By now, you should know how August 2015 played out for me. Most of it was spent dealing with the scary logistics of moving 25 years of accumulated crap from one part of London to another part of London.
Usually, of course, August involves an entirely different set of scary logistics: moving a dozen or so of Spank's Pals from multiple locations in Southern England to a set of flats in Edinburgh, and trying to ensure we all get to see lots of interesting stuff at the various Festivals. 2015 was one of my one-in-three years off, though: so I contented myself with a bit of speculation when the programmes came out, and left it to Nick and Charmian to do everything else.
By all accounts, they did a pretty terrific job. So here are Nick, Charmian and Diane to tell you all about what was good at Edinburgh in 2015. While you're reading that, it looks like I may have to start making initial enquiries about booking accommodation for 2016...
Shock horror – Mervyn Stutter sells out – Shakespeare for Breakfast sells out (I might be able to get tickets for Maxine Peake in Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, but no chance at the C venue) - and the weather is lovely! (OK, except for Tuesday when it rained all day, but that’s a minor miracle by Edinburgh standards.)
Could we possibly succeed for a second year with our choice of first night shows? Step forward Charmian of Muses fame who played an absolute blinder all week, with her universal reference scrambled eggs, choice of restaurant of the week (more later) and her selection of Marcus Brigstocke as our first night show. A highly polished hour of trying to defy the expectations of his largely R4 audience, it went something like this;
MARCUS: What's the worst racist abuse you have ever been subjected to?
THAI LADY: Someone asked me how to cook rice.
MARCUS [looking slightly surprised]: And how did you respond to that?
THAI LADY: In a rice steamer...
You can't make this stuff up, it was pure comedy gold.
And now to the first of my three fringe heroes (as I write this I can see our fave monkey putting his hands in front of his eyes and thinking, why me?). Step forward Pete Harris, the newly installed publicist for Mervyn Stutter. The complete bastard managed to sellout the Sunday show, unheard of in the old days: but Harris gallantly went down the queue of pasty looking Scots (apparently this was the only sun they had seen all summer) and found me a ticket. Magnificent effort. Stutter was on best form, doing some topical political jokes, a genre almost extinct on the fringe. But of course we never went to any of the featured shows, we never do!
Second in my list of heroes goes to Phill Jupitus, not for any of his shows but for the massive support he gave young upcoming Danish comedienne Sofie Hagen. Poor Sofie was turfed out of her venue at the Liquid Rooms and wound up at what must be one of the worst venues on the fringe, the Cowgatehead, which resembles a slaughter house, the tech arrangements consisting of two table lamps for stage lighting. [Here's some background on what they're choosing to call Cowgateheadgate - Spank] But Phill ran the front of house with amazing aplomb and heartily laughed all the way through Sofie's set, even though it consisted of her obsession with the boyband Westlife and unusual sexual practices with her boyfriend, like peeing over him in the bath, that sort of thing, which usually doesn’t touch the funny bone of middle aged men. But she has a great deal of charm, and with the right material could be a star in the making.
Third in my list of heroes goes to a mystery Edinburgh gentleman in the Brass Monkey pub. At first it appeared he was one of two old boys challenging each other to identify the malt whisky the other had bought on their respective rounds, the Scots are funny like that. The bonhomie flowed and the mystery gentleman offered me a sip of his whisky, which immediately became my drink of the week, 12 year old Bunnahabhain malt, silky smooth whisky. Things were going swimmingly well until a startlingly attractive young woman arrived and whisked my new best friend off to lie down in the cinema room. What about my free drinks?
Better make this a quick round up of the other stuff, like err the shows I'm supposed to be reviewing. Spillikin was my favourite theatre show, a highly poignant and moving show about dementia (a big trending theme at this year's fringe). Helen Ryan was tremendous as the wife suffering from dementia and feeling love for the robot her husband had built as his surrogate, for the time when he had passed away and wanted his wife to remember the things they had enjoyed together before she was diagnosed with dementia. The show was also notable for the brilliant use of Pink Floyd's Echoes, which seemed to capture the mood of the wife's mental displacement. There was a particularly moving scene when the robot stopped being the husband and reminded the wife it was a robot, but as with the nature of dementia she soon forgot all that.
Comedy wise, Michael Legge was excellent as the grumpy comic. Three's Company's Boris: World King was also a hoot, I urge you to see that if it returns to London. Jenny Bede did an excellent show about changing the misogynist lyrics contained within a lot of hip hop music. Restaurant of the week went to the North Bridge Brasserie, which has an excellent cocktail bar along with well sourced Scottish produce in the magnificent surroundings of the old Scotsman newspaper building. Disappointment of the week was the Scottish beer festival at the Cloisters pub, a complete non event as there were no extra beers put onto their usual admittedly excellent selection, a bit of a cynical marketing exercise. Well that's it for another year, time to hand organiser duties back to our fave monkey.
I started off badly with a Saturday night choice that looked good on paper but was badly written and acted: After We Danced at the Space on the Royal Mile. After that, things could only improve, and they did. Each time I saw a show that I thought would be my “pick of the Fringe” another one came along to surpass it. Too many good things to review them all but here are my top five.
