Reviewed today: Bridget Christie: An Ungrateful Woman, The Day The Pope Emptied Croy, The Festival Wheel, John Bishop: Work In Progress, John Byrne: Sitting Ducks, Karen McCombie & Catherine Wilkins, Otway, Richard Herring: Lord Of The Dance Settee, Stewart Lee: A Room With A Stew, When It Rains.
Our day starts at the Traverse, which is once again running a series of new short plays at breakfast time, throwing in coffee and a roll as part of the ticket price. (The BBG would like to register her disappointment at the meat-free option being egg rather than veggie sausages this year.) Last time, there were two plays performed on alternate days: this year there's a different play for every day of the week (excluding Mondays), all using the same cast of three. As it presumably would be some sort of human rights violation to make them learn their lines for every single one, we get something that's closer to a staged reading than an actual performance, with stage directions being called out by director Emma Callander as they go.
Today's offering is The Day The Pope Emptied Croy, written by Martin McCormick. It's set in 1982: the Pope's visiting Scotland, and all the inhabitants of the North Lanarkshire village of Croy have gone off to see him. All, that is, except two glue-crazed lads who are taking this as an opportunity to rob the local church. For the first quarter of an hour, this goes more or less how you'd expect: and then there's a big reveal, one that you suspect would be incredibly hard to stage conventionally, managing to keep its surprise by being confined to a stage direction. From that point on, the plot goes through a breathtaking sequence of hairpin turns on the way to its conclusion. Daniel Campbell, Scott Reid and Paul Tinto must have a hell of a job getting their heads around the various parts they're playing this week, but on the evidence of this cracking play they're handling the stress just fine.
From there, it's off to the Stand, where we're catching three acts back-to-back in the same room. In the far-too-early-for-comedy 11am slot we once again have Bridget Christie, who picked up a Not Perrier Award last year despite that drawback. The success of her previous show has given her the reputation of being “one of those feminist comedians that they have now,” says her husband, allegedly. But people have been asking her the question: now she's done feminism, what can she do next? After all, the changing status of half the human race probably only really has an hour or so of material in it. Christie's job in this show is to prove those people wrong.
It's a pleasure to watch Christie evolve year after year. In her 2013 show, she finally had the confidence to perform as herself rather than hide behind a character. But like those character-based earlier performances, it was still made out of two barely-linked half hour sets, as if she couldn't quite build the momentum across a full show. This year's An Ungrateful Woman has a much more ambitious structure, using the hour to build to a specific political point, with complex layers of digressions nested inside each other. There's something delightfully old-fashioned about Christie's approach these days, feeling like a throwback to 80s comics like Jenny Lecoat who expertly blended laughs with political comment – you know there's a definite viewpoint at the centre, but it never gets in the way of the jokes. But now she's done 'now she's done feminism, what will she do next?', what will she do next?
We come out of the Stand, go back to the end of the queue, and go in again for John Bishop. Yes, that one. You know the story by now: we caught him at his Fringe debut in 2007, playing to a couple dozen people in a Portakabin. By 2010 he was filling the McEwan Hall over several nights, and moving on from there to massive arenas and primetime BBC 1. It's a meteoric rise, and inevitably it's fuelled a backlash. That's not necessarily a view I subscribe to, but I always think Bishop's strengths are in direct interaction with an audience, something that inevitably gets lost when you're stood at one end of the O2. This may explain these late-announced work in progress shows, where he's using a 150-seat room to test out gags that will eventually play to 10,000 people at a time.
So, can Bishop still cut it in a small room? I'd have to say yes – of all the stand-up shows we see today, this is the one with the most sustained laughter throughout, possibly achieved by not bothering with the quieter reflective moments that punctuate some of the others. His main source of material is still himself - “I just go out and wait for funny stuff to happen to me” - but the tricky bit is how he can still keep presenting himself as an Ordinary Bloke when he's as famous as he is now. He pulls that off by the cunning trick of building an escalating narrative out of three plane journeys – the first on Ryanair (“speedy boarding is basically just like being offered first punch in a fight”), the second on Ryanair's own private Lear jet for a corporate gig, the third flying Emirates first class to Australia. If he'd started with his tales of misbehaving in an Emirates shower, we'd have no sympathy for him: but because he's got there via Ryanair passengers desperately repacking at the gate to avoid extra baggage charges, we're happy to go along. Bishop still doesn't quite fit inside the alternative comedy template of a venue like the Stand, and the dodgy closing gag may well be his attempt to distancing himself from that template. But if you're looking for solid laughs, he's the one to see this year.
