Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Saturday 09/08/2014
Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Monday 11/08/2014

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

Reviewed today: Andrew O'Neill: Mindspiders, Danny Bhoy, James III: The True Mirror, Mark Watson's Comedywealth Games, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, This Is Brasil.

It's just like watching Brazil (getting their Spirit Of The Fringe award from Mervyn Stutter)Let's try a quick experiment here. 1998: 1999: 2001: 2002: 2004: 2005: 2007: 2008: 2010: 2011: 2013. Those are links to all of the eleven years I've been doing live day-by-day coverage of our visits to Edinburgh, and specifically my writeups of the Sundays of those weeks. I'll leave it to you to do the actual research on those pages, but I've always assumed that Sunday in Edinburgh means rain, and I suspect that each one of those posts includes at least a couple of sentences grumbling about getting wet.

Today's rain, however, feels special. Maybe it's the way that it seems directly targeted at The Belated Birthday Girl and myself. When we leave our flat at around noon, there are grey skies, but it's dry. Within literally three minutes of walking down the road, the heavens have opened, and we've had to retrieve rainmacs and umbrellas from our bags as a matter of urgency. We will return to the flat a little over twelve hours later, and although I can't vouch completely for the periods we spent indoors eating or watching shows, it appears to have been pissing down solidly for the whole of that time. It's an empathetic nightmare for someone like me who normally has sympathy for the poor people on the street handing out fliers: you know they're having a horrible time working outdoors in the wet, but you're too soaked yourself to give them the time of day, particularly once you've established that the pockets of your mac aren't waterproof enough to hold anything made of paper.

Still, if you follow the links above, you'll realise that getting rained on isn't our only Edinburgh tradition on Sundays: there's also Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe. The show remains unchanged since the first time I saw it in 1998, with the possible exception that we used to get samples of eight Fringe shows smashed into ninety minutes, and now we get a slightly more relaxed seven. Also, it's hopped around from one Fringe venue to another from year to year: this time (thanks to an argument with previous venue the Pleasance) we're in the curiously academic environment of the Assembly George Square Studios, in a room that's obviously a lecture theatre for the rest of the year, complete with ample desk space for any notes you need to take.

But it's part of the genius of the Mervyn Stutter formula that you don't need to take notes. By the end of the show, you've been furnished with all the information you need if you want to investigate any of the highlighted shows any further, including a copy of the flier. This really makes it easy for me to give you a quick summary of the day's guests, which may be part of why I keep coming back.

Today's bill is supernaturally strong, and a brilliant illustration of the breadth of the Fringe. We get three very different plays: Fiona Geddes' one-woman show Normal/Madness about living with a mother's schizophrenia, the three-man musical Thrill Me about the Leopold and Loeb murders, and a verbatim piece called Travesti in which six men re-enact interviews with women about the problems they face. All three extracts are frustratingly short – you feel you're only just getting into the style of the performance just as the lights go up again. But that's probably part of the plan.

The other four acts could be considered novelties, but that's the only way in which you could attempt to band them together. Colin Cloud does a splendid mind-reading act, which works best when he does the Derren Brown thing of giving the audience a wee insight into his psychological methods, but somehow feels less satisfying when he does a trick that appears to be literally impossible without having a stooge involved. Bowjangles are described on their flier as “all singing, all dancing comedy string quartet,” and that's pretty much all you need to know right there: their five minute multi-genre movie spoof is delightful to watch, though you can't be quite sure how much more of that you could take. The Umbilical Brothers are a real blast from my Fringegoing past, and their high-energy mime and vocal effects schtick is just as riotous as it was when I first saw them back in 1995. Finally, This Is Brasil tear the roof off the lecture theatre, as twenty or so cast members cram six minutes of capoeira, freestyle football and dancing girls onto the tiny stage.

Holding it all together, as he has done for over two decades now, is Mervyn Stutter himself. (“Is that still the same suit?” asks David Collins from the Umbilical Brothers, sniffing Merv's pink jacket cautiously.) He's got this down perfectly now: a couple of funny songs at the start (and his independence medley is just as groanworthy as you'd hope), sympathetic interviews with all the acts, and enough energy to keep the audience involved throughout the switchback turns from genre to genre. He's always complained that POTF gets hardly any press, even though he's been a fixture on the Fringe for ages. There's a neat touch at the end where he hands out one of his Spirit Of The Fringe awards to This Is Brasil, and points out that he has to hand out awards in the middle of the run rather than the end, otherwise nobody would report on them. But this site has been cheering on Merv's terrific work since 1998, and we'll continue to do so.

