Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Sunday 10/08/2014
Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Tuesday 12/08/2014

Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Monday 11/08/2014

Reviewed today: Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, Katsura Sunshine, Larkin About, Robin Ince's Blooming Buzzing Confusion, Set List, Stuart Kelly On Moby Dick, Totally Ninja Close-Up Magic Show.

On sale now at http://www.billsienkiewiczart.comIf Sunday in Edinburgh was all about the rain, then Monday is all about the wind. When we first head out today we're grateful to be dry, less grateful for gusts so strong that a wheelie bin close to the Red Squirrel is blown over in front of us and pushed halfway down the Lothian Road. Windy weather is always that bit more terrifying when you've got a Book Festival event lined up for the day: the array of temporary structures in Charlotte Square always seems rickety at the best of times, and we spend most of Stuart Kelly On Moby Dick convinced that the glass-walled Writers' Retreat is going to collapse in on top of us. Then again, having a huge storm outside seems appropriate given the nature of the event.

Interestingly, given the rise in popularity of book club meetings over the last decade or two, it wasn't until last year that the Book Festival tried setting up their own. The Reading Workshops invite a group of twenty or so people to discuss a named book, whether you've read it before or not. If you've read it, you can share your thoughts with everyone else: if you haven't, you'll be given some things to think about when you finally tackle it. This event caught the attention of The Belated Birthday Girl because Moby Dick is her favourite book of all time, and this comes from someone who admits she doesn't read all that much. For my part, the closest I've ever come to Moby Dick is a modish comics adaptation drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, back in the fashionable heyday of the graphic novel. It seemed like an interesting thing to do, bringing our respectively informed and uninformed perspectives to the event. (There's a punchline to this, but it'll have to wait till later in the week.)

Stuart Kelly makes for a fine host – getting people involved in the discussion, but not pushing too hard if they don't want to talk, which is fine by us. He starts by putting the case for Moby Dick being the mythic Great American Novel, one that encompasses a huge amount of human experience between a single set of covers. Its plot is straightforward enough that you can tell it to a child, but underneath it all is a huge tide of philosophical undercurrents. As one audience member points out, it's like two books in one – philosophical speeches written in what's almost Shakespearean blank verse, interwoven with detailed technical essays whose use of language is close to that of Thomas Carlyle (some possible pandering to a Scottish audience there). The boldness of the story has made it ripe for adaptation over the years, but its lack of a firm moral centre has often baffled Hollywood: a 1930 film adaptation with John Barrymore felt the need to give Captain Ahab an evil brother called Derek to motivate his obsession.

I haven't read Moby Dick yet, as I said: but I've got a copy ready and waiting for my next business trip, and Kelly's analysis of the key themes has given me a few ways to approach the book. There's the journey of the character of Ishmael (if that really is his name: after all, who would say 'Call me Ishmael' if it was?), starting the book as an unlettered nervous man frightened of his boss' tattoos, finishing it with the dimensions of the whale etched on his skin and possibly in charge of a library. His ship the Pequod can be seen as a microcosm of the new industrial world, making Moby Dick an anti-capitalist novel – capitalism is hunting the whales for oil, which can create light, which can keep the factories open longer. And all this symbolism parallels Ahab's quest for the whale alongside the reader's own quest for the meaning of the book, even when the book itself frequently chides you for thinking of it as an allegory. Kelly handles all these big ideas lightly, and even throws in a few that the book missed, such as the way that whaling ships of the time frequently used dead penguins as fuel. [looks at own Penguin Classics edition of book, attempts pun, gives up]

I have no idea why a tiny paper Robin Ince is surrounded by crabs, you'll need to talk to feel we should be diving into chapter one immediately after this talk, but instead we grab lunch at Iris and take a downward intellectual lurch into stand-up comedy. Although as this is a Robin Ince show, it isn't that much of a downward lurch, or at least that's how it would like to see itself. Robin Ince's Blooming Buzzing Confusion is another one of his science-based shows, this one being about the brain. The one visual aid he uses in the talk is a recently-taken scan of his own brain, and inevitably he can't resist telling us that it's bigger than average. The theory is that he can use this as a springboard for discussing the human mind, and how we each carry around in our heads the most complex object in the known universe. But instead, it's really just a traditional standup set most notable for the amount of namedropping it includes, as Ince veers off topic to talk about his neighbour Alan Moore, his colleague Brian Cox, or his one-off dinner companion Peter Higgs.