1. The Solid Life of Sugar Water by Jack Thorne, performed by Graeae Theatre Company (Pleasance Dome). This was the first time that I have experienced a performance by Graeae, a company that works with deaf and disabled actors. Although the play contains a few references to the deafness of Alice (Genevieve Barr), on one occasion to hilarious effect, disability is not the theme of the piece. The main theme is the development of the relationship between Alice (a strong, affecting performance by Barr) and Phil (an engaging performance by Arthur Hughes) leading to the loss of a child and how the couple try to cope with their tragedy. In particular, the play examines the couple’s sex life, cleverly via the actors' thoughts, rather than by showing anything explicit. This had to be the strongest piece of writing on the Fringe. Thorne takes the audience into the minds and thoughts of his two characters and, as a result, the play’s tragedy has a lasting effect. This is a piece that has stayed with me and deserves a wider audience. Do catch it if it comes to London.
2 . Spillikin by John Welch, presented by Pipeline Theatre Company (Pleasance Dome). There were several plays on at Edinburgh that dealt with relationships via flashbacks to when the main protagonists met, but this had to be one of the most original. Leading character Sally (National Theatre veteran Helen Ryan) is suffering from dementia, and the play opens with a work colleague of her deceased scientist husband installing a robot, invented by Sally’s husband, in her home. We learn that the robot will act as a companion for Sally as her health deteriorates. We then go into flashback mode where we meet younger, arty and rebellious Sally (Anna Munden) on her first encounter with husband to be, scientific “braniac” Raymond (Michael Tonkin Jones). This is a case of opposites attracting and, before we know it, the teens are marrying with a reception in the local Wimpy Bar. Fast forward again 50 years and the robot (played by “Robothespian” who normally hosts school visitors to a Polish museum) has taken the place of Raymond who had died of a degenerative muscle disease which, among other things, caused him to spill things (hence the play’s title). The question is, can the robot really replace his creator, and was Sally and Raymond’s relationship as idyllic as it might at first appear? The touching performance of Helen Ryan and the younger actors’ sensitive handling of their awkward blossoming relationship are well matched by the “performance“ of Robothespian who talks, moves and even manages facial expressions. Technically flawless, moving but with great moments of humour, this play had everything. It may not be one of the festival’s award winners, but it’s a play which is proving a favourite with audiences, and all those who saw it in our group thoroughly enjoyed it.
3. The Christians by Luke Hnath, presented by the Gate Theatre (Traverse Theatre). Bought to Edinburgh by the same team that presented the excellent Grounded a couple of years ago, this play is headed for Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre and I urge you to see it. I’m not sure how they are going to fit a choir in to the tiny Gate, but the play opens with a choir (played here by a local Scottish community choir, choirs from London will replace them when the play transfers) singing some gospel numbers. A strong cast of actors enters through the audience and it becomes clear that we are in an evangelical church. The church’s leading Pastor Paul (brilliantly embodied by William Gaminara) reads the sermon which starts off predictably enough but soon becomes controversially life changing when Paul announces that he intends to move the church away from its traditional “hellfire” preaching. The radical move causes conflict with Assistant Pastor Joshua (Stefan Adegbola) dramatically leaving to set up his own church. It seems, at first, that Pastor Paul can continue in his position as he still has support but, as the play progresses, it becomes clear that the support is not solid and, after a questioning of his motives by choir member Jenny (strong performance from the wonderful Lucy Ellison who appeared in 2013’s Grounded), the congregation dwindles further. The climax of this play is a debate between Paul and his, until now, loyal wife Elizabeth (played with quiet dignity by Jaye Griffiths) who, it turns out, cannot accept her husband’s denial of the existence of hell. Although this is a private discussion, the debate between husband and wife, like all the other dialogue in the play, is staged with the actors speaking through microphones. This technique illustrates that the discussions taking place will affect not only the future of a marriage but the future of the church, and therefore have public repercussions. The play has been awarded a Fringe First by the Scotsman and would certainly win my award for the best quality ensemble acting.
4. Fully Committed by Becky Mode, presented by Menier Chocolate Factory (Underbelly Topside). This was the play that launched London’s popular Menier Chocolate Factory 11 years ago. It was revived recently at the Menier with Kevin Bishop in the lead and another actor/comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, brings this production to Edinburgh. I was too slow off the mark to book Brigstocke’s Edinburgh comedy show and had missed this one man play at the Menier, so this presented two good reasons to catch the production at Underbelly Topside. I wasn’t disappointed. This had to be the most entertaining hour I spent at this year’s Fringe. I knew that Brigstocke could act as I had seen him a few years ago as the station master in The Railway Children, but didn’t realise how versatile he is. This play is a wonderful showcase for an actor who has comic timing and the ability to change voice and character in the blink of an eye. Brigstocke plays put upon Sam, an out of work actor who has to hold the fort and answer all the phones in a posh New York restaurant, when colleague Bob doesn’t turn up for work one day. Brigstocke switches from Sam to the various callers who include several New York socialites, Naomi Campbell’s camp dresser, a Gordon Ramsay style bad tempered Chef, Sam’s elderly Midwestern Dad and a Maitre D who refuses to talk to any one who he considers unattractive. This is just a small selection of over 40 characters. Brigstocke has really come on as an actor and I certainly hope to see him in more dramatic roles in the future.
