My final visit to the 2001 Book Festival, and it's to see Nick Hornby, who was last here three years ago. (Notice how I've shamelessly used the photo from that 1998 reading to illustrate this year's appearance.) Back then, About A Boy had just been published, and the relocation of the movie of High Fidelity from North London to Chicago was just an uncomfortable rumour. In the subsequent three years, John Cusack has proved that music nerds are universal, About A Boy has just completed shooting with Hugh Grant in the lead, and Hornby's published his fourth novel, How To Be Good.
The event opens with Hornby reading a chapter or so of the new book. How To Be Good is written from the point of view of the leading female character, a woman whose husband has undergone a radical spiritual conversion that seriously threatens their marriage. The chapter selected describes a dinner party where the husband's new found love for all people totally destroys any attempts at interesting conversation. Hornby explains that the book stemmed from a real life event where a female friend gave away something that he desperately wanted: and even though she'd done it for the most noble and charitable reasons possible, he still felt angry about it, and wrote the book to explore the feeling of being put on the moral backfoot by someone else's good intentions.
Much of the discussion of the book has centered round Hornby's use of a female first-person narrator. He insists it wasn't because he necessarily wanted to write about being a woman. It was more to do with the idea of having one half of a married couple undergo this conversion from bitter enviousness to evangelical obsessive do-gooding: obviously that's more likely to be the sort of thing the man would do, making the narrator the woman by default. For a writer with an assumed laddish male fanbase, it's interesting to note that when asked who he imagines his ideal reader to be, he says "I think I have two, and they're both female". A thoughtful Q&A rounds off the session, culminating in the inevitable Gooner question where he hopes out loud that Arsenal don't move out of Islington as has been threatened.
After this, it's pot luck. There's a point - usually around two-thirds of the way through the week for me - when you suddenly realise that all the stuff you really want to see in the Festival is either behind you or booked for later in the week. There's nothing else you're desperate to see, but there are gaps in the schedule that need filling. It's at this point you start looking through the daily diary and choosing shows on two criteria only: how far away they are from where you're located now, and if they'll finish in time for you to get to the next thing you have tickets for. If the show actually happens to be good, it's a happy bonus.
Which is how I come to be in the audience for Rehearsing 'Reversing', a new play written and directed by Tobias Tobbell for the Reading University Drama Society. A theatre director is working with his wife and two other actors on a truly awful play. His interpretations of the lines get more and more ornate and bizarre as the rehearsal goes on, and the cast are getting more and more frustrated with him. Something has to snap eventually, and it does - but that's only the start. Or is it the end?
It's a shame that the RUDS bottled out in the venue's promotional leaflet, and supplied a synopsis of this play that gives away the main surprise of the plot. But even if you know vaguely what's coming, it's a pleasure to watch the story take some wonderfully convoluted turns in order to get there. The cast of four work hard with their complicated roles, and most importantly are good enough to be able to distinguish between comedy bad acting and real bad acting. A nice little surprise of a play, which can be enjoyed by anyone: though some unusually hysterical laughter during the rehearsal scenes implies that its natural audience consists of other Fringe actors on their lunch break.
One of the buzziest screenings I ever attended at the Edinburgh Film Festival was the 1994 British premiere of Shallow Grave: partly because I don't think anyone went into it expecting it to be such an ecstatically black and funny film, partly because of all the people who kept shouting "That's my house!" during the opening establishing shots of Edinburgh. So it's nice that seven years later, director Danny Boyle has chosen Edinburgh for the world premiere of his two latest films. Shot back to back for the BBC, they're both written by Jim Cartwright (who previously collaborated with Boyle on the TV adaptation of his play Road), and shot on digital video by Anthony Dod Mantle (who's worked on a couple of Dogme films).
Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise plays first, and is primarily a showcase for a spectacular lead performance by Timothy Spall. Tommy Rag is a fine addition to Spall's gallery of comic grotesques. He's a door-to-door salesman of vacuum cleaners, one of a dying breed in the age of online shopping. He drives like a maniac (courtesy of some pyrotechnic editing by Chris Gill), has Puffa Puffa Rice and Scotch for his breakfast, and possesses a motivational tape that consists of him repeatedly screaming "sell, sell, fuckin' sell" over a heavy metal backing. The film follows Rag and his newly acquired trainee Pete (Michael Begley) as they try to sell more Hoovers than anyone else in the final few days of a competition for the best salesman, the Golden Vac. Boyle provides the usual visual style, given a gritty yet surreal edge by Dod Mantle's DV camerawork, using a combination of weird security camera angles and rapid cutting. Cartwright's script is crammed full of hysterical lines, and knows when to pull back and give the story some space to breathe. But it's Spall's show in the end, and he yet again pulls off the trick of generating sympathy for one of the most obnoxious men on the planet. BAFTAs await, hopefully.
