Reviewed today: Animal Crackers, Dave McKean, Family, John Bishop: Cultural Ambassador, Our Country's Good, Simon Callow: A Festival Dickens, Yasser.
With all the recent fuss about this site's 10th birthday, it completely slipped my mind that it's also been ten years since I first started going up to Edinburgh with Spank's Pals and writing about it here. You'd think that by now I'd have learned about the dangers of mixing the greatest arts festival in the world with strong drink. But apparently not. It didn't help that all of yesterday's free events were being held in pubs (though we had trouble finding the bar in St Cuthbert's), so you're basically forced into drinking while the shows are on. And at midnight, we peeked into the Blue Blazer to find virtually all of Spank's Pals occupying one corner, so we had to join them, didn't we?
What I'm saying is, today is officially our Hangover Day. Because I care about you all out there, I still set the alarm for 8.30am so I could crawl to the laptop and get these pages out to you, but I don't enjoy it. The Belated Birthday Girl and I eventually make it to the nearest greasy spoon for a restorative fry-up breakfast, only for the owners to evilly seat us at a mirrored counter which shows us how terrible we look this morning. The rest of the day is taken at a much slower pace, with plenty of time for reflection and non-alcoholic drinks in between shows.
In yesterday's discussion of the Free Fringe, I forgot to mention one other source of free entertainment that's probably older that any of the others I covered in the diary: the parade of people on the Royal Mile running around in costumes, performing bits from their shows and pressing their fliers into your hand. Actually, that's not true. I didn't forget to mention it: I quite deliberately didn't mention the Royal Mile because it's a teeming hell on earth that I make a point of avoiding as much as possible every year. However, because of the box office problems I've already mentioned, we had to go down there to pick up some pre-booked tickets from the Fringe Box Office.
The Royal Mile is still a teeming hell on earth, but there are two upsides to our brief visit. Firstly, there's the joy to be had when I realise that the two events I'm picking up tickets for are probably the two most artistically different ones it's possible to select. (See diary for Wednesday and Thursday evening for more information.) And secondly, one of the fliers we're attacked with turns out to include a two-for-one voucher for Family, a show that was already on our shortlist. So at least that's the first decision of the day made for us.
Family is part of the InvAsian Festival, a sub-programme of shows from the whole of Asia that's occupying the Quincentenary Hall at the Royal College of Surgeons this year. There are several themes running through InvAsian: one of them is the curious phenomenon of Elvis Impersonators Of Foreign Lands, and if you manage to time your walk past the RCS correctly you may even catch both Chinese and Pakistani Elvi performing on the street for free. There's also a whole strand of Korean street dance, which seems to be a big thing given the success of The Ballerina Who Loves B-Boyz last year.
Rather like that show's mash-up of two different dance cultures, Family tries to mix taekwondo and breakdancing but doesn't quite pull it off. It uses the flimsiest pretext of a plot to do this, helped by some (deliberately or otherwise) atrociously translated text displays. Basically, there's a competition to determine the best family, and the final comes down to two: a father/mother/son/grandma unit that specialises in martial arts, and a father/mother/daughter/grandpa combo that does street dancing. Rather than putting the two families into an actual fight and picking a winner out of the mess afterwards, the competition consists of members of each family showing off their moves.
So yes, it's just a series of taekwondo and breakdancing demos, using the plot to give them some narrative context that, say, Samurai Spirit didn't have. It's not quite enough, though. The demos are fun, but a little lacking in the sort of jaw-dropping 'wow' moments that you'd hope for. Also, the show appears to run for a good half hour less than the running time advertised in the programme. But it's brainless enough to not cause too much pain to our damaged heads, and seeing it at half price doesn't hurt, either.
After a break in the proceedings to head back to the flats to collect some tickets I've forgotten to bring with me (curse this Edinburgh Gold-afflicted brain), we pay our first visit of the year to the Assembly Rooms, which are apparently doomed, again. One useful improvement I've noticed this year at the Assembly: it's usually virtually impossible to find a half-decent restaurant within short walking distance of the venue, but the recently opened tapas bar Cafe Andaluz is a welcome addition to George Street, and is both large enough and tapasy enough that you can be in and out within half an hour. Which is always a useful thing at this time of year.
Meanwhile, in one of those rooms at the Assembly that might be a restaurant itself by 2011, we have Yasser. Abdelkader Benali's play is a one-man piece starring William el-Gardi as a young Palestinian actor, Yasser Mansour. Yasser wanted to be an actor from a very early age, ever since his dad explained the attraction of the job: "you can be anyone you want to be." Does that explain why he's currently backstage at an English theatre, about to play Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice? Over the course of the hour before his performance, Yasser reflects on his Palestinian identity, his identification with his near-namesake, his failing relationship with his English girlfriend, and the difficulty of playing a Jew when muggers have just stolen his false nose.
There are some interesting ideas here, mainly in the ideological conflict at the centre of the plot, but also in the way it takes one of Shakespeare's most controversial roles and looks at it from a wholly new direction. It's just a shame that those ideas are never really built on: they're thrown out there for the audience's consideration, but barely developed after that. William el-Gardi's performance is energetic and emotional, but he doesn't really have much to work with. At the end of the hour, very little has been resolved, which may be part of the point but doesn't make for satisfying theatre.
Our second and final visit to the Book Festival this year features the comics artist and illustrator Dave McKean. It's the second time I've seen McKean in Edinburgh: the first was over fifteen years ago, when he and Grant Morrison came to the Festival to talk about their Batman book Arkham Asylum. It struck me at the post-talk signing session that Morrison felt he was a little too cool to be at something like this, whereas McKean was incredibly friendly and happy to chat to anyone. And that's still the case today: he gives a very entertaining illustrated presentation on his work both past and future, and is thoroughly charming with it.