Ince has always had a problem with discipline when it comes to shows, whether they're the multi-artist extravganzas he curates or his own solo appearances. He admits at the start that Blooming Buzzing Confusion was massively overlength in previews, and even at this stage it's ten minutes over the scheduled hour, even when gabbled at ludicrous speed. It's enjoyable enough at the time, but all feels a little shallow – he throws out intriguing ideas every so often, but would rather go for the gag than try to delve below the surface of them. The one big thought I've taken away from this show comes from Alan Moore, comparing Homer's The Iliad with the same author's (well, you know) later work The Odyssey – the former encapsulates a period in human history when we thought our actions were controlled by the gods, the latter is one of the earliest works to show a man in charge of his own fate. A bit more time spent looking at ideas like that would have kept Ince's show in the memory, but most of it's faded just a few hours later.

How do you define the Edinburgh Fringe? Is it just the sum total of all the shows listed in that big pink programme? If that's your boundary, then we've got a problem here, because I'm finding in recent years that more and more shows aren't submitted in time to make the official programme, and have to survive in the Fringe marketplace without that major source of publicity. That seems to apply heavily to the PBH Free Fringe this year: a series of conflicts between Peter Buckley Hill and the rival free fringe organisations resulted in a whole series of events only being advertised in their own little blue programme. This means that things like Totally Ninja Close-Up Magic Show could easily fall through the cracks. Happily, this particular performance is playing to a packed room, and deservedly so.

Close-up magic is ideal for the Fringe: a magician can use the forced intimacy of the experience as a way of ensuring that they don't get over-ambitious in terms of venue size. The one thing I hadn't appreciated is that the nature of a close-up magic show requires that every person in the audience will be forced to participate at some point or other. The last time I saw a show like this was when I was trapped for an hour in a small Pleasance room with Jerry Sadowitz – it wasn't as terrifying an experience as you'd imagine, as he was deliberately dialling his personality down a notch or two from usual stand-up strength. It did lead, however, to what I fondly think of as the 'fuck fuck weans fuck' anecdote.

It's not saying much to suggest that David Alnwick is a lot friendlier than Jerry Sadowitz. It's probably saying quite a bit to suggest he's as good as close-up magic, though. Quite a few of the tricks on display here are more exercises in psychology than simple card manipulation, bringing to mind Colin Cloud at yesterday's Mervyn Stutter. The difference here is that Alnwick is happy to admit that he's playing with people's heads, and is willing to give you just enough information to see how this could be done, though not quite enough to show you how to do it yourself. He's an enjoyable bloke to spend an hour with, and the audience is small enough that he can spend enough time to charm us all individually one by one. (As opposed to, say, our gut reaction to Colin Cloud, which was a little more along the lines of BURN THE WITCH.)

Katsura Sunshine. You'll be pleased that for the Edinburgh show, he's swapped the maple leaf kimono for a tartan one.The bit of Fringe publicity that's amusing The Belated Birthday Girl the most this year comes from an outfit called Japan Marvelous Dummers. Their poster is built around a quote from the Brooklyn Paper - “unlike anything else” - which is hilarious in Edinburgh at August, when every Japanese person with access to a pair of bachi appears to have arrived in town, stripped to the waist and started banging drums in an inappropriately small room. Sure, the appeal of traditional Japanese drumming is obvious in a festival like this, but why can't people bring over some of the other traditional arts from the country?

Enter Katsura Sunshine. He's a former actor and writer from Canada, who went over to Japan several years ago and was fascinated by the tradition of rakugo storytelling. It's a form of Japanese comedy that goes back over four centuries or more: a man in a kimono sits down in front of you, and speaks both parts of a comic dialogue that ends in a discernible punchline. It's a tradition that requires years of apprenticeship to become a professional – and Sunshine (you'll have to see the show to find out how he got his name) is only the second non-Japanese guy to achieve that status.

It's such a simple idea, it's surprising no-one's done it on the Fringe before. Over the course of an hour, Sunshine gives you a few examples of traditional rakugo stories, tells a brief history of the artform, spins tales of his apprenticeship to a tough master (using The Karate Kid as a comparison point), and throws in a few insights into the Japanese language and customs along the way. If you've been to the country a few times, lots of what Sunshine describes will sound hilariously familiar, such as being told “your Japanese is wonderful” even if all you've done is just say “hello”. If you've not been before, you'll end up being better informed, and had a few laughs as well. At a time when the Fringe can easily be perceived as a series of interchangeable men standing in front of microphones, having this charming chap sitting down in front of one makes for an enjoyable change.