We come out of the Stand, go back to the end of the queue, scoff our ethical sandwiches from Social Bite, and go in again for Stewart Lee. At this point in our stand-up binge, it's surprising to discover that John Bishop and Bridget Christie have both come up with more structurally ambitious shows than the man who's been hailed as stand-up's greatest current technician. A Room With A Stew, like his last few Edinburgh shows, consists of two-barely linked half hour sets (like those feminist comedians used to do), which will eventually become a pair of episodes of his TV show. The first one looks at current attitudes to Islam, and how difficult it is as a comedian to come up with a solid set of anti-Muslim material. The other one is less carefully constructed, and is really just a series of random thoughts related to urine. “You look at that as a subject, and think that could be appalling or it could be brilliant. I'm going to show you that it could be neither.”
To be honest, if you've seen Lee before, this is pretty much more of the same, although there are some slight deviations from his usual approach. At one point, he talks about a fellow comedian performing at the Gilded Balloon, who's “good enough to be playing north of Princes Street.” Is that an actual thing? Or after years of dividing audiences into rival camps, has Lee finally found a way to do that to the whole of the city of Edinburgh? Either way, it's very much a set of two halves: the Muslim material is an excellent example of the precisely calculated reductio ad absurdum approach he usually takes to irrationality in life, while the urine stories feel more like padding. But that's the risk of a work in progress show like this one, where Lee cheerfully admits he's testing low quality ideas on Scots before they're presented in a more polished form to Londoners, “just like the poll tax.”
That's enough comedy for now, so we head down the road to the Scottish Portrait Gallery, where nestling among all the permanent displays is Sitting Ducks, an exhibition dedicated to portraits by John Byrne. I only really know Byrne from his television work – Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart in particular – but even then Byrne was always producing promotional artwork for the shows, so I was aware that he was as idiosyncratic an artist as he was a writer. This exhibition gathers a couple of dozen of Byrne's portraits, mainly of his family and close friends.
If you're looking for a narrative thread through Sitting Ducks, you'll be looking for a long time. There's no real chronological order to the hanging, and you quickly find yourself marvelling at the wild mixture of styles Byrne brings to his portraiture, none of the styles seeming tied to a particular time in his life. But it also becomes quickly apparent that his best pictures are the ones of the people he loves. If you only have a couple of minutes to spare, the three pictures of Byrne's former partner Tilda Swinton give you the best overview of what he can do. There's a loose-lined sketch that's colourful enough for the SPG to be selling it on a tea towel: a scratchy, edgier depiction with lots of awkward white space: and a gigantic, delightfully cartoony image of Swinton striking a pose on top of a pile of scripts. There's plenty more to delight in this exhibition, including a letter Byrne received from Rene Magritte in response to one he posted using the address “Magritte, Brussels”.
Our final Book Festival visit of the year is an awkward one. We're at an event featuring two children's authors, Karen McCombie and Catherine Wilkins, because reasons. And we're standing out like a pair of sore thumbs: the audience consists of a few dozen mothers with young daughters, plus us, plus Richard Herring. We try to keep quiet at the back and not look like [name removed on legal advice]. McCombie is there to talk about Angels Next Door, the first in a series about a young girl getting to know her mysterious new neighbours: while Wilkins is there with the third novel about her hapless character Jessica, My School Musical And Other Punishments.
