Reviewed today: Andrew O'Neill, Caledonia, Fucking Funny For A Fiver, Hamlet The Musical, Memoirs Of A Biscuit Tin, North-South Divide, Rapconteur, Simon Donald Is Completely Hatstand.
Dave Gibson chuckles as he's pouring out tea for eighty people. "We've got our pre-show music on shuffle, and it's just gone into Welcome To The Cheap Seats..."
Welcome, indeed, to the Five Pound Fringe. If you're fed up with paying the usual extortionate prices for Edinburgh shows, but you're a little wary of the anarchy of the Free Fringe, this may be the alternative you're looking for. Without planning on it, we end up seeing three FPF shows today, the first one being North-South Divide. It's a stand-up double bill featuring Dave Gibson from the North of England and Charlie Talbot from the South, theoretically pitted against each other to decide which bit of England is best. Two comedians for a fiver isn't a bad deal at all, especially when the opening five minutes of the show is dedicated to them serving free tea and biscuits to the entire audience. (Although they run out of tea a little too early, leading me to suspect they don't see many full houses like today's.)
There's a certain perversity involved in creating a show around the English north-south divide, and then performing it in Scotland. Gibson and Talbot have the good grace to admit this at the top of the show, and get round this by subdividing the rest of the world into Northern England/Southern England camps so that everyone can pick a side. (Talbot decides that all of Scotland counts as North, except for Edinburgh which is South - "it's the part with all the restaurants and education." With battle lines thus drawn, Gibson does a twenty-minute set representing the North, then Talbot performs for twenty minutes for the South, and a vote is taken at the end.
Truth be told, it's more of an amusing setup for a double-header show than a real debate. Gibson, in particular, more or less avoids the subject until the end of his set, preferring to concentrate on his peculiar family and the various pranks he plays on them. Secretly switching his grandad's telly from ITV2 to ITV2+1 seems to be a particular favourite, particularly about an hour into the movie Groundhog Day. Talbot, on the other hand, spends his time talking specifically about life in London (explaining the concept of 'night buses' to the Edinburgh locals like they're children), but almost by accident only helping to boost the North's case. Both comics are pretty entertaining, but I'd suggest Gibson's natural charm wins out over Talbot's slightly over-intellectual approach, and on the day that maps quite nicely onto the result of the vote.
From there it's off to some proper Scottish theatre as part of the International Festival. Alistair Beaton's Caledonia is having its world premiere as part of the Festival this year, and tells the story of a key piece of local history. In 1695 the businessman William Paterson (Paul Higgins, aka Jamie from The Thick Of It) persuaded Parliament to set up a new national trading body, the Company of Scotland, which aimed to boost Scotland through trade with other countries. In a short period of time, he's raised a huge amount of money, which he invests in a fleet of ships for a major expedition - because for Scotland to become a world trading power, they need to discover and develop their own colonies. Without wishing to spoil it for you, things did not go well.
It's a story that had such a devastating impact on Scotland, it could only ever be played as extreme tragedy or farce: and as Beaton is a veteran of Week Ending and Not The Nine O'Clock News, Caledonia ends up taking the latter trajectory. Using a cast apparently drawn from a collection of the Nameless Of The Earth plus one proper actor (a conceit introduced in the opening scene and then rapidly forgotten about), the total collapse of Scotland's financial system is turned into a jolly romp with plenty of gags, until people start dying horribly.
Why would you want to tell this particular story today? Well, you could probably work that out with a moment's thought. Director Anthony Neilson generally keeps everything moving along with plenty of pace, but switches into sledgehammer mode when it comes to drawing parallels with more recent events in Scottish financial history. Then again, that may well be down to Beaton: if Week Ending had been around in the 17th century, they'd probably have covered this story with a similar lack of subtlety. No matter: it's still a cautionary tale we need to be reminded of, and it works terrifically as theatre.
When The Belated Birthday Girl and I were roughly mapping out our plans for today, one of the things we tried to do was choose unfamiliar names rather than old favourites. As you'll subsequently see, we had a mixed degree of success with that. But Simon Donald was one old name that I was particularly keen to catch during this week. You know him best as one of the co-founders of Viz comic: in fact, he was here in 2004 with colleague Alex Collier, in what amounted to an oral history of the nation's favourite scatmag.
