Reviewed today: Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Collings And Herrin Podcast Live, The Gospel At Colonus, It's Always Right Now Until It's Later, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, The Stand Late Show.
Bloody hell, Mervyn Stutter's let himself go, hasn't he?
Of course he hasn't. But I can see why you'd be confused. Ever since I started doing these Edinburgh diaries in 1998, there's been one thing you could predict with absolute certainty every year: our first show on the Sunday morning would be Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe. It's a great way to start the day, especially if it's your first full day in Edinburgh, giving you a whole new set of show options that you may never have thought of before.
But this year, we're not starting our Sunday with Stutter, for the simple reason that there's a must-see show that starts even earlier. And everyone's saying that It's Always Right Now Until It's Later is a must-see, even my own subconscious. I had a weird dream the other night in which I realised two hours after the event that I'd missed this show, and was indescribably sad for ages afterwards. And as it turns out, I would have had every right to be sad if I'd missed it in real life.
IARNUIL is the latest storytelling show from stand-up Daniel Kitson. In previous Fringes, he's alternated between traditional comedy sets, and more theatrical narrative pieces. This year he's just doing the latter, and at the astonishing time of 10am every morning: "I wanted to put something amazing where you wouldn’t expect to find it," he says. "To take the first moments of the morning and fill them with something silly and sad and wonderful... and, it’ll all be over in time for lunch." It's an act of perversity on a par with his late-nighter The Honourable Men Of Art three years ago, which he refused to perform at weekends to avoid the post-pub crowds that generally wreck late comedy shows. But it's a curiously endearing perversity for all that.
It's a pair of stories, following a man and a woman through some of the key moments of their lives, told on what at first glance looks like a very simple set: a couple of dozen bare lightbulbs hanging down from the ceiling. But the set turns out to be absolutely crucial to the piece. There was an audible gasp from the audience at the point where Kitson reveals the structure he's going to use to interweave these two stories - but complex as it appears at first glance, he's come up with a perfect visual metaphor to ensure that even as the narrative leaps around from one incident to the next, you always know exactly where you are.
And these are beautifully told stories, too. Kitson has an eye for the tiny details that resonate with us: the little strokes of luck or missed chances that send a life in one direction or the other. The result is funny and moving, but never feels manipulative or overly sentimental. And it comes together magnificently in the closing minutes, when the connection between the two stories that you've been waiting for comes in a way that you weren't quite expecting. You'll need to start queuing at an even more ungodly hour than 10am if you want to get a return ticket for this sold-out run, but you won't regret it. And, it'll all be over in time for lunch.
Although rather than lunch, it's more of a second breakfast involving a couple of morning rolls at the Traverse cafe, before heading out to the Pleasance for the inevitable Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe. It all goes exactly as we've come to expect. Merv comes on in his pink jacket looking like a more dissolute Richard Dawkins: he complains that despite all the money he spends on publicity, all his business is generated by word of mouth: he does a song about a current satirical topic or being very old (his Friends Reunited song this year manages to combine both): and then he introduces seven acts from all over the Fringe, giving each one ten minutes to do a quick performance and plug their show.
Quickly running through the seven: starting off with the high-octane flamenco of Miguel Vargas nearly unbalances the show completely, but they have to come on early just so they can go off and prepare for their own performance. They're probably the most instantly impressive act of the day, a group of flamboyant dancers accompanied only by a couple of guys banging on wooden boxes and singing. Potted Panto is one of the few children's shows I've ever seen represented at Stutter, with CBBC stars Dan and Jeff taking the mick out of pantomime cliches in a smart enough fashion for everyone to enjoy. By contrast, Julien Cottereau's classical French mime is a little too knowingly cutesy for my taste, although there's some extra amusement to be gathered from his chosen audience volunteer not quite playing ball with him. Similarly, the extract from comedy lecture Eric's Laws Of The Land is given a little excitement when Eric throws a minor strop at the Pleasance techies for not getting his projector working on time.
