My highlight of this year's visit to Edinburgh was Daniel Kitson. I agree pretty much with the comments already made by Spank and the Belated Birthday Girl. I would simply add that this was one of the most powerful pieces of theatre that I have witnessed for many years, and that I would strongly recommend it. I also very much enjoyed Guy Masterson's solo performance of Under Milk Wood.
I find the laid-back atmosphere at the Book Festival is always a pleasant contrast to the rather frenetic Fringe, and I enjoyed the two talks I attended this year, by Roy Hattersley and Roddy Doyle. Roddy Doyle talked interestingly about his native Ireland in the context of discussing his final book in the Henry Smart series, The Dead Republic. Probably wisely, Roy Hattersley declined to discuss his most recent book, on the basis that In Search of England would not go down well with a Scottish audience! Instead, he gave a fascinating talk about the art of writing political biography, in the course of which he was highly critical of Peter Mandelson's recent efforts. At the book signing after the talk (there was only a small queue for him to sign copies of In Search of England), I spoke to him briefly about the forthcoming (at the time of writing) Labour leadership election and New Labour in general (of which he was disapproving). He is an impressive speaker, passionate and incisive, and it is hard to believe that he will be 78 in December 2010.
The pick of the musical events I attended was the concert of music by Henry Purcell at the Usher Hall, performed by the orchestra and choir of The Sixteen (together with some excellent soloists). The main work was Purcell's last semi-opera The Indian Queen. Written in the final few months of the composer's life in 1694-95 (and completed by his brother Daniel), but when he was still at the height of his powers, the work consists of a series of arias and choruses that were to accompany the performance of a play, rather than telling the full story in itself (hence the term 'semi-opera'). This is really fine music, with wonderful orchestration and intuitive handling of choir and soloists. Purcell's semi-operas are very difficult to stage, and as a result have been badly neglected (as has much of his work). They probably work best in a concert performance, as was the case here.
The recital at the Queen's Hall by the Nash Ensemble, to which Spank has referred, made a pleasant contrast with the Purcell concert. I would just add a few comments of my own about the Aaron Copland piece. I have been interested in Copland's music for many years (having attended his 80th birthday concert in London in 1980), and it was good to hear the Sextet for the first time. It can perhaps be seen as a precursor to two of his later works. The Mexican style of the final section reminded me of El Salon Mexico, perhaps the first of Copland's more popular works and wonderfully atmospheric; and the combination of the clarinet with other instruments brought to mind his excellent Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by Benny Goodman in 1948.
Finally, I would also mention two other musical events I attended in the Fringe Festival. The concert by Capercaillie, an eight-piece Scottish folk band fronted by the excellent singing of Karen Matheson, showed that the acoustic at the Queen's Hall works as well for folk music as it does for classical music. Moishe's Bagel, who played at the Lot Grassmarket, are a five-piece group (piano, accordion, violin, double bass and percussion) who play Eastern European folk and kletzmer music. They are a fine combination of musicians and whilst I would like to have heard a bit more kletzmer, this was an enjoyable session at this intimate venue.
The most recent production by the National Theatre of Scotland, Beautiful Burnout, is a collaboration between Bryony Lavery and the theatre company Frantic Assembly. The title comes from a track by the electronic group Underworld, and the techno-thump of their music highlights the action throughout the play.
A raised boxing ring forms the stage and the audience sits on three sides. The play endeavours to show the fascination of boxing, the motivation of the young trainees with possible big financial rewards, as well as the unpalatable side of the sport. The subject is tough and the language is strong but there are softer moments too.
The trainer, Bobby Burgess, is ruthlessly hard and likes to be called "God" by the young aspiring boxers. The plot and writing work fine but what stood out for me was the sheer physicality of the drama. The five actors who portray the trainees not only act well but are also superfit and their performances are almost balletic.
Beautiful Burnout was my top choice this year out of the ten shows I attended at the Fringe. I enjoyed it from beginning to end.
