I haven't mentioned this before because I didn't want to alarm you, but Jerry Sadowitz has been stalking us this week. At least, that's how it feels. Aside from seeing his stand-up act, we've also spotted him in the audience at two other shows: Ego Warriors on Sunday, and Jerry Springer - The Opera yesterday. In collaboration with Nick and The Belated Birthday Girl, we decide to call his bluff by paying a visit to his other performance at this year's Fringe, an early morning set of close-up magic and card tricks at the Underbelly. So we drag ourselves out of bed at the unearthly hour of ten am (and don't look at me like that, round here that's early) to see his show, only to find that he's cancelled at the last minute because of flu.
Naturally, we don't believe that for a second. OK, I admit my scepticism may have been sharpened by the awkward traipse around town that followed in order to get the ticket money refunded, but I still insist he looked OK the previous afternoon when we saw him at Springer. The general consensus is that he's skiving off with a hangover after a hard night out. Except, as the BBG points out, there is the small problem of the lurgi that I went down with a couple of days ago (I'm a bit better now, thanks, but it did mean that yesterday's diary was written in some sort of brain-addled haze, and I apologise for any confusion it may have caused). Is it possible that Sadowitz has gone down with my cold as a result of hanging out near me for so long this week? What happens if he finds out? Particularly if we see him at the rescheduled performance on Saturday morning? Do I really want to be in a very small room with the guy when that happens? Watch this space.
Simon Munnery has also been stalking us, but to a lesser degree. He was at the same performance of Ego Warriors, and rumour has it he'll be making an unbilled appearance at another show we've still to see. In the meantime, the delayed start to my day is his solo show Noble Thoughts From A Noble Mind. Actually, it's not strictly a solo show, as his support act Andrew Bailey plays a hefty role in the proceedings. Bailey looks curiously familiar, and I can't work out if I've seen him before or if he's just one of those generic scary bald men who turns up regularly in your nightmares. He's certainly scary enough during his warm-up act, playing around for ten minutes with sampled vocal loops, plastic toys and dead birds.
By comparison, Munnery is the very model of sanity itself, and it's not often you can say that about someone who performs the first half of his set with an orange metal bucket over his head. After his character comedy years as Alan Parker Urban Warrior and The League Against Tedium, this was meant to be Munnery's "and this is me" show: but it looks like he still needs some sort of distancing device between him and his audience to function properly, and his device of choice is the bucket. To his credit, he's seriously thought through all of its comic possibilities. "People shout at me in the street. 'Oi! Buckethead!' they say. At least, I assume they're talking to me."
Sadly, the simple fact remains that once he's taken off the bucket, he's less interesting. The second half is an okayish selection of flipchart-based comic lectures: sorting out once and for all the whole chicken/egg dilemma, and so on. Still, it's the same combination of silliness and erudition that we used to get from The League Against Tedium, and it passes the time pleasantly enough without anything to frighten the kiddies. (Certainly the one in the front row seemed totally unfazed by it, even when Bailey was attacking her with a pair of dead crows attached to car radio aerials.) Useful tip: if you're outside the Stand on York Place around 3.30pm in the afternoon, you can catch Munnery and Bailey wrapping up their show in the street for free.
From there it's a short walk to the Gateway Theatre and the long-awaited performance of Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth. It doesn't disappoint. Well, it may have disappointed Nick, but he was stuck towards the back of the 20-strong audience in what we've historically referred to as the wheelchair seats (in memory of the 1996 Prodigy gig which Nick watched from the apparent safety of the disabled area). Thanks to some fortuitious timing, the BBG and I saw the whole show sat on the floor literally eighteen inches away from the stage, in what turned out to be the best seats in the house.
For those of you who haven't been paying attention, Tiny Ninja Theater consists of Dov Weinstein, a tabletop stage, and a few dozen one-inch high plastic ninja toys that he moves around while acting out classic works of Western literature. (More details are available on their website in case you think this is some sort of joke.) For Macbeth his cast is augmented by a couple of smiley-faced dolls known as Mr and Mrs Smile, who take on the leading roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. As you can see from the photo, it's an inspired casting choice, as Macbeth's fixed smile adds a chilling edge to his villainy.
