Reviewed today: La Belle Et La Bete, Breaking News, Bruce Fummey, The Events, Fan Fiction Comedy, The Horne Section, Making News, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, Phill Jupitus Is Porky The Poet.
Anyway, enough of that and on to the shows. Regular readers won't have been distracted by that image, and will know exactly what's coming next: Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, our choice of Sunday morning Fringe entertainment since the first reports I wrote for you back in 1998. It's impossible to overstate just how terrific a job Merv and his team do every day, year in, year out. Each day they grab a different selection of lesser-known (or otherwise) acts from the Fringe, and put them on stage to perform a five-minute sample of their work. Merv gives them a sympathetic and informative interview, and makes sure we leave with full details of when his guests' shows are on. Everyone's happy - especially on a day like today, with a brilliantly diverse collection of performers, only one of whom is a stand-up (a mistake invariably made by POTF's numerous imitators, who always overload their shows with comedy and ignore everything else).
As I said, today's selection is pretty splendid: to quote The BBG, even if some of the acts aren't necessarily your sort of thing, it's good to at least get a five minute taster of them. She was referring to Casus' opening performance from their show Knee Deep - their gymnastic circusy choreography isn't something she'd necessarily pay to see an hour of, but a short burst like this works just fine. The huge surprise of the day is an appearance by Fringe legend Guy Masterson, who's doing a one-off performance of Shylock on Monday that we can't attend, making his brief extract from the play very welcome indeed. There's more theatre to follow with The Bitches' Box, an amusing New Zealand play in which two women impersonate a variety of dogs - a concept that seems to throw Merv completely for a loop when he tries to describe it, but in the spirit of the Fringe he seems happy to enjoy its sheer peculiarity for its own sake.
The next couple of acts count as the highlights for me. Anthropoetry features poetry/music double act Ben Mellor and Dan Steele - Mellor performs poetry about the human body, while Steele provides musical backing. With some effective use of live looping, it's a fascinating taster for a show that's irritatingly scheduled in that 8pm sweet spot when pretty much every other Fringe show takes place. Equally impressive is a spot from Jeff Achtem of Bunk Puppets, who constructs shadow puppets before your eyes and then performs wild stories using them. One kung-fu training sequence, in which his puppet interacts with an audience member for an improvised fight scene, has more energy and invention in five minutes than many shows can sustain for an hour - and it's not even part of the show he's doing in Edinburgh this year, which is even more impressive.
The show winds down quite nicely with a couple of more traditional acts - stand-up comic (well, there had to be one) Romesh Ranganathan telling tales about life with his family and his job as a schoolteacher, and singer Micheline Van Hautem (formerly of Anonymous Society) performing Jacques Brel songs with her usual brio and convenient bilingualism. And, of course, there's Mervyn Stutter doing what he always does, raging against the dying of the light by rewriting Little Richard songs to include references to hip operations. Long may he continue to do so.
Now. A quick digression. It's possible that some of you reading here may only have joined us for the Festival reviews, and may not know - or indeed care - about some of the other things that go on on this site. Well, one of the features I've been running this year involves a plan to go round all twelve bars owned by the BrewDog brewery by the end of 2013. (By which time it looks like that total will have risen to fourteen, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.) So far this year, we've been to Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen and Manchester. But the BrewDog bar in Edinburgh is technically the one that started The Belated Birthday Girl and me on this treacherously alcoholic path, as it was the first one we ever visited back in 2011.
Two years on, and the most obvious change to the place happened only a couple of weeks ago - the bar's been recently refurbished to replace virtually all of its free-standing tables with booths. Presumably that means it can't hold quite as many punters as it used to, but on a Sunday afternoon it seems to be doing just fine, inevitably picking up frequent passing trade from the Fringegoers making their way along Cowgate.
The BBG and I grab a couple of seats, and have an impromptu planning session while taking advantage of what's on offer over the bar. We start with one of BrewDog's latest collaborations, a brilliantly hopped-up lager called DogWired made along with their colleagues at 8-Wired in New Zealand. We also grab a pair of pizzas - a meat and mushroom one for me, a veggie one for The BBG - which have thinner crusts than the ones on sale at the Camden bar, but taste fine for all that and totally hit the spot. We chase them down with a couple more beers: mine is the latest in BrewDog's experimental Abstrakt series AB:14 (a brilliantly successful attempt to recreate banoffee pie in booze form), while she goes for the more restrained fruity delights of Blitz Apricot.
A fine bar with nice chatty staff, BrewDog Edinburgh does exactly what we need it to do on a Sunday afternoon, and we'll probably be back again before the end of the week. But we have shows to see. After a bit of time wasted discovering a flaw in the current Fringe Box Office arrangement (quick summary - don't buy tickets on the Fringe website for, say, Underbelly and the Stand together, and then expect to be able to collect them all from Underbelly, even though the website says you can), we eventually make it to the Jam House just in time for the day's free event, Phill Jupitus Is Porky The Poet.
Everyone knows Jupitus from the telly, or possibly the radio. About six years ago, he left a pretty sweet job on the 6Music breakfast show, and announced that he wanted to try other things, possibly using the phrase "pissing about a bit on the Edinburgh Fringe" as justification. He's certainly not become a predictable Fringe performer - over the years he's done stand-up comedy, improvised sketches, readings from Dickens, and a short play mashing up Waiting For Godot with Alice In Wonderland. But this show goes back to his roots, the thing I knew him for back in the 1980s, when he was a performance poet called Porky doing support slots for the likes of Billy Bragg.
