Reviewed today: Blak Whyte Gray, Mr Scruff On The Fringe, ONE: The Man Chosen By The Spirit Of The Japanese Drum Vol 2, Roger McGough & Chris Riddell, She And Her Cat: Eddies In The Ebb And Flow.
As the popular phrase has it, this is not my first rakugo. Two years ago, we had our first encounter here with the excellent Katsura Sunshine, a Caucasian Canadian introducing us to the Japanese art of traditional storytelling. It's hard to see why nobody had tried rakugo on the Fringe before: it's easy to stage (requiring just an elevated platform, a fan, a cloth, and a performer in traditional dress), and is just unfamiliar enough to feel slightly exotic. Katsura Sunshine is here again this year, but after that he's doing a short run at London's Leicester Square Theatre, and we've decided to see him there instead, as should you if you get the chance. (Interesting crossover with another regular feature from this blog: when he's back in Tokyo, Katsura regularly performs in and shills for BrewDog Roppongi.)
Meanwhile, on the outer edges of Edinburgh city at Greenside @ Royal Terrace, we have another Westerner performing rakugo on the Fringe this year. Misheru Hikari is from South Africa, and she's brought over the story She And Her Cat: Eddies In The Ebb And Flow. She admits in her introduction that it's not a very traditional example of the form: traditional stories are daft comic fables, whereas this one has a bit more tragedy to it. Basically, she's taken a favourite anime short and adapted it to fit the form. In fact, She And Her Cat is based on a film by animator Makoto Shinkai, who's currently incredibly hot thanks to his massively popular feature Your Name - it's surprising that the publicity for this show hasn't made more of that connection. Anyway, this story is the tale of a little girl called Kanojo who's given a kitten to cheer her up during a dark period in her life. Kanojo and the unimaginatively-named Neko grow up together and become best friends, but the girl is unaware that her cat has A Secret.
Hikari's an enthusiastic performer, and she's got a neat little story to tell (though hints regarding That Secret are dropped quite early on). It almost seems unfair to compare her to Katsura Sunshine, who's studied the form for years under a Japanese master and is ridiculously skilled at it. Hikari doesn't go into her connection with rakugo, but I suspect she's more likely an anime fan who's found a Japanese way to retell one of her favourite stories. Still, it's an enjoyable enough show with some laughs, and may well pave the way for more of this sort of thing in future fringes.
We've got a busy day planned today, so we've treated ourselves to a Lothian Buses day ticket, because we've got five shows to see and each one is the opposite side of town to the one before. That was careless planning, wasn't it? Still, a quick west-to-east journey gets us back onto our old stomping ground of Lothian Road, where after a quick coffee and cake at the Traverse we head off to the Lyceum for Blak Whyte Gray in the International Festival. This is mainly down to the influence of Lesley, who's a fan of dance and has raved about East London group Boy Blue Entertainment in the past. The BBG and I aren't necessarily dance people, although we appreciate a good solid beat and people leaping around to it (as you'll see later), so we've decided to join her at this matinee.
Blak Whyte Gray is apparently made up of three separate pieces, but if you didn't know that they all flow into one continuous stream with an interval in the middle. The opening is absolutely electrifying: three dancers stand stock still in the middle of the stage, and gradually twitch into life through the random crackles and beats of the score by company boss Michael 'Mikey J' Asante (also co-director alongside choreographer Kenrick 'H2O' Sandy). It's thrilling as hell to watch, but as the group increases to eight some of that inital impact is lost. This is all my fault rather than Boy Blue's, as staying up till 2am last night begins to take its toll and I start zoning out a little bit.
After the interval, I perk up hugely. It also helps that the second half has more of a narrative thread to it: it opens with one man lying virtually dead in the middle of the stage, and being picked up and moved around by the rest of the group. Again, like the opening, it's a transition from stillness to full movement, but a much more gradual one. The staging gets more elaborate in this second half, with some excellent lighting effects from Lee Curran, including a perfectly timed black light interlude. Any doziness I may have had in the first part of the show has completely vanished by the end: it's a cracking piece of modern dance and a hangover cure all in one.
An east-to-west bus journey followed by a late lunch at Shri Bheema's sets us up nicely for the second Japanese show of the day with a massively unwieldy title. And let's face it, if it's a Japanese Fringe show and it doesn't involve rakugo or martial arts, these days there's only one other option left open to you. We first heard about ONE: The Man Chosen By The Spirit Of The Japanese Drum Vol 2 from our good friends at Mugen Taiko Dojo in Strathaven, when we went up there earlier this year for another Japanese drumming workshop. Mugenkyo weren't planning to be at this year's Fringe, and recommended we see this show instead. We're amused on the way in to see someone in a Mugen jacket at the door, handing out flyers that basically say "if you enjoy watching Japanese drumming, why not visit us and learn how to do it yourself?" After all, that's what we did.
