre-planned - chord structure, order of performers, positioning of the title in the chorus - and how much is based around the audience contribution. I might have been spoiled by seeing The Comedy Store Players early on in my comedy-going life, because they were always very big on explaining their process before they performed. Once you've been through that a few times, every improv show's like watching a magician who's wearing a suit with transparent sleeves.
Nevertheless, I can appreciate that there are good improv performers and bad ones, and there's no denying that Haglund is one of the very good ones, particularly in the way he can ride through mistakes and misunderstandings and still make them funny. When Haglund mishears an instruction to have the space monster turn into Bob Monkhouse (long story), and spends five minutes describing the rampaging Bubunkouse before he realises what's happened, he manages to get laughs out of all of it: the mishearing, his running with it, his confusion, and the embarrassment afterwards. This was his last night in Edinburgh, but Haglund seems to be touring this show heavily, and it's fun to watch whether you're an X-Files geek or not.
Another Edinburgh tradition: seeing Richard Herring perform. (The token reference to his 1999 email is five paragraphs back, so I won't repeat it.) Over the past few years, Herring has swung between tightly-structured narrative shows and more traditional stand-up based around a vague theme, and The Headmaster's Son falls firmly into the former camp. Aside from his regular stand-up appearances, he's currently collaborating with writer Andrew Collins on a series of pleasantly shambolic weekly podcasts - and one of Collins' books is Where Did It All Go Right?, an attempt to counter all those tedious memoirs of abused childhood with the story of how his parents were nice to him and he turned out all right.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but The Headmaster's Son appears to be treading similar ground - although that isn't immediately obvious. Herring had a perfectly decent childhood: the one thing that was out of the ordinary was that his father was the headmaster at the school he attended, leading to suspicion from the other pupils. As Herring enters his fifth decade as a sex-obsessed childless wretch, he starts to wonder: were his parents to blame? After all, these days people will excuse you anything if your parents were nasty to you at some point. Happily for both him and us, the teenage Richard Herring kept copious diaries in preparation for the inevitable museum they would build in his honour.
The obvious route for a show like this would be to wallow in cheap nostalgia, but apart from a play-in tape of eighties classics we don't get that. Instead, Herring is merciless about the way our teenage ideals seem so important at the time, and look utterly ludicrous now. ("I am anti-war," he writes in his diary at one point, as if nobody's ever considered this as a moral option before now.) It's all glorious stuff, and according to his blog there's loads of stuff he didn't have room for in the show (including a horrendous example of his early songwriting). Personally, I'd have been happier if he'd lost a couple of the stand-up digressions (mainly a Herringesque riff on how having hands like a seven-year-old is an aid to masturbation) to cram in a bit more of that sort of thing. But what we have is entertaining as hell, with a quiet undercurrent of regret that I've not heard in his work before.
It's been a comedy-heavy day, so we finish off with Samurai Spirit - which, among other things, gets The BBG over her withdrawal symptoms from Japanese culture after three months of being immersed in it. It's a performance by Kamui, who are described in the Fringe programme as being responsible for the sword fights in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Mind you, Yamato Chanbara were boasting the same thing last year, so I don't know if there's an overlap between the two groups, or if Tarantino just used every sword expert in Japan to make up the Crazy 88.
Anyway, it's basically an hour-long demonstration of Japanese swordfighting. Rather like Babes With Blades ten years ago, it's a series of beautifully choreographed standalone fights, with no dramatic context: and for me, that lack of context makes it all seem a little bit samey after a while. Still, there's no denying the thrill factor, particularly if you grab a seat in the front row and have all these swords flying around just a few feet away from you. There's a definite midpoint highlight when an audience volunteer is given a sword and quickly taught some flashy moves: and the final sequence, when the seven fighters shamelessly put on their Crazy 88 suits and throw shapes to the Kill Bill soundtrack, makes for a fun end to the day.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Lee - Once I saw the word 'Walthamstow' in the review of Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved, I had to go and see this one-man show. Having been in exile in Bristol for the last year I was feeling a little homesick for my old stomping ground. And the 4 star review didn't hurt.
