Reviewed today: Andrew O'Neill's Black Magick Fun Hour, Dad's Army Radio Hour, Iestyn Davies Sings Bach 1, Political Animal, Room 29.
I do like the International Festival's Queen's Hall concerts. I mean, sure, they start at 11am every morning, which is unnatural. But if you can make it out there for that time, you're usually guaranteed a prime slab of decent music for a reasonable price, and most days you'll end up on the radio too. In previous years, the awkward bit of the deal has been getting there in the first place: but by chance, our accommodation this year is just a few minutes walk away. We get there a bit earlier to treat ourselves to breakfast at Herbivore Kitchen, two gigantic stacks of pancakes covered with either eggs Florentine or veggie haggis.
As for the concert, it's the first in a pair entitled Iestyn Davies Sings Bach, and does almost exactly what it says on the tin. Almost, because we don't just get some Bach for our money. Each half of the concert has a similar structure: it starts with the Academy of Ancient Music (led by Richard Egarr on keyboards) playing a toe-tapping piece by Bach's contemporary Telemann: a lushly orchestrated overture suite in the first half, and a more stripped-back trio in the second. And then we go into the advertised Bach pieces, over which a Welshman lectures us in German about how we're all sinners and we're going to die. This is a bit of a downer for Edinburgh at 11am, quite frankly.
To be fair, it's not as bad as all that: the first half's Wiederstehe doch der Sünde is indeed full of fire and brimstone, but the second half's Gott soll allein mein Herze haben is a bit more positive in its message of God's love for us. And, obviously, Davies sings them both beautifully. Still, it's nice when he comes back for an encore and decides to balance what he calls all that 'pulpit-bashing' with a much jollier drinking song by Adam Krieger. As hinted earlier, the whole thing was broadcast live on Radio 3, so you'll be able to hear the whole concert on the iPlayer for the next month - if you want to just hear that encore, skip to the 1:42:25 mark.
While we're on the subject of the radio... back in 2011, I saw a show here called Wireless Mystery Theatre Presents..., in which a group of actors performed a couple of vintage American radio drama scripts around a microphone. I noted that at the same time, another group was doing a similar thing with The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, and wondered why this sort of thing wasn't happening more on the Fringe: reading old radio scripts is an ideal way to put on an entertaining show on a tiny budget. Plus, you can read it all, so you don't even have to learn anything.
Six years on, and one of the people responsible for Fitzrovia - Fringe stalwart David Benson - has joined up with Jack Lane to push the concept just a little bit further with Dad's Army Radio Hour, by reading scripts the audience are probably already familiar with. People sometimes forget that at the same time as Dad's Army was being shown on telly, the same cast was also involved in a series of radio adaptations of the same stories, broadcast on Radio 4. The only real difference from the TV show was a series of introductions by newsreader John Snagge, ingeniously setting the scene with a news bulletin describing the period that particular episode was set in.
Dad's Army was revived recently as a movie, and by all accounts it was terrible. A lot of effort obviously went into casting contemporary actors who looked like the original characters, but nothing like the same effort went into the script. Here, Benson and Lane's impersonations of the cast are pitch-perfect (leading to several surreal bits where the same actor is talking to himself in two different voices), but the fact that they're still using the original scripts is the icing on the cake. They're doing two programmes of two episodes each on alternating days, to sneakily try and get people to visit the show twice: the programme we get today starts off with The Deadly Attachment and continues with Brain vs Brawn. The first is the one where the platoon finally gets to meet some actual Germans, and contains that line, which Lane's Captain Mainwaring hits perfectly: the second has a little too much action going on in it, and may have been a bad choice for radio as a result, but you can't deny the ambition of it. It's a very enjoyable show, although I suspect you'd need to be a fan of the original TV series to get the most out of it.
Over the years I've been coming to Edinburgh, I've noticed an interesting change in the way comedians approach it. It used to be the case that Edinburgh would be the pinnacle of a comedy tour: a comic would take their set around the country for several months, and have it honed to perfection by the time they reached the Fringe. These days, though, more and more comics use the Fringe as the start of a show's life, treating Edinburgh as a lab where they can test out bits of work-in-progress before they take the finished product on tour. (As The BBG pointed out, there's also a third option - comedians who test out shows in a work-in-progress form at the Fringe, and then bring the finished show back to the Fringe a year later. "Come and see me again! I've got it right this time, promise.")
