Last August - as is traditionally the case every three years - I gave the Edinburgh Festival a miss. But, of course, I could never detach myself from it entirely, so I still had a skim through the programmes to see what looked interesting. Meanwhile, a small clump of Spank's Pals went up there without me, and you can find their reports below. (The lateness of this is largely down to me being too busy to assemble their contributions into a single page, and I apologise for that up front.)
This year we were joined in the Warrander Park flats by a friend from work (Al), who made the interesting point that the fringe is much like visiting a beer festival, you have to get the balance right between trying new shows and if those bomb, have some shows with tried and tested performers who you know will deliver a good show.
I got the balance wrong this year and saw too many mediocre shows, none more so than the much lauded Daniel Kitson with his new play at the Traverse. It was common knowledge he was struggling to get this show together, which turned out to be a deconstruction of the very process of writing the show he was appearing in. He speed read the play sitting at a desk centre stage, laced with scripted asides to the audience, one of which was when he burst out laughing and commented that a lot of the audience looked really bored, but not to worry as the show had only 15mins to run. The reality was a lot of the audience were genuinely bored with this show. It will be interesting to see if he brings it to London, or as I suspect it will be buried and forgotten in Edinburgh.
My favourite show of the week was Bravo Figaro! by Mark Thomas also at the Traverse, a wonderful piece about his father's love of opera. It worked at so many different levels, it was entertaining, amusing and informative, it was a gem.
A favourite venue of the Muses and mine is the Valvona & Crolla deli on Leith Walk, where the always reliable Mike Maran produces outstanding shows. This year was no exception, with the story of Platero Y Yo, a poet and his donkey roaming southern Spain. Superbly staged on a revolving table and supported by a master puppeteer bringing the donkey to life, it was a delight from start to finish.
I had seen Mark Thomas recommend Carl-Einar Hackner, the so-called Swedish Tommy Cooper who had the Muses and me in fits of laughter throughout the show: one of the best comedy shows we have seen at the Fringe.
As for the socials, the Passorn Thai (opposite the Cloisters pub) took the honours for best restaurant we visited: and beer of the week went to Cairngorm’s Trade Winds, a golden ale with a hint of elderflower. We hopefully look forward to our fave monkey returning with the troupe next year.
Here are my Gold, Silver and Bronze Edinburgh shows for 2012.
1. And the Gold Medal goes to Mark Thomas’ Bravo Figaro! Thomas foresakes his usual political format to deliver a moving and effective one man piece about his father’s love of opera. When the lights go up the stage is dominated by a large photograph of Thomas senior, a bearded almost biblical figure, surrounded by the flowered wallpaper that many of us recall from our childhoods. While waiting for the show to start, we were trying to guess from the photo what this imposing man’s profession might have been. If I hadn’t read newspaper articles about Mark Thomas I would have guessed that he was a folk singer or teacher: but his father Colin was, in fact, a self employed carpenter, painter and decorator who decided to better himself by purchasing monthly opera magazines and records. This led to a passionate love of opera.
As the stage set consisted of boxes full of mementoes I thought that this would be a eulogy delivered while the son clears the deceased father’s house, but it was far from it. Colin Thomas is still around, although seriously ill with a debilitating disease, but we hear recordings of his now weak voice, speaking with his son and wife. When the recordings play a light flickers, giving us the sense that Thomas senior’s own light is about to go out. However this is no mawkish and sentimental piece. We learn that Colin Thomas was a difficult man who would increasingly resort to violence, often against members of his own family, but his son tells us that this is something the family has learned to live with and it is not the story that is being told today.
The culmination of the piece is a moving and funny description of the day when Mark Thomas arranged for Royal Opera House soloists to stage a concert in his parents’ Bournemouth front room. Bravo Figaro! is bound to tour. Don’t miss it if it comes to a theatre near you!
2. My Silver Medallists are the cast of Thread. We enter St Mark’s Church Hall opposite the Traverse for this site specific show by Nutshell, who bought us last year’s excellent Allotment. Jules Horne, author of Allotment, has created a piece which is involving, bittersweet and well observed. Threads tells the story of three friends – Joan, Izzy and William – who form a bond in primary school, and shows how their lives are intertwined over the years.
