Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Wednesday 14/08/2013
Spank’s Edinburgh Diary, Friday 16/08/2013

Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Thursday 15/08/2013

Reviewed today: Adam Hills: Happyism, Drum Struck, Ian Fraser & Ray Perman, Long Live The Little Knife, Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, Rick Wakeman, Rubberbandits, Transmitted Live: Nam June Paik Resounds.

DON doko DON doko DON doko DON dokoAs I've said far too many times by now, I've been coming to the Edinburgh Festival on and off for almost a quarter of a century. You'd have thought that by now, I would have been through all the stereotypical experiences this event had to offer. But it turns out that I'd missed one: which is why at 8.35 this morning I'm standing outside in a dressing gown with all the other inhabitants of my block, while we wait for the fire brigade to investigate an alarm. Congratulations to the people downstairs for leaving the shower running too long or something.

Barring that excitement, the first event of the day involves our old chums Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, who apparently haven't played the Fringe for over a decade (although some of their spinoff groups have appeared here over the years). Taiko drumming has kind of become one of those Fringe cliches in the interim: every year a few groups appear in the programme to give audiences a fix of unfamilar Asian culture and loud noises. Most of them tend to be fairly traditional, though: what makes Mugenkyo interesting is their willingness to push the art of taiko into unexpected directions.

The Belated Birthday Girl and I have spent several weekends over the last few years attending taiko workshops at Mugenkyo's place up in the wilds of Strathaven. So I'm not sure if the opening number Hachijo, a simple duet between founder members Neil Mackie and Miyuki Williams, gains some of its power on the day from me knowing both musicians a little. But it's delightful to watch the interplay between the two of them, the little non-verbal signals they swap as the piece moves from one section to the next.

From that traditional  opening, the rest of the programme is a mix of old and new, some of the pieces more about sound textures than rhythms. Chronos is the standout, using UV lighting effects to make the players' bachi sticks apparently glow in the dark. (I've obviously spent too much time at their workshops, as I keep thinking how useful that would be as an educational tool.) The thunderous climax of Phoenix is another highlight, reaching such a peak of intensity that one of the band breaks a bachi and has to chuck it into the wings. Taiko may be a Fringe cliche, but when it's done as well as Mugenkyo do it I'm not going to complain about that.

"To lose one bank may be regarded as a misfortune: to lose two looks like carelessness." You can tell that moderator Brian Taylor is very pleased with himself for his introduction to the Book Festival's presentation by Ian Fraser and Ray Perman. The two authors have independently written books about linked Scottish catastrophes. Fraser's Shredded, coming out later this year, looks at the crisis at the Royal Bank of Scotland: while Perman's Hubris, just released in paperback, documents the collapse of Bank of Scotland after its merger into HBOS. They're discussing their books to an audience that seems to have a vested interest or two: a show of hands indicates that most of them have accounts at the banks, and many of them are current or former employees.

Fraser puts the problems at RBS down to a decision taken around the turn of the century that the bank needed to expand rapidly to compete in a global market. The blame has generally been assigned to chief executive Fred Goodwin, but the real problem was a culture in which nobody - notably chairman Tom McKillop - was able to tell him that what he was doing was wrong. By the time of the collapse RBS had indeed become one of the largest companies on earth, but also one of the most dysfunctional.

Perman tells a similar story about Bank of Scotland, who over a decade transformed from a bank that wanted to help its customers, to a bank that wanted to sell financial products to them whether they needed them or not. They were growing fast due to lending, but had low deposits: hence the merger with the Halifax building society, who had the deposits they wanted - but also had their own agenda that ultimately led to HBOS going bust.

The subsequent discussion brings up lots of valid points - the way in which the image of bank managers over the years has changed from "pastoral to predatory", the lack of support offered to the whistleblowers who made the mistakes public, the lack of accountability from all concerned. And as this is a Scottish book festival, there's also some discussion of the psychological impact on the country as a whole, losing its two largest iconic companies thanks to the fetishisation of the financial industry. Nothing really gets solved, but at least this session works well as a support group for the people affected. 

Can you see what Nam June Paik did there?As part of our ongoing aim to see one free event every day, we decide to change tack a little and catch something free from the International Festival rather than the Fringe. It's not an entirely successful plan, thanks to it being preceded by an over-leisurely late lunch at The Living Room. By the time we get to the Talbot Rice Gallery for the Nam June Paik exhibition Transmitted Live, we only have twenty minutes left before the building closes. It ends up being a bit of a rush, but in practice you probably don't need much more time than that.

Paik is famous as one of the first people to bring television into the art world, creating video art pieces as well as sculptures using working TV sets. At the superficial level that a twenty-minute viewing gives you, there are some eye-catching things to be seen (a cello made out of TV sets being an early highlight), but there's little to persuade you that a longer viewing would reveal more. Part of the fun of this retrospective is to see the gulf between Paik's plans for interactive television, and where the medium is now. In particular, all those cathode ray tubes look splendidly archaic now - although the best gag in the exhibition wouldn't work with a modern LCD, as an image of Richard Nixon on screen is distorted with a magnetic coil.

