Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Tuesday 23/08/2022
Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Thursday 25/08/2022

Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Wednesday 24/08/2022

Reviewed today: Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, D Ý R A, Dr Hammond's Covid Inquiry, Frankie Boyle: Lap Of Shame, The Katet vs John Williams, The Last Return.

The Traverse missed a trick this year by not redecorating their foyer to look like this.“Oh, that’s a lovely rake.” There’s a man entering the auditorium behind us who’s obviously spent a few days watching Fringe theatre in jerry-built flat-floored spaces. And now he’s in the Traverse Theatre and he wants to marry it. I can sympathise: it’s always been the best new writing theatre space at the Fringe, to the extent that some years I’ll go to a play just because it’s at the Traverse and it fits a timeslot. Which is the case this morning, if we’re honest.

Sonya Kelly’s new play The Last Return has a plot that’ll be catnip to regular theatregoers, which may be part of the thinking behind its programming. It’s set on the final night of a play by the great Oppenheimer, which is sold out, with the returns queue being the only chance anyone has left to get a ticket. A professor has made sure he’s at the front of that queue, as his job may well be at risk if he misses the play. But gradually, more and more people start joining the queue, each with their own reasons for needing a ticket – and you just know that at some point, politely waiting is no longer going to be an option.

It strikes me part way through that this is a play structure that I’ve seen several times at the Traverse during the Fringe: a situation that starts off in a realistic register and gets more surreal as it goes on. Enda Walsh, for example, does that sort of thing a lot, and makes the transition between levels of reality so gradual that you don’t realise how insane things have got until it’s too late. Here, Kelly’s script progresses in fits and starts, and the erratic pacing stops you from buying into the dramatic arc. I might actually have engaged with it more if it had gone down the route of making the breakdown of the queue a Big Metaphor For Something Or Other: but no, it’s just a returns queue, and any social commentary is laid out bare in the reasons why each character needs a ticket. It has its moments, but it can’t quite sustain the full ninety minutes.

From there we go on the biggest walk we’ve got planned this week, because there’s no straightforward bus route between the Traverse and the Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art. We’re there for Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, a career retrospective of the sculptor and painter. As always with the SNGOMA, it’s a beautifully laid out exhibition, with an opening room that lays out her philosophy of the various ‘forms’ she worked with, before taking you through a chronological display of how she created countless variations on them throughout her life.

Hepworth‘s commentary on her own work is pleasingly down to earth: I like the way she effectively admitted that the holes in her sculptures are there because people like looking through holes (she puts it in terms of the engagement of the viewer with the work, but it’s the same thing). The mixture of paintings and sculptures in each room show her ideas in one medium carrying over into the other, and back again. Still, for me it’s the sculptures that are most impressive, whether they’re in bronze, stone, wood or bits of string. I’ve only seen a couple of them in isolation before now, and the cumulative effect of a whole exhibition of them is something else entirely. You want to reach out and touch those surfaces, which of course you can’t, unless you’re like the old lady we see there who tries to pretend she thought the ‘no touching’ sign on a statue’s plinth only referred to the plinth.

Be honest, this is more interesting than a picture of Frankie Boyle.I’m aware that we’ve seen quite a bit of comedy this year, possibly as a subconscious reaction to all this (waves hand in general direction of world). But I’ve always tried not to overdo it, making sure that we cover as many artforms as possible. We were going to do a Book Festival event today, for example, but that’s been cancelled because Norman Scott – yeah, that one – has got Covid. Get well soon, Bunnies. But putting that aside, today’s a day to cover multiple types of event: comedy, music, theatre, sculpture, medical lecture and whatever it is when they make you lie down in a room for 50 minutes and charge you twelve quid for the privilege.

Yes, we’re back at Summerhall again, consistently the home of the Fringe’s most potentially wanky happenings, and I mean that in a good way – they’re not afraid to take big swings that could result in total failure, which makes it all the more satisfying when they come off. Take D Ý R A, for example, which appeared on our radar because of this description: “Inspired by Dýrafjörður in the Westfjords of Iceland, SHHE presents D Ý R A: a sonic journey evoking and exploring landscapes and liminal states.” And as you know, we’ve done a couple of Icelandic fjords recently, so that’s right up our street.

What you get with D Ý R A is the chance to spend 50 minutes of your festival day just having a good old lie down on the floor, which is a good place to start. (Unless you’re old and creaky like me, which means you’ll spend the last few minutes wondering if you’ll ever be able to get up again.) You’re in a room where all the walls are covered in white sheets, onto which are projected subtly changing images of the Icelandic landscape. (Too subtly for one of the audience at our performance, who was complaining afterwards about the strobe warning on the front door setting her expectations too high.) Combine that with a soundtrack by SHHE of synth drones and natural sounds, and you get a seriously meditative experience.

