Reviewed today: Andrew O'Neill, Bridget Christie, Much Ado About Nothing, The North Sea Scrolls, Political Animal, Saving Seatown, You Once Said Yes.
The overall strategy is simple but effective: transport Shakespeare's best-loved romcom to the late 1950s. It makes for some witty shorthand in the costumes (with Don John standing out from the crowd in leather jacket and t-shirt), and some effective use of songs from the period in the scene transitions. If there's a technical flaw to be pointed out, it's that sometimes those songs are played so loudly as to overwhelm the actors on stage. Which is a shame, as they're all enthusiastic and throw themselves into the parts. You could also argue that Natasha Holmes' Beatrice is a little underpowered initially, but there's no denying that she's got the attitude down cold, and by the end she's generating all the sparks with Ben Weil's Benedick that you could hope for. I wouldn't have seen this production if it wasn't for a simple accident of train booking, but I'm glad I did.
It's more usual that we see American school productions on the Fringe than British ones, thanks to the well-oiled machine that is American High School Theater Festival. Every year, they bring over a ton of high school productions to the Church Hill Theatre for a series of short runs. This year (after a brief pitstop in Loopy Lorna's Tea House) we've plumped for New Rochelle High School's offering, for one very simple reason: while most of the productions in the AHSTF are of established musicals and plays, Saving Seatown is the world premiere of a work actually written by students (Paul Rigano, Katie Weiller and David Jutt).
Seatown is an underwater community, watched over by a superhero team known as the Fishtastic Five. They can be a little slow (it took them four hours to rescue a catfish from a tree once), and yes, there was that time they accidentally killed someone, but on the whole they're good at stomping out petty crime. But how will they cope when real villainy arrives in town, in the octotentacled form of Doctor Eight?
I always think that AHSTF productions work best when they exploit all that cheap child labour available to them, and get a cast on stage that's way larger than most other Fringe productions can afford. And New Rochelle use their resources wisely, with lots of fun crowd scenes as panic takes over Seatown. The book and songs are enjoyable, cramming in more fish-based puns than the human brain can comfortably assimilate in 90 minutes. (The use of "holy carp!" as an expletive is my favourite.) And the look of the show is astonishing: Michael Fry and his design class have kitted the actors and stage out in eye-shredding dayglo colours, recreating the undersea world in an enjoyable stylised way. There are a couple of audio issues with the production - the generators used to keep the inflatable set erect sometimes drown out the dialogue scenes, and there are some ugly bits of bassy feedback that the more quick-witted cast members have to cover for with impromptu fart gags (take a bow, Raj Basak as Dr Eight). But apart from that, it's a fine bit of musical theatre, with a visual ambition way above that of most things you'll see in church halls at this festival.
At one stage, I had a vague plan to catch the shows by Bridget Christie and Catie Wilkins back to back, for reasons I'd like to keep irritatingly obscure. Sadly, scheduling has wrecked that plan - the 8pm slot when Wilkins is doing her show is pretty much Fringe primetime these days, and I've already got plans for that slot for every night this week. But at least in the meantime, we have Bridget Christie, in a standup show she's calling Housewife Surrealist. The title doesn't really give any hint of the theme of the show, and is more of a hook for a fun poster image: what it's actually about is Christie's Catholicism. Bounding on stage in a bishop's outfit and stuffing Cornish wafers into people's faces, she talks about her upbringing as a Catholic, and her struggles to maintain her faith in the face of her husband's atheism and the Pope's increasingly idiotic proclamations.
I'm a recovering Catholic rather than a still-practising one, but obviously this stuff runs deep if you've been through the programming: when Christie starts sprinking the audience with holy water, it was all I could do to stop blessing myself. But even for non-Catholics, this is a wildly entertaining hour: as she says, there's a lot of comedy out there currently looking at religion from the rationalist point of view, and it's good to see a show that talks about it from the perspective of a believer, doubts and all. Plus there are gags aplenty - some splendidly silly visual coups (the two best ones involving appearances by Jesus Himself), and a section on Martin Luther that she cheerfully admits most of the audience won't get (somehow drawing comparisons between the 95 Theses and the Cockgate scandal that's enlivened this year's Fringe). Christie's atheist husband may be a major supporting character in her stories, but Housewife Surrealist marks the point where she's achieved a level of splendidness that means we can stop talking about her in relation to him. (Unlike last year.)
Now here's a strange thing. You know the Edge Festival: it's what we call the popular music subsection of the Fringe these days. One of the main problems they have is that they can't always get their list of gigs together in time for the publication date of the Fringe programme, so sometimes shows don't get the publicity they deserve. Take The North Sea Scrolls, which looks on paper to be an astonishing collaboration between Luke Haines (The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder), Cathal Coughlan (Microdisney and Fatima Mansions) and journalist Andrew Mueller. Two cult legends of British indie music on stage together... and they end up playing to an audience of roughly fifty people. I'm here to tell you this: if you weren't one of those fifty people, you've wasted your life.
