Shocking, controversial sexual material sells Fringe tickets by the ton. Cheap thirtysomething nostalgia for seventies children's TV shows sells Fringe tickets by the ton. So obviously, a play featuring a woman sewing up her vagina to the tune of the We Will Fix It song from Bagpuss can't fail, can it?
Inevitably, the tabloids have misrepresented Anthony Neilson's play Stitching something rotten: if you were to believe the reports, you'd think the female lead dry-humps a Singer sewing machine on stage at the climax. There's no denying that there's physical violence in the play, but there's very little of it, and none at all in the scenes that have got all the attention: most of the damage caused here is emotional and verbal. The play alternates between two separate time periods. In one, we see Stuart (Phil McKee) and Abby (Selina Boyack) as a cosy middle-class couple discussing the effect that her pregnancy is going to have on their failing relationship. In the other, we see them meeting as strangers: she's a mature student on the game, he's a punter looking to act out his darkest sexual fantasies. It's left to the audience to piece together how they got from one to the other.
McKee and Boyack play this all beautifully: there are some spectacular emotional extremes they have to reach, and they never miss a beat once. Neilson's ingenious structure ultimately provides reasons for those moments of darkness that freaked out the moral guardians so much, building to an extraordinary final scene - an image that would sit happily at the end of a cheesy romantic comedy, but which is incredibly tragic because we know the context and the characters don't. After the crazed responses of the early part of the run, it's interesting to note that now audiences appear to be better prepared for it: only one person walked out today. (Although Nick has a theory that the half a dozen or so attending in wheelchairs were put there specifically to stop the rest of us walking out.) Don't believe the hype, but see it anyway.
Like the recent hit Nine Queens, the Argentinian film A Red Bear is fairly standard genre material, given a bit of a political edge by being set in a country with the economic yips. The Bear (Julio Chavez) has just come out of jail after doing time for shooting a cop in a robbery. During his absence, a new guy has moved in with his wife and young daughter. They're living on the poverty line, while the Bear manages to get himself back on his feet and into straight society pretty quickly. He wants to help out his family, but there's only one way he can do that...
Directed by Israel Adrian Caetano, A Red Bear is watchable enough, nothing else: the setting is the only thing that really lifts this above standard Hollywood straight-to-video fodder. There are some snappy action scenes, though, particularly a trick for shooting two guys with a single bullet that Chow Yun-Fat would be proud of. Unfortunately, today's screening is somewhat buggered by a key scene being racked too low in the projector, meaning that two thirds of its subtitles were off the bottom of the screen.
From there it's off to the UGC to see David Holmes being interviewed by Film Festival boss Shane Danielsen. The latter turns out to be a pretty good interviewer, and his being a fan of Holmes' music obviously helps. Holmes talks about his early days in Belfast living in a house full of music, and how that led to his DJ work. An early attempt at mixing an Ennio Morricone riff into a dance tune, De Niro, started his sideline in making his own music, and simultaneously got him his reputation as a "cinematic" composer. He got a lucky break when Lynda LaPlante chose him to do the music for her Supply And Demand miniseries, and this led to his work on movies - Resurrection Man, Out Of Sight, Ocean's Eleven and Buffalo Soldiers (the latter playing in the festival this year).
The fascinating part is hearing Holmes describe his creative process, given that he's a DJ rather than a musician. He gets together the best musicians he can lay his hands on (the band for Ocean's Eleven is an extraordinary collection of Miles Davis sidemen and Weather Report alumni), plays them records to show them the emotional mood he's trying to convey, guides them towards the required result, and then tweaks it in post-production until it works on screen. As part of his role in setting an overall mood, Holmes also acts as uncredited music supervisor on his movies, choosing the songs that appear in the soundtrack - he re-discovered Elvis' A Little Less Conversation for Ocean's Eleven, and then watched its remix top the charts without him getting any sort of credit for it. He's enjoyable enough to listen to, although you wonder just how much he can really talk about his experiences with producers when he's only worked on a handful of films so far. Still, apparently Holmes' next plan is to do a few low-budget indie movies for no money to flex his creative muscles a little: so if you've got a film that needs scoring, he may well be your man.