Donald's involvement with the comic has dropped off to drawing the occasional guest story: these days, he's more interested in creating comic characters that he can perform on stage himself. In between sketches, he recycles some of the best anecdotes from that 2004 show, for the benefit of people who didn't see it.
It's a funny thing about the Viz creators: I always think of them as artists rather than writers, assuming that the bulk of their character creation work goes into the look. But obviously this stuff has to be written too, and you can draw direct lines between the characters in Hatstand and the ones in the comic. The self-proclaimed 'supplier to the stars' could have appeared in one of the comic's two-page text expose stories: the posh comedian breaking off repeatedly to talk to his mates is just Student Grant with a job. My favourite character (Jeremy Jitler) takes the deconstruction of comedy cliches even further than Stewart Lee, as he demonstrates how 1970s racist jokes can be made contemporary by telling them about gingers instead.
As in 2004, Donald is a genial presence on stage: there's audience participation, but it's never nasty. (Though the woman near the front who's picked on by all five of his characters in turn might disagree.) There's no reason why a career in comics should automatically qualify you for a career in performance comedy, but Donald seems to have managed the transition quite smoothly. This show feels like the beginning of something interesting.
We nip around the corner from the Caves for a posh fish supper at Creelers, and then spend the rest of the night hitting the budget venues on Blair Street trying to save back the cost of the meal. First up is smartypants rapper Baba Brinkman, hightlighted by Tomas in last year's reports for his Rap Guide To Evolution. That show has returned this year, along with a new one called The Rap Guide To Human Nature: and both of them cost money to see. But at the same time, he's also doing a non-scientific show on the Free Fringe, at Cabaret Voltaire.
In Rapconteur, Brinkman retells some of the world's greatest epic narratives inna hip-hop stylee. He moves from the legend of Gilgamesh (the oldest recorded narrative on earth) to the story of Beowulf (where he's trying to bypass your memories of the recent film version). His aim is as always to recount the tales with his usual mix of flawless flow, sneaky internal rhymes and slamming beats (the latter supplied by regular collaborator Mr Simmonds).
I've only really heard Brinkman's science material before, but this is actually a return to where he started - his earliest work was a rap adaptation of the Canterbury Tales, and rest assured Chaucer gets a quick look-in here too. The results are great to listen to: if anything, for me the addition of a narrative line makes these tunes even stronger. It may be billed as a free show, but I'd be surprised if you could make it through to the end without forking out a fiver for the soundtrack CD. (Alternatively, buy a download of it from here for the price of your choice. Don't stiff him, pay up!)
Just up the road from Cabaret Voltaire is The Tron, a very old-fashioned Fringe pub. As even the Caves are managing to turn themselves into something approaching a civilised venue, the gents at the Tron tells a very different story: a 5mm layer of piss on the floor, a Durex machine with 'insert baby for refund' scrawled on it, and below that in a different hand the words 'fuck off Nigel Rees'. But there are benefits too. For one thing, the Tron is one of the venues on the Five Pound Fringe circuit, so all their shows are nice and cheap. For another, their late night gig frequently features The Boy With Tape On His Face, who's become one of the major hits on this year's Fringe. Since he was announced as a nominee for the Whateverthefuckwecalltheperriernow Best Newcomer Award yesterday, his solo show has completely sold out. The Tron can thus proudly announce that their late show has become one of the few places where it's still possible to see young Tapey.
We decide to give it a try, but that gives us a long wait before the show. However, the previous act in the same venue is comic Andrew O'Neill, who I complained about on Sunday because I'd heard all the jokes in his set before. Still, he's been funny in the past, and it's the last night of his show at the bargain bucket price of £2.50, so we decide to give him another chance. And to our delight, O'Neill performs an hour's worth of entirely unfamiliar material. His main theme is how much of a misanthrope he is, and how his metal lifestyle alienates him from the rest of society. (There's a nice little riff in which he takes assorted audience-selected concepts and categorises them as either Metal or Goth.)
