Reviewed today: Bridget Riley, Mark Watson: I Appreciate You Coming To This And Let's Hope For The Best (Work In Progress), Musik, Russell T Davies, Simon Munnery: Alan Parker Urban Warrior Farewell Tour.
To the casual gallery visitor - yeah, I think that 30 year wait marks me out as casual - that's what Bridget Riley is associated with: those 1960s black and white canvasses featuring intricate, repetitive patterns that make your eyes go funny when you look at them. And of the ten rooms in this major retrospective, number two is the one that'll give you all the retina-shreddng action you could possibly want, making it possibly the room to skip over if you're coming to this with a hangover. (In the programme, we discover that last month the gallery held a narrated tour for the visually impaired, and you wonder how the hell you can verbally convey the effect of these paintings to the visually impaired, other than by screaming constantly.)
The great thing about this exhibition - like most Festival art shows, running for a few months either side of the actual Festival season, so you've got plenty of time to catch it - is that it shows you the whole range of work that Riley's done over her lifetime, not just the strobes and stripes of her classic period or the discs of her more recent paintings. There's an attempt she made to recreate the techniques of Seurat, to work out how he represented visual images as dots. There's the one attempt that she made to convert one of her designs into a walk-in 3D installation, along with some notes about why she considered the experiment a failure. (It also answers The BBG's question about why nobody sells Bridget Riley wallpaper.)
Towards the end of the show, you'll inevitably have questions about how her process for making these paintings, and the room full of preparatory studies gives you some tantalising insights. (The key elements appear to be graph paper, geometry - Riley is good enough to literally show her working on the page - and a team of assistants to do all the donkey work.) And in the final room, there's a collection of her more representational work from her student years, so you can say "see, she could paint properly if she wanted to" if you're that sort of dick. It's a great exhibition, made even better by the Gallery being just a few minutes walk away from Edinburgh's best value lunch at Chez Jules. Onion soup, steak and chips, plus bread and salad on the side, all for eight quid? Come on.
This is a slightly uncomfortable picture to be using here, accompanying a slightly uncomfortable show. It's from fifteen years ago, at the Festival where we saw Mark Watson perform for the first time. We drifted in and out of his big gimmick for 2004, a show that lasted a full 24 hours, making sure that we were there for the final couple of hours. In the closing seconds of the show, he proposed to the woman who would become his future wife: by this point, nobody was really enforcing 'no photography' rules, so I've got a picture of the actual moment of the proposal. We've seen Watson several times since, but I suspect we'll always associate him with that first 24 hour show, and that moment in particular.
The uncomfortable bit is when we gradually realise that Watson's new show - I Appreciate You Coming To This And Let's Hope For The Best (Work In Progress) - is partly about how he's got divorced this year. "I think it's there as a barely discernable subtext," he says at one point, to lampshade the way that he keeps coming back to it over and over again even as he's talking about other things. For example, there's a bit about how he's installed a plane-tracking app on his phone, and uses it to track his loved ones while they're in the air: "obviously I don't want my new girlfriend to be in a plane crash, because then I'd have to start looking again..." Some of the digs are self-deprecating, but some of them are quite harsh: it's like hearing from one of your mates announce that they've split up, and then hearing them pile straight into the recriminations before you've had time to process the news.
It's possible that the divorce has inspired the real main theme of the show, which is largely about reflecting on his life, spurred on by the life expectancy app on his phone (next to the plane tracking one) telling him he's a 39-year-old with another 39 years to go before he dies. Though this is all speculation, of course: "you could be hit by a bus tomorrow, as my uncle often says. Worryingly often, in fact. For a bus driver." It's a show with an interesting linear structure, wandering from topic to topic without obviously coming back to a central theme, but reaching a definite conclusion at the end. But don't worry, it's also full of jokes as well. It feels surprisingly fully-formed for a work in progress show, so it feels a bit wrong when he boasts at the end that the same show (in some form or other) will be back again next year. Though it might be interesting to see if the 'take my ex-wife, please' angle has calmed down a bit by then.
And now, number three in the series of People I Saw At My First Edinburgh In 1989 Who Are Still Performing Today. On my final night, I went to see a late comedy show called God and Jesus, though I couldn't tell you now why I picked it. According to my notes at the time, their best gag was "what do you get if you put a baby in a liquidiser? An erection." God and Jesus were a double act consisting of, in no particular order, Stephen Cheeke - who I believe is best known nowadays for a background role in Richard Herring's The Headmaster's Son - and Simon Munnery, who still endures to this day.