You should be familiar by now with the story of Richard Herring writing to this site, following a poor review of the 1998 Lee and Herring show. He's been performing on the Fringe since 1987 in one form or another: the programme for this year's show, Talking Cock, includes a year-by-year timeline of his Edinburgh appearances. In case you're reading this, Richard, I'd just like to pick up on your entry for 1994: "This Morning With Richard Not Judy at this stage was an ad-libbed morning chat show with tickets that were auctioned to the highest bidder. We gave away a car." I can vouch for that last bit, because I was there the day you had the competition for the car, AND I CAME FUCKING SECOND.
Still love ya though, Richard: particularly if you keep on doing stuff like this. Once again, it's the usual combination of erudition and filth, in a ridiculously well-researched show about attitudes to the penis throughout history. How come The Vagina Monologues has been running for so long, but no male equivalent exists? Why does vaginal mutilation of the type depicted in Stitching cause utter outrage, while John Wayne Bobbitt getting his penis cut off is an acceptable subject for comedy? If size doesn't matter, why can't you buy two inch long pencil-thin vibrators? To answer these and other questions, Herring set up his own website [dead link], and asked both its male and female visitors to fill in a cock questionnaire: the show is built around the three and a half thousand responses he's received to date.
Obviously this results in the densest concentration of nob gags you'll hear in a single show this year, but Talking Cock is so much more than that. Time and again the survey shows that the real problem is one of communication: for example, the responses of men who are deeply ashamed by the size of their penis are undercut with the revelation that most of them were actually of average or above average size. Herring admits that the survey is somewhat skewed - when he announces the results to the question about number of partners, he admits that as this is an internet survey, you're not necessarily dealing with people who know many women personally - but the range of opinions on display is both entertaining and enlightening. And his closing metaphor - men are from Britain, women are from mainland Europe - sums it all up perfectly. The show should be coming (arf!) soon to London in an extended (kyak!) version, so don't miss it.
Interestingly, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee haven't performed together on stage since that sniffy review of their 1998 show. I do hope it wasn't anything I said. Anyway, it seems like a nice idea to catch Stewart Lee's solo show Pea Green Boat to turn the evening into an informal Lee and Herring reunion. If nothing else, Pea Green Boat has the best tag line of this year's Fringe: "An owl wakes up at sea in a pea green boat. It is accompanied by a cat, its natural predator. There is some honey. What chain of events led to this dangerous situation?"
It's a comedy technique Lee has used successfully in the past - taking children's stories or Bible tales, and destroying them by the mere application of remorseless logic. And the part of the show where he does this to Edward Lear's poem is rather fine, explaining it away as an early nautical experiment along the lines of those animals sent up into space in the fifties. But there isn't enough material here for a full hour, so we also get a lot of padding. There's a long introduction in which Lee explains theatrical conventions to those audience members who only have experience of stand-up gigs. (One convention he apparently missed was the one about not vomiting all over the seats, which leads to a rather unpleasant noise behind me about halfway through the show.) We also get the story of Lee's work on the script for a Lear biopic (starring Ray Winstone from Scum and Sexy Beast, as impersonated by Simon Munnery), bits of Lear's diary, bits of the owl's diary, and assorted attempts to pull the whole thing together using a Ken Campbell-style theory about the interconnectedness of all events. Unfortunately, it never really gels into a single coherent piece, and ends up as a series of quiet chuckles rather than the escalating silliness Lee's aiming for. Still, this is apparently just the first of his self-proclaimed series of "pretentious thirtysomething one-man shows," and it won't stop me from seeing the next one.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Nick - Sweethearts And Bodyparts is the worst show I have ever seen at the Fringe. All concerned should be ashamed of themselves. How does a top venue like the Pleasance come to be booking three talentless Essex girls doing karaoke country and western numbers? The only hope the girls had was there could have been some amusing exchanges between them, or perhaps be able to sing in harmony. But they dismally failed on both counts. All the Fringe goer asks is that the shows are honestly performed (whether buttock-clenchingly bad or brilliant). This was a fraudulent waste of everyone's time. The most heinous crime was that of the reviewer on The Scotsman who recommended this show, they will be named and shamed in my Edinburgh wrap-up piece. Prepare to be cyber-stalked, you scumbag.