Note: Andrew O'Neill does not wear this during Mindspiders. (Presumably because it doesn't show off his tattoos well enough.)Lunch involves the inevitable visit to BrewDog Edinburgh. The downside is that we get there too late to indulge in their astonishing-sounding craft beer sorbets: the upside is the astonishing discovery that the wi-fi account we were given free access to at the flats appears to allow you to connect to the network at any University building in the city. I'm not sure where the one near BrewDog is, but we're able to use academic wi-fi inside the bar, and it's possibly even more reliable than the bar's own.

Then it's off to the first free show of the year. In previous years, we've crammed all of our free shows into a single twenty-four hour period, or rationed ourselves to one a day. These days, there's so much free stuff out there that it doesn't make sense any more to treat it differently from the paid Fringe: it's just another layer of shows to explore. Nevertheless, you end up making value judgments that you really shouldn't.

Take, for example, the comedian Andrew O'Neill. We've seen him a couple of times in the past, and he's always been good value. There's something charming about the way he approaches the punters waiting to go into his show Mindspiders with a megaphone, yelling “PLEASE FORM AN ORDERLY QUEUE... oh, you already have. Thank you!” (It also says a lot about his fans that they started the orderly queue themselves.) This year he's got two shows, though. This one is free: his later performance, Andrew O'Neill's History Of Heavy Metal, will cost you £9.50 to get in. So you think you know where you stand here – the heavy metal show will be a carefully scripted performance, and the free show will just be him mucking about to keep himself busy till his proper fee-paying gig starts.

Which makes it all the more spectacular when Mindspiders turns out to be a proper hour of terrific standup that you'd have no objection paying £9.50 to see. If you're familiar with O'Neill, there's nothing especially new here: in his signature combination of tattoos and a dress, he lets off a combination of unexpected one-liners and carefully spaced running gags. The title Mindspiders refers to the verbal equivalent of earworms, little phrases or collections of words that get stuck in your head. These lead to some of the best running gags in the set, as he takes a standard phrase like “give a man a fish...” and bangs out a couple of dozen variations on it.

His ability to set up a runner and then come back to it unexpectedly at different points in the set has always reminded me of Harry Hill – the same applies to the way he'll burst into song at the drop of a hat. But over the last few years, O'Neill's taken that obvious influence and used it as the springboard for a style that's entirely his own. His free show is an early highlight of my Fringe this year: the question is now, based on that, what must his paid show be like? And do I see it here, or catch the noisier version in London?

Jamie Sives and Sofie Gråbøl. Don't worry, they dress up for the show.The BBG and I meet up with a few of the Pals for dinner, including Lesley, who's found her own way of avoiding the traditional Sunday downpour: by spending the entire day in one theatre. One of the centrepiece theatre productions at this year's International Festival is The James Plays, a trilogy by Rona Munro looking at the Stewart Kings that ruled Scotland in the 15th century. There's one play each for James I, James II and James III: apart from the obvious chronological progression, there are no major links between the plays, allowing you to see them in any combination. Lesley and SeaPea have gone for the best possible approach, by doing all three back to back in a single day. The BBG and I, on the other hand, are just seeing the third one, because it's got a woman off the telly in it.

From brief discussions over dinner and at the interval, it looks like James I and II are darker affairs than James III: The True Mirror. It's certainly a surprise to walk in just before the play starts to find the cast in the middle of an on-stage dance number, particularly when it's an arrangement of Pharrell Williams' Happy for traditional instruments. (The BBG found herself checking that she hadn't walked into the touring version of Horrible Histories by mistake.) It's a boisterous approach that works well for the larger-than-life character of James III, as portrayed here by Jamie Sives. Except that, you know how people sometimes refer to someone as 'larger-than-life' because they're too polite to refer to them as 'a dick'? Well, that's pretty much the case here. James falls out with Parliament over his reckless spending, and with his family over his regrettable instinct to pick favourites. It's left to his wife, the Danish Queen Margaret (Sofie Gråbøl), to try and steer him in the right direction, but it turns out to be a full time job.

