I've been coming to Edinburgh for the Festival since 1989, fifteen years ago. And back then, Steven Berkoff was the Fringe: it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that any show that wasn't stand-up comedy was probably a Berkoff play. During that 1989 Fringe, Charmian and Nick were in town working on a production of one of Berkoff's works: I hadn't made any arrangements to meet up with them, but we bumped into each other by chance in the audience of an entirely different Berkoff show. Back then, dozens of small theatre groups took advantage of the cheap no-frills theatricality of the man's work to put on shows with very little money. Nowadays, he's fallen out of favour, to the extent that someone has scrawled the words BOMBASTIC RUBBISH across his poster outside the Pleasance.
It's harsh, but fair: Berkoff's extremely theatrical approach doesn't really play to audiences these days. And I suspect that comment may well apply to his piece Requiem For Ground Zero, which he performed here last week: hearing him yelling and gurning about a topic that might actually have emotional relevance to people may well be too much to bear. But this week he's doing Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, so I go into this one assuming that his yelling and gurning can't cause too much damage to a prime piece of Gothic horror. And so it proves, though it's a close thing. On a bare stage with just a couple of lights, Berkoff hams up the story in exactly the way you'd expect. It's an entertaining hour, but a frustrating one: the undeniably brilliant bits (the sudden bursts of humour, the intricate use of mime, the carefully paced terror of the finale) fight it out with huge tracts of self-indulgent posturing and two-syllable words stretched out to at least seven. But then, in a sense, that's what we pay him for.
This being the final week of the Fringe, we're in the middle of Perrier speculation frenzy. (I know, with all the delays, I'm actually writing this page on August 30th, but pretend I don't know who's won the award yet.) And the surprise story of this year's Perrier award has been the sudden rise of Jackson's Way, a monologue performed by actor Will Adamsdale. It was only meant to be playing for the first week of the Festival, which it did initially to mediocre audiences. But then the momentum started to build: a couple of five star reviews, and celebrity patronage from the likes of Stewart Lee. The run was extended and moved to a better timeslot, and now it's a hot favourite to win the Perrier. In the show, Adamsdale plays the role of motivational speaker Chris John Jackson: it's effectively one of his seminars on how to change your life. Jackson's way is deceptively simple: we spend all our lives dealing with things which are possible and have some sort of point to them. How much more of our potential can we unlock if we start concentrating on achieving the impossible and pointless instead?
Parodies of motivational speakers have become a comedy cliche over the past couple of years, and there are several of them on the Fringe this year. But this is different. Adamsdale does what you'd expect with the character, hilariously sending up the self-help cliches and psychobabble peddled by these sorts of people. And there's some carefully worked-out subtext in there, giving some theatrical weight to the piece, as we get tiny glimpses of the family life that drove Jackson down this career path. But at the same time, he genuinely introduces you to a new way of looking at the world around you: not to the extent that it'll change your life the way Jackson says, more that it'll make you think differently about the situations and objects you see around you for a good few hours after the show. Put it this way: walking down Cowgate afterwards, I passed a doorstep with two milk cartons on it. I stopped and swapped the positions of the milk cartons around. And it felt good. Achieved!
At the start of the week we saw Scott Capurro doing his normal stand-up thing: but he's only doing it for four nights this year, as the rest of his Fringe is dedicated to the play Loaded, written by Capurro and performed by him with James Holmes (the Anorak Of Fire guy, apparently). You wouldn't expect a Scott Capurro play to be a touching rites-of-passage story or a tasteful study of the human condition, and you'd be right: Loaded is a play about how sexy murderers are. Specifically parent-killer Eric Menendez, who Capurro started a correspondence with during his trial. It's mixed in with Capurro's discussions of the letters with his adrenalin-free workmate Simon, and reflections on his relationship with his own father, who he hasn't killed. Yet.
Capurro effectively plays himself, performing most of the play in the same loose confessional style he uses for his standup: I have no idea how much of this play is true or not, but it certainly feels right. As ever, there are the usual moments when Capurro crosses the line just to see if he can get away with it - for a British audience, Menendez killing his parents doesn't have much emotional resonance, so Capurro has to throw in a few references to Ian Huntley's sex appeal to jolt us a bit. But those jolts are interwoven with some surprisingly touching sequences, particularly in his burgeoning friendship with Simon. The coda of the play is particularly lovely, and leaves you curious to see what could happen next. Hopefully Capurro will keep on writing plays, and maybe we'll find out.
