The Belated Birthday Girl spends the first hour of today accidentally trapped in the lavatory. After years of abuse from countless wastrel students, the lock on the bog door in our flat has finally given out while she's in there, and we have to call in a maintenance guy to break her out. She's then made to rush out of the house without breakfast by her idiot boyfriend, who makes her sit around in the stupidly named th:at internet cafe while he types stuff for his website, only to find at the end that he can't upload it to the internet because the man behind the counter didn't understand his initial question about FTP access. She finally gets to wolf down a vegetarian breakfast at ten past one in the afternoon, and then has to run across town in the pissing rain to get to her first show, because all the taxis have vanished. At one point later in the day, Mark Watson will say "it's just one thing after another," and the BBG will nod in grim agreement.
Theatre producer Nica Burns would probably agree with them both: her production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest almost appears to be cursed, so many things have gone wrong with it. And it all started off so promisingly. The hit of the 2003 Fringe was Twelve Angry Men, in which director Guy Masterson and a cast of off duty standup comics took on the courtroom classic. When Masterson announced he was going to use the same approach on Cuckoo's Nest, it became a very hot ticket: when Christian Slater was confirmed as the lead, it became incendiary. But rumours started to fly about personality clashes between Masterson and Slater, and three weeks before opening night the director walked off the production. Burns brought in a tag team of Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey to complete his work, and all appeared to be going well until Slater caught the chicken pox and forced the cancellation of the first four performances. (Incidentally, big love to the official Fringe site, which used the picture shown here to illustrate their story about Slater's LIFE-THREATENING ILLNESS.) The production's been in such disarray that they didn't even let the press see it until halfway into the run.
You may have noticed that more than ever this year, there seems to be a yawning gap between the commercial and non-commercial sides of the Fringe. With a West End transfer already booked for Cuckoo's Nest, this obviously falls into the former camp. Nobody in the audience has come here expecting any surprises: they want to see a story they know from the Jack Nicholson film, performed by a cast of buzzy British names, led by a Hollywood star who's basically been channelling the spirit of young Nicholson for the last fifteen years of his career. So I doubt that you can call it a Fringe production in the truest sense. But if you take all those caveats into account, it's actually been done really well. The problems that have plagued the production seem to be behind everyone concerned, and they're now just concentrating on telling the story.
Slater has the charisma you'd expect, without relying too much on his Jack schtick, and he's careful to leave plenty of space for his supporting cast. He flirts wildly with Frances Barber's unnecessarily hot Nurse Ratched, has some spiky banter with Owen O'Neill as patient representative Dale Harding, and has a touching friendship with Mackenzie Crook as the nervous young Billy Bibbitt. In fact, if there are any surprises to be had in this production, Crook is responsible for them: he gives a tremendous performance that could possibly lead him to a future career in Steve Buscemi style funny-lookin'-guy roles. Impressively, you don't find yourself thinking back to the equivalent scenes in the film, except for right at the end: the massively iconic final image has had to be toned down a lot to work in a theatre, and the compromise they use here is feeble by comparison. That aside, it's a well-crafted piece of drama that belies all the problems that went into its making. But it's probably not Fringe.
After a quick return to Elephant House to reacquaint myself with computers that actually do the bloody job, it's time for a return visit to Mark Watson's Overambitious 24 Hour Show. More exactly, an hour-long shift that takes in the three-quarter mark of the performance. To be honest, I was assuming by now that the audience would have dwindled down to low double figures. In fact, the 40 seat small venue is packed out, and we have to wait ten minutes to get in as they're operating a one-out-one-in door policy. By the time we get in, Watson has actually deserted the stage temporarily, as he's trying to negotiate with the venue staff to get the big stage back in time for the finale: rumour has it that there could be two hundred people here for it.
Obviously the crazed momentum of the opening hours has dwindled now, but there's still plenty of life in the show. Whole soap operas are being played out: an earlier impromptu game of Blind Date resulted in audience member Amy being stood up by show admin assistant Tim twice in rapid succession, and during the hour we're there Mark is trying to phone him to attempt a reconciliation between the two. We also get to cheer Wayne, a volunteer who's been on the streets for twenty hours straight flyering for the show: we sing Fly Me To The Moon to him as a tribute. During a quick aside to the audience, Mark reveals that an early plan he'd made for the show - using it to propose to his girlfriend Emily - still hasn't happened yet. By the time we have to leave, the audience are debating how they go about ordering pizza for 40. How could we not come back for the end of this?