Andrew O'Neill wasn't at Edinburgh last year, because he took the old school approach - he spent August in London performing early runs of Andrew O'Neill Is Trapped Down A Well at the Camden Fringe, and spent several months after that touring it in preparation for bringing the finished product to Edinburgh this summer. Well, that was the theory. But after performing a black magick ritual on acid, he decided to ditch the show entirely for a new one entitled Andrew O'Neill's Black Magick Fun Hour. If you come along expecting card tricks, you'll be disappointed - he starts off by performing an actual ritual to Mercury, and then spends most of the hour describing his interest in magick and explaining how it's helped him in his life. But at the same time, he's got a dependant now - well, a cat - and there's a tension as he wonders if the added responsibility means he should be embracing the mainstream.
Let's face it, O'Neill isn't going to be going mainstream any time soon. (Although The BBG notes that his routines about playing with his cat are basically the equivalent of Richard Herring's routines about playing with his child.) Still, it's fun seeing how the Well show has evolved into this - the basic framework of the original has been ditched altogether, but he's still experimenting with mixtures of styles, mashing up anecdotes, hit-and-run one-liners, and the occasional song. It's a terrific hour of comedy, and well worth the £10 he suggests we should pay on the way out. We both put a tenner into the bucket, by the way, even though we went in assuming we'd give him a fiver each. Was that... was that magick, too?
I mentioned earlier that our flats this year are over the east side of town: as a result, we've not been getting over to the West End very much. Still, we have one show this evening which allows us to have a beer-and-pulled-pork dinner (plus a tub of mac 'n' cheese for the lady) at the bar we choose to call The Banging Hat, before waddling down the road to the King's Theatre for Room 29.
It looks like the Edinburgh International Festival is taking a leaf out of the Manchester International Festival's book - getting in pop stars to collaborate on theatre pieces that defy easy categorisation. Room 29, at heart, is a suite of songs written and performed by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales, about the room of the same name at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood: you can already buy an album of the songs if you just want to hear those. But theatrically, there's a load more going on: narrative, singer/pianist banter, specially filmed sequences, pieces of archive footage, stories by David Thompson about some of the film stars who've passed through the hotel, some audience participation and a dance number towards the end.
God knows how you could classify this: possibly it's cabaret? It's the term that seems to best sum up the lightness of touch with which the show flits between genres. It mixes together Cocker's own stories of being miserably alone in a hotel room, more general reflections on the ups and downs of hotel living, and an analysis of how the glamour of Hollywood declined with the arrival of television. It's a baggy old collection of items - the programme quotes a running time of an hour, but tonight it's more like one and three-quarters - but it's all held together by the charm of its two leading performers and the prettiness of the songs.
As if to maximise the value for money that we're getting out of the day, our final show also overruns by an hour: no problem in scheduling terms, but we were hoping to be back home a little after 1am, and that just doesn't happen. As has become the case in recent years, at weekends the Stand puts on a late show around midnight featuring top acts from all over: but on weeknights that slot is filled by Political Animal, where Andy Zaltzman introduces a collection of comedians with a political agenda. It's still the same smart, not-drunk crowd that you get at the weekend late shows, which makes for a much more fun night out than the likes of Late 'N' Live: a couple of comedians on tonight's bill note that there have gags that normally fall flat in their regular shows, but get big laughs from the audience here.
It's an interestingly diverse bill, opening up with Geoff Norcott, who's been making a name for himself over the last couple of years as The Only Tory Comic On The Circuit. There are still mad right-wing arseholes in comedy (such as Lee Hirst, who gets called out for it by tonight's headliner), but Norcott stands out because he remembers to have jokes, and isn't afraid to pander to the crowd by pointing out the obvious flaws in the Conservative party too. Tom Bowden manages to get plenty out of material from being both Australian and gay: Tiernan Douieb is his usual ascerbic self, though he suffers a little from the audience beginning to realise how late it's getting. But we're all woken up by the headliner Paul Sinha, who gets our attention simply by walking on stage and confessing he's too drunk to be doing this right now. Nevertheless, despite his eyes being all over the place, he pulls off a storming set - one that we've heard before (it's mainly the story about his visit to the House Of Commons that he told on his last tour), but it's still fun to hear. Andy Zaltzman holds it all together as he always does, even though it doesn't go down quite so well when he describes both of the gay comics as "an abomination in the eyes of God."