Reviewed today: Funny Place For A Window, Stories In The Stone, Trevor Lock: Community Circle, A Toast To The People: Inua Ellams & Saul Williams, Your Tomorrow.
We're on Dundas Street – not an area of town I know all that well, but it quickly becomes apparent that it's the home to several private art galleries, where the pictures are accompanied with price tags or little red stickers telling you you're too late. Dundas Street Gallery managed to bagsy the best name before everyone else, and their current exhibition is Stories In The Stone, a collection of paintings by Edinburgh artist Davy Macdonald.
The front window of the gallery is set up to lure you in with three of Macdonald's pictures, which have been carefully chosen to show off his range. The main poster image of a woman in a mythical landscape is probably the least interesting aspect of his work to me: he's got a few pictures like this, and it's hard to shake off the feeling that there's a series of Tolkien-inspired fantasy novels missing a cover design theme. But that isn't all he does: there's a separate series of more contemporary portraits set in recognisable Edinburgh locations, and they're rather splendid (although The BBG points out that they mostly feature women drinking wine). He's also got a series of abstracts on display, some of which are regimented arrays of shapes and sigils, but others feel like they're on the verge of transforming into landscapes.
Macdonald's technical skill is never in doubt, and you're bound to find something in his subject matter that interests you, either in the displayed paintings or in the large collection of prints for sale. But our time in Dundas Street is slightly interrupted by the announcement by the man looking after the gallery (who I don't believe was Macdonald). Assuming we're tourists, he shows us some pictures he's just found online of a fire that's happening in Edinburgh right now, and uses tourist landmarks to identify where it is – Greyfriars Bobby and 'the Harry Potter cafe' (JK Rowling isn't the only person to have used Elephant House as a writing location, you know). We do some research of our own and discover that the old Patisserie Valerie on George IV Bridge is currently ablaze. We don't think we have any shows booked around that area, so we put it to the back of our minds for now. (That sentence sounds a bit ominous, doesn't it?)
It's hard to think about fires when the weather's so nice, quite frankly – the day's turning into a positive scorcher as we stroll through Princes Street Gardens and head for the location everyone's talking about this year, the NCP car park in Castle Terrace. Of all the solutions used this festival to the joint problems of social distancing and adequate ventilation, MultiStory has to be the most imaginative one – an open air venue located at the top level of a car park. We're not that familiar with Edinburgh's car parks, so we don't realise until we get there that the car park is largely underground, and the stage is at street level. Still, that means you get the best of both worlds – level -1 has a large atmospheric bar and street food space, and level 0 has a theatre stage with an actual castle directly behind it.
MultiStory is a joint venture between the Traverse Theatre, DanceBase, Zoo and Gilded Balloon, and the venue's programming covers the sort of things all four venues would offer in normal years. We're here for two back-to-back shows, and the first one isn't just our only Traverse production, it's our only play this year. Stewart Hepburn's Funny Place For A Window is a lightning run through the life and career of Scottish comic legend Chic Murray, as seen through the interlocking perspectives of Murray himself and his long-suffering wife Maidie. The two of them meet on the music hall circuit and gradually become a double act, with her singing and him doing comic patter. But Chic has a history of driving away his double act partners, and it looks like that's going to happen all over again.
Window is the sort of play that's a sure-fire banker on the Fringe – a showbiz biography with plenty of space for a leading actor to show off with an impersonation of someone the audience knows and loves already. And if that someone turns out to be Scottish too, so much the better. The cast of three - Dave Anderson as Murray, Maureen Carr as Maidie, and Brian James O'Sullivan as everyone else – handle the mix of songs, jokes and light pathos effectively, with Anderson in particular getting Murray's laid-back surrealism down to a tee. It's the latest one in the ongoing Traverse series A Play, A Pie And A Pint, where all three are included in a single bargain ticket price – unfortunately, one disadvantage of having this offer outdoors is that two of those three items are guaranteed wasp magnets.
After a quick soft drink in the underground bar, we head back up for a DanceBase production, featuring Éowyn Emerald and Dancers in Your Tomorrow. We don't tend to do much dance at the Fringe, and to be honest part of the attraction this time round is that by now I'm determined to cover as many different types of shows as we can during our few days here. One disadvantage of the open-air no-contact approach is that I've no idea who the two dancers are in this piece, and if Emerald is one of them, or the choreographer, or both. Anyway, this is an hour-long pas de deux featuring a woman, a man, and a suitcase full of symbolic Ferrero Rocher. They're the key prop used throughout the piece – shared as a treat, hurled across the stage, crushed during the more dramatic passages.
There's a wide range of music used, from Dave Brubeck to glitchy electronica, and the dancing reflects the various moods of the patchwork score. I'm not much cop at analysing dance properly, but there's a clear emotional storyline though the whole piece, and it's impressive how the two dancers sustain it for a whole hour without any breaks. On top of that, the use of Ferrero Rocher as a design element is pretty inspired, as the chocolate starts smearing itself all over the dancers and makes them look more physically distressed as the piece goes on. Plus, it gives the wasps something else other than the audience to focus on.