5. Down and Out in Paris and London, New Diorama Theatre Company. (Pleasance Courtyard). My penultimate show at this year’s Fringe and one of the best. This play begins as a straight adaptation of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London with young writer Eric Blair (Richard Delaney), soon to become George Orwell, renting a flea infested room in a Paris lodging house to see how the other half lives so that he can write about it. What starts off as an academic observation exercise becomes all too real when the boarding house is robbed and a now penniless Blair has to find work as a “plongeur” in a Paris kitchen to make ends meet. The New Diorama Company’s ensemble cast bring to life the world of the boarding house. You can almost smell the place by just looking at the disgustingly dirty sheets on the bed and the cast members’ stained clothes. The action now switches to London but, instead of writer Blair/Orwell, we meet modern day Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee (Carole Street) taking part in a similar social experiment. She rents a squalid unfurnished flat in London to experience the life of the “underclass” who struggle to live on a series of minimum wage zero hour contract jobs. Like Orwell, she is researching a book, Hard Work, about her experiences. From hereon the action switches between the Paris of the past to the London of today. Although the Paris scenes are the more evocative, the London scenes are the ones that leave an impression, opening our eyes to the way that low paid workers are exploited and showing that little has changed since Orwell’s day. I was impressed by the way that author David Byrne (no, not that one!) managed to capture the spirit of both books in a one hour show. Catch this play when it comes to London early next year.
Other shows which narrowly missed my top five included Underneath at Dance Base, Where Do Little Birds Go? at the Underbelly, Raz at Assembly George Square, An Audience with Jimmy Savile at Assembly George Square, Going Viral at Summerhall and Boris, World King at the Pleasance Courtyard.
Special mention also to the ever entertaining Edinburgh favourites Mark Thomas, The Horne Section and Mervyn Stutter. It was lovely to see that, for the first time in over 20 years at the festival Stutter was selling out on a daily basis – well deserved after years of good work promoting the best of the Fringe!
Thanks to Nick and Charmian for organising and to everyone else for their good company. Looking forward to next year.
It was Nick and myself in the seat as organisers in Spank’s year off, and another great week got off to a good start: we didn’t need passports to get across the border, thanks to the “no” vote in last year’s referendum; we were greeted on arrival by the sun (which continued to shine for a good part of the week); and for a second year running, the first night show jinx was avoided – credit this time goes to the excellent Marcus Brigstocke.
Mind you, Sunday started a bit strangely, as the bleary-eyed occupants of Riego Street were treated to a somewhat noisy rehearsal of Grease in the courtyard at 7.00am (complete with amplified music). This was followed by missing the customary Sunday visit to Mervyn Stutter, which was sold out for the first time I can ever remember. What’s going on? I thought.
However, the week got under way and there was much to enjoy, although again, for me there was no one standout show. As far as theatre was concerned, there seemed a more varied choice, and there wasn’t an issue with clashing timings this year, which I have grumbled about in the past. Overall, I have to give special mention to the following:-
• Down and Out in Paris and London, which seamlessly mirrored the experiences of George Orwell in 1920s Paris and those of Polly Toynbee’s in latter-day London (which, rather soberingly, illustrate that things have not improved a lot);
• Raz, Jim Cartwright’s first play in many years, featuring a towering performance by his son James as a low-paid worker blowing his wages on a Friday night bender. A deserved Fringe First for this show.
I appreciate there’s so much out there to see, but I can’t get past some old favourites - Mike Maran at Valvona and Crolla, Shakespeare for Breakfast, the American High School productions at the Church Hill Theatre - which never seem to disappoint. However, I think the “show I wish I hadn’t missed” award goes to Spillikin.
For me, though, possibly the biggest gem was the M C Escher exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. This was the first major UK exhibition by the artist known for his spatial illusions, whose work was much sought after (by amongst others, Mick Jagger), but who shunned the public eye. There were some mesmerising pieces which really drew you in, and it was not an exhibition to be rushed. [It's coming to London in October - Spank]
Of course, the gastronomic delights are an important part and our regular haunts didn’t disappoint (apart from Howie’s, who seemed to have hiked up their prices for a meal that wasn’t that special). Discovery of the week was the North Bridge Brasserie, in the lavish old Scotsman building, with a great cocktail bar to match which was a worthy replacement for the much-missed Monboddo. Also, thanks to Nick’s encounter with a local gentleman in the Brass Monkey, I have found a very fine single malt whisky, Bunnahabhain, that doesn’t give me a hangover the next day.
Anyway, time to wrap up, and thank all the Pals as always for their great company, and welcome back next year, Spank.