Some things will never ever change. The instantly recognisable figure of Pleasance director Christopher Richardson will continue to bestride his empire like a panama-hatted Colossus. The gents toilets in the basement of the Pleasance main building will continue to be the foulest reeking things outside of any property owned by Railtrack. And Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe will continue to begin with Mervyn walking onto the stage of the Pleasance Over The Road and launching into a couple of songs about how shit it is to be over 40. (Although this year the songs seem to have taken on an interesting air of desperation. "People try to put us down / Talkin' bout my euthanasia.")
The format of Melvyn's show works so well it's easy to see why it hasn't changed over the eight years or so he's been doing it. He comperes a selection of acts from all over the Fringe, lets them display a ten minute section or so of their show, and has a quick chat with them afterwards to allow them to plug the venue. It's a different selection every day, so what you get is entirely up to chance. Today's show was fortunate enough to include a brief interview with Leslie Phillips, ostensibly to plug his one man show On The Whole It's Been Jolly Good (although he was amusingly apologetic about it being a wasted plug, as tickets for the show are scarcer than rocking horse droppings at the moment). He charmed the pants off the audience just as you'd expect, and was suitably self-flagellating when the topic of the Carry On movies came up. Other highlights of today's collection included a couple of interesting contemporary dance pieces from the Garage, some standup from Will Anderson (presumably the only comic they could find on a Sunday morning without a hangover) and Earl Okin, still doing his horny crooner thing but backing it up with a terrifically vicious attack on Andrew Lloyd Webber. "I don't know how to write songs / But I know how to steal them..."
As regular readers will know, Richard Herring is currently some sort of unofficial patron of this web site. This dates back to a couple of reviews I wrote this time last year: a good one for Herring's play Playing Hide And Seek With Jesus, and a more mediocre one for the Lee and Herring double-act show. About nine months later, when the Edinburgh review pages finally got indexed on AltaVista, Herring got to read the review and sent a rather nice letter in reply, a phrase from which is now quoted totally out of context on the front page. This would make things very sticky indeed if I subsequently had to review this year's Richard Herring play - It's Not The End Of The World - and announce it was a crock of poo. Luckily, that won't be necessary. The play is another exploration of Herring's obsession with the prophesies of Nostradamus, although in this one Nosty is reduced to an offstage voice rather than a strangely bearded transvestite. Four friends - Ian (Richard Herring), his girlfriend Annie (Rebecca Lacey), his brother Chris (Paul Bown) and Chris' new-found girlfriend Holly (Ruth Grey) - are on holiday in Fiji, the result of Ian winning a competition on the back of a pack of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Ian and Annie are trying to patch up their failing relationship, while Chris is trying to start one up with Holly, who he'd met in a sushi bar only the week before. As the four spend a month in isolation from the rest of the world, assorted secrets start crawling out of the woodwork.
For someone who's gone into print in the past slagging off plays as "the most Cornish of literary forms" (but that may have just been meant as a sideswipe at old enemy Patrick Marber), Herring is proving to be a pretty good playwright. Again the character and plot development is beautifully drawn, including some nice observations on the generation gap that exists between people in their twenties (Holly) and people in their thirties (Annie). The performances are all fine: although Herring is effectively playing himself on stage, it's interesting that it's Chris who gets the mucky lines that you'd normally associate with Herring's on-screen persona. I particularly liked one inspired riff involving Chris trying to explain that the expletive phrase "elephant spunk" actually refers to bundles of wood and tinder gathered by elephants for the purposes of kindling fires. The use of extracts from Nostradamus to provide ironic foreshadowing of each of the scenes is a bit heavy-handed at times, but otherwise it's definitely worth catching.
The Nation's Favourite: The True Adventures Of Radio 1 is the sort of oddity that the Fringe was built around. Journalist Simon Garfield followed the progress of Radio 1 during the difficult early years of controller Matthew Bannister: the ditching of the station's Smashie & Nicey era DJs, the failed experiments that led to plumetting ratings, the chaos caused when Chris Evans was brought in to rescue things. Garfield wrote an excellent book, built around interviews with all the major players and a minimum of comment from the author.