But first, we're committed to seeing Richard Herring's new show, The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace. The story of the connection between Herring and this site has been retold so often I should include it on a FAQ page: don't look for it here. Suffice to say that I'm almost contractually bound to see anything new he does. When we last saw Herring, he was performing his hit show Talking Cock at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, but didn't seem terribly happy about it. It turns out he was going through a bit of a mid-life crisis at the time, caused by his girlfriend leaving him. Searching for a purpose in life, and inspired by the statue of Hercules outside his new house, he tries to take on a dozen challenges to give him a purpose in life - modern-day equivalents of Hercules' labours, if you will. He runs a marathon, jumps out of a plane, runs with the bulls in Pamplona, and (more prosaically) tries to spot 999 car numberplates in numerical order. In between recounting his personal adventures, he compares them with those of Hercules, and points out how shit Hercules was.
As you've probably gathered over the years, I'm a fan of Herring's work. And that's part of the problem with this show: I knew pretty much everything that was coming up before he told it. That's because since November 2002, Herring has been keeping a blog called Warming Up, in which he discusses the various displacement activities he daily performs to avoid doing comedy writing. Everything Herring has done for this show has been documented on the blog, and in more detail than he can fit into a 60 minute monologue. For example, one of his tasks was to date fifty different women over fifty consecutive nights: in the show it's a fabulous feat of memory as he reels off the names and locations in chronological order, but there are fifty pages on the internet giving full details of what happened every night, and the show has no time for any of that. As a result, I have to look at the show as a piece of comic storytelling rather than a full-on gagfest - and on that level, it works just fine, though he can't quite convince you that these trivial matters are life or death stuff in the same way that, say, Dave Gorman can. Still, a good show, though I'd be interested to hear what someone who hasn't read Warming Up thinks of it.
Back to Mark Watson, and we have to queue up outside Cowgate Central because he isn't actually there yet. Carelessly, he's forgotten that he has a nightly show he normally does at the Tron at 9pm, so he's led his entire audience out to there, performed his show and then has to lead them back again. Once we're all reconvened (in the large venue, because those rumours of an audience of over 200 have turned out to be true), we're into the last two hours of the 24. Hour 23 is a recap of highlights and lowlights from the show: cheers for the guests who joined Watson (Adam Hills in particular), jeers for the ones who promised they'd come but didn't, and even bigger cheers for the ten or so people who've actually been there the full day.
But it's during the final hour of the show that it all goes mental: someone on stage compares it to the end of 24, and there's certainly that feel of fast-paced resolution to it all. The saga of Tim and Amy is resolved as the two are finally brought together on stage, only to come apart again in a tragic fashion. Dara O'Briain, who came in pissed at 6am and was apparently very unpleasant, comes in to apologise (probably prompted by a tirade of audience abuse we'd left on his voicemail half an hour earlier). Watson's mum phones around midnight to see if he's finished (actually, because of delays, the show won't finish till 12:19am). And then, in the final minute of the show, following a reminder from an audience member, Mark proposes to Emily. She accepts. The place goes nuts.
During the gap between 6.30pm and 10pm when we were seeing Richard Herring, it looks like a new catchphrase was born, which repeatedly appears during the final hours of the show. The shout comes up from the stage, "Mark Watson! Who's Mark Watson?" And the audience yell in reply "Who isn't Mark Watson?" I feel there's some sort of uplifting conclusion to this piece I could use that in, but I can't be arsed right now.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - Mark Watson's Overambitious 24 Hour Show. I guess at first I just thought three quid wasn't much money, and I was curious to know what sort of thing someone was going to try for 24 hours, but by the time we'd done our first shift of three and a half hours I was hooked by this genial not-Welshman and his crazy idea. The show itself, or the bits we saw, consisted largely of plans for what was to come, of what had been, and introductions to the people who had been there all day. In fact, on our brief middle visit (about an hour - the length of most Edinburgh shows), it was almost like being in a student sit-in, with everyone sitting around deciding on what food to get in and how to get it into the venue. The final two hour leg was a mad rush of recaps, introductions, massages, guests, the culmination of an earlier Blind Date game, and a proposal of marriage. The final moment when Mark crossed the finish line was an eruption of applause and mobile phone alarms - though they were drowned by the applause - and everyone was just incredibly pleased for Mark and happy to have been part of something different. At the end, he said he'll do it again next year. I think that would be a mistake - but I said that after the first series of 24, and I was wrong then. So, maybe I'll see him next year - and maybe I'll be a platinum lifer next time.
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