After yesterday's mad rush of a day, we've been careful to build in more leisurely meal breaks between today's shows. A light breakfast at Archipelago Bakery before the gallery, a pie and a pint for our delayed elevenses, and after our couple of hours at MultiStorey we've booked in a late lunch at one of our favourites, The Outsider at George IV shit shit shit.
We try phoning The Outsider: nobody's answering the phone. We have no alternative but to head up to George IV Bridge to see how bad the fire is. Pretty bad, is the answer. Several hours after the initial reports, the place is still full of smoke and fire engines, with large chunks of the bridge sealed off from the public, including the bit that was meant to be serving us lunch. The various fire eaters performing round the corner on the Royal Mile seem pretty tasteless now. Sadly, we trudge off to Summerhall for our next show, grabbing a few nice fried things in their bar beforehand. And as I munch dejectedly on some really nice fried halloumi, I have a song going through my head, which is this: “Trevor and Nathalie / Coming down the stairs / Trevor and Nathalie / They're easy on the eye.”
Nothing to do with the fire, you understand. This was This Morning With Richard Not Judy, the Sunday morning TV show starring Stewart Lee and Richard Herring back in 1998. One of the supporting cast was Trevor Lock, who along with Nathalie Brandon made up the show's much-abused troupe of assistants cum slaves. Lock spent most of his time being taunted for his small face, a charge he couldn't defend himself against because he was on Equity's non-speaking rate. Lock went on from those humble beginnings to become a comedian in his own right.
Early on in his Summerhall show Community Circle, Lock will ask the audience to tell him why they chose to come to the show. I decide against telling him my answer, but if I had then the previous paragraph would have been it. That question is just the start of the interactive element in Community Circle: Lock's aim is to make it the most inclusive show on the Fringe. With a small subset of punters arranged on the stage and the rest in the venue seats, he acts as a facilitator who'll help us collectively answer the big questions of existence. And yet, somehow, the main conclusions we've reached by the end of the show are that Connecticut doesn’t have any glory holes, and in Boston “what are you fuckin’ looking at?” is considered to be a chatup line.
Part performance art (as you'd expect at Summerhall), part high wire improv act, Lock pulls off something here that's wildly experimental but still ridiculously funny with it. A quick straw poll at the start suggests that several people in the audience have been here before, and to me that suggests the closest comparison point is John Robertson's The Dark Room. Like that show, this one stands or falls on the improvisational skills of its host, and his ability to take whatever happens in the room and run with it without fearing the consequences. Also like The Dark Room, whenever participating audience members try to be deliberately funny, it never quite works: the magic happens when multiple happy accidents of vocabulary, dialect and/or misunderstanding all collide with each other. You can see why people might want to watch it more than once. I think I do.
We have one more show to get to, and it's back to the Old College Quad for A Toast To The People, one of a series of spoken word shows at this year's International Festival in which poets are paired up on stage to see what sparks they strike off each other. Tonight's pairing involves two old favourites of ours, Inua Ellams and Saul Williams.
Ellams is up first, and repeats the gimmick from last year's online show Search Party: asking audience members to shout out a word, doing a search through an online archive of his work to find a poem containing that word, and reading it. He's amused by the connections that come out by chance - on this particular night, it's mainly poems about city life in general, and South London in particular. He's as relaxed, warm and friendly as he always appears whenever we see him, his slightly halting Nigerian lilt forcing you to slow down to his pace and concentrate on the words. This makes the contrast with Saul Williams even more spectacular: striding onto the stage in a fancy coat and sunglasses, he radiates cool as he belts through torrents of words at lightning speed. In an email sent out by the Festival last week, they apologised that this event would no longer have the previously advertised sign language interpretation: personally, I'm not surprised, as anyone who attempted to sign Williams in real time would have two dislocated shoulders by the end of his set.
The difference between the approaches of the two poets is so huge, it's hard to see how they could have any common ground: but in a lovely Q&A session that makes up the final third of the performance, it transpires that they've got a mutual appreciation society going on, and seem to be happy to agree to disagree. Williams admits that most of the time he's searching for 'fighting words' in his poetry: Ellams always has a sense of warmth and inclusion hiding behind his unexpected word choices. Each poet finishes with one last piece that defines them perfectly: Ellams with a tender love poem somehow called Fuck You, Williams with a 2000 mile an hour rant delivered from memory and coming to a crashing halt when he realises this is the first time he's performed it since the pandemic started.
Do you like the sound of that? Well, the good news is that A Toast To The People is part of the online component of this year's International Festival, and you'll be able to watch it online for a couple of weeks starting late October. Now... let's talk a bit more about online festivals.