Reviewed today: Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop!, Black Country New Road, Gerald Finley & Julius Drake, No More Jockeys, Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians XXI, Two Cents Worth Of Hope.
I've been coming to Edinburgh since 1989. In terms of actual time spent in the city, I've been wandering around it for over half a year now. So how come there are bits of it that I've only just discovered today? Specifically I'm talking about Dovecot Studios, which has been the centre of Scottish tapestry work for more than a hundred years. There’s one word in that previous sentence which probably explains why it hasn’t come up on my radar before now. But there’s more to tapestry than whatever twee image comes to mind when you hear the word, and Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop! is a great illustration of what you can achieve with a loom and a bit of an attitude.
Brennan's a local: he was trained in tapestry at Edinburgh College of Art, and was in charge of Dovecot for several years in the sixties. This was the heyday of pop art, and as the title suggests Brennan was working with a similar degree of playfulness and postmodernism. The one I've got a picture of here, American Gotham, is a great example of what he does, though its height means I have to waffle a bit to fill up the space alongside it on the page.
For example, I could talk about the fun illusions he builds into his tapestries - detailed trompe l’oeil effects where you can’t tell the difference between a series of lines and shadows drawn to look like a crease in the fabric, or an actual crease. Elsewhere, we get a series of tapestries he literally sent out in the post: the best of these is a set of twelve woven postcards sent to one location from twelve different cities, which assemble into a jigsaw with a naughty picture on one side and a subversive message on the other. And there's lots of playing with found images and text, very much in the tradition of pop art. The exhibition wraps up with some archive film of Brennan and the studios from 1971, which shows him to be just as thoughtful and no-nonsense about his craft as you’d hoped he would be.
Just round the corner from Dovecot is the Old College Quad, which I do know about: it's been the scene of many large scale fringe events over the years, like the infamous exploding Cinderella of 1999. This year it’s been grabbed by the International Festival for another one of their outdoor canopied venues. This one's smaller than Edinburgh Park, with a similarly bubbly seating arrangement: except this one has a see through roof, because you get to look up at a nice old college rather than a tatty old industrial park. It’s the site for the festival's smaller scale performance events, including a series of lunchtime classical concerts that may well be intended as the equivalent of the Queen’s Hall ones we tend to frequent at least once a year. These are certainly the shows that are being broadcast on Radio 3, albeit with a couple of days delay rather than live. Having said that, there doesn’t seem to be any room on the Radio 3 schedule yet for today’s show, which is odd given the talent involved - Gerald Finley and Julius Drake, one of the world's leading bass baritones performing with piano accompaniment.
Finley’s performing 22 songs here, which The BBG delightfully describes as a pair of Schus – sixteen by Mann (Dichterliebe), followed by six from Bert (Schwanengesang), all based around poems by Heinrich Heine. I’m familiar with precisely one oF the songs on the programme: Schumann's Ich Grolle Nicht, as stolen – OK then, quoted – by Michael Nyman in his opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. It stands out from the rest of the Schumann songs by having more of a sense of drama and development to it – many of the others feel too much like fragments. This isn't a problem with Schubert, who delivers six songs in the time it takes Schumann to deliver sixteen, but makes them all feel like complete entities.
None of this is any reflection on the performers, of course. Finley’s voice is wonderful as usual, expressive and clear throughout, but his performance can't be detached from that of accompanist Julius Drake – the two of them mesh together terrifically, making for a delightful lunchtime's entertainment.
We have lunch at Bread Meats Bread, where neither of us has anything involving meat and only one of us has bread, and then head next door to the Filmhouse for a restoration of Renato Castellani's 1952 film Two Cents Worth Of Hope. There's a fine (though in the circumstances irritatingly time-consuming) introduction describing it as pink neo-realism – taking the ideas of Italy's neo-realist cinema, but using them for fluffy things like romcoms. This one tells the story of Antonio (Vincenzo Musolino), who comes home after a year of military service to find himself unemployed, with his mother and sisters needing him to make money for them. At same time, local girl Carmela (Maria Fiore) is chasing after Antonio to the disapproval of her parents, who more or less force him to get a job. And then one of his sisters hits a problem that means he’s got to get a second job.
You could imagine this setup bring played as downbeat tragedy, but here it’s very much done for laughs with the pacing of a screwball comedy, all short scenes and rapid crosstalk. Some of the humour doesn’t play so well these days, particularly the running gags about domestic abuse, but there are sudden detours in the plot that make it quite exquisitely Italian – mostly involving Catholicism and/or communism – and give it a flavour of its own.
We walk out about three quarters of the way through the film. I know, we never do this, but here’s the thing. Our plan originally was to see the film through to the end, and then dash across town to see On Your Bike, a new musical about a Deliveroo-style operation, from the company that premiered the hit musical Six here a few years ago.(Even better, that company is the Cambridge University Musical Theatre society, affectionately known as CUMTS.) It was a tight changeover, possibly the tightest we had in our schedule, but we bought the tickets and prepared for a mad dash between the Filmhouse and Surgeon's Hall. And then at 5pm last Friday, a new show was announced that caused us to rip up our plans. To see it, we’d have had to throw away our tickets for the musical, and leave the film half an hour before it finished. And that's what we do.