And like a fool, Alex Lowe has decided that this would be a perfect book to adapt as a one man show. And astonishingly, it works. He's rewritten the book as a monologue by Bannister reflecting on his five years in the job as he has breakfast, interrupted by contributions from the DJs he clashed with. Lowe doesn't really try to impersonate the big names: the fun's more in the characterisations (notably Simon Bates as the satanic overlord of Radio 1's old order) and the inspired use of props from the kitchen set (Zoe Ball's appearance is a stroke of improvisational genius). As in the book, there are lots of hysterical anecdotes and a real sense of the festering tensions behind the Happy Happy Sound. I'll be interested to see what the BBC employee in our party makes of it.
In a brief detour away from the Pleasance complex (where every other show I've seen today took place), Ken Campbell is doing his usual surreal monologue schtick at the Southside. Most people know him as a TV character actor, most visible as Alf Garnett's neighbour in In Sickness And In Health: but he's also an experimental theatre director and a collector of bizarre facts and experiences, which he turns into one-man shows like this one. After a brief intro taking in David Icke's new book (in which he claims the Royal Family drink the blood of slaughtered infants and indulge in shape-shifting rituals), the main thrust of the talk relates to his experiences at an American ventriloquism convention, and from there moves on to Campbell's continuing campaign to make Pidgin English the universal language of the planet. As always, it's a joy to watch Campbell's mind fly around from one topic to the next without ever rejecting anything as too ridiculous - moving from a spiritual experience arising from the deprivation of language, to an analysis of the effects of taking seagulls (birds which are incapable of farting) and feeding them huge quantities of bicarbonate of soda. Anyone who walks out of a performance like this - as one or two people did on the night - deserves nothing more than pity and contempt.
Finally, Steven Berkoff, because you can't really have an Edinburgh Fringe without at least one production of one of his plays. Although logically, there must have been a time when you could visit the Fringe without having intense young men shouting rude words directly at the audience. That time would be over 25 years ago, before Berkoff wrote his first play East, receiving its Silver Jubilee production here. It's basically a loosely-linked collection of scenes tracing a hyper-exaggerated portrait of working-class life in the East End of London. The style we associate with Berkoff seems to have arrived more or less fully formed: minimal staging (five chairs and a table), language that swoops from the classical to the filthy in the same sentence, and a violently physical style of acting. Berkoff directs a new cast for this production, and they all do his work proud: Matthew Cullum and Christopher Middleton as the young East End thugs at the centre of the piece, Jonathan Linsley and Edward Bryant as the slobbish Dad and Mum, and Tanya Franks as girlfriend Sylv who realises there has to be more to life than this. You can't single any one out for special praise, although Middleton's set piece where he mimes climbing inside a nine-foot tall vagina is worth the price of admission on its own.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Old Lag - Mad Margaret's Marketing Mistake sounded like a good idea. It started that way. We all walked into a video room and were issued with questionnaires and pencils by a suited business woman. The atmosphere transmitted to that tingly feeling of being back in the school classroom as an adult. The dramatic atmosphere of the film focus group disintegrated: the video we were to respond to was an am dram job. The marketeer character of this one woman show broke into her bitterness as a failed actress. Pathos has to be handled well or it is toe-curlingly embarrassing: as it was here, amplified by the amateur writing of an actor's shot at Edinburgh. The lukewarm sympathy of the audience was cajoled into uncomfortable participation for a happy ending that did not recover you. Half rumbled I had the seat nearest the door but there was no escape.
Christine - Jaded after attending lacklustre opera productions in Verona, I welcomed the excellent Far Eastern interpretation of Puccini's Turandot. I laughed, I cried, I loved. Thank you, Bunkamura.
