Once again, it's Sunday afternoon, it's 1pm, it's pissing down with rain, and it's time for Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe at the Pleasance!
Except it isn't. Not quite.
Merv's formula has held him in good stead for a dozen or so years now, and his daily roundup of the best Fringe acts has been a staple part of our visits for some time. But last year he was starting to grumble a bit about how other people were ripping off his format: no names were mentioned, but I'm sure that Nicholas Parsons wasn't too far from his mind at the time. This year it's even worse: Merv is no longer in his traditional 1pm slot at the Pleasance, and is now playing at noon in the Gilded Balloon. Go to the Pleasance at 1pm and you'll catch, erm, Lenny Beige's Pick Of The Fringe. Something's going on here, but nobody seems willing to talk about it.
Nevertheless, today's show is the usual mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, an ideal sampler for your first full day in Edinburgh to get a feel for what's going on. A couple of the acts can be written off almost immediately. Eryl Maynard's The Chicken Show is one of those cheesy pieces of gentle English whimsy that alternative cabaret was supposed to have beaten up and left for dead twenty years ago. The French physical theatre troupe Au Cul De Loup perform an impenetrable excerpt from a piece called Monsoon, which is exactly as bad as the combination of the terms 'physical theatre' and 'French' would imply. And the short scene from the play Scooter Thomas Makes It To The Top Of The World doesn't really make you desperate to see the rest of it: though the performers get by on a wave of love from the audience, when Merv reveals that they were only added to his bill ten minutes earlier following a last-minute cancellation.
The other four acts are of varying degrees of splendidness. The extract from the play Jack Pleasure is intriguing: the story of a bus driver who becomes a porn star, with suitably sleazy music from Barry Adamson. (I love the idea that when Jack tries the traditional 'name of first pet followed by mother's maiden name' method for creating his porn star alias, he ends up with Brian Clough.) Addy Borgh is a relaxed, rambling, Izzardesque standup, with a lovely riff on the way that the internet age has changed the hierarchy of symbol keys on the keyboard. (@ is now king of the world, regularly seen out of an evening in casinos with the other new kids on the block, / and _.) Humourbeasts, a two man physical comedy team from New Zealand, do five minutes of hilariously accomplished non-verbal silliness and show the French how it should be done. And Tiny Ninja Theater - one man re-enacting Macbeth on a tabletop with a set of one inch high plastic ninja figures - becomes one of those shows we absolutely must see before the week's out, which is of course exactly the sort of reaction Merv's aiming for. As ever, Stutter holds the whole mess together beautifully with his usual combination of interviews, songs and observations about middle age. "Regular sex and a shed with a lock on it, that's all men want."
After a short pause in the afternoon's proceedings to greet the arrival of Nick, it's off to the Book Festival to catch an appearance by Neil Gaiman. Although Gaiman's best known for his adult fantasy fiction and graphic novels such as the Sandman saga, he's actually here to promote his just-published novel for kids, Coraline, which is why he's speaking in the Children's Theatre tent. Happily, a large number of attendees at the event are also adult fans of his work, so I don't look as much of a paedo as I thought I was going to.
Coraline was written back in the early nineties, but has been sitting in Gaiman's drawer ever since: it was rejected by his publisher as being "too grownup for children and too childish for adults". With Harry Potter and the like changing attitudes to children's fiction in the last few years, Coraline's time has finally come, and Gaiman is fascinated by the reactions it's generating. Children read the story of a young girl entering a second, slightly warped alternative version of her world, and they treat it as a great adventure: adults can't get past the idea of a child in peril, and think it's a horror novel. Gaiman thinks the two messages of the novel are important ones for children (possibly even more so on a day like today, as the bodies of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman are discovered). Firstly, that no matter what people may tell you, monsters really do exist in the world. Secondly, they can be defeated.
Gaiman's a relaxed and enjoyable reader of his own work, and Coraline sounds like a fascinating book. Unfortunately, he manages to dissuade me from buying a signed copy during one of his responses in the Q&A. Apparently the American edition of the novel features illustrations by his long-term collaborator Dave McKean. However, its British publisher took them all out again, because in this country illustrated books are looked down on by its target audience of 9 to 19 year olds. This will amusingly result in two different versions being published when the book goes into paperback next year: one with pictures for the grown-ups, and one without pictures for the kids. In the meantime, I'm off to Amazon to buy the US edition now.
Our first Film Festival event of the year is the Japanese part-claymation horror musical The Happiness Of The Katakuris, and The Belated Birthday Girl and I smugly reflect that not only are we possibly the only people in the audience who've seen it before, we're almost certainly the only people there who own the soundtrack album. Regular readers may recall that as we're both fans of the director Miike Takashi, we caught Katakuris during its cinema run in Japan, despite it not having any English subtitles. Amazingly, it looks like we got most of the jokes first time round: there are only a couple of verbal bits that gain from being translated, notably the spectacular web of lies that conman Richard uses to wheedle his way into the family.
