Reviewed today: Al Murray: The Pub Landlord's Saloon, Barney's Brewery Tours, Marcel Lucont's Whine List, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, Under The Influence: 90s Britpop.
It wasn't until the Fringe programme came out in June that I realised there was going to be a problem. The Pals and I were swapping suggestions for shows by email, and at one point Nick casually said "presumably we'll be seeing Mervyn Stutter on the Saturday?" And it's true, every year since 1998 we've called into Stutter on the first full day of our Edinburgh visit, using his Pick Of The Fringe show to help us pick shows that we wouldn't have thought of otherwise. But as I've mentioned already, on every visit since 1998 that first full day was a Sunday. This year, our first full day was on a Saturday, and I'd already booked for Blak Whyte Gray in that timeslot. What to do?
We took the easy way out and booked for Stutter on the Sunday. So here we are now. The show hasn't really changed all that much in format since 1998, although I'm reasonably sure that back then Merv used to cram eight acts into his 90 minute slot, and these days he only manages seven. I'm sure if you confronted him with this, he'd blame it on the ageing process, much like he does with everything else. Having said that, it's interesting that his opening songs for once aren't about being old, but are heavily centred around the current US president. When he uses the opening line "Mexico must pay, he thundered" in a rewrite of Another Brick In The Wall, you can see the punchline coming from several miles away, but that's always been part of his charm.
As for his guests in today's show, they're the usual mix of comedians, straight actors and musicians, although the balance this time is a little more skewed towards comedy than usual. We get three stand-up comics: the twitchy Robert White (trying and failing to keep his stories of growing up gay down to a Sunday afternoon level), the delightfully laidback Tez Ilyas (explaining a little too hard why he thinks it's important for a British Muslim to be doing standup), and the hysterical Gary Delaney (who burns off one-liners at an astonishing rate, which is an approach that'll always go down well with audiences here).
Aside from the standups, there are a couple of bits of character comedy on display here too. The Establishment: Eton Mess is a curious throwback to the pre-alternative comedy days of the Fringe, with two posh chaps in suits throwing around repeated catchphrases to very little effect. Diane Chorley: Rhythm Of Live works a bit better, a classily understated drag act with a nice line in 1980s musical nostalgia. That leaves one bit of straight theatre (Assessment, whose satirical theme of old people selling off their pension rights for short-term gain seems to hit Merv where he lives) and a musical act to wrap everything up (Nicole Smit performing a couple of splendid tunes from Queens Of The Blues). It's the usual entertaining mishmash of genres, held together by the genial man in the pink suit: I've got Gary Delaney and Queens Of The Blues down for further investigation, so the show's done its job for yet another year.
Now, an apology, I guess. Think back to the tail end of 2015, when The Belated Birthday Girl published another one of her brilliantly-designed diaries. As you know, one of the key features in the diary is a two-page spread where the reader is set a project for the year, twelve things that have to be achieved within the next twelve months. In 2016, the project was to visit twelve different small breweries, and have a drink in each of their tap bars. Obviously, The BBG and I were playing this one ourselves, and you may remember that I boasted about how we hit our target in December last year with a trip to the Stone brewery in Berlin. I also said at the time that at some point, we'd write a piece here talking about the breweries we'd visited. Well, as you can see, that hasn't happened yet: it will do at some point, promise.
But just because it's no longer 2016, that doesn't mean we've lost our interest in breweries. So when we found a brewery tour listed in the Fringe programme, it seemed like an irresistible proposition. Particularly when we discovered that the brewery in question is actually in the middle of the Summerhall arts complex. Barney's Brewery Tours - or at least the one we went one - start off with a brief history of Summerhall itself, and I must admit I wasn't aware of the full story behind it. I knew that it used to be a veterinary school, from the way that some of its rooms are still called things like the Small Animal Hospital. I hadn't realised that the complex was bought out privately in 2011 by a family who specifically wanted to turn it into a gigantic arts centre and creative hub. (The Small Animal Hospital is now an escape room.) And I was completely unaware that before it was a vet school, there used to be a brewery on the site: a tradition that was revived in 2012 when a microbrewer called Barney set up shop as one of the creatives working in Summerhall. As our guide points out, this explains the ridiculous complexity of the brewery's tagline: "the longest established non-continuously operating brewery in Edinburgh."
It's a short tour, because it's a tiny brewery: all the magic happens in one single room that used to be a stables. But in an excellent 45 minute presentation, we're shown all the tanks, given an explanation of the brewing process, and told some fascinating bits of history along the way. Having done several brewery tours in the past year, The BBG and I have seen multiple variations on the tour format. This one is notable for the clarity of its explanation of how brewing happens (complete with chemical formulae on a blackboard, which I haven't seen done before), and its discussions of how different beer styles have fallen in and out of fashion over the centuries. And, as you'd expect, you get a couple of freebies to try along the way - a surprisingly light porter, and an IPA that holds its own against the hop monsters that are popular nowadays. Barney's Brewery Tours is almost certainly the least pretentious thing you'll see at Summerhall this year, but that's only one of the reasons why it's so enjoyable.
We have a good two and a half hour gap for a late lunch before our next show, and somehow we still manage to nearly blow it. First of all, inspired by the tour, we hang around Summerhall for a bit to try a couple more Barney beers. Then we stroll down to The Potting Shed, only to find it mysteriously quiet - we're quickly informed that the kitchen is closed today, with the alarming explanation that they've had to stop cooking for 24 hours following a gas leak. We do a quick calculation of the possible blast radius, and decide that we'll be safe down the road at Paradise Palms. Their veggie take on Southern soul food (Kentucky fried halloumi, that sort of thing) is actually pretty scrummy, but it takes them ages to get it to our table. At one point, they come close to suggesting that we get the food boxed up to take away to our next show: which triggers off all sorts of flashbacks for me, as this would be the second time that I've had to carry a restaurant meal while running to an Al Murray gig.