Stefan recounts his chance meeting with Betty, the girl of his dreams, and their first and only date. His observations on love, life and his friends pepper the narrative, and provide some genuine laughs. Although some of the staging is dramatically clever, I found the delivery a little too earnest to be entirely convincing.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Dean Haglund, the long-haired one of the three Lone Gunmen from The X-Files, started doing his X-Files Improv show at Edinburgh last year, and I was curious about it then. But this year I actually voiced my curiosity, and then the cancellation of something else we'd planned on opened up the perfect slot for this. I only had any interest in it because it was Haglund - as a fan of the X-Files from the beginning (though less so in later seasons), just any stand-up or fan doing something along the same lines wouldn't appeal at all - and I'd assumed anyone who was there would be similar, and it would be a room of sci-fi geeks. Turned out I was wrong: when Haglund asked how many people had no idea who he was, a good chunk of the audience raised their hands.
Anyway. Haglund, no longer long-haired since having it chopped off for a film, gave the right mix of irreverence and affection for the show he was in for 10 years which I'd hoped for, assisted - to my initial horror - by members of the audience. Having not realised it was the sort of show where people get dragged up on stage to help, I'd chosen prime seats by the aisle in the second row. So whenever one section of the show finished, I'd sit in terror until he'd picked the participant for the next. That aside, the show itself was very good fun, and in-between the scenes, Haglund gave us interesting anecdotes about what else he's been up to. An entertaining show which I'd recommend for next year - he's finished now, to head off to Vancouver for a Stargate convention.
Eve - As usual the Spiegel Garden buzzed with crowds and activity reminiscent of 'fin de siecle' (19th century) excitement and anticipation. The queue for La Clique was already growing, but an unashamed blag on the part of one of our group gave us front row seats.
The quality of the acts was as high as ever. The 'Queen' of the circus, Mario (looking just like Freddie Mercury) was very funy and talented. The lady and the small red hankie made a reappearance, and we are still no wiser as to the whereabouts of the above mentioned hankie at the end.
The acrobats and hoop spinner were astonishingly strong and lithe, and the 'double-jointed' contortionist can still fit through two tennis rackets. A big finale would have topped the show off well, but nevertheless a mind-boggling entertaining evening. 8/10.
Lee - Maybe I'm too much of a fan of Last Choir Standing, but I was sadly disappointed by In The Pink, a group of 8 female singers. The choice of songs and arrangement seemed designed to highlight all their vocal weaknesses rather than their strengths. The only point of enjoyment in this painful listening experience was A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. To be avoided.
The Belated Birthday Girl - I have a bit of a thing about Japan and all things Japanese. I also have a bit of a thing about swords and swordplay. Put the two together in a show with Samurai Swords, and I am there. We saw another Samurai Swords and dance thing last year, but that was a big production number in the Pleasance Grand, where we were a long way back from the action. Samurai Spirit was in the much more intimate space of Zoo Southside, and we sat right up close in the front row. It was also far less produced, and basically consisted of seven Japanese men doing a succession of well-choreographed fights to pre-recorded music, using samurai swords, spears and sticks, and one Japanese woman occassionally appearing to twirl an umbrella or a fan and look pretty.
Sitting so close you could see the sweat and feel the energy of the fights, and I think I enjoyed this more than last year's. It wasn't as slick a production (although the fights were spot on), but you felt an actual sense of danger as swords and sticks were crashed together. I was almost tempted when they were looking for someone to come up on stage to try out some Samurai moves with them, but the guy who did go up did a great job and it made a fun interlude. The show finished with a bit of a Kill Bill music medley - the fight choreographer apparently did work on the film - and it made a good end to the day.
Nick - I must declare an interest in This Show Belongs To Lionel Richie, knowing one of the writers. After seeing preview sketches in London along with Spank, I feared the worst. But miraculously, this has blossomed into a well-crafted show with a lot of funny sketches, and I even inspired one of those! At the London preview, I had ranted to my friend how complete strangers keep telling me they 'know me from somewhere', because I have this vague resemblance to a well known TV chef. It does get a bit wearing sometimes, but it was a big surprise to find that rant had been transposed into an admittedly very funny sketch. Careful what you say to writers.
Lee - I really enjoyed Edges, a new musical about four people trying to understand love and life in New York. The songs are cleverly written and ably performed. Recommended.