This year's Munnery show is a little bit special: it's the Alan Parker Urban Warrior Farewell Tour, which suggests a final outing for a character who appeared in embryonic form in those God and Jesus shows. Even in his heyday in the early nineties, Parker was always depicted as a man out of time, a strident lefty still blaming Thatcher for everything and struggling to hold the most right-on opinion in every instance. Just imagine what that character would be like in 2019: how would he feel now about something like Brexit?
Well, the good news is that he's completely unaware of it - as he says, "ignorance is a weapon, use it" - and still fighting the same hilariously pointless battles against The Man that he was thirty years ago. This means he's frequently telling the same jokes, too. It's not a problem, as they're great jokes, and we haven't heard them for well over a decade. Plus, there's one small bit of character development to note: Alan's now big on protecting the environment, to the extent of writing Greta Thunberg's name written on his Jacket. (I think he might have actually written Greta Gerwig by mistake, but I might be wrong about that.) It's sort of the reason why this is a farewell tour, but you'll have to see the show to find out the details.
The BBG and I nip from the Stand into Fortitude Coffee next door, to start nailing down our plans for the rest of the week. Then it's off to the Assembly Hall for a NEW THRILL. Aside from the Festivals you all know and love this time of year - International, Fringe, and Book, there have never been any others, shut up - there's also a Television Festival that runs for a few days every August. It's largely there for people in the industry, so us normals rarely have a chance to get involved. But this year, in a new spirit of openness, the TV Festival is putting on a couple of public events that are being advertised in the Fringe programme. In retrospect, they might regret making one of them an on-stage interview with Russell T Davies, because he's in terrifically indiscreet form. "I hadn't realised how much they were charging for tickets. Neither of us are getting paid, you know..."
Boyd Hilton talks Rusty through a fast-paced overview of the big shows of his writing career, with 1999's Queer As Folk counting as his breakthrough. Without that show, Davies admits that he'd probably have gone on to become a long-time writer on Coronation Street, and be really enjoying it. He's a big fan of soaps, and makes an interesting observation about their current state: the problem isn't so much that their ratings are down, it's that nobody's talking about them any more. That wasn't a problem he encountered when he took on the job of rebooting Doctor Who, and he has some nicely bitchy anecdotes about the snobbery he encountered in the TV industry when it won awards that should have gone to Proper Drama.
He spends a bit of time looking at his two most recent works, A Very British Scandal (where he feels it was important for a gay man to retell the Thorpe story for a change) and Years And Years (a long-gestating dystopian tale that finally sparked into life the night Trump was elected). On a completely unrelated topic (I'm trying not to drop as many gratuitous spoilers as he does), Davies also talks a bit about killing off characters in his shows, and how he always tries to give his deaths some sort of weight, rather than just using them as a cheap surprise. He's thoughtful, cheeky, and massively friendly by turns, happily heading outside after the interview to sign several tons of Who memorabilia for a massive queue of fans.
A quick beer at Six Degrees North, followed by a fine dinner at the ridiculously funky El Cartel Mexicana, and we're all set up for our first major disappointment of the Festival. Think back to 2001, and the review I wrote of Closer To Heaven, a musical by Jonathan Harvey and Pet Shop Boys, which could possibly have had a long life in the West End if it hadn't been for pesky Al Qaida ruining the tourist trade. It featured a sort of narrator figure called Billie Trix, played by Frances Barber: a Germanic rock chick who'd had a novelty hit single in her prime, but was now leeching off younger, more talented people. Eighteen years later, Harvey and the PSBs have taken Billie's bare bones backstory, and expanded it into an hour-long one-woman musical cabaret show called Musik, letting Frances Barber reprise her role from the original.
Partway through, you remember that padding out one show's subtext into another show's text rarely works, and it certainly doesn't here. My main issue with Closer To Heaven was Harvey's occasional tendency to go for the cheap gag over everything else, and Musik indulges that tendency something rotten. A lot of the plot of the show involves inserting Billie into key moments of late 20th century pop culture, Zelig-style, but with much lower quality Photoshopping - it's just wrong to do sloppy work and try to pass it off as camp. For me, the main attraction of Musik was the prospect of hearing some new Pet Shop Boys songs, but even those have a dashed-off, B-side feel to them. It's telling that the best musical number of the six performed in this hour is Friendly Fire, which is Billie's big number from Closer To Heaven just cut and pasted into the new show.
If anyone comes out well from this, it's Frances Barber, who throws herself into the part with wild enthusiasm and an outrageous German accent. (One amusing twist in the plot makes this an odd companion piece to Maxine Peake's The Nico Project from a few weeks ago.) She's giving her all, but she simply hasn't got any decent material to work with, making this something of a missed opportunity. We have to go to Hoot The Redeemer for a nightcap to cheer ourselves up after the show, and that's our excuse.