Weinstein has whittled down Shakespeare's text to a brisk 35 minutes and performs all the parts live. It's the utter seriousness with which he does this that makes this show perfect, from the detached monotone of Macbeth's plotting to the cackling of the witches (represented here by three alien figures). Add to that some nifty visual effects with props, sets and lighting, and you've got the sort of head-on collision between high and low culture that's guaranteed to go down a storm on the Fringe. You could argue that some of the supporting characters, particularly those of Duncan (played by Ninja), Banquo (played by Ninja) and Lady Macduff (played by Ninja), are somewhat indistinguishable from each other: but that'd be your problem.
Two minutes before the scheduled start of his sell-out performance at the Book Festival, Jon Ronson is throwing a comedy celebrity tantum. "There's thirty or so empty seats still!" he whines. "They can't close the fucking doors on me!" Happily, the latecomers aren't too far away, and Ronson returns to his usual relaxed and cheerful self in time for the start of his talk. I've been a fan ever since his early days writing a humourous column for the Manchester magazine City Life: but of course nowadays, his humourous journalism is getting him into much more dangerous and interesting areas. A typical Ronson piece these days involves him hanging out with the sort of people who normally get hatchet jobs from journalists, slowly building a relationship with them, and allowing them to relax enough to reveal what really makes them tick. It's a process he describes as "de-demonising the demons", and he uses it to stunning effect in his most recent book Them: Adventures With Extremists, as he gets closer to Klan members, conspiracy theorists and Muslim agitators than anyone else normally would.
Part of the reason why Ronson gets such good access to his subjects is his bumbling charm, and this comes across well during his readings and the extended Q&A which follows them. He talks about the reception of the book in the US (typical press question: "So you were with a supporter of bin Laden for several months. Why didn't you just shoot him?"), and the way that September 11 has changed the playing field that he's working on. His latest project is investigating the anthrax scare that virtually brought America to a standstill post-9/11: not so much the eight letters or so that were found to contain anthrax, he's more interested in the 4000 hoax letters that went out shortly afterwards. His theory on who was responsible for the genuine anthrax is somewhat terrifying, but as he says, "the main reason why there are so many conspiracy theories out there is because there are so many conspiracies." At this point the BBG and I walk out of the Q&A early, and I'd like to think that we increase the overall level of paranoia in the room just a little by doing it. But we have to leave early to get to our next event...
...because now, the story that The Belated Birthday Girl has been telling for the past year to anyone who'll listen finally gets to go global. She lives in a part of North London that's frequently used as a film and television location, and in August 2001 her street played host to the shooting of David Cronenberg's Spider for a couple of days. Cronenberg's very arse was perched on her doorstep during the direction of these scenes, which unfortunately means that her house isn't actually in shot in the finished movie.
But while she was standing around watching the filming, she was approached by the assistant director. They were about to shoot a scene involving a mother and child leaving one of the houses, and needed a bag for the mother to be carrying. The BBG was, as ever, accompanied by her navy blue Fred Perry holdall: could they use that? Since then, she's spent the last year in terror fearing that the shot involving her bag wouldn't make it to the final cut, and would end up as some sort of deleted scene Easter egg on the DVD. Happily, we can report from last night's Scottish premiere that the BBG's Fred Perry bag makes a triumphant appearance about an hour into the movie. It's a commanding performance that nearly blows Ralph Fiennes off the screen.
Oh, the film? Pretty good. Adapted by Patrick McGrath from his own novel, Spider follows its title character (Fiennes) as he's chucked out of an asylum and onto the streets as part of Thatcher's Care In The Community programme. Resting up in a halfway house, he starts to recall the events of his childhood: his father (Gabriel Byrne), his mother (Miranda Richardson), and the woman who came between them with tragic results.