The talk has a curiously arse-backwards structure to it, starting with McKean's current and forthcoming work, and then going back to his early days. He seems to be incredibly busy at the moment: among the projects we get sneak previews of are a picture book collaboration with Neil Gaiman (Crazy Hair), a feature film (Luna), a book of pictures inspired by silent cinema (Nitrate), and - most intriguing of all - a collaboration with Heston Blumenthal on a combined autobiography and recipe book, The Big Fat Duck Book. McKean sees his role on this latter project as providing pictures that can somehow visually compensate for the lack of tastes and smells in a food book.
From there, he flashes back twenty years to his first collaboration with Neil Gaiman on the comic Violent Cases. (I guess that was how I first encountered McKean's work: I can remember being incredibly intrigued by a display for the book in the old Forbidden Planet shop on Denmark Street.) He still has a love of comics to this day: even in his illustration work, if he can find a way to sneak in a series of images that can tell a story, he'll do it. He talks fondly about the pre-computer days, when image manipulation had to be done by abusing colour photocopiers mercilessly. (Nowadays, it appears to be scanners that suffer most at McKean's hands: one illustration resulted in a scanner having to be sent back for repair full of treacle and beard clippings.)
McKean is particularly generous to his favourite artistic collaborators, preferring to work with lateral thinkers like John Cale and Heston Blumenthal: people who are willing to throw ideas out there just to see which ones work. He's also amusing about the low point of his working relationship with Neil Gaiman, when the two of them tried writing together for the first time on Mirrormask, only to realise that their writing methods were wholly incompatible. McKean inevitably uses a very visual approach, putting all the story information on dozens of index cards, and moving them around until he finds the correct structure. Gaiman, on the other hand, "turns on Radio 4 and just starts writing. It's talk radio! How can you do that?"
By now the hangovers are just about subsiding, which means it's time for the Edinburgh rain to really kick in to give us something else to be miserable about. We make the epic trek from the Book Festival to the Pleasance in the rain, including a pit stop in Piemaker on South Bridge on the way, and a peek in the window of B'est Restaurant to try and work out if the Faulty Towers Dining Experience is any good or not.
At the end of our trek we're rewarded with John Bishop's new show, Cultural Ambassador. Bishop was kind of our discovery at last year's Fringe, charming us all with a guest appearance at Mervyn Stutter, followed by a one-man show describing his career change from pharmceutical sales to stand-up comedy. He's simultaneously thrilled and creeped out to discover at this performance that he has a developing fanbase after those shows last year, although he admits it was a show that took a while to find its audience ("don't give me the box office figures, just tell me their names").
This year, Bishop is talking about his home city of Liverpool, and its status as European Capital Of Culture 2008. He's aware that this is regarded as a joke in some quarters, so he's here to redress the balance, admittedly making sure he gets in some of the best anti-Scouse jokes in first before looking at the positive side. He's of the opinion that exposing people to cultures they wouldn't normally see is a good thing, and gives the example of taking his three young boys to the Festival last year. ("They were there for the only four days last year we didn't have rain. Now they think Scotland's sunny all the time and full of jugglers.")
It's that personal angle that makes Bishop's act special: everything he discusses comes back to something in his own life. You can see this early on, when he's talking to a fellow Scouser in the audience about what's changed in Liverpool since the Capital Of Culture thing started, and all she can come up with is "it's just really great now". And he gets frustrated at that, because he's looking for a specifically personal response from her: what's changed there for you? Because in the story that slowly emerges, he talks about how it's had a direct impact on the people he cares for: whether it's his mum buying her first croissants in her local supermarket's European foods promotion, or something a little more unexpected involving his own kids.
All the aspects that made John Bishop so appealing last year are still there: he's a naturally funny bloke and a great storyteller, and can make the emotional bits really work without it sounding like a crass gear change. The 'Whatever They Call The Perrier Awards Nowadays' Awards mysteriously bypassed him completely last year, but I'd like to hope they'd be a little more sensible about it in 2008. We should find out in a day or so...
Notes From Spank's Pals
Eve - Having seen a fairly indifferent performance of Our Country's Good fairly recently, I was not too keen to see this. Fortunately the Master Blagger persuaded us, and the two hours of the play passed with no looking at watches, fantasies about garlic bread, or fidgeting on hard seats!
The very young cast performed with energy and conviction, creating the atmosphere and conditions of an Australian penal colony convincingly without set and the minimum of props. The different levels of humour, tragedy, brutality and compassion were excellently handled, giving the audience a stunning two hours' entertainment. 9/10.
Nick - Let's think about this a moment. Where else are you going to see the musical that inspired the film Animal Crackers? You need a huge cast that can sing and dance, before even contemplating how to fill the shoes of the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont. Almost certainly you are not going to see it revived as a professional production, and it's beyond the scope of most amateur groups. So step forward American High School Theatre to deliver a triumph from start to finish. In the film a lot of the musical numbers were replaced by Marx Brothers routines, so with the song and dance numbers restored it is even more technically demanding than what appears in the film: but it is all carried off with aplomb.
Eve - The Music Hall at the Assembly Rooms was the venue for one of Charles Dickens' readings. Simon Callow is now following in the footsteps of the illustrious Victorian author and giving an unsurpassed performance of two of Dickens' lesser known stories. Mr Chops - The Dwarf and Dr Marigold provide rich characterisation and colourful details, seized on by Simon Callow to give a performance full of comedy, pathos and impeccable timing. He uses his marvellous voice wonderfully to give a range of tones and accents to the words. His command of the stage is masterful, giving the audience nearly 2 hours of sheer delight. 10/10.