Reviewed today: Alun Cochrane: (Me Neither), The God That Comes, Lyn Gardner On The Art Of Critical Writing, Rubberbandits: Continental Fistfight, Sara Pascoe Vs History, Taekwon Percussion Performance: BIGABI.
Here's that punchline I promised you a couple of days ago. On Monday, The Belated Birthday Girl and I went to a Readers' Workshop event at the Book Festival – they were discussing Moby Dick, a book that she had read but I hadn't. And as a tradeoff, we booked for a second workshop later in the week. Ben Walters from The Guardian was hosting a discussion on The Art Of Critical Writing, which seemed relevant to my own interests. But the big hook was that the talk would be centered around Morrissey's Autobiography, a book that I'd read but she hadn't. Ooh! Symmetry!
Well, that was the initial plan. And then two days before the event, we get an email telling us that Ben Walters has had to call in sick, and his place would be taken by Lyn Gardner. Gardner's the theatre critic for The Guardian, so her credentials for talking about critical writing are second to none. Her credentials for talking about Morrissey, on the other hand, are zero: but this isn't made clear until the end of the workshop, by which time Morrissey's name has never been mentioned once. For me, it's a slight disappointment due to the loss of my beloved symmetry. For the chap in the audience who's expressed an interest in music journalism, you suspect it's even more of a disappointment, though he hides it well.
Put aside the lost opportunity to whinge about the low quality of Morrissey's book (which I've already done in brief here), and this is actually a really good session on the current state of arts criticism: partly how to do it, partly looking at where it's heading in an age where you can read the opinions of any old tosser on the internet, present company included. One advantage of this session being hosted by a journalist from the theatre section rather than the book section is the delightful sight of Gardner proclaiming “literary criticism is totally corrupt”: friends are constantly reviewing each others' books, and publishers are using any means necessary to ensure their product gets prominent press space. One devilishly handsome chap in the audience suggests that as more and more criticism in the press is being farmed out to unpaid staff, there's a risk that ultimately all reviews will go this way, and be nothing more than advertorial driven by the publicity departments with the best freebies.
Despite all this, Gardner doesn't see the internet as a replacement for the professional critic. The pros have certain advantages over the commentariat: they see a lot more stuff, and they get a regular platform where they can talk about it. Knowing the critic's past form is crucial to interpreting their work – she's delighted that some Guardian readers consider a Gardner one-star review as a mark of quality, because they've taken the time to read between the lines and know how her opinions mesh with theirs. But as well as helping the casual viewer to decide what to see, criticism is also a large part of the way that the culture is defined, and Gardner suggests that the internet has broadened that cultural remit beyond the stuff that automatically appeals to the “male, pale and stale” chaps who hog the arts pages. She tops it all off with some useful tips for aspiring critics – recognise when things are good but not to your taste, be honest about your responses, think about what the work reminds you of rather than trying to leap to an immediate rating. Considering Gardner was thrown into this at the last minute, she holds her own brilliantly. Four stars.
This is the midpoint of our week, so we've already shooed SeaPea and Stephen out of the flats, and our next job is to pick up Anne and Kate from the station. Once they're safely installed in their rooms, it's off to St Bride's Centre – a venue that I think I last visited in 1989 – to see Taekwon Percussion Performance: BIGABI, which promises a mixture of taekwondo and traditional Korean drumming. The programme is a little ambiguous as to how the two arts will be combined, and I've already accepted that we won't get to see people actually kicking the crap out of drums. But martial arts and ethnic percussion always go down well on the Fringe: the two together should end up as more than the sum of their parts.
Thinking about it afterwards, I realise that I've seen a few Fringe shows in the past based around martial arts or swordplay, and BIGABI appears to be a mixture of all their worst elements. Dumb slapstick humour based around people yelling and falling over: a partly taped music score that's never quite in sync with the live musicians: a narrative throughline that nobody in the audience really came here for. Worst of all, neither the drumming nor the taekwondo is especially impressive, until a climax that finally delivers what we want in terms of board smashing and noisy percussion. But the whole show needs to be like that, not just the last fifteen minutes.
After a splendid Indian dinner in Tuk Tuk, it's off to another unfamiliar venue. Summerhall is one that I've never visited at all before, and only really know by reputation. That reputation, fair or otherwise, is that Summerhall is the Fringe's home of massively pretentious art. On a trip to the loo, The Belated Birthday Girl discovers Ignaz Cassar's 444 Archives, an installation in which pictures of 444 archive facilities are stored in an inaccessible archive format, and nearly has a fit. But it's a lovely building, with a delightful courtyard bar out back that appears to sell the best beer of any Fringe venue we know. We're happy to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
It gets even better when we're handed a free glass of wine while waiting to go into the premiere of The God That Comes, although it feels a little off having just heard Lyn Gardner's tales of being plied with booze on theatre first nights. No need to worry, though: this is thematically justified wine, because The God That Comes is a tale of Bacchus, the god of booze. It's a solo performance by Canadian singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman (co-written with director Christian Barry), telling the story of a king who is angered by the fun being had by the followers of Bacchus, including his own mother. He has the god captured and brought for interrogation: this does not end happily. Workman commences the show by telling the story verbally, and then does it all again in the form of an hour-long suite of songs, which he performs on his own using a battery of instruments and loop units.
