Reviewed today: A Big Day For The Goldbergs, Idiots Of Ants, Jordan, Laughing Cows Comedy, Nash Ensemble, Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians, Simon Munnery.
If you're following these reports in real time, then you'll have noticed by now that they're not quite as real time as they should be. The combination of two factors - an unexpected late night on Thursday, and a pre-planned early start on Friday - have all eaten horribly into my ability to provide a first draft of the previous day's proceedings before breakfast. So in case you're wondering, I'm writing this back home in London on Monday August 30th (drifting into Tuesday August 31st, I KNOW), having spent a large part of Sunday sleeping off the Festival excesses. If you're not wondering, feel free to skip this paragraph and go straight on to the good stuff.
That good stuff starts with a concert by the Nash Ensemble, which unusually is my third event from the 2010 International Festival. What can I say - it's obviously been a good year for them. This recital is part of the Queen's Hall series, a set of (gulp) 11am gigs featuring a wide variety of fine music, much of which is being recorded by the BBC for subsequent transmission on Radio 3.
Today's programme is an interesting collection of 19th and 20th century pieces, played by various different combinations from a pool of seven musicians: string quintet, piano and clarinet. Richard Hosford's clarinet comes to the fore in the first piece of the day, Bela Bartok's Contrasts: originally commissioned by no less than Benny Goodman, it's an interesting exercise in straddling genres, but for my money not much more than that. It's a similar story with Aaron Copland's Sextet, which does some sparky things with complex rhythms but only really comes together in the final Mexican-flavoured section.
It pains me to say this, but I think the two best pieces in the programme are the less experimental ones with nice tunes. God, I must be getting old. George Gershwin's Lullaby For String Quartet is a predictably lovely piece of work, actually drawing an audible gasp of satisfaction from the audience as it hits its final bars. And Dvorak's String Quintet No 3 (taking up the second half of the performance) gives the Ensemble's string section the opportunity to really cut loose. If you fancy hearing them for yourselves, this concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 1pm on Wednesday September 8th, and should be accessible via the iPlayer for a week after that: I'll put a direct link in the comments section below once it comes online.
After a fine (and decent value) veggie lunch at L'Artichaut, it's off to the Stand to catch Simon Munnery. We're there a little early, so we have to queue outside the venue beforehand, where two entertaining things happen. First of all, we get to hear the last few minutes of Kevin Eldon's show, which acts as very very slight compensation for our failing to get tickets for it before it sold out. Secondly, there's the amusing sight of a couple walking past the queue: she says to him, "ooh, Simon Munnery, what's he like?", and he almost gives himself a stroke trying to describe what Munnery does in mere language. Effectively, the man's become his own genre: fans know the combination of highbrow surrealism and precision-tooled gags he'll bring to a show, we don't need any better description than that.
That applies to Munnery's current show, called Self-Employed for no obvious reason. It opens with a lovely sequence that could almost be extended to a full hour in its own right, as he takes the theories of conceptual art and applies them to the restaurant trade. We're introduced to the staff of La Concepta, a diner whose menu consists of a series of artistically challenging ideas without any actual food attached. Once that's over, Munnery goes back to playing himself in a more traditional stand-up set: talking about his recent move to the countryside, his dealings with his older relatives, and life with the three children he's managed to father since having a cancerous testicle removed ("it was just holding the other one back").
Unlike the concept-based shows of previous years (such as his infamous Annual General Meetings, which relied heavily on input from the audience), Self-Employed is just Munnery telling stories and jokes to us. And I think it works a lot better for that. Those previous shows sometimes seemed a little too calculated, more like experiments in comedy than actual comedy: this one holds together much better as a unit, and is the most satisfying hour he's produced for the Fringe in years.
Sitting in the Underbelly cafe after that, we realise something moderately surprising: sitting in the cafe is the closest we've come to the Underbelly venue this year. We certainly haven't seen any shows in there (if you're like The Belated Birthday Girl and refuse to accept related venues like the Cow Barn and McEwan Hall as being the real Underbelly). We haven't seen anything at the Gilded Balloon, either, only spending a little time in their bar on Monday night for post-John Bishop drinks. And here's the thing: we're not going to, either.