Apart from that, the pleasures of this film are much the same as they were first time round. Miike admitted in a recent interview that he's a big Monty Python fan, and the sheer glee with which the plot leaps between genres, emotional extremes and levels of reality is testament to that. The songs - which I wasn't massively impressed by first time round - turn out to be a half-and-half split between standalone numbers and Lloyd Webber-style recitative, and are starting to grow on me. And I love the way that the kid in the family obviously hasn't been let into any of the choreography rehearsals, and is struggling to follow everyone else in the dance numbers. Metro Tartan have picked this up for UK release, so be sure to catch it soon: alternatively, if you can't wait, the Hong Kong DVD (with English subs) is available from DDD House right now.
Two days into her first Edinburgh - or is it her second, I'm still not sure - and The Belated Birthday Girl is starting to get the hang of this show-picking lark, coming up with a very neat idea for a double bill to finish off our day. First up is Ego Warriors, a collection of songs and poems from Neil Innes and John Dowie respectively. Both men have been Fringe stalwarts for decades now, and complement each other nicely. Innes' dry wit and ear for a good tune are as sharp as they ever were: most of the songs here are new to me, though he does pause halfway through for a welcome medley of Rutles numbers. Dowie has calmed down a bit since his rants against the Dutch in the mid-seventies, but is still capable of generating big laughs from the unexpected turns his poetry takes. And yet his best work is saved for the end, a comparatively serious and heartfelt piece about growing up in Birmingham and the love you always feel for your first home. The Ego Warrior concept that gives the show its title is dealt with somewhat vaguely, but we all got certificates at the end to say that we are Ego Warriors, so I can't complain too much.
Sadly, Neil Innes never gets around to doing any songs from his early years in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. But this leads us into the BBG's brilliant idea: because a ten minute taxi ride down the road takes us to the Pleasance Dome, where the world's only Bonzos tribute band are performing. The Gonzo Dog Do Bar Band thus allow us to see the real Neil Innes and a cheap imitation of him back to back - although to be honest, it's the cheap imitation of Viv Stanshall who's the most impressive. The sheer sustained wackiness of the band can be a tad wearing, particularly as it's a very studenty sort of wackiness. (Look! One of them's wearing a kilt! And another one's got an amusing ethnic hat! My sides!) Nevertheless, the Gonzos pull it off because they're just ramshackle enough: the music's frequently on the verge of collapse during their on-stage goofing around, but they're accomplished enough musicians to pull it together again within a second when the song requires it. A broad spectrum of the Bonzos' back catalogue is covered, from the cheery ragtime numbers to the out-and-out rockers, and the Gonzos cope with them all splendidly. If nothing else, they remind me about one of my favourite lines from any song ever: "Yesterday, I was a five stone apology. Today, I am two separate gorillas."
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - Of the seven acts on display at Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, there were two which really stood out. The Tiny Ninja Theater production of Ninja Macbeth, already on the radar, turned into a must-see: and an act from New Zealand, Humouroids by Humourbeasts, was physical humour which was actually humourous and entertaining. I also like Addy Burgh, whose jokes about the use of the home computer were aimed squarely at my age group. One act which stood out as total wank was Monsoon by Au Cul de Loup. Dreadful, pretentious stuff, which is a shame because the performers were clearly talented individuals. They should watch Humourbeasts to see what could be done.
Nick - Count Arthur Strong's Forgotten Egypt has a great comic character let down by some patchy material. The Count gives talks on a variety of subjects, including Egypt. But when his slide projector fails to work he has to improvise. Unfortunately the Count is also drunk and senile, so what we get is little bits of all his talks, until he remembers what he should be talking about. This scatalogical approach gives the Count a ready-made vehicle for Harry Hill-style jokes, but the punchlines were more likely to make you wince than laugh out loud. There are some very good bits, the extracts from Lord Carnarvon's journals were hilarious and so was his ventriloquist act with a little mummy (think Harry Hill with Stouffer the Cat). The musical tribute to Rex Harrison at the end of the show never seemed to take off, which Harry Hill would have made into a big finale. But this comic character most likely has legs, if a bit wobbly at the moment.
Lesley - The Fringe Festival programme notes for Lords Of The Ring are explicit, but I got the impression that the full house was more from half the audience expecting a go at the saga itself, and who suffered the hour with bemusement. Chilton and Robb obviously know their Tolkien (as do I, having fallen in love with the book as a teenager), but their target was the (peculiarly English?) small town enthusiasts and re-enactment societies, and their underlying perils. Gauche and occasionally crass, this was humour wielded with a butter-knife: but for those of us in the audience who truly know the subject, there was enough to entertain us. Reader - these people are my blood-stock.