I've been a fan of Workman's for a while, having been introduced to him by The BBG several years ago. But this show is on another level entirely. I tend to think of him as a sensitive singer-songwriter type, working only with the backing of frequent collaborator Mr Lonely (see Figure 1). The latter is credited here as sound operator, and is the key to the power of the music here. Workman's vocals, keyboards, guitars and percussion (plus the most unexpected harmonica solo you'll see in Edinburgh this year) are heavily modified by Lonely on the mixing desk, with echoes and loops frequently deployed. There are several huge climaxes in this piece, as Workman hurls layers of sound on top of each other, and stands back to see how they mash together.
The important thing here is that the technology is not the be all and end all of The God That Comes: it's a way of enhancing what's already a lovely collection of linked songs, full of pretty melodies and seriously witty lyrics. Add to that the already engaging personality of Workman himself, and you've got a performance whose sheer entertainment value makes this the best thing I've seen on the Fringe so far. I've still got three days to go here, but I'll be surprised if I see anything that tops this.
Earlier on, Lyn Gardner admitted there are circumstances where people use negative reviews as a recommendation, and I've got a perfect example of that here. I recently read a review of Rubberbandits: Continental Fistfight which complained that there was too much new material in the show, and not enough of the songs that made them famous. That suited me just fine, frankly: it's been nearly three years since the release of their Serious About Men album, and we've had to make do since with a slow trickle of new videos on YouTube. The chance to hear stuff from their next record was one I was happy to take.
I wish I could find that review now, because it turns out that it's all bollocks. Galway's premier hip-hop duo are playing the same room as they did this time last year, and much of the set remains unchanged – the songs performed while the videos play in the background, with some admittedly smart banter in between. There's a fake-out opening that plays up on the pre-publicity that they've written a musical (the Continental Fistfight of the title), but once that plotline's been ditched it's back to the familiar songs from the first album. We get to see performances of the songs that have appeared on YouTube in the past year – and hearing Dad's Best Friend played bloody loud is a definite highlight – but most of the material here's overly familiar.
There's one completely new song in the set, a catchy little number about abortion (you'll have to hear it for yourself, but trust me). Two observations arise from this. The first is that it reminds you how transgressive the Rubberbandits must be on their home turf, given the amount of time they spend attacking Catholicism: after all, two of the videos shown here (Fight Me At Mass and Horse Outside) take place inside churches. The second is that as this is such a new song, Blind Boy Boat Club hasn't memorised the lyrics yet, and his solution to this problem is a lovely bit of physical comedy. In fact, there are a few occasions here where the show moves out of the standard format of Two Blokes Yelling In Front Of Some Videos Projected In The Wrong Aspect Ratio: the use of a simple prop to add an unexpected edge to the London Town number from the abandoned musical, and the appearance of Gabriel Byrne himself for closing number Fellas. A bit more of that sort of variation, and a few new songs, could make their next show something to see.
Then it's off to the Stand to wrap up the day with Alun Cochrane. He's been doing the rounds for ages, but he's mainly come to our attention thanks to his appearances on Stewart Lee's telly show The Alternative Comedy Experience, which is filmed on this very stage. As Cochrane delves into his personal life, it's unnerving how similar it is to mine: he appears to have been going out with his girlfriend for exactly the same length of time as I've been going out with The BBG, and he tells creepily familiar tales of how being self-employed requires more careful scheduling of your sex life. But there are areas he goes into that have no connection to me at all, such as his kids and their lack of respect for his day job.
It's all pleasant enough, but you find yourself feeling that there should be more to enjoy from a comic than a lack of confrontation. Even when he chides his audience for not reacting the way he wants, it's a much gentler version of the way Stewart Lee over-analyses a gag when it fails to land. Part of this may simply be down to stand-up fatigue, of course: if you see too many of them over a week at the Fringe, most of them tend to hover at an average level of competence, and it takes a special one to rise against the herd. Maybe I'd enjoy Cochrane's act more if I saw a bit less stand-up over the week. Which could make tomorrow a little problematic.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Sara Pascoe Vs History
The Belated Birthday Girl - There doesn't really seem to be an awful lot of significance to the title of Sara Pascoe's show, although she does use historical references at a couple of points in it, and the big finish could possibly justify the title, at a push. What she does is deliver a very funny hour of often rather filthy relationship material, fully deserving of the 16+ age rating, with the odd genuinely meaningful point being made. Whether telling us about why she loves her boyfriend's pot belly, introducing the theory of 'sperm competition', or describing how she ended up being quoted in FHM, Sara Pascoe keeps the audience laughing and shows herself to be one of the top comics on the circuit.