The second film, Strumpet, is completely different in tone: it takes me quite a while to get into it as a result, purely because the pairing with Vacuuming leads you to believe it'll be a similar sort of film. Strayman (Christopher Eccleston) is a tramp who accumulates stray dogs wherever he goes: there are some lovely crane shots where he can be seen walking the streets with a literal cloud of dogs surrounding him. But his latest stray is human, a young girl who he christens Strumpet (Jenna G). She discovers that Strayman writes poetry obsessively over any surface he can find: they combine with her guitar and voice orgasmically. His neighbour Knockoff (Stephen Walters) overhears them performing and decides to become their manager. From this point on the story takes several surreal turns, and it takes some time to realise that what started out as a gritty looking drama about the dispossessed has actually become a fluffy romantic comedy with crusty trappings. But once you've realised that, you can gleefully accept everything else that the story throws at you, up to the gloriously chaotic finale in the Top Of The Pops studio. This is less of a one-man show than Vacuuming: Eccleston is as splendidly broody and intense as ever, but the fascinating Jenna G makes his obsession totally believable, and Walters' hyperactive comic turn comes close to stealing the film from both of them. Both films should be on BBC2 this Autumn: set the video now. (Metaphorically, of course, because nobody knows what dates they're showing yet.)
Somebody once asked me if I was a particularly big fan of the Jesus And Mary Chain: I had to think about it, and gave a fairly non-committal answer. They're OK, I guess, nothing special. Except when I got home and checked my record collection, I realised that without thinking about it I'd gradually bought every single record they'd ever made. I guess I feel the same way about Supergrass: I wouldn't consider myself a hardcore fan or anything, but I've got all three albums and always enjoy hearing them. Again, there was a moment when I realised I liked them more than I thought I did: it was at last year's V2000 festival, where Grizelda and I gleefully rushed to see them because they sounded infinitely better than Travis. Though to be fair, if you put a sheet of sandpaper on a turntable and tried to play it like a record, it'd sound infinitely better than Travis.
Supergrass are playing the Edinburgh Corn Exchange as part of T On The Fringe, which is this year's attempt at having a mini-festival of rock music within the Fringe. When I get there, it's like a proper rock gig but with even more security: rough as some London music venues can be, I don't think I've ever had to walk though a metal detector to get into one before now. The security guards quickly spot my digicam, and insist I can't take it into the venue. Despite my protests, they stick a cloakroom ticket on it and put it in a shopping basket full of confiscated items for me to pick up afterwards.
I'm an absolute nervous wreck for the duration of the gig, concerned that at the end of the show the audience will be collecting their half-full bottles of Evian from a table at the front of the venue, and my £800 digital camcorder will be up for grabs in the middle of them. Thankfully, it's still there when I get out. As for the show, it's pretty much what you'd expect: Gaz and the lads play what amounts to a greatest hits set, with a couple of new songs that sound like future hits in the making. The sound mix is a bit of a mess - having the guitar louder than, say, the cymbals would have been useful - but youth and energy prevail, as they always do with Supergrass.
One minor event at the end of the night makes me feel quite silly for panicking so much about evil Scottish people stealing my camera. While I'm waiting in the bus queue to get back into town, a total stranger hands me his spare off-peak one day ticket. This is the equivalent of a One Day Travelcard, for all you Londoners reading this. Back home, this would be the sort of thing that scary young men with rancid body odour and reduced motor skills would try to sell you at the entrance to a tube station. And this guy here's given it to me for nothing. I love this crazy town! Hope he wasn't expecting me to have sex with him for it, or something.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Old Lag - Win Win Win!!! How To Be A Winner by CATS 3000 in association with Rational Madness. This is the second time I have seen a fringe play based on the comic idea of a management seminar, and it never works. It was not helped by having an audience of five including a mentally challenged person who kept asking questions. The shop floor Darwinism proposed did not have enough comic ideas to make for the length of the show. Somehow it is not funny, I think because it was too close to the bone. There are people really like that and it's not a laughing matter. A sad failing as this venue has had a long history of good one man shows.
Rob D - While everyone else is doing stand-up [no we're not - Spank], I thought I'd better raise the tone of my Edinburgh experience. So I went to hear an organ recital by Matthew Owens at Greyfriars Kirk. I was expecting stuff like Bach and Handel, but the programme was almost entirely modern compositions, and they worked surprisingly well for me. Embrace Of Fire by Naji Hakim, who is the organist of the Sacré Coeur in Paris, was really good, using subtle sounds that I've never heard an organ produce along with stunning blasts of sound that echo round the church roof. It's different and I'd recommend it.