In the Q&A afterwards (attended by Fiennes, McGrath and producer Catherine Bailey), some mad bint started complaining that this wasn't a Cronenberg movie, presumably because no actual intestines are exposed during its running time. But Cronenberg's other key themes - loneliness, isolation, obsession - are all present and correct, and all the horror you could want is there, just internalised. Fiennes is in career-best form, initially a huge bundle of tics and mumbles but gradually allowing his humanity to seep through slowly. And the rest of the cast is just as fine, with Miranda Richardson in particular pulling off a couple of small acting miracles. If there's a flaw, it's that the clues to the nature of Spider's torment are laid out just a little too obviously for my liking (though not obviously enough for one audience member at the Q&A, who came up with an entirely different interpretation of the ending from everyone else in the room). Still, it's a finely-crafted piece of work, bag and all.
And from there it's another dash in a taxi across town for Ross Noble's midnight show at the George Square Theatre. Within seconds of coming on stage, he's spotted someone bundling his coat under his seat, and used this as a starting point for a series of reflections on life on a barge. Within five minutes, he's trying to persuade latecomers that the rest of us have all memorised worksheets on pendulum design: except he accidentally mispronounces 'pendulum worksheets' as 'pendulum workshops', so he now has to invent a workshop in which all the bits of wood being worked on swing around on a giant pendulum while all the tools stay still. He starts telling a story about getting into a fight with a drug dealer: he finishes it one hour later, via digressions into the evils of contemporary dance, the unsuitability of Angel Delight's name, and how substance abuse can make you stick monkeys to walls with Blu-Tack. It's a Ross Noble gig: there's no point in trying to describe it.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - One of the things I really like about Simon Munnery is that he's one of those comics whose mind, it seems, can go anywhere at all. This can lead to things being a bit hit and miss - and to be honest that's the case with his current act - but he can come out with stuff which is extremely funny and you can't work out why. Parts of this show were familiar from the one time I saw him do his League Against Tedium act, and it never had the coherence of the Alan Parker - Urban Warrior days, but he's still someone I love to catch. Completely mental support from Andrew Bailey.
Lesley - Susie Lindeman interprets Hammerklavier, the dramatised memoir of Yasmina Reza, the author of Art. This is a rich and evocative account of a cultured European upbringing in the shadow of the Holocaust. The affluent ennui of a young woman hinting at a Eurotrash future yet surrounded by the finest legacy of classical music. Susie Lindeman is superb.
Nick - Ross Noble is such a huge star in Edinburgh these days, he does extra shows in a huge lecture theatre. But it would have been nice if someone had switched the air conditioning on. (Apparently they switch the air conditioning plant off during the holidays.) Imagine trudging the Edinburgh streets all day, and then at midnight get baked in a lecture. But fortunately we had Ross to keep us entertained. A much more loosely structured show than last year, this has advantages and disadvantages in that you can get inspired lunacy that takes off, or a comedic cul de sac where he has to drop the idea and sometimes the show loses momentum. But there is simply no-one in the business that compares with Ross in full flight, his mercurial mind darting over all the comic possibilities of an idea. There was some inspired material about singing bits of Blur's Parklife in a randomly chosen venue for experimental theatre, and great skits on contemporary dance. But for the last 20 minutes I dozed off, the fatigue and lack of air con had taken their toll. Must remember to book his normal time and venue next year, otherwise prepare to be baked!
Lesley - When I saw Noel Fielding in Voodoo Hedgehog I did not realise that he is one of the contenders for the Perrier prize. A delightfully loony account of childhood exploits, a forest fantasy and a magic talke was greatly enjoyed by both me and the predominantly young audience.
Lee - I wasn't sure what to make of The Complete Lost Works Of Samuel Beckett As Found In An Envelope (Partially Burned) In A Dustbin In Paris Labeled 'Never To Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER. Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!'. Great title. Not so great a play. Most of the audience semed to think it was hilarious but I'm not convinced. The "Lost Works" were just plain bad, not awful enough to be amusing or appalling enough to be funny. Maybe that was the point but it didn't work for me.