Nick - East was the first flowering of Berkoff the original dramatist, as opposed to his adaptations of other people's work, and he was determined to make an impact. Disillusioned by the sterility of middle class theatre at that time, 25 years ago, he arrived like a bovver boy determined to put the boot in. He has since written many better plays than East, although this has all the hallmarks that have made him a famous playwright, and the start of his reputation as a misogynist. Interestingly, he chooses to cast a man in the role of the mother, who most of the excesses of the play are directed at. Is this Berkoff blanching at what he wrote 25 years ago? The beauty of the play is the tough poetic language and his avowed aim to get away from a naturalistic setting that was stifling theatre at that time. Here he assembles an excellent cast that are perhaps cramped by having to perform under a proscenium arch, and takes a trip down memory lane, to the beginnings of his reputation as the enfant terrible of English theatre. Go see Berkoff's Women if you want more perspective of what Berkoff was later capable of.
Old Lag - So, I Killed A Few People. A mesmerising one man show. Archie Nunn's warmth and sense of fun, the all-American boy with all our influences who went on a killing spree, whose only remorse is the slight sense of failing his lovable father. We are treated to a reasonable history of his life. The reaction of the courts and lawyers. American society, who we are told divides into two: the News Of The Worlders who want him dead, the liberals who would ignore him in life but don't want him dead. Life in prison, the fellow inmates, the system, the letters from his fan club (mainly women and performance artists). Describing the regime leading up to the electric chair, we are given this eerie vision of a big, jovial, muscular man, naked in harsh light except for the nappy required for electro-convulsive evacuation. We are then treated to the explanation of why.
Christine - It's nice to find a playwright one likes and just go for all their writings - hence two Stephen Berkoff productions today. Berkoff's Women is a brilliant event, but once again do not sit in the front row - especially if you are male. East may be 25 years old but still the issues arise. I would have really loved an interval - for the legs and brain - but would not have missed this for the world.
Old Lag - East was poetry in motion. Excellent. Old Lag personally interviewed Matthew Cullum who played Les, the male co-lead. Matthew was amused at our Bedford connection [see Letters page - Spank], had enjoyed the production and is thrilled that it is transferring to the West End.
Nick - If you like top quality clowning then Farcas - Fantasia is the show for you. A series of sketches, loosely linked by the six characters trying to fly a kite and in so doing, we glimpse the character of all six. With any clown show the deviser runs the perilous risk of exposing the sketch as too contrived, and of the eight or so sketches in this show two fall down with contrivance. The other sketches have that touch of magic that transforms the slightest of scene setting into a memorable image or wonderful group tableau. The five male and one female clowns all effortlessly convey their characters within the sketches without the use of words, and appeal to the child within us all, looking for wonderment. Go see.
Old Lag - "Life moves fast, you don't stop and look around you, you could miss it." What was Old Lag doing at Car, a high octane play about car thieves and joy riders? Carless in London, he normally looks at the South Circular traffic jams near Wandsworth and thinks car drivers are mad. I partly went because of Glad, Bad and Mad, the early 90's Fringe Firsts emanating from Jeremy Weller's social delinquents telling their stories that evolved into performing in plays. Chris O'Connell participated in these, and his work as a probation officer carries on this legacy and provides the source for Cars. High octane it is: street poetry on the techno macho of cars. Hard dance of the joy ride, the car's owner rolling over the roof. No time for speculation of events offstage. Events are run in parallel on stage in rising drama. Characters who could easily have been portrayed superficially are fully fleshed. All the men are victims and the depth of their lives and feelings of escape and failure are mashed together. Robert, the probation officer trapped by his idealism, brings about a mediation session with Gary the thief and the sales executive whose car was stolen. Gary, propelled by the fear of killing and messing up again, seeks the redemption of the confession. The sales executive has worked hard for his family, house, car and country. He is presented with forces and motivation outside his knowledge and control. How would you react? A well deserved Fringe First winner.
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