I never quite got to grips with the tone of James III: it's played at the level of comic historical romp for the most part, and doesn't quite pull off the gear changes required when it needs to move into more tragic territory. The climactic scenes are particularly troublesome in this regard, where the message that Scotland has lost its way and needs to work out for itself what it wants to do NUDGE NUDGE KNOW WHAT I MEAN EH is fractionally too-heavy handed to sit comfortably with everything else. But leave aside those tonal wobbles, and it's still an energetically performed piece of historical drama. Fine supporting turns from the likes of Blythe 'Taggart' Duff and Gordon 'Absolutely' Kennedy back up the main attraction of Sofie 'The Killing' Gråbøl, whose quiet determination is ultimately what the play's really about, despite the title. Still, you have to hand it to Jamie Sives, who keeps you looking forward to James' appearances on stage despite his gargantuan dickitude.

It's still raining to an alarming degree when we leave the Festival Theatre, to the extent that I somehow get us lost on the short journey from there to the Pleasance. Still, thanks to those knock-on delays that you get in the larger venues, we don't miss any of Mark Watson's Comedywealth Games. It's a shock to realise that it's now ten years since Watson did the first of a series of crazed Edinburgh stunts, in that case a show that lasted twenty-four hours. He's done more traditional stand-up shows since, but can usually be found doing some sort of high-concept daftness in a separate slot – such as this late-night show in which comedians from three different Commonwealth countries take part in a series of onstage 'sporting' challenges.

It's the sort of thing that could either become self-indulgent after-work goofing around for a bunch of drunk comics, or a magnet for annoying drunk audience members. And as we stand around in the rain-sodden queue in front of a noisy bunch of Irish mammies on the piss, there's a sneaking suspicion that it's going to turn into the latter. But somehow, Watson manages to steer the show through this potential minefield, by getting the Irish mammies to actually participate on stage. They end up just trying to wreck the show by refusing to play the games properly, but the show's actually so pre-wrecked anyway that they just add to its surreal fun.

As for the participants themselves, it's a pretty solid bunch. Danny Bhoy (Scotland) and Tim Key (England) spend most of the show trying to sabotage each other's progress, while Danielle Ward (Australia) quietly gets on with the games and ends up winning the whole night, by the simple strategy of being the only one who really cares about the result. The games themselves are just stupid enough for this timeslot, with the last one being simultaneously the simplest and shortest while also being the most hilarious to watch. Late night shows at the Fringe can be a horrible bearpit, but Watson's management of the involvement of the audience makes this a rare one that you can enjoy whether you're smashed or not. In this case, we weren't. But when we had to walk home from it in the rain at half past midnight, we kind of wished we were.

Notes From Spank's Pals

Danny Bhoy

Eve – There is very bad news today! Nick, Charmian and Eve's record of managing to choose the worst act of the Festival on the first night is no more! In the Music Hall at the Assembly Rooms, it was rendered to dust by an hour of comedy delivered by Danny Bhoy, a charming Scots/Indian whose anecdotal style and detailed observation reduced some of the more annoying aspects of modern life to the level of the absurd. From birds in the park with an eye on one's sandwiches, to one's own eye on canapes at a party, from 'jumping jack' German puppets that only raised one arm, to an email alert for your next haircut (“I have one already, it's called a mirror”), the packed house laughed from start to finish. The hour went so fast you felt cheated, and I am pleased to report there wasn't a hint of garlic bread anywhere.

This Is Brasil

Teresa – I was mesmerised from the very first moment. It has everything – athletic beautiful men doing extraordinary things with their bodies, gorgeous girls who can really move, music to transport you to Brazil, things that you cannot imagine can be done with a football, and all so vibrant and fun! The only thing that spoilt it was a male singer in extraordinarily terrible outfits – one of which was a golden onesie!



Sofie Grabol hmmm. I mean anyone who really followed The Killing, will know the whole thing about her sweaters was just trivialising sexist nonsense. I mean it was her jeans, that people should have been paying attention to.

Edinburgh - so that's in Scotland right ?

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