Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Saturday 20/08/2011
Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Monday 22/08/2011

Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Sunday 21/08/2011

Reviewed today: David Leddy's Untitled Love Story, Evelyn Evelyn, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, The Stand Late Show, Ten Plagues, What Remains.

Left to right: Victor, Victoria, and BernadetteI need to break the fourth wall here for a second. We all know that although it says Sunday August 21st up there, I'm actually writing this on Monday August 22nd, and you're either reading it on that day or some time after. Agreed? Agreed. Well, today - and 'today' here means Monday rather than Sunday - I've got a new piece up on Mostly Film, now firmly established as Europe's Best Website no matter what loyalties you may have to this place. It ties in with the recent trip to San Sebastian that I alluded to a couple of months ago, and looks at Astoria7, the former cinema that's been converted into a rather lovely hotel. It's probably the first bit of travel writing to have appeared on Mostly Film, and I'm quite pleased at having snuck it into there. I'd normally back it up with some bonus material on this site, but as you can see I'm a bit tied up at the moment - I'll try to get something for you some time next week.

In the meantime, back to the matter in hand, where 'today' from this point onwards refers to Sunday rather than Monday. And we know what Sundays mean here by now, surely? Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe is now, astonishingly, in its 20th year, and there are people in the audience who've actually been with him all that time. For my part, I first saw Stutter introduce a compilation show back in 1996, but didn't get around to seeing Pick Of The Fringe until 1998, which was the first year I started writing daily Festival reviews on the web. The Pals and I quickly realised it's a great show for the first slot on your first full day: you get to see extracts from seven Fringe shows, allowing you to get a feel for how things are going generally this year, and you may even be inspired to see one or two of those shows in full.

Stutter's beef has always been that since he started this show back in 1992, it's inspired a series of lesser imitators. Other compilation shows either lack the quality control that his team's research gives to their daily selections, or they concentrate heavily on stand-up comedy with a token musical act at the end to send everyone home humming. POTF has always prided itself on providing a much wider range of acts, with much more emphasis on theatre than the other shows. And today is a terrific example of what Stutter brings to the table: it's a wide-ranging, high quality collection of material that you simply wouldn't see gathered together anywhere else.

As always, it's Stutter himself who holds the whole thing together, with his pink jacket (a new one this year, the old one's being raffled off for charity), thrown-together topical songs (Pippa Middleton's bottom and phone hacking for 2011), and friendly interviews with the performers. First up is Rachael's Cafe, Lucy Danser's play based on the true story of Eric, a family man in midwestern America who feels most comfortable when he's working as a waitress in the eponymous cafe. Graham Elwell is utterly charming in the role, but it points up the dangers of showing a few minutes of a play without any context: it takes a while to work out whether he's actually playing a transvestite, or he's having to play a woman due to some sort of budgetary issues. Stutter's subsequent interview with the real Rachael/Eric manages to clear that up, but you do suspect that the play doesn't quite have the same impact unless they can wheel out its inspiration for every performance.

Another theatrical extract, this one from Emma Jowett's Snap. Catch. Slam., doesn't have those context problems at all. It's a series of three short plays about life changing moments, and we get a slice of the middle one: it quickly builds up a tense situation with just three actors, escalates it beautifully over five minutes or so, and cheekily knows exactly when to stop to lure punters in to see the whole thing. East End Cabaret are next, and I know within seconds of them appearing on stage exactly what my first picture of the day is going to be. Singer Bernadette Byrne and instrumentalist Victor Victoria (the latter being our second bit of gender ambiguity in the show) do a couple of terrific cabaret songs, with the filthy Is It In Yet? teaching some brand new ideas to the few kids who've made it into this performance.

You don't want to suggest that having cerebral palsy has become a new comedy genre on the Fringe, but there are at least two performers this year who fall into that category. Francesca Martinez has probably got more attention simply from being female and having done some telly, but Lawrence Clark - our next act in the show - has a much harder, more political edge. With some entertaining help from a PowerPoint presentation, he introduces his show Health Hazard!, documenting his journey to the US to persuade people that free healthcare is a good thing. That's a concept that grabs your attention, isn't it? Clark's multimedia gags mean we can't really think of him as a simple standup comic (plus, you know, the wheelchair): that role in the show falls to the magnificently reliable Ivor Dembina, doing a few minutes of his Free Jewish Comedy show as cover for another comic who dropped out at the last minute.