That’s why we're two of the first eighty people in the world to witness a round of No More Jockeys being played live on stage. Luckily for you, I’ve already explained the rules of the game here a couple of months ago, because Tim Key's attempt to explain them to the audience lasts a good five minutes and never actually gets to the end of its first sentence, as it's derailed by a discussion with fellow competitors Alex Horne and Mark Watson about whether Wikipedia is always formally referred to as The Wikipedia or not. This sort of digression's typical for a game of Jockeys, but there are a couple of tweaks to the formula of the so-called YouTube Sensation: firstly it's playing to a sixty minute time limit, and secondly there's a cash prize on offer. It's held in a cardboard box which Horne recklessly passes around the audience - "give what you like, take what you like" - so the winner will get at least 10p of my money at the end of this.
For the fans in the audience - and really, who else would be here? - it's exciting to see these format tweaks, along with other ones like dramatic lighting changes for the challenges. But it's still the same thing at heart: three old mates mucking around, pretending they don't care about the game but very obviously caring hugely about the result. The character flaws we've come to know and love from the three contestants become even more apparent as the time pressure increases and makes them more reckless, with the final result coming from a classic mistake that we've seen time and again in the online matches. If anyone did come to this show completely cold, they wouldn't have the faintest idea what was going on: but hopefully they'd realise that this is exactly the sort of last-minute impromptu silliness that the Fringe needs more of in these planned-to-the-nearest-millimetre times.
Our second International Festival show of the day! Nick would be horrified, if he was here. Mind you, there aren't many similarities between Gerald Finley this lunchtime and Black Country, New Road tonight. It should be noted that The BBG and I were among the youngest people in the audience for Finley, and among the oldest people in the audience for this. And following on from last night's EIF show, there's no clog dancing for BCNR, although as The BBG points out you could probably manage a quick stompalong to some of the band's more klezmery numbers.
This may well have been the festival show I was anticipating the most, at least until No More Jockeys was announced. And it has to be admitted that it didn't quite live up to expectations, mainly because of the sound mix. As my viewing companion has noted, the thing about Black Country, New Road's music is that there's A Lot Going On, in terms of lyrics, instrumentation and unexpected tempo changes. When one of their songs hits full pelt, it's frustrating that the drums are cranked up to a level that steamrollers over the interesting stuff happening with the keyboards, violin and saxophone.
For this reason, it's the quieter bits that work the best here, where the oddness of their arrangements really comes through. There are more of those quiet bits than expected, because this band who've only released one album so far have a 75 minute slot to fill, meaning we get quite a few unfamiliar numbers thrown in. Possibly too many for some people - as the band leaves the stage for the final time, someone yells out "where’s Sunglasses?", referring to the only song from the album they haven't played tonight. It's looking like that'll be the track from the album that ends up on my Pick Of The Year 2021, so I'm with that guy.
It's interesting to reflect that when the Fringe finally announced that they were going ahead this summer, everyone assumed it would be full of cheap, easy-to-arrange stand-up comedy: and so far on this trip, the only real stand-up we've seen has been the Scottish showcase at the Stand. So we decide to finish off our day at the Canon's Gait, the longtime home of the PBH Free Fringe, strategically timing our arrival to hit the interval of a two-hour show. When we get there, it's all a bit weird. Yes, we're there just in time for the interval, but people are queueing up for the bar like they used to in the Before Times, with no sign of at-seat service or QR codes. The bar itself is ridiculously unatmospheric - all the lights on, all the music off, and ominous bottles of hand sanitiser on every table. And when you get to the bar, there is literally no draught beer available, something which the staff seem to find amusing.
It's tempting to turn tail and flee at this point, but we grab the two last bottles of decent beer from the fridge and head into the basement for the one man who could persuade us to stay in the building. Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians XXI is a title that I never thought I'd be typing here, given that PBH has been threatening his retirement for going on a decade now - but he can't seem to let this format go, and here he is again, showcasing four comedians for the price of whatever you're prepared to give him on the way out. We're only here for the last two, without having any idea who to expect. Maeve Boffey is charming enough and has some nice riffs on her key characteristics of being Irish and bisexual. ("I'm LGBTQ+, I've got ADHD and my name's spelt the Irish way, so I've got nearly the whole alphabet.") But the big surprise is that our headliner's Andrew O’Neill, who we've literally seen on three separate occasions already since the beginning of June, so they must be sick to death of us by now. They're as fabulous as ever, so we're happy. And PBH has finally put Peas - his best song - back into his set and performed it here, so if he really retires now I'm happy to let him do it.
Back at the hotel, we wrap up with one final bit of business. Did you really think we could abandon a film half an hour from the end? Luckily, if you follow the link for Two Cents Worth Of Hope above, you'll see that it's on YouTube, albeit in unsubtitled form - so the final half hour of our day is spent Monoglot Movie Clubbing the movie's ending. Not much to report, really - Antonio and Carmela fall in and out of love a couple of times more, there are references to some sort of scandalo, but it all seems to work out in the end. So for those of you counting, we've seen six things today in this festival that hardly really exists...