On arriving at the Church Hall we are seated in teams of 4 and asked to join in with the annual “Beetle Drive” competition run by William and Izzy. Although they seem happy, we soon hear that their friend Joan is missing, and the show flashes back to the days when the now teenage Joan and William fell in love. Izzy is the bridesmaid at their wedding and her constant presence soon becomes an irritation to William, but when his beloved Joan becomes ill with Alzheimer’s the old friends are drawn together again. The play leads to a dramatic revelation which throws light on the dynamic of the relationship over the years.
Director Kate Nelson’s family heirloom – an old sewing box - plays a major part in the action, and the three actors (Claire Dargo, Stephen Docherty and Mary Gapinski) bring the characters to sparkling life. The Scottish companies don’t seem to tour so often but I hope that others will have a chance to see this play soon, especially as Dargo and Gapinski were nominated for the Stage newspaper’s best actress award.
3. The Bronze Medal goes to Joe Douglas with another one man show, Educating Ronnie. Writer and director Douglas begins his show by telling us he is not an actor, and last performed in a youth theatre production of Oklahoma ten years ago. In spite of this, I found his delivery warm and compelling as he told the story of befriending 16 year old Ronnie on a gap year trip to Uganda. On returning to England, Joe and Ronnie correspond, but Ronnie is now testing the friendship by asking for money as a contribution towards his education.
As the demands increase the audience, like Joe, begin to question Ronnie’s integrity. Is he manipulating Joe by taking advantage of his kindness? Just when we think that this is the case, after Joe gives us a long list of things he could have bought with the £20,000 he has donated to Ronnie over the past 10 years, the tale takes an unexpected turn with the illness of Joe’s mother and Ronnie’s sympathetic reaction. Is his friendship genuine after all? The audience is left to decide while looking at the photographs of Ronnie that Joe scatters on the table before exiting the stage. I found this show thought provoking and look forward to seeing more of Douglas’s work in the future.
Just pipped to the post for the medal table were, in no particular order, David Hayman in Six and a Tanner; Nichola McAuliffe, Julian Glover and Sheila Reid in Maurice’s Jubilee; jazz singer Ian Shaw; guitarist Antonio Forcione; David Greig’s Letter of Last Resort; Tubular Bells For Two; and La Clique. Notable mentions should go to the ever reliable favourites Mervyn Stutter and Shakespeare for Breakfast.
No bad shows this year, a few mediocre ones but even the weakest entertained me. Roll on next year!
This year, I decided to delay my arrival in Edinburgh until Tuesday afternoon, starting my week in Scotland with three nights in Innerleithen, an attractive small town some 30 miles from the capital, which is in the valley of the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders. The idea was to combine the Edinburgh festivals with some walking and sightseeing in an area that I last visited over 30 years ago. As things turned out, I ended up attending events in five different festivals in the course of the week.
It was only after I booked my hotel that I found out that the town has its own festival, the Innerleithen Music Festival, which is devoted to Scottish folk music and happily coincided with my visit. I was impressed that a town with a population of only 2,500 could put on a weekend spanning Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday, that consisted of not only concerts (in its 400-seater Memorial Hall, with impressive acoustics) but also workshops and other fringe events. I attended the concerts on Saturday and Sunday evenings. The Saturday concert was sold out, and closed with Gaelic ‘supergroup’ Manran, although I personally preferred the earlier acoustic sets played by singer-songwriter Dougie McLean. The Sunday event was billed as a ‘traditional singers concert’ and was less well-attended but was for me a more musically fulfilling evening, with five impressive traditional acts headlined by the Barbara Dymock Band (although my personal favourite was the Lucy Pringle/Chris Wright duet). I very much enjoyed the experience of visiting a well-organised local festival that clearly attracted visitors from a wide area of southern Scotland.
