Reviewed today: All Back To Bowie's, Andrew O'Neill's History Of Heavy Metal, Chef, Free Gaza!, Thrill Me.
Yesterday (by which I mean Monday), The Belated Birthday Girl and I managed to get through virtually the whole day without seeing any of the Pals. This morning, I stumble out of my bedroom after a couple of hours of writing to find that every single one of them is in my kitchen. They'd arranged a breakfast pancake party at our flat, and we end up with a dozen or so of us scoffing away as SeaPea takes over the cooker. Our four person kitchen really isn't built to hold twelve people, and we have to pool the kitchenware from all three flats, and the circuit breaker keeps tripping if we run two appliances simuktaneously. But it's a delightful unexpected treat anyway.
It possibly makes for a worse comedown as we walk out the front door to discover that the rain's returned. Happily, our first event of the day is located on the tram route, giving us another excuse to go on one. (Is the electronic bell noise really as annoying to the locals as they suggested in Bloody Trams? I'd suggest that it's quickly become part of the city soundscape, like the slightly mournful hooter on the Manchester trams.) Our destination is the Stand's new venue in St Andrew's Square, although David Grieg is trying to persuade us that All Back To Bowie's is taking place in a yurt on the roof of David Bowie's Manhattan apartment. He's not entirely convincing.
It may not be immediately obvious, but this is the Fringe engaging directly with the upcoming Scottish independence referendum. Inspired by David Bowie's plea during his speech at the Brit Awards this year - "Scotland, stay with us" - playwright David Grieg has organised a daily schedule of debate events where he and his friends can talk about issues arising from the independence question. I say debate, but pretty much everyone here is firmly in the Yes camp and not budging, despite Grieg's insistence at the start that he's not really interested in binary questions. It feels significant that the one time he asks the audience a binary question - which of the two pronunciations of Bowie's surname is the correct on - the majority of the audience gets it wrong.
It's a different debate every day, augmented with a couple of pretty songs from Cora Bissett and some high-speed performance poetry from Sam Smith. Today's takes its title from the Bowie lyric Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed, and is an analysis of the current state of the Yes campaign. Stephen Noon, the man in charge of the campaign strategy, talks about how the recent focus on the currency question has altered his plans for the next five weeks. Kate Higgins describes how it looks from the perspective of the grassroots campaigners knocking on doors, somewhat miffed that the Salmond/Darling debate has distracted the media from the work that's being done outside the main political parties. And celeb guest Brian Cox - the Scottish one, not the Manc one, obviously - tells tales of how he's always felt rootless since childhood, and how it's driven his yearning for independence.
Cox crystallises my vague discomfort with the Yessers - they accuse the other side of fearmongering, but are quite happy to use the same themselves. (There's something slightly distasteful about Cox giving a eulogy to the still-warm Robin Williams, where the punchline is Williams' admittance that his improvisational comedy was largely driven by a similar fear of the unknown.) To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure where I stand on the debate - after all, it's not my fight. But I find it frustrating that the arguments for independence could be overwhelming, but nobody seems to want to say out loud what they are other than it would be A Good Thing.
It's also telling that for reasons of timing, apparently, this isn't the sort of debate where the audience gets to have a say: the best we can do is submit anonymous written responses to the statement "I want to say Yes to...", which are read out at the end as a crowdsourced poem. Most of the replies are fairly earnest and woolly, with very little dissent from the Yes line: one person's suggestion that they want to say Yes to an unemotional argument for independence, because they haven't heard one yet, is quietly passed over. Mine wasn't even read out, which is a shame because I think "I want to say Yes to a gigantic rainproof dome erected over the whole of Edinburgh" is a valid political viewpoint.
There's a bit more politics after a rather nice lunch at Ting Thai Caravan. Having said that, the organisers of Free Gaza! are very keen to emphasise that they're not taking sides in the current conflict, just trying to get more humanitarian aid out where it's needed. Organised by Jewish Socialists Group, with proceeds to be split between Medical Aid for Palestine and Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) in Israel, this is surprisingly low-key as far as benefit shows go. It has a cracking line-up, including a headline act who sold out his current Edinburgh run in a few minutes, making this the only place where you can get to see him. And yet the show's been barely advertised, and still seems to have a couple of tickets available on the door.
Still, the room is full by the time the show starts, and a mixed bill of Jews and Gentiles gives us a rather great hour and a bit of comedy. Compere Ivor Dembina is taking it all so seriously, I haven't heard a single joke in this act before, which must count as something of a first for him. Josie Long is her usual rambly self, ranging from stories of how her political stand-up has influenced other people, to fun ways of annoying audiences at classical concerts. Andy Zaltzman is the only one who addresses the subject of the Middle East directly. ("Here's some history: six thousand years ago, God gave it to us. Boom! Game over.") Late addition Chris Cochrane may disrupt the ethnic balance of the originally announced bill, but he has some fun tales from the activist frontlines, if you consider the lobby of tax-dodgers Top Shop to be a frontline.