Because we're now into our last 24 hours of Edinburgh 2010: and in a recap of 2008's experiment, from here on in we're just going to see free shows. Thursday's accidental focus on Five Pound Fringe performances made for a nice transition, but £5 is now going to be too extortionate for our budget. Admittedly, the timing is a little inelegant, but once we'd made a few bookings for shows we had to see, it turned out there wasn't a single day we could keep entirely available for free shows: hence the Friday night/Saturday morning compromise we're working with here.
We've picked up the leaflets for the two main Free Fringe circuits: the original PBH's Free Fringe, and the upstart pretenders of Laughing Horse Free Fringe. (Not that I'm calling favourites at this early stage, but the Laughing Horse programme is a virtually useless collection of show titles, missing out on PBH's handy three line summaries of what the shows are about.) But even with the leaflets, when you're on the Free Fringe you take recommendations from whereever you can get them. And our first show comes directly out of that peculiar experience we had on Tuesday night seeing Michael Fabbri with six other people. You'll remember that in the bar beforehand, it looked like the audience would be me, The Belated Birthday Girl, and another couple. During our chat with the other couple, one of them eventually reached into her bag for a flier saying, "actually, I'm performing in a free show..." Sold!
It turns out that she's Maureen Younger, the regular MC at Laughing Cows Comedy, a nightly showcase for female stand-ups. Initially, I'm a little wary of their flier, which features pictures of well-known names like Shazia Mirza and Susan Calman, with no real indication that they're likely to be on the bill you'll see here. But a quick bit of research on their website indicates that yes, comics of their stature regularly do perform there, so I withdraw my initial suspicion. Admittedly, none of them play tonight, but the bill that we get shows a remarkable commitment to diversity. As I point out to The BBG afterwards, "they've got a Muslim one, a lesbian one, a bisexual one, and a normal one." And then she hits me for some reason or other.
Younger makes for an excellent host, bantering one-on-one with a large proportion of the surprisingly well-filled Pravda room at Espionage. As for the four comics she's introducing, they've been arranged in what turns out to be a fair order of increasing merit. Shaista Aziz gets in a good opening - "Oh no! It's a Muslim in a cave!" - somewhat undone by her saying it in what might be the only Free Fringe venue that isn't a basement. From that point on, she's more or less performing to dead air, which is a bit of a shame. Naomi comes off better, although despite her coming up with a memorable one-line biography - Little Lebanese Lesbian ex-Jehovah's Witness - I can't track down her surname anywhere on Google. That's not the case with Sarah Profit, the bisexual pig farmer, who has some fun stories about life with her teenage kids. ("What's more embarrassing than walking in on your son and catching him wanking? Probably him walking in on you...") Susan Murray deservedly tops the bill, although she nearly comes a cropper when a casual question to an Iranian bloke in the front row starts him off on a wild rant about how difficult it is to find the clitoris. "It's always somewhere different..."
After an enjoyable Indian at Iman's Grill, it's time for the show that boasts in its publicity that it "started the Free Fringe". I'm ashamed to admit that I missed out on the first performance of Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians back in 1996. However, a quick bit of research has revealed that Spank's Pal Rachael caught the show in 1998, proclaiming that "the free stand-up comedy at the Footlights and Firkin is great, every bit as good as the stuff you have to pay money for". The Footlights and Firkin has long gone, but Peter Buckley Hill's free showcase is clocking up its fourteenth year, now at the Canon's Gait pub.
Meanwhile, PBH has nurtured the Free Fringe concept until he's now responsible for a programme of over two hundred shows, covering comedy, theatre, cabaret and poetry. 3,500 performances, assembled on a total budget of under ten grand, all funded by the generosity of audiences as they pass the collection bucket on the way out. With all that to keep running, as well as performing in two shows of his own every night, it's no wonder that he looks like death warmed up when we first see him. Although to be fair, by this stage in the Fringe he's just looking the way that the rest of us all feel.
