Just after midnight on Wednesday, the letter started flooding in. "Hey, it's Thursday (just)! Where's Tuesday's report?" asked Jon. And this would probably be a good time to admit that the daily reports have obviously been getting less daily since quite early on in the week. I've only just worked out why. In previous years, I've dragged myself out of bed at 7am each morning to start writing. This year, I've been allowing myself the luxury of a 9am lie in, and then been surprised when I haven't finished writing the page before my first show of the day. Having said that, to take last night as an example, I was out late with most of the Pals, plus Mr and Mrs Malcotraz and the man known only to Nazi sex pests as The Film Fan. So although the page may be temporarily suffering because of all this time in bed, it does mean that I've been sleeping off the hangovers and staying awake for more shows than in previous years. You should be grateful, to be honest.
Our first show of the day is Swearing Is Big And Clever, a talk by Simon Donald and Alex Collier from Viz comic. The magazine's been going for 25 years this year, and I've been there for 19 of them, ever since it picked up national distribution with issue 13. This oral history of the nation's favourite scatmag comes in three parts. Simon Donald, one of the original creators and the artist responsible for one of my favourite ever comic panels (see above), covers the early years of the comic up to the point where its only rivals in circulation terms were Radio Times and TV Times. Alex Collier, a cartoonist literally recruited from school, talks about some of the most controversial lawyer-baiting moments of the comic's history - many of which appear to have been his fault. (As a fan, I've never noticed this before, but Collier's work is a lot darker than that of his colleagues, and worryingly appears to be mostly drawn from his school experiences.) Finally, both of them share the stage to talk about some of the people and places associated with Viz.
The two make a nicely contrasting pair for this hour long presentation. Donald is older and wiser, taking pleasure in the well-crafted anecdote. He describes how a spoof advert for Special Brew with the caption "Central Heating For Tramps" escaped the wrath of Carlsberg's lawyers, because it was impossible to deny that the key market for their beer was, indeed, tramps. Collier is younger and more aggressive, playing it more like stand-up comedy. He's less sorry for his crimes than Donald, talking about his concerns when he created the character Anna Reksik, a supermodel locked in an endless cycle of binge eating and vomiting: "Once the strip went into print, I realised how stupid and wrong it was. Because, of course, that's bulimia." With copious illustrations, it all makes for a very entertaining hour. And it's interesting to see Barry Cryer in the audience, presumably checking that the torch of smutty British humour has been successfully passed on to the next generation.
I've mentioned before how seeing Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe at the start of the week can provide useful inspiration for future shows to see. The extract from the play My Long Journey Home certainly looked promising enough last Sunday, but of course we've already been burned once this week with Slaves Of Starbucks. And enthusiasm waned a little bit further when it received a one star review in Metro. Still, we took our chances and saw the play regardless. If anything, it shows that you shouldn't trust the opinion of people who can't get themselves employed on papers you pay money for, because it's excellent.
New International Encounter, it turns out, were very canny when they chose the bit of the play to perform on Stutter - not because it's significantly better than the rest of it (see Slaves Of Starbucks), but because they actually removed a couple of elements from the clip that can only be seen in the full show. One is the use of an enormous sheet in the staging, providing some of the show's best visual images: the other is a short speech that basically sums up the entire story before they get down to the business of telling it. It's an astonishing story, all the more so for being true: it tells of the Hungarian Andreas, who was taken away from his sweetheart to fight for the Germans in the Second World War, captured by the Russians, put in a mental institution and not released for 53 years. A story this fantastical requires a huge telling, and NIE treat it as a digressive folk tale, with puppetry, songs, slapstick interludes, and all sorts of ramblings that don't have any relevance to the main story ("...but is not important now. Important is..."). It could all end up as an appalling mess, but it doesn't, thanks to the sheer energy and dedication of the four people involved.