Here is a quick summary of my personal top 5 Edinburgh shows:
1. You're Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy (Pleasance)
Caroline Horton's excellent one woman show. Horton takes centre stage in this self penned gem - the tale of Chrissy who we meet at the Gare Du Nord waiting for a train to England to be reunited with her English fiance Cyril. The eccentric Chrissy tells of their meeting, separation by war and her desperate quest to acquire a visa so that she may rejoin her fiance. With just a few suitcases on stage which open up to reveal a Parisian skyline , English garden etc. Horton conjures up a variety of settings for this tale of courtship, disappointment and determination. The thing that distinguishes this from the other one person shows in Edinburgh is the poignant ending when we discover that we have not been watching just another good actress creating a fictional character. Chrissy was, in fact, Caroline Horton's grandmother who recently moved into sheltered housing. While helping to de clutter Chrissy's house Caroline found her grandmother's wartime letters and pieced together this story from the letters and conversations about her youth. The play ends with film of 92 year old Chrissy returning to Paris with her family and visiting old haunts. A show which deserves a further life - don't miss if it comes to your town!
2. David Leddy's Sub Rosa (Masonic Hall at Hill Street Theatre)
After seeing Punchdrunk's frustrating and confusing Duchess of Malfi recently in London I was a little wary of the idea of promenade site specific performance, particularly at 12.30am after a "hard day" of theatregoing in Edinburgh. However this turned out to be one of my most memorable evenings of Edinburgh 2010. A theatre representative guided a group of approx 10 people from the Freemasons Hall on George Street to the Masonic Hall in atmospheric cobbled Hill Street, where he gave us a resume of Edinburgh New Town's history with particular reference to Edinburgh's theatrical connections. Having done this and warned us not to chat as we walk round, he led us in silence into the Masonic hall where we were taken into a number of spaces, each one inhabited by performers who unveiled a story of horror, murder and backstage life in an Edinburgh Victorian music hall, The Winter Palace. A strongman, Siamese twins, a wig master, a chorine and the mother of a young performer tell us of the Winter Palace's evil manager Mr Hunter and the teenage music hall performer who he impregnates and then murders. We do not meet the two leading characters but the storytelling skills of the performers are so great that this doesn't matter. The building acts as an extra character in the story with atmospheric lighting by Nich Smith which helps to add to the horror as the plot's murderous conclusion unfolds. The performances are convincing but controlled so it never becomes melodramatic. The effect is unsettling and the finale is followed by a descent into the night via a fire escape with a view over the rooftops of the New Town backstreets which added to the atmosphere.
3. Lockerbie - Unfinished Business (Gilded Balloon)
David Benson is known for his one man shows about Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Noel Coward so this is a new departure for him - playing a straight character who was not a celebrity or show business person. Jim Swire's beloved daughter Flora was killed in the 1983 Lockerbie bombing and since then he has campaigned tirelessly for justice. Swire’s position about the “Lockerbie bomber” is made clear towards the end: “The scandal is not that he was released but that he was ever imprisoned in the first place.” Swire believes that there was Iranian rather than Libyan involvement and the play, which takes the form of a lecture, spells out his various theories. This could be dull in less able hands but Benson gives an assured and understated performance. The description of seeing Flora's body in the morgue and the recordings of Flora's voice provided by the Swire family who co operated with Benson on this production are really touching. Benson's Swire suppresses the tears but we see the pain on his face as he describes his mental vision of the terrifying last moments of his daughter following the detonation. The Edinburgh Festival is a great opportunity for performers to show their versatility and this show demonstrates that David Benson is a versatile actor who has much to offer and who should be feted for much more than his Kenneth Williams impersonations.