And then there's Daniel Kitson, whose own show is impossible to get into, so hooray for this benefit. By now, it's obvious that Kitson has two settings: either working from a carefully crafted script, or just walking on stage and winging it wildly. He announces early on that this is one of the latter occasions, and his plan is to just talk to everyone on the front row and see what happens. You get occasional glimpses of the nasty undercurrent that scared me off him at Late And Live all those years ago, particularly when he attacks a woman firstly for not being as attractive as another one in the front row with the same name, and then for working in PR. But mostly, his delight in the quirks of people comes through: when he finds someone who's a scare actor working at a theme park, he gleefully loses interest in everyone else he's talked to so far.
From there it's off to Chef, one of the early winners of a Fringe First award this year. It's always nice when you make a discovery at the Fringe that goes on to greater things, and this has to count as one of them: because writer Sabrina Mahfouz and performer Jade Anouka were also responsible for Clean, the breakfast-time play that was my favourite thing at the Traverse last year. Anouka's character in this one is a young woman who's had an interest in food from an early age. She tells us her story, focussing on the two main kitchens she's worked in over the years, and the events that took her from one to the other.
Chef is a definite step forward for Mahfouz: its mirrored plotlines are more carefully interwoven, its characters are more complex, its internal rhymes sit quietly within the lines rather than clamouring for attention. If it didn't quite grab me to the same degree as Clean did, that may be partly down to this play not having quite the same degree of entertaining surface flash. It may also, to be honest, be partly down to this being the precise point where all those late nights this week started catching up with me. But even with the occasional lapse of concentration on my part, there's no denying that Jade Anouka's performance is a tremendous thing, running the whole emotional gamut. The big fuss over Mahfouz's script ensures that she'll be a writer to watch out for in the future, but let's hope that Anouka doesn't get ignored along the way.
Dinner at The Outsider - to be honest, I only throw in these passing mentions of restaurants so that The BBG can expand on them later in the week - and then it's off to Thrill Me, one of the shows previewed at Mervyn Stutter on Sunday. It's based on the lurid true-life case of Leopold and Loeb: not just murderers, but gay murderers. No wonder it's a musical.
Leopold and Loeb were an odd couple and no mistake. One read too much Nietzsche and thought he was above the level of basic human morality: the other one was a lovestruck obsessive. Together, they dabbled in petty crimes for thrills. Eventually, things went too far.
To be honest, I wasn't entirely convinced by what I saw of Thrill Me at Stutter: something about the combination of queasy subject matter and classic Broadway-style tunes didn't quite gel for me. When Jo Parsons and Danny Colligan sang a ransom note as they were typing it, it kept reminding me of that comedy attempt at a musical version of The Silence Of The Lambs from a couple of decades ago. The big question was, would this work better in the context of a full show? Happily, the answer is yes.
Stephen Dolginoff's musical has apparently been doing the rounds for over a decade, and has already had a run in London. This Edinburgh premiere has been directed by Guy Retallack, and it's difficult to see why it hasn't played here before: its stripped-down structure is perfect for a small-scale production. It's played mostly straight - an arson attack accompanied by a song about the romance of fire is the closest it comes to an out and out gag - but there's an undercurrent of dark wit, ready to bite when you least expect it. Parsons and Colligan perform the roles to perfection, Tom Turner does wonders accompanying them on the piano, and James Turner's smart split-level set is another layer of icing on the cake. The only downside on the night for us is the combination of back-row seats, duff sightlines and terrible human beings sitting in front. Get there early, get a decent seat, and enjoy.
Finally, to answer a question from Sunday: I could see Andrew O'Neill's History Of Heavy Metal in London next month, but there's a risk that work commitments may stop me getting there, so we've decided that this is going to be a Festival of two O'Neill shows. In the words of Joe Strummer, this is a public service announcement with guitars: armed with an axe, a distortion pedal and a series of powerpoint slides, O'Neill gives a comprehensively researched history of the genre, starting from Black Sabbath's 1970 debut album and working through the key highlights from then to now.
It doesn't matter if you're a metalhead or not, though if you are you may get a few more of the jokes. O'Neill admits that once he gets to the mid-eighties, newbies are bound to get confused, as metal splits into a bewildering variety of subgenres. But he takes time to go through the most important ones, providing musical examples where appropriate. I'm particularly pleased that he mentions grindcore merchants Napalm Death, and even performs an entire song of theirs. (It's a major part of my personal mythology that in 1988, I saw Napalm Death on a work trip to Bristol, and successfully claimed back the £4 ticket price on expenses.)
The show loses a little momentum towards the end, as O'Neill is obliged to cover some of the tragic fate of some of the darker metal bands - I'm not saying he shouldn't, but inevitably it has an effect on the density of jokes. But overall, this is another hour well spent with O'Neill's delightful personality, and does exactly what it promises in terms of both entertainment and education: if you've always had problems differentiating the various varieties of Scandinavian metal, he's got a couple of slides of Muppets that can help you.