Andrew O'Neil is the only stand-up in this typically varied bill: Stutter always boasts that most of the other Pick Of The Fringe shows out there are just stand-up and nothing else. O'Neil's set is tight and funny, but it worries me that he doesn't seem to have come up with any new jokes since I last saw him over a year ago. Tammy Stone from Crumpets, Muffins And Afternoon Teas(e) does a couple of amusingly cheeky numbers, leaving Stutter worried about how he's managed to put together a show that features CBBC presenters alongside a song about cunnilingus. Finally, Peter Straker's old-school cabaret stylings make for nearly as good a finish as the flamenco would have, with a passionate mash-up of Randy Newman's Louisiana and Peter Gabriel's Here Comes The Flood rounding things off very nicely indeed.
Just to confirm: the picture you're looking at here features Richard 'Herrin' Herring and Andrew 'Collings' Collins, the stars of Collings And Herrin Podcast Live, holding up a copy of Spank's Edinburgh Diaries Volume Two: 2001-2008 (available for £10 from lulu.com). This very picture is the image embedded in the podcast audio file, which I believe will be heard by an audience of something in the region of 30,000 people.
This will require a bit of explanation.
Collins and Herring have been podcasting for a couple of years now, getting together on an approximately weekly basis to talk crap for an hour in Herring's attic and make the results freely available for download. As they're not getting any money from these podcasts, they freely admit that they're open to bribery, and will plug a product or insult a friend if you give them a completed Caffe Nero loyalty card or something similar.
Having already exploited Herring's solo show to promote my books (see yesterday), I decided to see if I could hijack the last in a series of live recordings of C&H podcasts that have been taking place over the last two weeks. So I put a copy of the new Edinburgh book in a Jiffy bag along with a full Caffe Nero card, a 90% full Apostrophe card, and a short but rude covering letter, and left the whole lot with a bemused member of Assembly staff taking the charity collection after Christ On A Bike. And then I came along to today's podcast to see what would happen.
You can hear what happened for yourselves: it's approximately eleven and a half minutes into this 63MB MP3 file. The best I was hoping for was a simple namecheck: I didn't expect the very nice mini-review that they gave the book, or that they'd take a picture of themselves with it at the end. Obviously, this is going to colour my overall view of the podcast, but even so I have to admit that it isn't one of their best. These shows are funniest when they're going just that little bit too far, usually because of exhaustion, anger or sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of one or other of the duo. Last Thursday's show, in particular, is a fine example of a podcast heading rapidly into the areas of Extreme Wrong. By contrast, today's show has a slightly tired end-of-run feel, but still has the odd inspired moment like Collins accidentally suggesting that Raoul Moat and Madeleine McCann were very similar people.
Damn good fun all the same. Now, if all 30,000 of you listeners could just buy one book, please...
You want stunt casting? I'll give you stunt casting. You'd think it was just the Fringe that would try to lure in punters with Abi Titmuss in Up 'N' Under, or George 'Norm!' Wendt in Celebrity Autobiography. But it's the International Festival which has come up with what looks to be the most outrageous casting coup of all: The Blind Boys Of Alabama are Oedipus!
The Gospel At Colonus is Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's gospel music adaptation of the story of Oedipus. It makes sense at first glance: gospel music is all about incredible highs and lows of emotion, and Greek drama deals in the same sort of currency. With a huge cast of singers and musicians, the Blind Boys Of Alabama are just the icing on what's an already very rich cake.
Unfortunately, this is all based on the second half of the Oedipus story. All the stuff we know and love from the definitive text on his life - Tom Lehrer's Oedipus Rex - comes from the first half. The Colonus story is what happened after that: when a blind, humiliated Oedipus comes to Colonus and puts his affairs in order as he prepares to die. In terms of plot incident, this isn't really up there with killing your dad, shagging your mum and pulling your eyes out. So the little plot that we have is stretched painfully thin across nearly two and a half hours. It's symptomatic of the weak dramatic structure that the first act ends with a cliffhanger involving a search for Oedipus' missing daughters, which is resolved in the second act by someone more or less walking on stage and saying, "it's okay, I've found them."
