Another year, another Stutter. The tradition of seeing Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe on Sunday afternoon has become so established that I finished last year's review with the promise that I'd be back at 1pm on Sunday August 21st 2005. So when the prospect of a better offer came round - the chance to see legendary film editor Thelma Schoonmaker giving a talk as part of the Film Festival - I had to pass it up, because I'd already made a very public promise to do Stutter, and had this vague romantic notion that he may have found my writeup on the web and mentioned it on stage. (He didn't, of course.)
Despite all this baggage, the show itself is still as fun as always, with a different selection of seven Fringe acts every day being given their chance to demonstrate what they do for ten minutes or so. As usual, a chronological approach to reviewing is probably best. After Stutter himself alienates a woman from Chicago in the audience with a couple of his trademark songs about the battle of the sexes, the first people on stage are Jane Bom-Bane and Nick Pynn, the latter providing accompaniment to the former's charmingly silly songs while she wears an increasingly eccentric array of hats. Tangled Feet perform an excerpt from their physical theatre piece Lost Property, which isn't really my sort of thing but does show their determination to avoid the pretension typically associated with the genre. Irish standup Caimh McDonnell provides the second-best laughs of the day, particularly when tearing apart the ravings of a racist taxi driver; "You know, if these asylum seekers really are that dirty and illiterate, and they're coming over here and taking your job, then you must have been shit at your job."
The mid-show slump comes courtesy of Tricklock (the extract from their play The Glorious And Bloodthirsty Billy The Kid is interesting but unsubtle, and goes on far too long) and Seymour Mace (roughly similar criticisms could be aimed at his failed children's entertainer Uncle Shitty). But the final two acts make for a terrific ending to the show. Japanese comedy duo Gamarjobat do a ten minute set of wordless tomfoolery that has the place in stitches, but does make you wonder if they can sustain that sort of pace for a whole hour long show. (I may find out later in the week.) And six-man acapella group The Magnets do a couple of sensationally arranged numbers, given huge energy by the two members providing the basslines and the human beatbox. If only they weren't performing at that awkward 9pm slot when almost everyone else at the Fringe is, I'd be there like a shot. The show as a whole is yet another triumph for Merv. See you in 2007, other events permitting?
Arthur Smith, who compered yesterday's Malcolm Hardee tribute, is almost as much of an Edinburgh Fringe legend as Hardee was. The two of them collaborated on one of the all-time classic Fringe stunts, when they wrote their own review of Hardee's show and managed to get it published in The Scotsman. Smith's own shows tended to be crazed affairs made out of whatever was going on in his head at the time, and his Saturday night pissed walking tours of Edinburgh were the stuff of legend. Sadly, that all changed a few years ago when Smith went into hospital for an alcohol-related illness, and they handed him what was left of his pancreas in a carrier bag on the way out.
He's obviously been taking it easy since then, but Arthur Smith's Swan Lake is as epic a comeback as you could possibly hope for. As has always been the case, you suspect that the programme writeup was written long before the show was: 'Radical site specific outdoor promenade theatre at its best. Meet Pleasance Courtyard. Bring an umbrella.' Those of us who meet at the Pleasance are led to the Dumbiedykes housing estate just round the back, where Arthur and a couple of dozen accomplices have arranged a series of unconnected and gloriously silly events. Ronnie Golden sings a song from the steps leading up to a block of flats. Local kids throw waterbombs at us as we walk round the back alleys, while sopranos serenade us from a nearby balcony. A youth theatre company performs five minutes of West Side Story in the children's playground. And through all of this, real Dumbiedykes residents are wandering through not knowing what the hell's going on.
Eventually it hits you: remember those Saturday night walking tours, when Smith would knock on innocent people's doors and ask if they could make tea for twenty or so? Well, he's finally found an alcohol-free equivalent of them. Apart from the freewheeling lunacy of Smith's imagination, what makes this a fabulous journey is the conspiracy that the audience buys into, where we know what's going on at any given time, but the random people passing by don't. By the end, we're all standing at the bottom of a crag applauding four dancers and a man in a bear costume dancing for us on Arthur's Seat, a mile or so away. Any real site-specific theatre that attempted an effect that huge would be up to its ankles in Fringe Firsts by now - because this is Arthur Smith messing about, nobody bats an eyelid. There's something wrong there, surely.
It's all music for the rest of the day. One of the most recent enjoyable additions to my CD collection has been Tom Middleton's compilation Cosmosonica. Middleton has identified an interesting trend in recent years - bands who specialise in cover versions of old songs, performed in wholly unsuitable styles. Recent examples of this include Hayseed Dixie (performing heavy metal tunes as bluegrass) and Nouvelle Vague (who rework punk and new wave songs as easy listening). As The Belated Birthday Girl has noted in the past, it's not just enough to come up with a surreal mismatch between content and form - you've got to be really good musically in your chosen form to make this work. Which is why Hayseed Dixie and Nouvelle Vague are so entertaining, and The Red Stripes (who hamfistedly bash White Stripes songs into reggae form) aren't.
To that former list you can add The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain - although their publicity seems to suggest they've been arranging unexpected songs for seven ukuleles and voice (from Silver Machine to Miss Dy-Na-Mi-Tee) for two decades now, so they probably started the list. As well as their undoubted ukulele skills, all seven are also pretty good vocalists; each one gets a song on their own, and their detailed harmony and counterpoint work provide a couple of the biggest laughs of the evening. Tremendous fun, and well worth catching.