I've been doing the Festival for 15 years, as I said, but I've been going to comedy gigs for nearly two decades. And Jim Sweeney has been a presence on the comedy circuit for at least as long as I've been a punter - he was one of the early leading lights of British improvised comedy, either with his mate Steve Steen or as part of the Comedy Store Players. It came as a shock to recently discover that about the time I started going to shows at the Comedy Store, Sweeney was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. He's kept it quiet and been an active performer ever since, but My MS And Me could be seen as his official announcement of his illness to the world. Over the course of an hour (having dragged himself from the side of the stage into a swivel chair), he gives us lots of information about the disease in general, and how it's affected him in particular - from the early days where it just blurred his vision ("I'm living in a world designed by Monet"), to the point in the near future when he suspects he'll be permanently wheelchair bound.
Sounds like a barrel of laughs, doesn't it? Actually, it is. Sweeney is a comedy performer first and foremost, and his humour is obviously what's got him through his problems over the last two decades. That and, as he says, not having a proper job: he can sit down and write for long periods of the day, the only time he really needs to be active is during performances, when he has a whole network of friends and colleagues to help him out. (His casual announcement that the Comedy Store Players are looking at the logistics of getting a wheelchair on stage is touching, but knocks the wind out of you for a second or two if you remember how active a performer he used to be.) Sweeney gets you thinking about how you'd cope in his situation, and gives you hope that even incurable diseases can be conquered in one way or another.
About the time that Sweeney was diagnosed with MS (I'm in a historical mood today), Jim Jarmusch was goofing off with Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni, making a short film called Coffee And Cigarettes. It basically consisted of the two stars sitting in a cafe, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and talking nonsense. Over nearly two decades, Jarmusch has been bashing out short films in the same format, whenever he's got some time to kill and some culty actors to hand. And now we have a feature-length Coffee And Cigarettes, which consists of the four or five old shorts plus several new vignettes in the same low-budget format. (It's a racing certainty that in a couple of years time, some theatre group will transcribe these dozen or so sketches, and perform them on the Fringe in a cafe.)
There are some variations in quality - given that these films were made over a period of eighteen years, and feature a number of rock stars acting, it's not surprising - but it all adds up to a surprisingly consistent whole, with the later sketches having some neat dialogue echoes with the earlier ones. An early highlight is a meeting between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop (one of the original short films) - it works well because it plays with the way the public perceive their characters, initially setting them up as the gods of cool we know they are and then slowly subverting them. That's also the case with the best of the new pieces, a teatime meeting between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan in LA, which turns into a very British game of one-upmanship. On the other hand, a sketch featuring Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes only really seems to be there because they're hip right now, though even that has some amusing moments. But on the whole, this is the typical mixture of fun and cool that we've come to know and love Jarmusch for.
Part of the fun of Edinburgh is listening to the word on the street and hearing about what's good and bad. Part of the pain of Edinburgh is buying advance tickets for something you think is going to be good, and then hearing on the street that it's going to be a crock of shit. Which pretty much sums up the advance word on The Purifiers, Richard Jobson's attempt at making a futuristic kung-fu film set in Glasgow. You have to admit, as a one-line pitch that's kind of intriguing, but word's being going round for the past week or two that it's staggeringly bad. It's been interesting watching Jobson's damage limitation exercises in the run-up to this screening - recently he's suddenly taken to describing it as a film for teenagers that grown-up critics could never understand, and in an introduction tonight he insists we should switch our brains off and ignore the bad dialogue and acting, as it's a cult film in the making.
Note to Jobson: directors don't decide whether a film becomes a cult or not. The audience does. And the audience may well choose to ignore bad acting and dialogue in the best cult films, but they do that because the film has something else to offer: usually some sort of primal energy that transcends the technical limitations. And The Purifiers has none of that energy at all. It's a film about rival gangs fighting, but the fight scenes are drained of virtually all excitement: partly down to the excessive use of slow motion, partly down to the heavy use of echo on all the impact sound effects so they have no impact. As Jobson warned us, the acting, dialogue and story are all bad, but not to the extent where you could get any kitsch pleasure out of them. This is a late night screening, so you'd expect there to be some sort of vocal reaction from the audience, either positive or negative: but this film gets no reaction at all from the sold-out house, and that's got to be a bad sign. Admittedly, it's prettily shot considering its limited budget, but there's nothing else to recommend it at all.