Host Eve Harvey spends much of her time drawing parallels between the two authors, even though there's an obvious imbalance between the two women – McCombie has racked up 75 children's books in her career, while Wilkins has only done three. But both of them are writing in similar ways about the friendships girls make at that age, and how fragile their self-esteem can become. McCombie started off working on girls' magazines, and exposure to review copies of books inspired her to write her own. Wilkins took a more roundabout approach, spending some time as a stand-up comic before taking the plunge with her first book. Both writers are happy to tackle difficult topics in their books, and have inspiring messages for their readers – Wilkins suggests that the easiest way to cope with bullying is by repeating to yourself “I'm brilliant,” which is what Jessica does in her books when times get tough. The subsequent Q&A session is equally enjoyable, with the little girls in the audience asking much smarter questions than their counterparts at some of the adult Book Festival events I've been to.
At the end of a splendidly fancy dinner at Restaurant Mark Greenaway, the maitre d' asks us what our highlight of the Festival has been so far. At that stage, I can say with some confidence that it's The God That Comes, which we saw last night. But one hour later, John Otway will nearly drive over us in a Sinclair C5, and I will come very close to reassessing that opinion. The C5 has been Otway's main promotional tool for this Edinburgh run: he's covered it with his venue and time details, and apparently can be seen driving it round the streets of the city by day. But I hadn't realised that he's also driving it onto the stage for his grand entrance.
The reason why we're standing on the stage area and in his flight path is a typical bit of Otway luck: the main room at the Jam House has been double-booked, and he's been moved to a tiny upstairs bar at the last minute. Like much of Otway's career, most of the stuff that looks like bad luck has happy consequences. In this case, the intimacy of the upstairs bar suits him a lot more than the cavernous ballroom below. It's also great to get the rare opportunity to see him play to people who are unfamiliar with his work, and watching them become angry and confused. For us fans, Otway (with the sterling assistance of Deadly The Roadie) mixes up the usual classics with some of his lesser-performed material. The latter are particularly welcome: I'd forgotten, for example, just how utterly lovely a song like Poetry And Jazz is, to the extent that I end up buying the CD from Otway after the show.
“Is The Festival Wheel an event? I don't think it's an event,” says The BBG as we're riding on it, and is still saying some 48 hours later. (Yeah, this is going up on the web really late.) The tickets for it are being printed on Underbelly ticket stock, so sod it, I'm saying it counts as one of today's nine. It's a welcome addition to Princes Street Gardens this year: a big wheel offering terrific views of the city from the top. In terms of bang for your buck, eight quid for an eight minute ride makes this the single most expensive event we've done this year: but if you time it right – say, just after 9pm as the sun's going down – you'll see some lovely stuff.
The Wheel is there to fill the gap between Otway and our final official show of the night, although you could also say the same of the teeth-grindingly awful open mic night we also catch at the Potting Shed. We run away from there as the performance poetry kicks off and head into George Square for the by-now-inevitable Richard Herring in Lord Of The Dance Settee. After several years of shows based around a specific theme, this is Herring returning to a loosely linked set of comic routines – the theme may be looking backwards and forwards at life, or the contrast between movement and inertia, he's not entirely sure himself.
Having a show that's partly about nostalgia means he can recycle a few ideas he's used in other shows and books – whether it's the misheard hymn lyric that gives the show its title, or his teenage self tormenting a chicken shop manager who may or may not have been called Dave Manager. The ideas have been expanded in this retelling, and Herring's delivery is as entertainingly pacy as ever, but it's all starting to feel a little predictable. But then in the final few minutes, Herring casually drops a minor bombshell: one which I think may have been let slip by someone else earlier in the day, and which may have an impact on the theme of future shows. While we're still recovering from that, he hits us with a glorious bit of slapstick silliness to wrap up the show perfectly. It reminds you how few visual gags Herring does these days, now that his primary method of comedy delivery has become the MP3. Maybe that's going to change too.
Notes From Spank's Pals
When It Rains
Nick - Sometimes in provincial theatre the audience claps the set, and so the gardening correspondent of The Scotsman thought this worthy of four stars. I usually like multimedia shows, but the lives of two couples were not enough to sustain the back projection and lighting effects used to bolster this lacklustre story. It had the feel of a technical exercise rather than a truly involving theatrical experience.