Not that we've given up on stand-up comedy completely, of course. But even the comics themselves are looking at ways to change up the format. Hence the arrival five years ago of Set List, in which a group of comedians is taken out of their comfort zone by being put on stage, told a series of bizarre subjects, and having to improvise a comedy set on those subjects on the fly. It's actually a neat way of getting round the problems of traditional comedy improvisation – usually a failure by the performer to come up with jokes would be awkward, here's it's just another source of delicious schadenfreude.

Set List recently transferred to TV with some success, but this is the first time I've actually seen it happen live on stage. By comparison with the Sky Atlantic show, the subjects seem deliberately chosen to make the comics mess up – random combinations of inappropriate words, or acronyms that they have to cook up a meaning for instantaneously. (The acronyms are massively unpopular at this performance, it has to be said.) As compere Mickey D wheels the various comedians on and off stage, you can't help but compare their approaches to both the game and failure.

We have six comics on tonight's bill. Robin Ince gets by through hurling himself into the set with gusto, even though it's his third show of the day and the throat problems he had earlier have escalated to the point where you fear for his tonsils. Tom Stade gets angry when things don't work the way he wants them to: Ben Norris gets nervous: Yanni is the first one to bring narrative coherence to his set, but has to reduce the number of jokes to make it happen. Rob Rouse comes close to pulling it off, but again the comedy starts tailing off by the end.

Finally we get Matt Kirshen as the nominal headliner of the night. He's been associated with Set List for quite some time now, and actually works as a producer on the TV version. Whether it's just that he's more comfortable with the format, or is naturally funnier, is hard to say, but his set is terrific. In fact, his opening response to the topic of The Fringe Excuse Pamphlet - “it's three pages, but it reads like four” - is so exquisitely crafted that you start to get suspicious about what he's planned in advance. But by the end he's rambling as much as anyone else, somehow getting onto the topic of anti-abortion billboards on American highways and how they correlate against the number of pizza restaurants in town. It made sense at the time, trust me.

There's no way you can predict the quality of Set List from night to night – it's part of the risk, but it's also part of the charm. The one slight irritation of this particular performance is it overrunning its hour slot by a ridiculous forty minutes. But then again, Robin Ince was on the bill...

Notes From Spank's Pals

Janis Joplin: Full Tilt

Nick – One of the features of the Fringe is the potted biography show, and this is a perfect example of the type. In one hour we get an encapsulation of Janis Joplin's life and music. A life lived mainly on the stage, howling down the microphone at her perceived suffering and pain, mostly self-inflicted. A light that burned brightly before her drug-fuelled destruction, a marker for those that were to follow.

Katsura Sunshine

The Belated Birthday Girl - I've seen the odd bit of Rakugo on TV in Japan, but I doubt my Japanese will ever be of a good enough level to be able to understand it. So the idea of a Westerner whose Japanese is good enough actually to perform it definitely interested me, and the opportunity to see a Rakugo performance I could completely understand – because it was in English – was one I didn't want to miss. Katsura Sunshine's show ended up being informative as well as entertaining, with an introduction from a Rakugo scholar, telling a bit of the history and origin, as well as Katsura Sunshine's tales of his experiences forming a part of the performance itself. I found it fascinating how, in the translated stories he told, if you were familiar at all with the Japanese language, you could feel the Japanese delivery, even though he was speaking English. Katsura Sunshine's show is an enjoyable one, whether you are familiar with things Japanese or not: the one Japanese member of the audience sat near us was enjoying it as much as the Western members of the audience who had never been to Japan (a show of hands was taken at the beginning of the show, so I know there were some). If you do know Japan, you'll find a lot of familiarity, but probably learn something, and if you don't, you'll learn a lot. And either way, you will have a lot of fun.

Larkin About

Nick – Another potted biography show, with two of the Archers cast involved: Larkin was a big fan of the radio serial. It was an interesting introduction to his poetry and loves, of which he had many: his many relationships with women, and his love of jazz after hearing Louis Armstrong's Dallas Blues. Two niggles with this show: a flautist produced this show and gratuitously played her flute throughout, and the lighting cues were all over the place. Still made for an entertaining show.


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