4. Nick Pynn (Inlingua)
I'd seen Nick Pynn performing briefly a couple of times at Mervyn Stutter's Pick of the Fringe and had always intended to catch his show, but this was the first time I had ventured up the steep staircase of the Inlingua language school in Hanover Street for his 10pm show. Why this man is not performing in a larger more prominent Edinburgh venue I can't understand. Most people would pass this venue by but if they do they are missing a real gem. During the course of the evening Pynn plays violin, steel-string guitar, lap dulcimer, 5-string banjo and wine glasses, whilst live-looping and bass-pedalling with his feet to give the effect of a band of several musicians crowded into this tiny room instead of one man. In between the music Pynn chats to the audience (just 14 of us in a room which seats 20) to tell the story behind his self penned pieces. At the end of the show he invites the audience to join him for a chat and you feel as you have just attended a concert given by a good friend in his front room. Apparently comedian Stewart Lee is a big fan and Pynn has been guesting on Lee's shows at the Stand in Edinburgh, so hopefully he will join Lee on his forthcoming tours and his talents will reach a larger audience.
5. Breathing Corpses (Sweet at the Grassmarket)
This is something I came upon by accident. After failing to purchase tickets for Moishe's Bagel at the Lot in the Grassmarket, I popped into the Sweet venue at the nearby Apex Hotel to see what was on. I selected Breathing Corpses as it was by Laura Wade whose play Posh at the Royal Court earlier this year has been my "best new play" this year so far. Breathing Corpses was a student production by students from Liverpool Uni Drama Society, and I was a little concerned because in the past I had seen students doing some very bad "young person's impression of old person" acting in other Edinburgh productions. I needn't have worried. Laura Wade didn't disappoint. Her debut play was well written and brilliantly constructed. I won't give too much away in case readers see a future production of this play. Each scene centers around the discovery of a corpse and the next scene goes on reveal to the audience how the corpse reached that state. The actors aged 19 to 21 convinced totally as characters of their own age and much older. The Sweet is not the ideal venue for theatre - we were obviously in a conference room converted into a performance space - so it is all credit to the performers and production team that they pulled off this production with minimal set and props, nothing extraneous like sound effects or music but creating the atmosphere and setting the scene through the acting skills of this talented young team.
The Belated Birthday Girl
As predicted, nothing came close to It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later, and in a way that slightly unbalanced the week, coming as early as it did. Still, I’m not going to complain at having seen such a wonderful piece, and coming to it with little preconception was a bonus. Leaving that aside, the most enjoyable thing I saw was my sole visit to the book festival this year, Martin Rowson being (vaguely) interviewed by Steve Bell. Rowson’s presentation showing the development of his characterisation of Nick Clegg was worth the price of admission on its own, and I was interested by his self-description as a journalist who uses visual narrative. I liked his line that anyone who wants to be in a position of power over others needs to be kept in check.
On the comedy front, Simon Munnery was a highlight, although the proportion of his show devoted to things relating to his offspring adds weight to my idea that maybe comics who become parents should consider retiring – although, to be fair, he was far funnier and less annoying than many new parent comics. I was also very pleased we went to Andrew O'Neill’s show. He’d impressed me the couple of times I’d seen him do short spots, and the full set, made up almost entirely of unfamiliar material, was very good. In my traditional “Lee vs. Herring – which is best” contest, I think Richard Herring came top again, although the comparison was made difficult this year by the structure and purpose of Stewart Lee’s show. Still, both were well worth seeing.
As my other main focus is always (and I do mean always) food, I just want to mention some of my favourites of the places we ate. The food at The Apartment was very good, and the service excellent (if you read reviews to the contrary, they are usually old, so I’m guessing the past year has brought new staff or better training!), and I also liked vegetarian restaurant L’Artichaut. But the top place goes to the excellent fish dishes at Creelers, wonderfully presented and excellent quality, using well sourced ingredients. I read that the owners will be giving up the Edinburgh restaurant so that at some point in the future you’ll have to go to Arran to eat at one of their restaurants. So if you get the chance, you should probably get to the Edinburgh one sooner rather than later – unless you live in Arran, of course.
Other than all that, the main highlight was being in the room to hear Andrew Collins call Spank’s book a cunt.