If you're counting, we're six events into the day, with one more still to come. It's only during our post-Purifiers curry that the BBG and I suddenly realise how we've managed to get through the day without keeling over from exhaustion: we somehow haven't touched a drop of alcohol in the 24 hours since Curry Tales. The thinking is that as our last event is Late 'N' Live, we should be able to make up our recommended daily requirement of booze in one go. You remember Late 'N' Live: the Gilded Balloon's 1am comedy and music festival, where drunk audiences and drunk performers screamed obscenities at each other for three hours to see who'd tire first. Well, that's changed now, and not for the better. With its original venue now a smouldering pile of rubble, the show's been relocated to the Teviot Main Debating Hall, which is far too big and has no easy access to the bar. As a result, the crowd is simply less drunk than in previous years - and, therefore, simply less interesting. But the rough edges have been removed from all over the show: it's sponsored by Channel 4, it has a CGI opening title film, it has idiot audience members trying to start debates on whether comedians who don't tell discrete jokes are really doing their job. It's just another comedy show, and that isn't really what I was looking for.
Still, to review that comedy show: Steven Grant, who I've never seen before, is a very good compere. He handles the few stroppy audience members well, and has a terrific high-speed delivery, which may or may not be chemically enhanced but works effectively here. New Zealander Cal Wilson is the sort of sacrificial lamb that Late 'N' Live used to be built around, slowly getting worse as she realises the audience can't be bothered heckling her and are just having quiet conversations with each other instead. Dan Antopolski gets some big laughs out of his self-confessed lack of jokes ("Knock knock!" "Who's there?" "No, I'm just building your hopes up, I've got nothing"), which makes the aforementioned idiot audience debate even more pointless. Ben Bailey pops up for five minutes unbilled, and delivers what's probably the most consistent set of the night. Perrier nominee Reginald D Hunter is reasonably engaging, but man enough to admit that he's having a bad night. Finally, as ever, there's a covers band playing till five in the morning - our original plan was to go home once they started playing, but Nova Lounge turn out to have a surprisingly broad repertoire (including De La Soul and Rage Against The Machine) and we end up staying till closing time. The high point of the music set is a totally naked man who appears twice on the dancefloor: the low point is realising that the rest of the audience is so young that none of them know the words to Killing In The Name. Fuck me, they won't do what we tell them.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Diane - Caroline O'Connor has been in the business for a while, but is best known by afficionados of musical theatre. She starred in the West End in a production of Mack And Mabel, and has also appeared in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. Caroline is now at the age when good parts in musicals begin to dry up, and actresses known for singing and dancing want to prove their versatility in other areas. Bombshells is an ideal vehicle. Written by Australian author Joanna Murray-Smith, who recently had a play produced at the National Theatre, this showcases O'Connor's talents as an actress and dancer.
It opens with a hilarious portrayal of a reluctant bride-to-be, and ends with a manic dance routine by a Catholic schoolgirl desperate to win a talent contest. In between, we meet a middle class mum racked with guilt that she isn't the perfect mother and maniacally juggling a variety of domestic duties, followed by a widow in her sixties who reads to blind people in her spare time. Although the other three monologues showcase O'Connor's manic qualities and her ability to move about the stage like a whirlwind, it is the character of the widow which is a revelation. This very physical actress sits perfectly still in a chair, wearing a sensible dressing gown and slippers, while telling us of her routine - shopping, dining, doing charity work, visiting the cinema - all with other widows. However, Winsome (her character's unusual name) has a secret, and she goes on to tell of a charity job which leads to unexpected passion and fulfillment. All the pieces are well written, but this is the piece that sticks in the mind and shows us that Caroline O'Connor will have a life on stage long after she has hung up her dancing shoes.
(This show transfers to London's Arts Theatre on September 6th, in an extended version with two additional characters.)
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