In fact, there's not all that much poetry in his one-hour slot, though he does read maybe seven or eight pieces in that time. He's using it more as a forum for free-associating comedy ideas that he probably couldn't do much with in the context of a traditional stand-up slot. As such, one of the more delightful diversions in today's show involves him musing on the idea of pairing up Churchill speeches with dub reggae ("his name's Winston, it could happen"), at one point pulling out his iPad Mini and trying it out live with some U-Roy.
The result is an enjoyably relaxed hour of silliness, minus the ten minutes or so where Jupitus takes advantage of his clout as A Bloke Off The Telly to give a fellow Free Fringer a bit of exposure (in this case, an entertaining five minutes or so from stand-up Silky). So if seeing A Bloke Off The Telly is your priority at the Fringe, you could do a lot worse than go along to Jupitus' show. It doesn't have to cost you anything, but he'll shake your hand personally if you put money in his bucket at the end. I bet you won't see [X] doing that, where [X] is the name of some comedian with a BBC Three show, probably called Russell something.
Next, off to the Playhouse for the first International Festival event of the week. As a group, Spank's Pals have had an up-and-down relationship with the main Festival over the years - insert inevitable reference to 1998's Die Ahnlichen here - but when it works, it completely justifies itself. As in this example: one of the world's finest films, re-scored by one of the world's most famous contemporary composers, with a ticket price roughly equal to that of many of the one-person comedy shows on in town right now.
The film is Jean Cocteau's La Belle Et La Bete, which I shamefully haven't seen before, but know of by its huge reputation. The composer is Philip Glass, which has the possibility of being a little more of a problem. I've been a fan of Glass' work for decades, but do get the impression that he's been phoning it in in recent years. In between my buying the tickets for this performance and attending it, I've caught one of his most recent operas (The Perfect American), and it helped cement that opinion in my mind even more firmly.
Happily, what he's done with La Belle Et La Bete is much more impressive, not to mention unique - he's effectively converted a pre-existing film into a live opera. Glass has not only composed a new score for the film (performed here by his Ensemble), he's also turned the dialogue into musical vocal lines that are performed on top of it. It's an approach that takes a little getting used to, because he's not trying to exactly re-dub the movie - four live singers perform all the voice parts, and it's down to sheer chance whether they match up precisely with the lip movements on screen. But they at least keep solidly in time with the subtitles, so it's entirely down to the viewer as to whether the lack of exact synchronisation is an issue or not.
Surrender to it, and it's a glorious ninety-minute experience. Glass is in more romantic mode than usual here, bringing a sweeping emotion to his music that's sometimes missing from his more formulaic work. In the context of an accompaniment to the film, it works splendidly. And that's before you even get to the magic of the film itself, using simple techniques like slow-motion and backwards filming to create effects that make your jaw drop even now. If Edinburgh still had a film festival (NO IT DOESN'T), this would be the sort of huge event that would form a fitting centrepiece: in the absence of one, it's good that the International Festival can make it an early highlight of my week so far.
To wind down at the end of the day, we wander over to that big purple cow in Bristo Square to see The Horne Section. Alex Horne's musical comedy extravaganzas have been hits at the Fringe for the past few years now, but this is the first time I've actually got to see one for myself. You can see why it's become such a hit, despite - maybe because of? - its rather old-fashioned nature: young men in suits having fun with musical instruments has been a mainstay of the Fringe since the very early days.
As is usually the case in these matters, the key factor that makes it all work is the quality of the musicianship behind the gags, and Horne's six-piece ensemble is pretty darn tight. A lot of what they do could technically be considered mere showing-off: taking the tempo of one piece from the bounce of a ping-pong ball, constructing another out of random note selections from the audience. But it never quite feels like showing-off purely for its own sake - there's no smugness in the couple of songs they improvise apparently out of thin air, it's just what they do. On the whole, it's a delightful hour of mucking about, without any real edge of danger to it, apart from that one bit where guest Sara Pascoe made a wildly slanderous accusation about another Fringe performer and then swore us all to secrecy. (No clues, sorry.)
Notes From Spank's Pals
Tim - Making News. Although Phill Jupitus headlines, the other parts of the cranky Head of News and the flamboyant News Presenter shine through in a well-written layered plot of BBC internal combustion. Relies somewhat on BBC in-jokes on the rivalry between Radio 4's Today and Panorama.
Tim - Breaking News. Moving image, live music and intricate paper-based puppetry combine in a lovely crafted but abstract tale of media obsession and information overload.
Nick - The Events, written by David Greig during breaks in rehearsals for the West End show Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This emotive play explores the way different people come to terms with an unnamed atrocity, in a highly thought provoking way. The play is basically a two hander with the addition of a choir that changes throughout the run. They only have to learn two set songs, the rest of the music is left up to them - this policy can spring up some surprises, like Bonkers by Dizzee Rascal, but brilliantly integrated into the play. The only weakness in the performance we saw was the male lead, who is required to play a multitude of characters and didn't really rise to the challenge, but to his credit he did have stage presence. The choir and female lead were outstanding. Five stars.
Tim - Talented Kiwi kids Fan Fiction Comedy offer daily stories extrapolating favourite pop culture series to ridiculous and hilarious extents. Discussion between the stories offers friendly commentary throughout in the intimate Box venue.
Tim - Bruce Fummey (at the Free Festival) describes himself as the best (and only) comedian on the 'Afro-Gaelic' circuit. Confident storytelling matching political comment with anecdotes of life growing up in Perth in the 1970s, his mixed heritage impacting how his family lives now as Scotland has changed. Recommended.