Did I say taiko was a Fringe cliche? Maybe make that drumming generally. Banging things is a universal language, you don't need to worry about foreign visitors not understanding your show. Drum Struck takes it one stage further, and allows you to do your own banging, as an African hand drum is left on every seat at the start waiting for you to play along. (They're quite big drums too, presumably to reduce the risk of people running off with them at the end.)

It's a very slick show - possibly too slick. As the cheesy African story progresses, you start to feel that this is a show aimed specifically at a tourist audience, like Stomp with added pictures of giraffes. It doesn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Drum Struck has been running off-Broadway for years, but you may have worked that out from the shoehorning-in of a token white performer so people don't have to sit through all that African guff for a whole hour.

Cynicism over - the important thing is the audience participation, and it works here terrifically. It's all relatively simple stuff: the performers play a line, we play the line back to them, they tut as if to say 'not good enough', and things escalate from there. The joy of the performers is infectious, and the audience is happy to play along with it. If nothing else, the company of Drum Struck manages at one point to teach a British audience to clap on the off-beat, and that counts as a minor miracle in my book. Your hands will ache like buggery afterwards, though.

Ian. Photo taken by Adam Hills, don't blame me for the fuzziness.It's ten years since we first saw Adam Hills, being his usual charming self hosting a kids' performance at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.  His circumstances may have changed in that time - notably, his hosting of The Last Leg on telly means he's now a big enough name in the UK to fill the Assembly Hall - but his ability to bond with audience still second to none. Within seconds of the start of Happyism, he's spotted a big ginger Scottish guy called Ian in the front row, and dragged him on stage for a chat. Within minutes, he's taking Ian's photo for Twitter. Later, he handles an exploding stage light beautifully, concentrating less on the incident and more on the guy it exploded over.

There's a theme to Happyism, but it takes quite a long time to emerge. Initially, it seems that Hills is currently interested in race, the differences between nationalities and the cultural problems that arise from that. This gradually segues into the long story of his nightmarish appearance on the Chelsea Handler show,  and his subsequent redemption at the hands of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. It all comes together in a suitably cheerful finale, but the unscripted stuff is where an already funny show really flies.

I've chosen to finish off the day with The Rubberbandits , while The BBG has decided to go with Anyone Apart From The Rubberbandits. They're advertised in the programme as YouTube Sensation The Rubberbandits, which appears to be the latest meaningless buzzphrase that Fringe acts use to suggest that they're popular, rather than that they just have a basic media presence. Still, the 'bandits were able to convert ten million hits for Horse Outside into a series of popular shows at last year's Fringe, and now they're back again- although they're annoyed at the reputation they got in 2012 as being some sort of comedy group. "We are serious gangster rappers!" says Blind Boy Boat Club through the plastic bag wrapped around his head, and his colleague Mr Chrome agrees.

The show's a collection of songs from their 2011 album Serious About Men, frequently using the popular videos as a backdrop, so sometimes you find yourself wondering if it would have been easier to just watch them on YouTube. But there are plenty of bonuses to watching them live. There are plenty of jokes, even though they insist that they only have three: one of those three is a riff on the Higgs Boson that shows they're not quite the eejits that they appear at first glance. There are some nice theatrical touches added to the songs, with Mr Chrome pointing to an old guy and a young girl in the crowd at the relevant points in Roisin I Wanna Fight Your Father. And in a day when I've seen shows representing Japan, Scotland, Korea, Africa and Australia, their endorsement of Irish culture and language wraps it all up nicely. "In my country we call ecstasy tablets yokes. I don't know what you call them here because they're too expensive."

Notes From Spank's Pals

The Belated Birthday Girl - Having never set foot inside the Assembly Hall before, I find myself back inside for the third time in a day to see Rick Wakeman. My own Proggyness was more of a Peter Gabriel era Genesis variety, so I'm not particularly familiar with the works of Yes, but I was curious to see his evening of music and anecdotes. Wakeman is obviously an extremely talented and accomplished pianist, and he intersperses stories ranging from his first piano lesson aged five, through his days as a session musician, to his second career on television and the "countdowners" who now sometimes attend his shows, unaware of his previous life as a star of Prog Rock, in amongst piano renditions ranging from Yes songs to nursery rhymes played in the style of famous composers. One musical highlight was what he described as a "karaoke" version of a part of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, played to a backing tape of a symphony orchestra and choir. He seemed particularly pleased with the fact that these days he has fans ranging from the aforementioned Countdowners through to young students who know him from his time fronting an alternative comedy show, as well as those who were fans in his Prog Rock hey-day. All in all, it made for an enjoyable and entertaining hour.

Nick - Long Live The Little Knife at Traverse Theatre is a good example of why cutting edge theatre gets a bad name. It's the same old trick, a disappointing play given an over the top production. It started out with a good idea, how the art world is financially unregulated and open to unscrupulous dealing, but somehow all this got lost in the convoluted plot and gratuitous production. 3 stars.


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