Lesley - The Guru was much better than I had expected from the trailer. In fact, a whole heap of fun.
Lee - I don't see much modern dance so I was really looking forward to Ful performed by the Spanish dance troupe Nat Nus, and I wasn't disappointed. An exploration of space and objects, of everyday interactions at work and play in flowing lyrical movement.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Having seen an excerpt from Tiny Ninja Theater's Macbeth at Mervyn Stutter on Sunday, I was really looking forward to seeing the whole show, and it did not disappoint. The text was effectively abridged and performed at break-neck speed, with everything there. The performance itself was totally straight, leaving the comedy to come from the timing, the use of staging and lighting - and, of course, the fact that the players were small plastic toys. An absolutely terrific show, and another definite highlight of the Festival.
Nick - There has been a revival of interest in the playwright Eugene Ionesco, but the bandwagon will splutter to a halt with productions like The Bald Prima Donna. Ionesco was a founder of Theatre Of The Absurd, a movement started in France in the 1950s to revolutionise theatre, but which had by the 1960s gone completely out of fashion. With revivals of his best play Rhinoceros winning critical acclaim, we plumped to see this savage satire of the English middle classes. Two cosy middle class couples are assailed by their maid and a visiting fireman. The fireman is supposed to inject a thrusting sexually charged presence into the banal lives of the cosy couples, but here played by a slightly embarrassed student had all the impact of a damp squib. Not enough thought had been given by the production team to this: if the language is absurdist, so should other aspects of the production, like the set design, costume, movement and delivery. But they were mostly naturalistic, when a more creative director would have emphasised the absurdist style. One nice moment at the end was the cosy couples forming a human train, peeling off and interchanging their lives, one couple taking the life of the other. More moments like that would have helped this production.
A Muse Writes - Eugene Ionesco was in the forefront of "Theatre Of The Absurd" and was popular in the late 50's and early 60's. He is now rather out of fashion and one can see why after Crumpet Theatre's production of The Bald Prima Donna. This particular play centres on the sheer banality and ordinariness of middle class life. The initial conversations are very boring, and should indicate how barren the lives of the people are and how they never really listen to each other. The second couple quite symbolically don't even recognise each other. The maid and the fireman should be used as devices to shake these people out of their rigid dull lives. Unfortunately the current production played the whole thing too naturally and on a realistic level, so all the nuances and implications of Ionesco's script was lost. The Fire Chief had no "fire" and the maid struggled to have any impact at all. All the roles should have been played in a more stylised and "over the top" fashion, extraordinarily ordinary instead of ordinarily ordinary. The train sequence at the end worked well as the couples changed places. Perhaps they should have been dressed in the same clothes? A rather dull and boring production that seemed to completely miss the point of the play.
Lee - Shakespeare For Breakfast (with a free croissant) was a delight. A panto version of Romeo And Juliet. Clever dialogue, monstrous puns, modern song lyrics, all of Shakespeare's classic lines, booing and hissing, sing-a-long, duels with croissants and coffee, and a happy ending. Well worth getting up for.
Nick - Bob Downe is not a name I was familiar with. Apparently Bob has been too busy in his native Australia for the last four years to play the Fringe, but has made a triumphant return this year. What Otis has done for country music, Bob does something similar with the cheesiest songs from the seventies, and sings and dances his way through Pan's People-style dance routines with his other two dancers. His material may not be cutting edge stuff, but extremely funny: like after the Commonwealth Games, the Australians had won so many gold medals the value of the dollar shot up! Or the comparison between Edinburgh and New York: they are both based on grid systems, but ask a New Yorker for directions and they are too busy. Ask a local here, they have so much time on their hands they will take you on a graveyard tour! (This joke best appreciated if you walk the Royal Mile and see all the graveyard tours available.) A consummate professional, Bob is a great song and dance man who teeters on the edge of kitsch, and anyone who can do energetic dance routines and tell jokes afterwards just has to be admired. A great show.
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