Nick - Bedbound. A father and daughter on a bed. The father talks about his furniture business. The daughter speaks babble. This does not sound promising does it, but it was as wonderful and elliptical as early Pinter (yes it was that good!). An absolute triumph. The daughter's babble was to fill in the gaps, like the chorus of a song or the rhythm of a poem, not to be taken literally: while the father explains about his failed furniture business, but could have been about any recent failures. Truly astonishing, a stunning piece of work, the polar opposite of Missing Reel. Go see, but you may need a few days to digest (my excuse for a late review!).
Old Lag - Baby With The Bathwater by Christopher Durang and Theatre Fusion. Helen and John have a new baby and an old nanny and no idea how to bring up a child. Expected serious issues and serious belly laughs. The serious issues were childishly written and there was a complete absence of belly laughs. The dialogue was plodding and repetitive with plot devices arriving with no real explanation. I left gratefully before it finished.
Eve - We've had Shakespeare's and Berkoff's Women, and even Lear's daughters. So why not Rembrandt's Women? A worthy tribute to a certain strand in his work, this exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery in Princes Street consists of some superb oil paintings and a variety of etchings and drawings. Rembrandt's use of light in his paintings is unsurpassed, enhanced by dark, detailed backgrounds. The use of layers of oil paint gives real sparkle to jewellery and fabric which is marvellously textured. The facility Rembrandt has to capture emotions on the faces of the women in his portraits is ably demonstrated by this excellent exhibition. Highly recommended.
Rob D - Beowulf. A different translation to the recent one by Seamus Heaney (although Heaney is said to like it). Performed by the translator with a few props: a table, chair, book and candle, rather than the sodding great sword you might expect. The performance is intimate and atmospheric, as the performer comes right into the audience and speaks directly to individuals. A few laughs as well, where Beowulf's heroic deeds have been embellished over the years to the point where they are impossible. The Gateway studio was full and the audience applauded until Felix Nobis, the performer, returned twice. My only problem was that having been drinking till five o'clock this morning, I almost dropped to sleep!
Old Lag - All Cloned Up. I never go to musicals, so it was quite a curious experience seeing the conventions of musicals at this one. It was a campish story but not enough to be really funny. A genetic professor kills his wife and assistants and clones them into more co-operative and hard-working individuals. A wife who is subservient and admires him, and assistants that now do nothing but work hard. A passing journalist outwits them and restores the clones to their real selves. Of course this is all worked out with intrigue and love interest and results in a happy ending. The taped backing music was pleasant, but no great songs. It was funny hearing them sing the cod science of genetics. I suppose it is a clone of The Rocky Horror Show. I would be surprised if it is good enough to go anywhere.
Nick - Medea. I have always avoided Greek tragedy in my years and years of theatre going, simply because I am squeamish. But I could not have been more mistaken. In authentic Greek drama, all the bloodthirsty action takes place off stage, and so it was in this production. But the revelation was the use of the chorus to fill in the subtext of the play. The chorus in this production (six handsome women) was beautifully handled, giving the opportunities for affecting tableau scenes. Behind the main action of the play, the only jarring notes were in the adaptation of the text by Liz Lochhead. The creeping use of modern expressions like 'zip it' (pointing to Jason's mouth and then the fly of his trousers) was particularly galling. On the plus side, the opening speech by the nurse of the children in a broad Scottish accent worked really well. The best thing I can say about this production is that it has inspired me to see more Greek drama.
Eve - An excellently staged production of Liz Lochhead's Medea, beautifully controlled acting by Maureen Beattie and the rest of the cast: a good set, good costumes, good lighting and sound effects. BUT!! the interjections of humour and too colloquial phrases reduced the sense of tragedy, and this did not allow the feeling of catharsis associated with traditional Greek tragedy to be experienced. The play was reduced from being the deep emotional experience I would associate with the story of Medea, to a rather trite and superficial story where a woman unaccountably murders her children. It did not work!!
Nick - After the glowing review by a Muse several days ago, I finally went to see The Reduced Shakespeare Company (it was in the West End for two years!), and it is everything that the glowing review suggests. (Thanks Eve.) Here is the reduced version of Julius Caesar:
"Beware the Ides of March!"
"What is the Ides of March?"
"The fifteenth of March."
"That's today!" [Caesar is stabbed]
"Et tu Brute?" [end!]
I will not spoil any of the other potted versions, but Macbeth and Hamlet are particularly hilarious. Go see this show.
Old Lag - Rubbernecker had a good sized audience at the Cafe Royal at 5.45 in the afternoon. As was pointed out, this was due to Ricky Gervais, a current hot TV star. I had gone to this show as I fell out of Waverley station into my favourite Edinburgh pub, the Cafe Royal. It seemed to be an easy show to see when loaded down with luggage. Ricky Gervais was obviously using his name to draw a crowd for three other comedians. Of these only Jimmy Carr was real quality with his great one liners.
|<-Back to Wednesday 22/08/2001||Return to Edinburgh '01 Index||Forward to Friday 24/08/2001->|