Michael Franti has always been one of the good guys: socially aware, passionate about all the right causes, equally passionate about expressing them in music. But despite all this, the question has to be asked: what kind of BASTARD opens the doors of their gig at 7pm and then comes on stage at 7.45? When we arrive at the sort of suitably late time when any normal person would turn up at a rock gig, we find that he's already been performing for over half an hour. Only a monstrously talented performer could recover from a start like that, but luckily Franti happens to be one of those.
I first came across Franti in the early nineties, when he was with Disposable Heroes Of Hip-Hoprisy: performing angry rants about the state of the nation while a Korean guy bashed bits of metal behind him in accompaniment. For the past decade, Franti has been the spearhead of the band, er, Spearhead - and their approach tends to be a lot more easy on the ear, while Franti's own lyrics have got less explicitly political. Really, he's just matured, although there will always be a part of me that misses the fury of those early days.
That's the case with the records, anyway. Live, Spearhead are a much more full-on affair, with every song stretching out into a jam for ten minutes or so. Franti's massive energy stops it becoming self-indulgent, as he bounces across the stage and gets the whole audience bouncing with him. Sure, the politics are a lot more in the background than they used to be, but they're still very much there: the primary function of Spearhead live is to give you the best damn time you can have in a concert hall, and let the messages creep up on you by stealth. Free your ass, and your mind will follow, or something.
We missed the first half hour of Spearhead's set, true, but they perform for a good two hours on top of that, the highlight being the guest appearance of poet Saul Williams on Stay Human (All The Freaky People). And after the show, Franti is still hyped enough to spend the next fifteen minutes going through the audience, giving hugs and autographs to anyone who wants them. So, yes, I think he recovered from that start in the end.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Diane - Although written before the 7/7 bombs in London, Dennis Kelly's After The End (at the Traverse) was very topical. A suicide bombing has taken place in London, but this time using nuclear explosives. As a result, there have been numerous casualties, but Mark has bought a flat complete with nuclear bunker. At the start of the play we meet Mark and Louise, a young woman he has brought to safety, carrying her through the bomb-damaged streets witnessing devastating sights on the way. The unconscious Louise has witnessed nothing, having regained consciousness inside the bunker. At first we are in the same position as Louise, relying on Mark's version of events. But as the story unfolds, we soon realise things are not as they seem. Far from being strangers, Mark and Louise are work colleagues. Mark has harboured an unrequited passion for Louise which borders on obsessional. As the 'office nerd' he has been the subject of gentle ridicule at the hands of his workmates, but he now has the upper hand.
As Louise makes it clear that their relationship in the bunker is purely a friendship, the darker side of Mark's nature emerges and he tries to dominate Louise, rationing her food and becoming increasingly unreasonable. However, Louise is no pushover and the play becomes a battle of wills. Playwright Dennis Kelly keeps us on the edge of our seats as we wonder who will emerge triumphant. Has the nuclear attack actually taken place? Will the play descend into violence with tragic consequences? The ending was not obvious and the characters of Mark and Louise remained complex to the last.
Actors Tom Brooke and Kerry Canda give superb performances bringing life to Kelly's multi-layered characters. Both actors are excellent but Brooke, in particular, is definitely an actor to watch. I saw him for the first time in November's London Film Festival, appearing heavily disguised in a fantasy film called The Happiness Thief. I'm sure we'll hear a lot more of this fine young actor over the next few years.
Eve - I first saw Andy Parsons at a small venue in Edinburgh about seven years ago. His humour was topical, sharp but the most controversial jokes were about various uses for chocolate biscuits. He picked on the audience in a very gentle way. I fell in love with him immediately. As the years have gone on his status has risen with his popularity, and the butt of his jokes has become decidedly blacker. The title Genocide, Suicide, Cancer (and other words that make you wince) says it all. Nevertheless the audience found lots of laughs in his droll delivery and the truth of his remarks. His videos of the audience taking their seats were very funny - we were very relieved that we came in nearly last and got missed out. Andy Parsons goes from strength to strength - a show not to be missed.
Diane - I've noticed several plays advertised on the 'chav' theme. Lizzie Hopley's one-woman play Pramface tells of two women (both played by Hopley) - one is an unemployed teen who spends her days on a council estate, cutting out magazine pictures of celebrities and categorising them according to appearance. At the same time another woman, a journalist for an OK-style magazine, is desperately trying to interview the mother of a teenage boy called Danny living on the same estate. After entering a Pop Idol-style TV contest during which his looks were criticised, Danny has slashed his face. Our teen antiheroine contacts the desperate journalist saying that, as a neighbour of the Kellys, she can give information about Danny. When the journalist arrives at her flat, the teenager takes her hostage, punishing her for the way her magazine denigrates people due to their looks. This play is a satire on the cruel world of the gossip magazines who label people as freak or chic and denigrate the working classes as chavs, pramfaces etc. Lizzie Hopley's confident performance makes the play immensely watchable. She switches deftly between her two characters. Not a play to change the world - but effective in its swipe at tabloid style journalism, celebrity culture and obsession with looks.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Comedic music acts usually work best when the music itself is well executed, and that is certainly true of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The comedy comes partly from the surprise factor of hearing music from Bowie or Nirvana played by a group of ukuleles, and partly from the comic delivery of asides and intros, while the ukulele playing itself is skilful and the singers were good too. I also liked the democratic nature of every one of the seven members of the group getting at least one song to lead on. This was an early highlight of the festival for me, even though it is early in our festival week. I would already say this would be a candidate for best of the fest for me; if I see any shows which I enjoy more than this, I will be very surprised.
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