There's a bit more variety to finish off the show: Pete Firman does some charming comedy magic, while Voices provides just the sort of acapella musical finale that's made for closing a Pick Of The Fringe. There are similarities with The Magnets, who've taken on a similar role in these shows in previous years - as with them, the rhythm section of a large bass singer and a human beatbox are the main focus of attention, but Voices draws on vocal music from all over the world to provide something unlike anything I've ever heard before. It's just the sort of thing that Stutter's show was made to draw your attention to, and long may it continue to do so.

Let's try to get through the next few paragraphs without the usual references to stomach pumps, shall we?Here's another Edinburgh tradition: going to the Traverse to see the best theatre the Fringe has to offer. In this year's publicity, they quote a 2010 review from the Observer: "the... Fringe fan could do much worse than block-book everything that's on at the Traverse." That's a little excessive, not to mention costly, but their reputation is genuinely that good: you're always guaranteed a high level of quality, and at least one show each year that'll completely blow you away. Having said that, the two Traverse shows we see back-to-back today are both flawed, though in interesting ways.

Ten Plagues is a song cycle with lyrics by Mark Ravenhill and music by Conor Mitchell. I've had a problem with Ravenhill for a few years now, and it's down to an incredibly petty little grudge on my part. He's written some fine plays over the years, with Some Explicit Polaroids being a particular highlight for me. Bu tfive years ago, he wrote an article for The Guardian in which he used the TV show Life On Mars as the starting point for a discussion of how society's attitudes to race have changed over time. And he made it clear in the opening section that he thought the show was about a 1970s cop trapped in the 21st century, rather than the other way round - that is, he was basing an entire thinkpiece around a TV show he hadn't even seen. I lost quite a bit of respect for him after that, and aggressively avoided his new plays at the Fringe afterwards (and he's written a few for the Traverse over that period).

I thought it was about time that I let bygones be bygones: particularly as Ten Plagues is effectively a one-man show, and singer Marc Almond is that one man. In a collection of fifteen songs, Ravenhill's lyrics tell the story of London's great plague in 1665, pulling on a number of contemporary accounts. Accompanied by a single piano - presumably played by Mitchell himself, although it's not clear from the programme - Almond presents a man's changing viewpoints as the plague sweeps through his city. The initial panic ("suddenly, I need a God"): the increasing signs of society's collapse: the horror when the disease suddenly strikes close to home.

The fifteen songs work to varying degrees: the through line between them is more implied than explicit, and some of them feel a little like filler to bring them up to the hour. What holds them all together - what has to hold them all together - is the presence of Marc Almond himself, who spookily doesn't appear to have aged a bit in the last 30 years. I've always had a slight issue with Almond's cavalier approach to pitch, and the number of times when he lands tantalisingly close to the note he's obviously aiming for. But his sheer expressiveness is what's drawn me back to his work time and time again: and it works so well in a musical theatre context, you wonder why he hasn't done more of it before now. The whole piece is topped off with the impressive visuals of director Stewart Laing, notably some magical interaction between the performer and the video backdrop. It can be a little variable in parts, but on the whole Ten Plagues is good enough for me to finally forgive Ravenhill. For now.

There's more music/theatre fusion from the Traverse later in the day, after a pleasant interlude eating haggis burger at Red Squirrel. But What Remains is one of the Traverse's site-specific productions, meaning we have to make our way to the anatomy department of the University Of Edinburgh's Medical School. The building has been transformed into some sort of institute for the study of the anatomy of music, and we start by listening to a piano recital by composer/performer David Paul Jones. But at the end of it, he reveals that this is going to be a more educational experience than we first realised. The audience is split into groups, and we're led around the building to discover the story of what kind of school we're attending here.

There are some good ideas at the centre of What Remains, but not enough of them, and the execution isn't tight enough to make them work. Grid Iron Theatre have a solid enough reputation for this sort of site-specific work, but for my money the ones to beat are Punchdrunk. This show makes you appreciate one of the key ideas at the heart of the Punchdrunk philosophy: let the audience explore the environment at their own pace, or at least make them think they're exploring it at their own pace. Here, we have a set of ushers who do a fine job of herding the three audience groups from one set of rooms to another, but the sheer regimentation required to make it work ends up distracting you from the piece itself. There's a grisly little horror story buried inside the structure, but I never really felt any sense of that, apart from a couple of frissons that play on our old anxieties of school days: I spent much more time thinking about the logistics of linking the various groups together, and trying to work out what contingency plans they have if one audience group decides not to play ball

The Belated Birthday Girl is precisely the sort of person who could disrupt this sort of show, given her well-documented hatred of interactive theatre. She was initially drawn to What Remains by the location, and the chance to poke around inside an anatomy department: but at the point where she was given the instruction "please take off your shoes and lie down," I could tell they'd lost her. (Not me, on the other hand. I only got a few hours sleep last night, so my reaction to that instruction was "good, I could use a nap".) Personally, the point where they lost me was at a climax that was meant to be a moment of horror, but was completely undercut by the use of cheap electronic voice effects and a section from the score of Halloween - a particularly odd thing to do when your main creative person is, well, a composer. There are probably cheaper ways of getting a five-minute nap in the middle of the Fringe, although director Ben Harrison at least ensures that it looks nice while you've got your eyes open.