Still, it all comes together at the last minute, and we get to George Square just in time to join Murray's queue. And our scheduling snafu gives me the opportunity to think about how Murray's schtick has changed since that day in 1999 when I carried a steak in between two paper plates in the back of a taxi. There's still a large part of his act that's based around what he does best - taking the piss out of anyone brave enough or daft enough to be sitting in the front rows. (It's always amazed me how he manages to keep the names and details of seven or eight people memorised for the duration of a performance.) Over the years, the Little Englander satire has been cranked up bit by bit, probably hitting its peak the year he ran against Nigel Farage in an election. He doesn't mention that in this show, but there's an impressive comic riff about people coming to this country and stealing jobs that he develops in a way that only he could manage.
And I think that if he'd stuck to those two areas of expertise, this would have been a perfect show. But working in a Spiegeltent for a 90 minute slot means that he's got to blow this up from a show to an extravaganza. So we get a two-song guest appearance from the Doug Anthony All Stars, which is always welcome: but we also get a couple of songs, an extended gameshow involving members of the audience, and a conga line to finish it all off. You can't fault the ambition, but the whole evening feels a little baggy as a result, and I think a bit more focus - not to mention a 60 minute deadline - would have made this much better.
It somehow seems apt to follow up the Fringe's leading fake Englishman with the Fringe's leading fake Frenchman. And as The BBG points out, this marks the first time that we've seen Marcel Lucont do a full hour on his own. We initially saw him do a couple of guest slots on compilation shows, we've seen him work as a compere in between acts, and we've even seen him performing poetry under his real English identity of Alexis Dubus. In the meantime, his reputation has grown to the extent that, as he boasts in his opening, he's now living the Fringe dream: "only coming here for two weeks with the show I did last year."
Marcel Lucont's Whine List has the sort of premise you could easily bring back to this festival for multiple goes. On the way in, audience members are handed a short questionnaire in which they're asked about some of the bad things that have happened in their lives: their worst experiences at work, in love or abroad. Lucont will then pick some of them and chat to the audience member in question, and comedy will ensue. Well, that's the theory. In practice, it's all down to the quality of the audience members who choose to play along, and on this particular night he's got a few awkward buggers in the room. The person with the most intriguing story - one which involves mistaking ketamine for cocaine while at work - refuses to make herself known when she's picked. Another one has decided to fill his questionnaire with lies, and has to sheepishly admit that's what he's done when confronted. A third one admittedly has a couple of good anecdotes in him, but he's obviously told them several times over the years and is trying far too hard to be funny.
Still, Lucont takes it all in good grace, managing to use his trademark French disdain to cope with some of the stickier audience interactions. And he manages to take the few that work - notably a Leith Walk burger chef who hates his job but refuses to say exactly where he cooks - and weave some neat callbacks out of them. He's always worth watching, but you may want to have a look at the queue outside the theatre before deciding whether you can trust them to deliver their side of the bargain.
We grab some food to go on the way out of the PleasAssemBellyBalloon complex - a useful tip for you here, a mac and cheese toastie is virtually impossible to eat while walking - and then head back to Summerhall for... well, we're not quite sure. SeaPea has picked up on a 10.30pm slot at the venue entitled Later, organised by the Paines Plough theatre company, in which a number of one-off plays will be performed on various nights in the festival. She likes the combination of the location and the timeslot, and has persuaded five of us to join her. The only problem is that information on what we're actually going to be seeing is rather scarce. The Fringe website is not much use here, just advertising the slot as Later but with no dates or times attached to it. The Summerhall site is a little forthcoming, telling us that Derby's Not Too Tame theatre company will be doing a show called Under The Influence: 90s Britpop. But what is it? A jukebox musical? A play with a couple of Blur records playing in the background? A covers band trying to pretend they're theatre?
Even as we make our way into Summerhall's lovely Roundabout theatre, we're still not entirely sure. There's a three-piece covers band performing old Britpop songs with some gusto: meanwhile, as we take our seats in the circular auditorium, there are ten or so young people in nineties fashions leaping around in the centre of the stage, and trying to cop off with audience members they fancy. What we end up with, it turns out, is a series of ten short character sketches inspired by the period and the music. Some of them are directly quoting the songs - Adam Felix-O'Brien's Disco 2000 is effectively the Pulp song rewritten as a two-hander. There are references to the personalities of the day - Christian Lea's Cigarettes & Alcohol simply depicts Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn getting into an argument. Bruce Edhouse's Then & Now uses a gameshow format to contrast a mad-for-it 90s kid with his sensible present-day self. And then there are some sketches that could fit any time period, like Elizabeth Parkih's I Just Called To Say (the title technically should go on to say "...I've just tested positive for chlamydia").
It's a wildly diverse hour of contrasting tones, writing styles and performance styles: but this young cast holds it all together beautifully, even though you find yourself wondering just how many of them were actually alive in the nineties. How you react to it may depend on how much nostalgia you feel for the time period, but the sheer enthusiasm of everyone involved will wear you down eventually. And the ephemeral nature of the show - just one performance and then you'll never see it again - adds an edge of excitement that makes it a perfect late night event for the Fringe.