The format is the same as it always was. PBH starts off the proceedings with a daft song or two. He gets the audience involved in the most inclusive way possible, encouraging them to make silly noises or sing the intro music for each performer. (The BBG wishes to register a complaint at this point: she was enjoying singing along to Le Marseillaise before the headline act, but is annoyed that PBH cut it off when it got to the tricky bit.) As for the four Comedians promised in the title, it's very much a bill of two halves. Lenny Peters ("not the one from Peters & Lee," PBH helpfully explains to an audience that mostly wasn't born when Welcome Home came out) and Neil Dougan are enjoyable enough as openers, but the show really takes off in the second half thanks to a masterstroke of scheduling.
You see, if I was running a comedy night, I would have made Gordon Southern the headliner. He ups the energy level in the room almost immediately, and his stories of coming to Edinburgh as an outsider are beautifully told. "How many students does it take to change a lightbulb? Don't worry about it, we'll rent the flat to some comedians in August and let them do it." But in a magnificently counter-intuitive move, the energy level is cranked right back down again by the night's actual headliner, Marcel Lucont. Billed as "France's premier misanthropist and lover," he sidles onto the stage with a glass of red wine and plays up the stereotypical Frenchman: slowly, quietly, arrogantly and utterly brilliantly. This next line needs to be read in a French accent for maximum effect: "You Americans, you say 'oh, our President is black, he is so cool'. Come back to me when your President is fucking a supermodel. Then we can talk."
Altogether it's a great couple of hours of entertainment, and well worth (say) ten quid of anyone's money. By the time it's all over, it's nearly midnight: we could go off and catch one more free event, but I don't feel up to the task of convincing The BBG that Kunt And The Gang's show will not be the musical equivalent of the creation of a human centipede. So instead, we meet up with a few of the Pals at the Filmhouse bar for a nightcap. Wonder why the Filmhouse doesn't do anything at Festival time any more?
Notes From Spank's Pals
Jan - Set in a bedroom, A Big Day For The Goldbergs was a dull presentation of Jewish family life as seen through the eyes of sisters Louise and Michelle. Louise has recently got engaged to a posh non-Jewish boy and is planning her large ostentatious wedding, paid for by posh-boy's parents. Michelle has gained a place at Circus School and is going away the next day to learn all the skills of juggling, tight-rope walking and clowning. She is leaving Louise to tell their neurotic mother. The characters of the Jewish mother and nosey grandmother are described in conversation between the two sisters. Their dad has left home some time ago and has shacked up with another woman. It turns out that mother is supportive of Michelle's career decision after she returns home from her training.
This play doesn't manage to offer an engaging story on any level. One feels it could have provided an interesting and amusing piece about the relationships within and beyond this family, if only the other significant characters had parts written in for them. Two characters struggling to present the dynamics of family and other relationships was insufficient and tiresome.
Jan - Twelve sketches are presented in a lively manner by Idiots Of Ants, four young men who interact with spark and in a rather crazy manner, to keep the audience amused. The sketches range from creating sound effects for a black and white film shown on video, to singing hand puppets a la Avenue Q. Audience participation from two volunteers adds to the comedy without embarrassing them too much. Good clean fun made for an enjoyable hour.
Jan - Jordan is a sad tale told by solo performer Moira Buffini playing the part of a young woman facing the struggles and challenges of her everyday life. She falls head over heels for an unsuitable lover and endures an abusive relationship with him which results in the birth of her son Jordan, who is the light of her life. The father of her son leaves her some while later, although he does return to the flat from time to time to use it as a place for sex with other women. Desperate for money to feed herself and her baby, the young mother gives blow jobs to assorted men for £5 a time.
Some months later, she receives a solicitor's letter from her ex-partner, explaining that he wants to gain custody of Jordan as she is a prostitute and therefore an unfit mother. She feels completely backed into a corner and barricades herself into the flat, ignoring the legal letters which continue to drop through the letterbox. Once the food runs out, she makes one last trip out of the flat to buy vodka and painkillers.
A rather flat, monotonous pace of delivery served to create a sense of 'not feeling real'. The performance didn't always hold my attention and failed to stir my emotions, despite the depressing storyline. Finally, on a darkened stage, standing in a dim spotlight, Moira Buffini tells the audience that this play is dedicated to the memory of Shirley Jones, mother of Jordan (13 months old), who walked off a cliff to her death in 1987. It was at this point that I felt deeply moved and my eyes filled with tears. At last it felt real.