Reviewed today: Are There More Of You?, Bale De Rua, Dizzee Rascal, Free Outgoing, The Honourable Men Of Art, Isy Suttie: The Suttie Show, James Sherwood: Songs Of Music, Mong Yeon (A Life In Dream), Shakers Re-Stirred, The Tailor Of Inverness.
Korea! It's the new Japan, or something. (Note to self : stop doing this.) It wasn't too long ago that Japan was where Fringegoers turned to for Asian exoticism, but Korea has been taking this role over from them in the last couple of years, rather in the same way they have in the film world. This year it's more obvious because of all the streetdancing Koreans in the Invasian Festival programme, but they aren't the only ones. Case in point: Modl Theatre, currently performing their show Mong Yeon (A Life In Dream) at that C venue I hardly ever go to for some reason. (I don't know why, I just never seem to find myself there very often.)
Mong Yeon is at heart a very simple story. A young woman is in mourning after the death of her lover. (If nothing else, this show will teach you the Korean for 'my dear', which is spoken so repeatedly it's almost a catchphrase.) But she discovers that he hasn't vanished from her life completely: he regularly appears in her dreams, in those moments when the lines between worlds break down. As her grief reaches new lows, she decides that those moments aren't enough for her.
It's a simple story, but told in complicated ways. The dialogue flips between Korean and English with very little warning, while many key scenes are performed without any words at all. The symbolism used throughout is a mishmash of Eastern and Western religious iconography, and it's sometimes difficult to get a handle on what's actually going on. But the visuals save the day: Modl use simple theatrical means to get across complex ideas, the most astonishing being the use of a sheet and a backlight to depict the border between the two worlds on show. The glorious look of the piece carries you through some of the more obscure narrative passages, and brings you to an undeniably emotional climax.
From there it's off to a pair of comedy singer-songwriters, a genre you can't really get away from at the Fringe even after the explosion of stand-up comedy that took place in the eighties. Isy Suttie's show - revelling in the once-in-a-lifetime title The Suttie Show - takes place in the sweaty Portakabin they call the Pleasance Aside. By the freakiest of coincidences, the next show in the same venue (as reviewed yesterday by The Belated Birthday Girl) is Watson and Oliver, meaning that it's theoretically possible to do a back-to-back double bill of Women Who Sexually Assaulted David Mitchell In Season Five Of Peep Show. But we don't.
Suttie's show is based around the idea of our dreams: mainly the plans we make for ourselves in the future, but with a handy digression into why people telling you what they dreamed about last night is the most boring thing in the world. We get to hear of her childhood aspirations, those of some of her mates, and those of a number of characters "who all look a bit like me". There's Amy Winehouse's cousin Yvonne, a musical Health & Safety Officer: Melody, a Liverpudlian hairdresser who's a songwriter in her spare time: Ben Radford, the most irritating child contestant on Britain's Got Talent: and blues singer Mr Mississippi with some tips on how to get the ladies into bed.
Suttie has a huge amount of quirky charm, and her songs and banter are gently funny. But somehow the crossover between character comedy and musical comedy doesn't quite gel: it's hard not to cringe when she 'introduces' her characters, waits for a quick lighting change and then carries on in a different voice. There's something curiously dated about that approach, which detracts a little from the enjoyment of the songs. But they are enjoyable, and maybe it's just a question of her finding the right framework for her material.
It's a similar situation with James Sherwood: Songs Of Music, our one show this year inspired by Sunday's visit to Mervyn Stutter. Pretty much all his material from Sunday's lecture on bad grammar in pop is in this show, but we get to hear several of his own comedy songs as well. He talks about the problems of being a topical songwriter, when your material is all unusable after three months or so, and demonstrates a solution to this by performing a song pre-emptively written for the end of the Bush administration (We Survived). And he gently sends up the cliches of popular song in general, noting that "you are so beautiful... to me" isn't really that much of a compliment at all.
As with Suttie, it's all gently amusing stuff, played to an older-than-usual audience that presumably knows him from his Radio 4 work. And he gets around the character problem by just doing all the songs as himself, or possibly an exaggerated and more anal version of his own personality. Still, it's hard to shake off the feeling that this must be what the Fringe was like pre-alternative comedy, just with a slightly less deferential attitude and more swearing.
"Dizzee Rascal? He's on at the International Festival, is he?" The satirical stylings of Max Fischer, there, who we bump into in the Pleasance courtyard just before Isy Suttie. Curiously enough, the only time I've seen Dizzee live before now was at some sort of highbrow arts festival or other, when he did a set at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Truth be told, it wasn't the best environment for him: a seated venue, with one of the most notoriously poor acoustics in town, and an audience that was less up for it than his usual crowd.