Dramatically, it doesn't work: but the music is so astonishingly strong, that doesn't really matter. Based around a series of standout performances, each act builds to a full-on explosion of joy (followed by at least two encores). The Blind Boys are the biggest names on the bill (and you do genuinely fear for them as they stagger around the stepped stage), but The Reverend Dr Earl F Miller deserves special praise for his narrator role that frequently requires him to take on the role of Oedipus too. With some neat tricks of staging (including several surprise appearances of cast members within the audience, that somehow still manage to stay surprising), it's a fine night out, as long as you don't expect to get a decent story out of it. (Yeah, that's right, I'm calling out Sophocles as a bad writer. How many books has he had reviewed by the film editor of the Radio Times?)
By the end of Colonus, some of us have been seeing shows for over twelve hours today. The sensible thing to do at this point would be to go to bed. But finding out that The Stand Late Show was running a comedy bill so strong, Ardal O'Hanlon was at its bottom... well, we have to do it, even if it means stretching out that twelve hours into sixteen. Unfortunately, the lateness of the hour and the booze taken means that this final review of the day will be somewhat lacking in detail. Even The Belated Birthday Girl is complaining that she remembers one particularly fine line - "Cameron and Clegg, shampoo and conditioner" - but has no recollection of who actually said it.
Still, as I say, it's a fine old bill. Ardal O'Hanlon opens as promised, and still has plenty of the nonsensical charm that made his portrayal of Father Dougal such a joy, even when he's complaining that the sex abuse scandal in the Church goes all the way up to the top - "they should sack God and replace him with one of them Indian fellers with all the arms and legs." Brendon Burns, surprisingly lacking in hair at the moment, contributes a set that's almost Disneyesque in its wholesome charm, at least in comparison with the stuff that he normally does. I don't remember him saying anything horrible about anyone who didn't deserve it, anyway.
Rob Rouse is more or less the low point in the middle of the show: his gags are okay, but he's a little at sea in a high-powered bill like this one. (The Belated Birthday Girl also complains that his three main topics - children, dogs and faeces - are her three least favourite things in the world, which doesn't help.) The headliner is local legend Danny Bhoy, who I last saw at the Glasgow branch of the Stand doing a huge 90 minute solo set - I think he's his usual charming self, but frankly I'm starting to lose it at this stage. The whole show's held together splendidly by compere Michael Fabbri, who Burns slags off during his own set for being too good. "He's killing, isn't he? Comperes aren't supposed to do that..."
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - I've seen Daniel Kitson a few times over the years, doing various stand-up things. The first time, he was compering Late and Live, and I absolutely hated him. He redeemed himself completely in my eyes by his handling of a heckler at the final night of the Red Rose comedy club in its Finsbury Park home a couple of years back, and then I very much enjoyed his late night mucking about at the Stand last time we were up in Edinburgh. It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later is the first of his storytelling shows I've seen, and I have to say I will be very surprised if I see anything better at Edinburgh this year. Inventively written and simply told, it's the story - or rather, two stories - of two lives lived. It's full of humour, love, sadness, joy and all fundamental human emotion and experience. As you'd expect from Kitson, there is a lot of wit and humour, but it's also poignant and deeply moving. I cried more times than at a Pixar movie - high praise indeed. This show demonstrates the power of words alone to bring forth such real emotion and reaction, and Kitson's skill both as writer and teller of these tales is impressive. The show is sold out for its run, and I don't know if you'll be able to get returns for this one, but anyone going to see it is in for a treat. Another triumph for the Traverse, which has been the venue for many of my top Edinburgh shows in years gone by.
Jan - A Clockwork Orange powerfully portrayed the horror of the enjoyment (for some members of society) of physical abuse, violent aggression and depravity through detailed physical choreography energetically and skilfully executed by the cast. The dialogue and characterisation clearly explored the key issues of choice and responsibility, as well as that of power and control, at both individual and political level. A strong performance from the main character Alex drew a wide range of emotional responses, whilst in contrast the cameo role of Alex's teacher provided a touch of humour in this dark story. The addition of songs did not particularly help the narrative and felt somewhat out of place. Overall, this was a successful, visually explosive and thought-provoking rendition of a controversial 'oldie' which played to a full house.