A Muse Writes - A Night In November, written by Marie Jones and performed by Martin Maguire, is a two hour long one man show and a "tour de force". Martin Maguire's performance is outstanding and fully deserved the tearful audience and standing ovation at the end. It is the story of one man, Kenneth McAllister, a Protestant dole clerk in Belfast. He lives with his wife Deborah and two children in the "right" side of Belfast with all the superficial trimmings of a "nice" genteel life which had just been justified by his recent admission to the golf club. His Catholic boss Gerry has never managed this zenith of achievement. Kenneth has never questioned his life, his opinions, his beliefs ever in his life. He has gone on behaving as a good Protestant should and blindly following the blinkered pre-set patterns. One night the blinkers are removed and the scales fall from his eyes, he looks at the rest of his fellow Irishmen in a new and revelatory fashion. The 'bolt of lightning' happens when he takes his bigoted, hate-filled, angry father-in-law to the football match between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Republic win and go through to the World Cup Finals in America. The rest of his story follows his journey to the US to see the Republic play - and beat - Italy. This is one man's story told with great humour and superb characterisation by the totally believable Martin Maguire. The wonderful humour runs side by side with tragedy and at the end there was nobody in the audience who was not very moved. It might be argued that the part the IRA play in the Irish situation is not mentioned - nor should it be. That would be someone else's story.
Lesley - Safety at the Traverse, by Fringe First winners 2000 and 2001 according to the Fringe programme - excuse me, but it doesn't actually name the author(s), and I neglected to pick up the flier. About a famous war photographer, his empty marriage and his failure to rescue his drowning young daughter, who is fortunately saved by a passer-by. This play considered at some length the morality of the war photographer's role, quite thoughtfully and legitimately. But it also made me muse about how the choice of a job or career can become a straitjacket over time.
The Belated Birthday Girl - I feel a bit of a fraud at these Book Festival events, given how little I read, and this was particularly true at Jon Ronson as, apart from the odd newspaper article or column, I've never read any of his stuff. But I've seen on on TV from time to time and knew what he was about, so I was very keen to see him. He was very interesting and entertaining, reading out sections from Them and chatting amiably with his interviewer. Sadly we had to leave before the Q&A had finished, but I think I'll make up for it by buying and reading his book.
Lesley - Omid Djalili was an amusing and pleasant hour. Hotly tipped, and with some good gags, but to me just a teeny weeny bit flavour of the month. So I looked forward to seeing my old colleague Shazia Mirza at the Amnesty International Stand Up For Freedom benefit gig. Oh dear, Shazia, nearly all last year's material delivered stone cold. Where has the giggle you had on Have I Got News For You gone? While on the Amnesty show, did I detect some sly digs at Noel Fielding from Boothby Graffoe and Ross Noble?
The Belated Birthday Girl - The reason we had to dash away from the Jon Ronson Q&A was that straight after we had to be at the UGC for David Cronenberg's new film, Spider. The story of a schizophrenic, released from an institution to a half-way house and revisiting places from his childhood, Spider is an extremely good film with absolutely terrific performances from all three of the leads. Although it could be seen as a mystery/whodunnit, it's actually more of a psychological journey, exploring the inside of Spider's mind, so the fact that it is fairly clear who dun what from quite early on didn't detract from it much - although given one of the questions at the Q&A after, maybe it won't be so clear to everyone, so I'm saying nothing more. Definitely one to catch when it gets its release next year.
Lesley - All About Lily Chou-Chou was attended by the young director who took questions in Japanese afterwards, mainly about the technical aspects of his digitally produced film. Magnificent in story, visually and otherwise. A young voice in Japanese cinema telling a straight, dark tale.
Nick - Just to let that scumbag Jerry Sadowitz know that we hate him. He looked perfectly well at Jerry Springer The Opera, but by the following morning he had rung the venue box office to say he had flu, or should that read pissed out of his head, the Scottish twat. (Hey, I should do this style of comedy!)
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