The Belated Birthday Girl - I'd prepared for seeing Neil Gaiman by reading the first Sandman collection, although he was there to read from and talk about Coraline, his first children's book to be published in the UK. He was very interesting when talking about the difference between how children look at things and how adults do, describing the plot of Punch and Judy as seen through adult eyes. Also interesting when talking about what are seen as the antecedents for Coraline (Alice, Narnia and some old Victorian tale about a second mother). I can't see myself getting Coraline - I don't read much anyway, and hardly ever read children's fiction - but I came out liking the man and wishing him well.
Lee - If you secretly regret missing the sixties, regret it no longer: go and experience The Wax Room. Lie back and be amazed by a visual spectacle that is awe-inspiring in colour, design and execution. No illegal substances are required to have your mind blown away by this fantastical art work. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds has nothing on this.
Nick - Greg Proops is not a show I would have chosen myself, I had my arm twisted. I was pleasantly surprised by the suave Greg, a political satirist in a Gucci suit. Greg is American, so all his best material was aimed at the Bush administration, an easy target but mostly scoring laughs. Then there was the management-style note-taking, observing the audience reaction to his jokes: fun for a while, and he promises to deliver a big finale, but the pacing seems to remain the same throughout the show. It feels like sitting on a comfy sofa waiting for something to happen, but it never quite arrives. I wonder if Greg needs a character like Otis to freshen up his act. Good if you like Bush jokes.
The Belated Birthday Girl - The first film of Miike Takashi's I saw, as I suspect is true of many people, was Audition - the only one of his films to make it beyond the various festivals. I was pretty well hooked from then by this prolific Japanese director (6 or 8 films a year): so when we went to Japan in the Spring we had to see The Happiness Of The Katakuris, once we found it was playing there. So my first film of this Edinburgh ended up being one I'd seen before, only this time with subtitles. The subtitles in fact only added the odd detail, but it was good to see I enjoyed it as much second time around, and that it wasn't just the thrill of seeing it in Japan. I came out humming the song from the end credits as I wandered down the road.
Lesley - The Cameo's practice of moving people along to fit everyone in robbed me of my clear sightline to the subtitles for The Happiness Of The Katakuris - I know what I'm doing when I sit behind short people - so I had a rather uncomfortable one and a half hours bobbing up and down, which I expect the people behind me just loved. It was worth it: my companions, having seen it in Japan without subtitles, swore they had more or less got the gist of what was going on, but the details were exquisite. Anyway, The Belated Birthday Girl has a smattering of Japanese. A gloriously colourful, partly animated - WHAT? Oriental gorefest? Japan's answer to Bollywood? The return of the 1950s musical? The Rocky Horror Show in reverse? Whatever, I loved it.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Neil Innes and John Dowie doing respectively songs and poems: buggered if I know what it's got to do with being Ego Warriors (whatever that means), but it was all good fun, if somewhat gentle. Nice to sing along (as we were invited to) to Cheese And Onions, part of a Rutles medley (I used to have the album, but that was always my favourite). And Dowie on the difference between sadness and unhappiness: "Sad isn't bad / Unhappy is crappy." (The preamble was about five times the length of the poem.)
Lee - Oleanna: a brilliant play as relevant today as when it was written ten years ago. A student struggling with a course and about to fail translates her feelings of inadequacy into superiority and power, by accusing her professor of incompetence and assault. When he fails to appreciate her point of view, the charge escalates to rape. His genuine attempts to help her by giving examples from his own life are interpreted by her as elitist, sexist and pornographic. There is no meeting of the minds between these two. When the talking stops, what options are left but violence. Brilliantly acted, I was on the edge of my seat during the entire performance.
Nick - If there were Darwin Awards for tribute bands, The Gonzo Dog Do Bar Band would get my vote. Seven very enthusiastic musicians reprise those songs you never knew you knew and will probably forget again, but good late night fun. Special mention to their lone girl dancer (was Sue in the original band?): amazing energy and commitment, getting people to dance and a terrific dancer herself. Clockwork Orange meets Cabaret.
The Belated Birthday Girl - The Ego Warriors show was slightly longer than we'd expected, and we did consider excusing ourselves early, telling Neil Innes we had to go and see his tribute band The Gonzo Dog Do Bar Band. But in the end we arrived only a couple of minutes into the act, as they were performing Urban Spaceman. This could have been a disaster of an act, but they were good enough for it to work, especially the Viv Stanshall. Humming along to Hunting Tigers Out In India, tapping my feet (but resisting invitations to dance), all good fun. We were told several times we could go to the bar, but frankly I didn't want to miss the act. So now I have a medley of Urban Spaceman and the karaoke number from Katakuris going around my brain.
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