Aside from the talent involved, one of the things that intrigued me about The North Sea Scrolls was that the little information available about the show really didn't give much away about what it was. In fact, it's an alternative history of late 20th century England, where a combination of colonisation by the Irish and a crippling addiction to celebrity culture has brought the country to its knees. England has been split into just two counties, Northshire and Southshire, with the Angel Of The North in the middle posed in the internationally accepted arms-wide gesture of asking for a fight. Terrorism is rife in the form of an Australian IRA tribute act. And the corpse of Jimmy Saville is being wheeled through the London Marathon as part of his seven-day state funeral.
It's a carefully structured show (soon, presumably, to be a carefully structured record): Mueller reads a short text piece about the particular topic in hand, and then Haines and Coughlan perform a song as densely crammed with high- and low-culture allusions as anything Half Man Half Biscuit ever did. The interplay between the two makes for an exhilarating hour and a half, with songs as good as anything either of them have written in the past. (Though they do oblige the audience with encores of old favourites Singer's Hampstead Home and Leeds United at the end.) Performing wonders with no more than voices, guitar, keyboard, Audrey Riley's cello and a dozen or so projected slides, The North Sea Scrolls is going to take some beating as my favourite show of the year.
Let's quickly go backwards a little. Earlier today, we went to the Stand to see Bridget Christie, and while we were there we took a look at the bills for the upcoming multi-comic shows, as you do. And once we saw the lineup for tonight's Political Animal, we knew we had to be there. So, we'd committed ourselves to another suicide slot between midnight and 2am. But with The North Sea Scrolls finished by just after 9.30pm, could we fit in another show before midnight? It looked like we could, as Andrew O'Neill was playing at the Assembly between 10.30 and 11.30. You'd have thought that after all the years I'd done at the Fringe, I'd have realised the risks involved.
O'Neill was one of our comedy highlights of last year, playing to a half-full room at the Tron on a two-for-one deal. This year, he's playing to a half-full room at the all-new Assembly complex in George Square on a two-for-one deal, but it's a bigger room so I guess that counts as progress. This year's show, Alternative, is loosely based around his various attempts to lead alternative lifestyles. For my money, his shorter gags work best, much in the way Harry Hill throws out tiny surreal packets of comedy that slowly evolve into running gags. The longer sections - a lengthy discussion of his time as a hitch-hiker, and a too-slow-burning short play on the subject of gravy - don't quite do it for me.
But it's the venue that ultimately defeats him. For a start, by this point in the evening the Assembly's Bosco tent is running twenty minutes behind schedule: so we have to leave before the end of the show to make our midnight appointment, and will never discover the conclusion of the running gag where O'Neill keeps offering to fight a girl in the front row. The other thing is that the Bosco tent is, well, a tent, in the middle of an open air arena with three other tents nearby, all running shows at high volume with no soundproofing. I know it was a long-standing joke that the sound at the old Assembly Rooms used to leak from one show to another, but that doesn't mean they have to recreate that in their new site.
So we have to duck out five minutes before the end, take a taxi across town, and get to the Stand too late to get a seat for Political Animal, meaning we have to watch the show standing for two hours. Worth it? Oh, yes. The Stand's political comedy showcase was started years ago by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, although for the last few years Zaltzman's been running it as a solo operation, ever since Oliver ran off to the US to become a TV star on The Daily Show.
But now he's back! From outer space! This week's run of Political Animal has turned into a reunion gig for Zaltzman and Oliver, who are co-compering the show just like they did in the old days. Except I'd imagine that in the old days, there weren't so many gags about how Oliver has sold his soul for a role in The Smurfs. (Oliver's defence is to keep quoting the worldwide gross that the film's made: Zaltzman's rebuttal is to ask him the box office figures for his earlier role in The Love Guru.)
There are good individual sets from an international collection of guest comics: Raymond Mearns from Scotland, Josh Howie from England, Lee Camp from America, and a Bangladeshi guy from Melbourne whose name I didn't catch what with the whole 1.30am and being drunk thing. But it's the Zaltzman/Oliver interludes between their sets that make the whole show fly, as they bitch about Oliver's selling out and Zaltzman's comparative lack of success. It all peaks early in the second half, as the pair of them get into a five minute argument with the voice of God (played by Daniel Kitson on a backstage mic), which leaves both the participants and the audience gasping for breath by the end. Oliver's there till Thursday: can't swear if Kitson will be back, I'm afraid. I'm trying not to sound smug here and failing horribly.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Nick - Only halfway through the festival, and I will almost certainly be making You Once Said Yes my top-ranked show. A brilliant microcosm of the festival itself, at once scary, unnerving, visceral, funny and entertaining, it was also profoundly spiritual in parts. Keep saying yes and the experiences keep flowing. I don't want to give away too much about the show, albeit to say it takes you way out of your comfort zone. Doing guerilla style movements (dodging the leafletters along the Royal Mile) dressed as a balloon seller was in the realms of a seemingly virtual experience, and totally disorientating. But there were also moments of deep contemplative calm. I was a babbling wreck when I left this show, and I eventually had to get to another show later. I must have missed several experiences, but the ones I had were all wonderfully life-affirming.