‘Meditative’ could also mean, of course, ‘potentially nodding off throughout’. But it’s too trippy an experience for that to seriously happen. I certainly zone out a few times, unsure whether what I’m seeing is down to the projections, my eyes just going funny, or a combination of both. But whenever I snap back after a few seconds of zoning out, it’s a surprising jolt, and I realise just how much the images have changed in that time. (It reminds both myself and The BBG of Minamidera, an installation we saw in Naoshima a few years ago. In that one - SPOILER ALERT - you think you’re in a room whose lighting changes subtly over time, whereas what’s really happening is that you’re in a pitch black room throughout and you’re watching your eyes adjust to it.) Anyway, if you’re prepared not to reject D Ý R A out of hand purely on the basis of its description, then maybe you should give it a go. It'll certainly be the most Summerhally thing you'll see this year.

A late lunch at Meadows Tap, featuring some of the tastiest vegan filth you’ll ever eat – three words: Buckfast marinated jackfruit – and then it’s off to the Assembly Rooms to see Frankie Boyle. It looks like this’ll be the one Fringe show we'll see this year with big guy-off-the-telly energy: Boyle’s in one of the biggest capacity comedy rooms in the city, he’s filled it, and hundreds of people are waiting on his every word. But...

Maybe we have seen too much comedy this year. It certainly feels like Boyle is just covering the same ground as several other people we’ve seen lately. In particular, there are huge overlaps with the sets from Liam Withnail and Mark Nelson: the same subjects (are people really crying out for takes on R Kelly right now?), even similar joke structures. And it may be debatable who did them first, but there’s no denying that the other guys are doing them better.

Because all Boyle really has are the gags. When he’s doing his monologues on New World Order on TV, there’s no requirement for him to keep a coherent point of view for an extended period of time, as long as his team of writers can get enough individual laughs in the time available. Part of why we’re here is so we can see how he can develop a set over an hour, and he can’t: there's no momentum to the show at all. Maybe some of that’s down to Stewart Lee’s accusation that he’s still got that team of writers working for him, churning out gags at the expense of losing any sort of individual voice. Either way, it’s telling that I laughed quite a bit during the show, but can barely remember a single line from it now.

"Hi, everybody!" "Hi, Dr Phil!"I promised you a medical lecture, and here it is: Dr Hammond’s Covid Inquiry, performed in an actual lecture theatre in the Symposium Hall. Dr Hammond is, of course, Phil Hammond, who’s been performing medical comedy shows at Edinburgh for several years now. He's also been holding down a side job as MD, the sort-of-anonymous medical correspondent for Private Eye. At some point in 2020, his column on general NHS matters pivoted to being a full-time Covid report, documenting the response and it’s results in real time. Those columns have been gathered into a book, and are the starting point for this - for want of a better word - post-mortem on the pandemic.

I’ve enjoyed Hammond’s Eye columns, which have been a reliable source of non-hysterical pandemic reporting since the beginning. And he's not afraid to show that he's made mistakes along the way, like everyone else: such as the tweet he sent in early 2020 predicting more people would die from falling down stairs than from the new coronavirus. His main educational aid for this talk is a timeline poster showing all the different variants and their death rates (surprisingly, us Delta veterans are in the minority in this room), overlaid with pictures of the various political figures brought down by the virus either directly or indirectly.

Hammond's a really good science educator - this is a proper lecture, driven by him asking the audience questions and using our responses to move his argument forward. He has enough funny anecdotes to get over the potential grimness of the subject matter too, including one about a man who went to hospital at the height of the first wave with a doorknob stuck up his bum. Relegating anti-vaxxers to a single dismissive sentence, Hammond focusses on what we got right, and points out things we should be doing better if we don't want to go through all this again. It's an entertaining show, and so educational that by the end of it you'll probably be qualified enough to put on your own medical revue at Just The Tonic.

Dinner at Mother India's Cafe is as excellent as ever, followed up by a quick hit of nostalgia as I pay my first visit in over 20 years to the Greyfriars Bobby. Then it’s off to the Jazz Bar for our first proper midnight show of the Festival,  The Katet vs John Williams. This is something we discovered in 2020, when the Edinburgh Jazz Festival moved online for one year only. We saw quite a bit of interesting music as a result, including a recording of this eight piece Edinburgh band funking up bits of John Williams soundtracks into something ridiculously fun. As with the livestreamed comedy, we felt we had to catch this live the first chance we got.

We were last in the Jazz Bar three years ago for the Art Blakey centennial celebrations, and based on our experience then we arrived early to grab a table near the front. Unfortunately, for this show they’ve cleared space for a dancefloor at the very front, and our table appears to contain a Batsignal for the five tallest wankers in the building. They proceed to take it in turns to dance directly in between us and the band and, when they decide they haven’t been wankery enough, ask if they can put their drinks on our table while they're dancing.

Apart from not being able to see anything apart from one man’s arse for the best part of an hour, it’s actually a really enjoyable night. The Katet's set is largely made up of two 30-odd minute medleys, one of Williams’ work with Spielberg, the other drawing on his Star Wars themes. Part of the fun is trying to work out what you’re listening to through the wild rearrangements: "what is this seductive lounge jazz number? Oh, yeah, it’s the theme from Schindler’s List." But those rearrangements are what the audience are really reacting to: I’ve never seen people slamdance to the Imperial March before. Maybe if we weren’t carrying all our usual bags with us, we’d be up there on the dancefloor with them. Maybe we’ll consider that next time.


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