I should also mention that over the same weekend Traquair House, just a mile or so from Innerleithen and claiming to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, had its own festival called Books, Borders and Bikes, with a range of events that lived up to its title. On the Sunday afternoon, in addition to visiting the house itself, I enjoyed a debate on the future of the union between Scotland and the UK, presided over by James Naughtie and including such luminaries as former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, current Lib Dem MP (and former party leader) Sir Menzies Campbell, and current SNP MSP Christine Grahame.
The musical theme that began in Innerleithen continued when I finally arrived in Edinburgh. I attended an enjoyable classical concert at the Usher Hall by the excellent Cleveland Orchestra, where the main work consisted of the first four sections of Ma Vlast (My Country) by Smetana; the second section (Vltava) is by far the best-known part. Company (C Venue), although not my favourite Sondheim musical, was well-performed by the young cast from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Sweet Talking Guy (Augustine’s), a new ‘jukebox’ musical, compensated for its rather thin plot with some excellent singing of classic sixties songs, again by a young cast. Finally, mention should be made of Tubular Bells for Two (Assembly George Square) which was a suitably enjoyable last night event for our group.
However, my highlight for Edinburgh this year was Bravo Figaro! at the Traverse. I cannot add much to Diane’s write-up of this one-man show by Mark Thomas; I would simply say that it was poignant and wonderfully-performed, and I would heartily recommend it. I also enjoyed Maurice’s Jubilee (Pleasance), which had outstanding performances by Julian Glover, Sheila Reid and Nichola McAuliffe (who also wrote the play). Mention should also be made of the always entertaining Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venue), and two interesting talks at the Book Festival: the former Labour MP Chris Mullin on the future of politics, and the poet Simon Armitage on his walk along the Pennine Way.
Finally, I would like to thank the whole group for making me feel so welcome when I arrived halfway through the week, and in particular to Anne for doing the first half of the week (thereby making my two-centre holiday possible) and to Nick and Charmian for organising yet another enjoyable trip to Edinburgh.
Another great week at the Fringe has ended, and the timing this year was just right, coming as it did when I was feeling a bit of post-Olympic flatness (like a lot of the nation, no doubt). I had thought last year’s high level may be a hard act to follow, but generally the shows I saw this year held up pretty well in comparison. Whilst there were no real stand-out favourites this year, there was plenty to enjoy, and even the weaker shows had something to recommend them.
Overall, though, special mention has to go to the following, two of which were productions by tried and tested favourites from previous years:-
- Carl-Einar Hackner – Handluggage. Last year, Clive Mantle’s fantastic portrayal of Tommy Cooper was one of my highlights; this man was described as the Swedish version, and has to be one of the funniest comics I have ever seen here (or anywhere for that matter). His feats of magic, songs and style of humour were brilliant, and the standard didn’t drop once during the hour – my ribs were hurting by the end. And a visit to IKEA will never be the same again!
- Mike Maran – Platero Y Yo. One of my tried and tested favourites who featured in last year’s highlights, and in one of my favourite venues, the wonderful Valvona & Crolla delicatessen. This was a beautiful picture of southern Spain, seen through the eyes of a poet accompanied by his donkey, which was portrayed with highly skilful and sensitive puppetry. The narration was mesmerising, enhanced by the Spanish guitar music. If you want a masterclass in storytelling, this is your man.
- Guy Masterson – The Half. Masterson is another tried and tested favourite, many of whose productions I have enjoyed, and this one had particular appeal to one who has experienced the nerve-wracking final half-hour before going on stage. Masterson portrays a fading actor trying to revive his career by undertaking a one man show of Hamlet, uncut, doing all roles, on which everything rides, in this wonderful satirical drama on the angst and superstitions suffered by a character who has bitten off more than he can chew.
And it was hello again to La Clique, making a welcome return in the newly located Spiegeltent in George Street, starting and ending with a brilliant impersonation of Her Majesty which was worth the ticket price alone.
On a sadder note, it’s goodbye to the old Assembly Rooms as we knew them, now reincarnated in faceless corporate grey, together with airport-style security guards, and the lovely cafe which was a frequent haunt in days gone by now replaced by a Jamie’s Italian. RIP.
But plenty of other things to cheer about, good meals and drinks enjoyed between the shows, and, of course, great company. See you next year!