For all Max's joking, it's possible that in the future, Dizzee could play at the International Festival: it's obvious from his records that he's got musical and sonic ambitions to burn, and with the right collaborators he could produce something astonishing. But I suspect for now, in a live environment, he's perfectly happy to just produce a huge racket that people can bounce up and down to. And this showcase at the Liquid Rooms, part of the new Edge Festival music strand of the Fringe, demonstrates he can do that just fine. Those problems I mentioned at the Royal Festival Hall gig? Not an issue here. The Liquid Rooms are a lovely venue, the sound is sharp (particularly if you grab a prime spot in the balcony next to the mixing desk like we did), and the crowd goes wild.
It's a close-run thing, though. The show's advertised as having a 10pm curfew, and after a short but rather fine support set by Young Fathers (like a Fun Boy Three for the noughties), there's a long and rather awkward pause. When it gets to 9.20 and there's still no sign of the headline act, actual booing breaks out. It's a testament to Dizzee's ability to work a crowd that when he finally gets on stage and does his hour, everyone's forgotten that booing by the end: he turns the situation around by sheer force of will, with some help from DJ Semtex scratching records with his chin because he's only got one arm. It's a shame Calvin Harris couldn't be arsed getting the train from Dumfries to join in for the hit, but you can't have everything.
Finally, some late-night comedy. Over the years we've tried to find alternatives to the shouty bearpit that is Late 'N' Live. Spank! did the job quite nicely last year, while The Stand Late Club made for a fun and civilised Friday night back in 2005. But The Honourable Men Of Art just might have set a new standard for what post-pub entertainment at the Fringe is capable of doing.
With the barest minimum of publicity, Daniel Kitson has set up the perfect format for a late night show. Which is funny, because he was one of the reasons why I started falling out with Late 'N' Live: the show he compered back in 2001 was a right old mess, in which he ended up being as bad as the audience. I kept away from him after that until earlier this year, when he did a splendid job of hosting the last night at the Red Rose Comedy Club, dealing effortlessly with a pissed heckler who could have ruined the entire show.
I started appreciating Kitson's crowd-handling ability after that, and it turns out to be the thing that makes The Honourable Men Of Art such a joy. For the most part, the show is just him chatting to punters and seeing what happens. (Tonight, the front row contains people who claim to be Mark Knopfler's manager and Terry Gilliam's PA, among others.) Scattered throughout the room are three other comics - Andy Zaltzman, Alun Cochrane and David O'Doherty - and their heckling lifts the show to another level altogether. Zaltzman gets in the best lines of the evening, while O'Doherty is mocked for his if.comedy nomination, and taunted with potatoes for being Irish.
Like the best shows I've seen at Edinburgh over the last few years - Robin Ince's Book Club, Bad Film Club, Mark Watson's Overambitious 24 Hour Show - this is less about the telling of jokes, and more about creating a conspiracy between performers and audience to have the best time possible. Whereas the atmosphere in Late 'N' Live is all about conflict, The Honourable Men Of Art is more interested in replicating the best drunken pub conversation you ever had, just with a couple of hundred people involved. And it climaxes, for reasons which now escape me, in a race between an audience member and Daniel Kitson, both running round the venue with their trousers round their ankles, and having to stop every so often for a spelling test. (The climax is a different audience vs performers contest every night, as some naughty YouTube footage shows.) If they were doing this show again on Friday, I'd be going back: but apparently Kitson is only doing this show on weekdays to keep the weekend drunk arseholes out. Which somehow makes me love him even more.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Diane - Fringe First Winner The Tailor Of Inverness is well worth its award. Matthew Zajac's self-penned and performed play is all the more powerful when you realise that this is a true story of his father.
We first meet Zajac in his father's tailor's shop in Inverness. The backdrop is cleverly made up of shirts, dresses and suits that he has worked on over the years. First speaking in Polish (with surtitles) and later switching to English with a Polish/Scottish accent, Zajac senior tells us of his arrival in Scotland after the 2nd World War and his tailoring career.
Next, he moves back in time to his Polish village being invaded by the Russians who conscript him into the army, his escape from the Russian camp to join the Polish army, and his journey through Europe en route to Scotland - so far, so straightforward. The story gets really interesting when Zajac moves from portraying his father to playing himself, many years later, researching his family history and discovering that his father was not at first what he seemed.
He uncovers three different versions of 'what did you do in the War daddy?', one involving fighting with the Germans and another involving a wife and family back in Poland prior to travelling to Scotland and meeting the actor's mother. The last part of the performance is made particularly poignant by back projections of Zajac junior's elderly Polish relatives who he met on recent visits, including the half sister he never knew.