It's the first time I've seen him in transvestite gear, which is a little surprising but fits his theme rather nicely: being a metalhead is alienating enough, but being one in eyeliner and stripey tights must be even worse. But he's an utterly charming presence on stage, which makes his centerpiece story (about the time he got into a fight on a night bus) even more funny, as you couldn't imagine him hurting a fly. Even an initially worrying bit of audience intimidation, where he repeatedly sings I Wanna Know What Love Is at a girl in the front row, turns out to have a cute punchline attached. My one disappointment is that we didn't catch him at the start of his run in Edinburgh, where he did a couple of gigs with his steampunk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.
And so we stay in the Tron for their late night show, Fucking Funny For A Fiver. Curiously, even though the promise of an award nominee on the bill has lured us in off the streets, the show plays to a just-over-half-full room. In fact, the audience actually shrinks after the interval, thanks to four Goths who don't take kindly to the Radio 4 stylings of James Sherwood. Diane Spencer is the MC for the evening, a former drama teacher who feels partly responsible for the overacting students currently clogging up the Royal Mile. Curiously, she gets through the entire night without playing on the obvious gag of her name, presumably so that critics don't get to tell her she's had a car crash of a gig or something. (She hasn't, by the way.)
Nik Coppin and Sam Gore are the two FFFAF regulars on the bill, with Coppin proving more enjoyable with his observations on his mixed race origins and his Spider-Man hoodie. The special guests are more interesting, but both flawed in their own different ways. To be fair to James Sherwood, his musical comedy set is fine, but it's almost exactly the same as the one I saw him do at Mervyn Stutter two years ago. It suddenly strikes me at this point that this must be what comics do: create a set of 15-20 minutes of material, and have it ready to wheel out for multi-act shows like this one. (Which is why Andrew O'Neill sounded so familiar on Sunday, but not in his full-length show.) However, the one gag that Sherwood's added to that set since 2008 is a corker, as he sympathises with the Edinburgh residents who have to cope with an annual invasion of people who think "London is in England, Cardiff is in Wales, and Edinburgh's in August."
Finally we get to headliner The Boy With Tape On His Face, another regular on this bill who's been all over the press for the last few weeks. And now he's an award nominee, so the hype will just build and build from here. Will it seem too snotty if I suggest that he's not all that? He's just another mime artist - the Tape On His Face covers his mouth to ensure that - performing a series of sight gags most notable for the involvement of audience members and the huge amount of time they take to set up. Sometimes the payoff justifies the wait, but there are far too many scenes that just sit there on stage after the reveal.
The Fringe has always had physical comedy acts like this - earlier this week we've seen Julien Cottereau at Stutter performing in a classical style, while Japanese duo Gamarjobat have been extending that approach with the use of props for a few years now. Why is everyone suddenly raving about this particular one? It would be too cynical to suggest that the Whateverthefuckwecalltheperriernow company are cranking up the hype to get press for their first year of awards. Or would it?
Notes From Spank's Pals
Anne - It would have helped my understanding of all that was happening in Memoirs Of A Biscuit Tin had I read the handout given to the audience before the play started. The premise is that one actress plays the wall, another the chimney, and the third the floor of Mrs Benjamin's house. But Mrs Benjamin has disappeared inexplicably from the dark, dusty neglected house. The three are desperate to find her, and start to look for her beyond the house. The actresses Kathryn Lowe (Floor), Jennifer Summer (Chimney) and Bethany Sheldon (Wall) give inventive, humourous and sometimes moving performances in a curious, well-performed piece, though I was a bit confused in parts.
Anne - Hamlet The Musical is a really funny spoof of Shakespeare's tragedy. The ghost of the dead King glides on looking like Elvis in Las Vegas. Jack Shalloo plays a nerdish ginger-haired cockney hamlet, and Virge Gilchrist his Essex mum, always holding a chalice of wine. The show is full of silly Carry On type jokes. The music and songs are lively and the audience encouraged to participate eventually singing in Danish, then English. The cast was strong and the wobbly sets compliment Ryan McBride's production. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear as New York Jewish puppets trapped in a cupboard. All the cast performed well and the rest of the audience appeared to enjoy this as enthusiastically as myself. The play was better than I had anticipated with loads of laughs.