"Curry isn't curry unless the person you're making it for knows what went into it." And by the end of Curry Tales, performed in the upstairs room of the Raj restaurant in Leith (renamed Traverse 4 for the Festival), we know exactly what's gone into it. On a full working kitchen set, Rani Moorthy performs six monologues which feature women making curries as they discuss what the food means to them. A restauranteur tells us about the Bollywood stars that have passed through her restaurant, sometimes without getting out of their cars. The Indian wife of an Englishman makes curried eggs for her inlaws, while worrying about her own fertility. A Communist exile in Malaysia talks about how her ability to cook the local curry might be the only way she can fit in. In each case, Moorthy cooks the curries as she's talking, and passes them out to the audience to eat. (This is possibly the only show on the Fringe where you're given a nut allergy warning as you enter.)
Food symbolism is elemental stuff, whether it's the housewife drawing parallels with her own eggs, or the non-English-speaking beggar hassling the front row for money for a simple meal. Food symbolism where you actually get to eat the food afterwards is even better. But importantly, the use of food isn't just a gimmick here: it illustrates the importance of curry to the monologues, which are already engaging enough in their own right. Moorthy's energy as a performer helps too, so that the audience is swept along with her. Even The Belated Birthday Girl, who's normally resistant to the idea of audience participation, gets to go on stage and grind spices for the Communist exile, who insists that she looks like a young Madame Mao. I'd never seen it myself, but there you go.
Edinburgh isn't Edinburgh unless you've got two events where you haven't left nearly enough time to get from one to the other. Nevertheless, we somehow make it from Leith back to central Edinburgh in twenty minutes just as Stewart Lee's set is starting. Curiously, he appears to have been stalking us this week, rather in the same way that Jerry Sadowitz did in 2002 (though at least Lee turned up for his own show). He showed up at Mark Watson's show at least twice, he was in the Pleasance courtyard just after the Viz lecture, and has been spotted in the audience at a number of films, including Dead Man's Shoes and The Far Side Of The Moon. In fact, would it be too pretentious to draw comparisons between Stewart Lee and Robert Lepage? (Probably, but bear with me.) Watching The Far Side Of The Moon, you quickly become aware of Lepage's tight control over the visuals: every single camera angle and move has obviously been meticulously planned out, with no room for improvisation. Lee's standup has a similar finickiness to it. At a time when many stand-ups spend most of their time just reacting to the audience, this is a routine that's obviously been carefully crafted and scripted. Our late arrival meant that we had to be seated in the front row - normally a cause for panic at an Edinburgh comedy gig, but not here, because you can be pretty certain that Lee's not going to break off from his script to hassle you.
Not that I'm saying this is a bad gig: far from it. Because that care and attention he's lavished on the script pays off in actual laughs. The opening routine about 9/11 ("November 9th, reclaim the date") has to seamlessly move from a serious analysis of the upheaval of world politics to a blasphemous fart gag in ten minutes, and Lee's control over his material makes it work beautifully. From there, he moves on to suggest that Osama bin Laden could have had a similar psychological effect on Americans by bombarding them with things that they could never understand ("geography exam papers, unhelpful waiters and the concept of shame"). He taunts the Edinbugh locals with his newly-discovered Scottish ancestry, using it as justification for his argument that William 'Braveheart' Wallace was a paedophile. And he eventually gets back to bin Laden by asking why he's become more socially acceptable than Ben Elton ("at least bin Laden's always had a consistent moral viewpoint"). Outrageous ideas delivered in a steady tone of measured reasonableness: that's what makes this work so well.
The Belated Birthday Girl's requirement for Japanese cinema that she can discuss in her language lessons is covered by Nobuhiro Yamashita's movie Ramblers: a film based on a comic strip, though I'd be curious to see how something with this little activity works in graphic form. Two young filmmakers get together in a seaside town, to meet with an actor to discuss a forthcoming project. The actor has got delayed, so the filmmakers have to spend a few days killing time in the town, trying to cope with unhelpful locals and appalling lodgings. The only break from their tedium is the friendship they strike up with a local girl.