All this is accompanied by incidental violin music, played live, and evoking the Polish village of Zajac's forebears. Definitely one of the best shows on the Fringe, but book quickly as most performances are sold out.
Diane - Part of the Free Festival, Shakers Re-Stirred consists of four comediennes and actors - Karen Bayley, Dawn Parylo, Janice Pahyre and JoJo Sutherland - reviving John Godber's early '90s play. The effective thing here is that they are actually performing in a bar, while we sit around on bar stools and banquettes, so no need for a set designer here!
The show started slowly - there were too many longeurs and the dialogue didn't flow. However, once the actors switched from just playing cocktail waitresses to playing their varied customers, the show gained momentum and the actors were able to convey their comedy talents. Dawn Paylo was particularly outstanding in an ensemble which, with tighter direction, will have a good show on their hands.
The play itself breaks no new ground - an evening in the life of four cocktail waitresses who dream of better things while catering to stags, hens, businessmen, couples having illicit affairs, etc etc. Author John Godber was once a strong presence at the Fringe: I suppose his style is now considered old hat, but it is a fun play and worth trying - they pass the bucket round afterwards so you leave a donation of whatever you think the performances deserve. Worth at least a fiver! However, I suggest being more generous where there are four actors in the cast.
Nick - The Scotsman had wanted to award a sixth star to Bale De Rua, which had guaranteed sellout audiences. Every year you get a clutch of shows that are shamelessly devised as crowd pleasers, a bit of light entertainment for this newspaper's readership. The 70 minutes consisted of a 60 minute showcase of the dancers' talents, ranging from variety show numbers to street dancing, breakdancing and choreographed tumbling like you see at Cirque du Soleil. The final ten minutes is a shameless milking of the previous 60 minutes, with lots of audience involvement. What I did really like about this show was the drumming, it often sounded more industrial than any noticeable Brazilian influences. A lot of the smaller scale routines worked better than the larger ones.
Diane - Are There More Of You? was one of those plays that was not on my radar, but came to notice when I walked past the Quaker Meeting House on Victoria Terrace, just behind the Royal Mile (castle end). Sadly, some very good shows which are not on at mainstream venues often get overlooked by the reviewers, and this is one of them. I haven't read one review, and yet Alison Skilbeck is the best actor I have seen so far at the Fringe.
Her show isn't groundbreaking, it's a format we've seen many times before. One woman plays four contrasting characters, but Skilbeck is so accomplished that she can switch characters with a mere change of shoes or scarf.
In Are There More Of You? she plays in turn a diplomat's wife, an Italian cafe owner, an alternative therapist and a northern businesswoman. All are cleverly linked by an SW11 postcode, and each monologue refers to one of the characters we have met previously. Just as we think we know each character, a change in circumstances leads us to discover a new side to their personality. The writing was skilful and, unlike some of the other writers whose work I've seen recently, Skilbeck knows exactly how to end each vignette!
At many Fringe shows this year I've felt that one hour in the company of the performers has been sufficient, but at the end of this show I felt I could happily have asked Skilbeck whether there were more of her, and watched for another hour.
Diane - I missed Free Outgoing when it was on at the Royal Court, where it was well reviewed. Anupama Chandrasekhar's play tells the story of middle class Indian businesswoman Malini, who is struggling to bring up two teenage children after the death of her husband, in a society which finds it hard to cope with a woman as the head of the household.
Her world falls apart after a visit from the headmistress of daughter Deepa's school, to reveal that Deepa has been caught in the act of lovemaking with a fellow pupil. To make things worse, the boy involved has filmed Deepa in pre-sex seduction mode and emailed his film to all his pals. Soon this film is appearing on every computer and mobile phone in India, creating a scandal which results in Malini's family becoming prisoners in their own home.
The rest of the play examines how Malini attempts to cope - at first by denial, secondly with anger, and finally by trying to make pacts that will alleviate the situation. She considers marrying Deepa off to Ramesh, the kindly but slightly creepy work colleague who still lives with his mum. The play ends with Malini making a pact with the devil in the form of the media which initially set out to destroy her, by causing the story of Deepa's wrongdoing to go nationwide.
The intriguing thing about all this is that we never meet Deepa. In the first scenes she is at school and she spends the rest of her time locked in her room. At the point where she is about to emerge from her room the play ends, rather abruptly I felt at first, but maybe this abrupt ending was effective because I am still thinking about what could have happened to the characters after the play finished.
The play is well acted, but honours must go to Lolita Chakrabarti in the leading role of Malini. She is never off stage and portrays the central character's dilemma with great skill. This also made me think about how, in multicultural Britain, the Edinburgh Festival is still predominantly WASP, and it would be good to see more cultural diversity on the dramatic side of the Fringe.