We are Siamese, if you don't pleaseIt's only a short hop from medical experiments to a cabaret act based around a pair of conjoined twins. Or is that just me? Evelyn Evelyn are a pair of sisters with two hands, three legs and one liver between them, and the all-new Assembly at George Square is presenting them for our entertainment and amusement. A ringmaster introduces the girls to us, helps them to tell the sad story of their childhood, and allows them to perform songs on the piano, accordion and ukulele.

Well, not really, obviously. Evelyn Evelyn are really two people in a specially constructed dress, sorry if I've ruined that for you. New cabaret veteran Amanda Palmer has joined forces with Jason Webley to put together something rather special that draws on all manner of cabaret influences. First up, there are the songs themselves, and the technical challenge of two people performing them with one hand apiece. There are various comedy interludes - a shadow puppet recreation of the birth of the twins, and a fun variation on the old improv game of two people answering random questions by taking alternate words in a sentence. There's the fun interplay between Palmer and Webley, who quickly establish the two halves of their character and have a unique sibling rivalry all of their own.

There are a lot of disparate elements here, and it's touch and go as to whether Palmer and Webley can bring them all together into a coherent show. The BBG thinks they don't: I think they do. And what I think ties it all together is the uneasy sense of melancholy running underneath everything we see on stage, and the hints that they're a pair of horribly abused children who are being paraded in a freakshow against their will. It's an emotional baseline that allows them to swing from broad comedy to pathos without breaking a sweat. Palmer suggests at the end of the show that this could be the twins' last performance for some time, possibly even ever. It'll be sad if the latter was the case, but at least I can feel smug about catching them before they were permanently put back in their cage.

I really should go back and read the previous year's Festival's notes before I come up here. If I did that, I would have realised that exactly 52 weeks ago, I had a rough night sleeping on the Saturday night, saw several shows back to back from early on Sunday, and topped that night off with The Stand Late Show, at which point I went into some sort of mental collapse. And 52 weeks later, look! I've done exactly the same thing all over again. To be fair, it's the Stand's fault: last year I was drawn to the Sunday night late show by the presence of Ardal O'Hanlon in a rare club appearance, and this time it was the combination of Margaret Cho and Sarah Millican that persuaded me that sleep was for losers.

I don't think I fell apart as badly this year as I did last year, but I'm still very fuzzy about the details of the show, so don't expect too many punchlines to be given away here. Bruce Devlin does his usual fine job compereing the show, aggressively bantering with the large number of gay punters in the front row who've come to see notorious fag hag Margaret Cho being incredibly rude. ("I'm bi-sexual, but I'm turned on by trans people as well... basically, I'm just greedy.") By comparison with those two, the other three acts are all sweetness and light: Matt Kirshen is his usual likeable self, Sarah Millican shows why she's selling out venues like crazy this year, and Carl Donnelly (the only one on the bill I haven't seen before) manages to get a surprising amount of funny material out of the idiosyncrasies of Subway sandwiches.

So, um, yes, from what I can remember they were all really funny, and that BrewDog beer's really good, isn't it? But as ever, the real star of the show is the Stand itself, and its audience of comedy fans who want to hear what's being said rather than just use the club as an excuse for a late bar. As Matt Kirshen says, nobody really heckles at the Stand: the one time he's interrupted is when someone attempts a callback to a previous line in his set. "That wasn't a heckle, that was just someone remembering something I said earlier. That's nice, isn't it?"

Notes From Spank's Pals

Nick - After the success of Sub Rosa last year, expectations were high for David Leddy's Untitled Love Story. But after mixed reviews, technical problems and a regular appearance in the Half Price Ticket Hut, it has not been the commercial success the venue had hoped for. It is a much more challenging piece than Sub Rosa, incorporating four meditative sessions, which were apparently the raison d'etre for Leddy doing the piece. These only work if the audience member is prepared to do the meditating, otherwise there is very little going on for 20 minutes of the show. I suspect this material will resonate far longer than a lot of 4/5 star shows, a star rating that this show has not attained in most media. Interestingly, one of the four stories that holds this piece together is about the apparent superficiality of things (Peggy Guggenheim) that can leave a lasting legacy (her museum in Venice) and leave us with some interesting ideas.


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