ONE is, unsurprisingly enough, a one-man show: Kensaku Satou is the focus of the piece, though he does have Hiroshi Katayama to help him out occasionally on background rhythms. As an endless stream of Japanese men comes to Edinburgh to strip to the waist and bang drums with sticks, it takes some effort to ring the changes, but Satou manages that in the opening number: he comes on stage in a hooded robe and proceeds to bang a drum with what can only be described as a log, about four feet long and six inches in diameter. After that jaw-dropping start, it turns into a more traditional taiko show, complete with a solo on the big o-daiko drum as the penultimate number.
Satou's got technical skill, as do most of the drummers who come here every summer. He's also got an insane amount of power: that huge BANG of log-against-leather that opens the show isn't the high water mark of the volume level, he can get similar amounts of noise using traditional sticks as well. The best taiko drumming can be felt as well as heard, and Satou does that frequently, without falling into the trap of having everything at one ear-splitting level - there's plenty of light and shade in his performance. Plus, he seems to be having more fun than any other taiko player I've seen here, playfully juggling his sticks as he drums and smiling constantly. Sure, it's a serious bit of Japanese culture, but it's also entertainment, and I think he gets the balance between the two just right.
Another bus going west to east gets us to Charlotte Square and our first visit to the Book Festival yurts this year. Last year, we kind of dropped the ball with the Bookfest a little bit, not booking for anything in advance and only getting to see The Guardian's Secret Murderer on a last-minute ticket. But this year, there's been plenty in the programme to get us out there, and the first one proves to be an early highlight of Edinburgh 2017. Certainly, it's the show premise that's intrigued people the most when I've told them about it in the months leading up to the festival: a double bill featuring Roger McGough and Chris Riddell. McGough we all know, of course, as he's been a proper People's Poet for about half a century now (I last saw him here in 1991). Riddell is an illustrator, who's worked with lots of writers over the years - I know him best for illustrating several of Neil Gaiman's books. The two of them have collaborated on a new edition of McGough's Summer With Monika, and they've decided to do something ridiculous in celebration of that - an evening of Riddell illustrating poems as McGough reads them, the pictures projected on a screen behind him.
It actually works really well. McGough doesn't give any dates, but the poems he reads in the first half of the show feel new - they cover current concerns like Isis and global warming, but with his usual humanity and wit. Riddell obviously knows what's coming, and somehow manages to finish each illustration just in time for the end of the poem, sometimes beating McGough to the reveal of the punchline. There are also some fun mini-collections of poems which share a theme: the problems encountered by the wives of the great Surrealists, or tales of wild animals on the loose in London. After a couple of dozen of these, McGough reads the whole of Summer With Monika, and Riddell projects his illustrations from the book (occasionally getting out of sync because he's stopping to listen to the reading). For me, this doesn't work quite so well - he has to rush through the pictures at high speed to keep up with McGough, and we don't get to see them for very long. Mind you, as a device for persuading people to buy the book, it's a cracker.
Probably the most fun is in the final Q&A section, where Riddell performs the astonishing high-wire act of illustrating the audience questions without any prior preparation and still manages to pull it off. In the final seconds, the evening's host - Harry Baker, a rather enjoyable young performance poet - slowly reads out one of his own haiku ("Went to Chinatown / There were too many bright lights / Asked them to dim some"), and Riddell's got the picture more or less done within a few seconds of the seventeenth syllable being uttered. I suspect most people were there for McGough, and rightly so, but Riddell's working process is a joy to watch.
One more east-to -west journey (on foot this time), a very late dinner at BrewDog Edinburgh (it's worth knowing they're still serving pizzas at 10.30pm), and then we wrap up the day with Mr Scruff At The Fringe. Last year, we finally got around to attending one of the DJ's Keep It Unreal clubnights at Manchester's Band On The Wall, and had a terrific time there. My one concern about seeing him here is the venue: La Belle Angele was the site of last year's biggest disappointment of the Festival, a poorly-attended and generally disappointing edition of Peter Buckley-Hill And Some Comedians. (Earlier today, I picked up a copy of the PBH Free Fringe brochure which explains his absence this year: "I shall be in hospital having things removed, including what remains of my dignity.")
Anyway, it turns out that La Belle Angele is much better as a dancehall than as a venue for disappointing comedy. The show isn't on the same scale as Scruff's BOTW performances: the sound is a bit woollier, the lights aren't as elaborate, and there isn't a tea stall in a room next to the dancefloor. (Nick, disappointed by this last absence, actually goes up to the DJ booth to complain about this, and is rewarded with a couple of cups of tea provided by Scruff himself, presumably from his personal backstage rider.) But musically, it works just fine: we get to see the room build over the first two hours of his set, by which time the floor is packed with an unselfconscious crowd lollopping around to a selection of mid-tempo funk, while Scruff's whimsical animations are bouncing around on the back wall. The relaxed vibe that I always associate with a Scruff gig is perfect for old people like us. However, old people like us aren't going to make it through to a 4am finish, so we quietly duck out at that point to make our own tea.