For all my boasting earlier on that I've been getting lots of sleep at night and keeping awake during the day, Ramblers is the first time this week that I start to drift off during a performance. It's not specifically a problem with the slow pace of the film, I think. If anything, the deadpan acting and sudden bursts of surreal humour have the feel of Aki Kaurismaki's work, and he's one of my favourite directors. But after an amusing first half, we suddenly lose one of the characters, and things get less interesting after that. Eventually the film stops being a depiction of boredom and starts being boring itself. But it makes a nice change: there are lots of Asian movies out there about young men who feel disconnected from society, and the vast majority of them end up in suicide or violent death, so fair play to Ramblers for not going down that predictable route.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Nick - You do not expect belly laughs at 10 in the morning, but Shakespeare For Breakfast delivers. I was not aware it was a musical spoof - Will: The Musical - until the first excruciating song opened the play within a play, and left the audience aghast at the ineptitude of the production... until it was cleverly revealed it was a musical within a musical. Once the main musical was under way, it ripped hilariously into the Lloyd Webber canon. Punctuated by some genuinely affecting Shakespearian lines, the third sonnet being particularly beguiling. It may have been a tough early start for the Muses and I, but we were repaid handsomely.
Old Lag - Jane Bom-Bane Back-To-Back With Nick Pynn was a very intimate show, with Jane playing the harmonium and Nick playing violin, guitar, dulcimer and banjo. A performance of two halves - Nick supporting Jane, and then Jane supporting Nick. Jane's set was largely songs where the audience could join in with the choruses. Often the songs were about the various stages of love. Nick's self-penned songs were largely instrumental. An enjoyable, off-beat show.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Following the slight disappointment of Slaves Of Starbucks, I was getting a bit concerned that our other pick from Stutter - My Long Journey Home - might also disappoint, particularly when I had it pointed out that the Metro reviewer gave it one star. One star? What were they thinking? This was a terrific show. Based on the true story of a Hungarian kept in a mental institution in Siberia for 53 years for little more reason than that no-one around him understood Hungarian, the story was told with tons of humour and much compassion. The mixture of styles worked really well and all four performers were excellent. I haven't read the Metro review, but I am curious to, just to know why they took against it so much. But I'm very glad we weren't swayed by them and we went to see it, as I think it's one of the best things I've seen this year.
Old Lag - Beef And Yorkshire Pudding. Simple tales, simply told for simple folk. The plays of John Godber are hugely enjoyable and very accessible. This story is the life of a young boy growing up in the West Yorkshire coal fields. Bullied in the community, we see his attempts at body building to counter this, and listen to his relationships and life. His escape is to work the bins and go to college, something totally new for someone of his background. This leads to becoming a comedian with his humour feeding off his upbringing. A lot of laughs in this, but it seemed a bit lost on a disappointingly small audience.
Nick - A huge dilemma lay at the heart of Bombshells. Would the author Joanna Murray-Smith be able to reveal anything about our common humanity, when writing four vignettes for the actress Caroline O'Connor? The answer was a resounding no, playing more like an audition piece for the frantic acting style of the actress. It was nothing more than a frothy entertainment, until the arrival of the Widow, the third of the vignettes. This proved to be a little gem, and revealed a playwright of substance truly getting to the heart of the character. It made you want to laugh and cry. The fourth vignette was another frothy piece, but on the strengths of the third piece the author is a major talent.
Old Lag - Curry Tales was a one-woman show. Presented as Asian women of different classes, situations and locations. Varying from a woman of the slums via a Malaysian-Indian Communist and an English-based business woman. Each told her own story and made a curry which was distributed to the audience. Difficult to keep the attention up on this one, but interesting stories.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Curry Tales was always going to have a fair chance of being a hit with me - after all, they were bribing me with free curry included - though I was taking no risks, and made sure I had a curry before the show, too. But anyway, back to the show itself. A series of monologues from Indian women around the world (Delhi, Trinidad, England, South India, Malaysia), it reminded me at times of the Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologues, in the way that a light-hearted tale revealed something serious as it went on. But with added curry. Already full from my meal before, I still managed to eat a whole curried egg, some dhal, and some Lakhsa which I'd even had a hand in making. Although I said at the start that this was always going to be a winner for me, to be honest if it hadn't worked well as a piece, and it hadn't been well performed, then I don't think the inclusion of curry would have made a difference. But as it was, the monologues were well written, and Rani Moorthy was very good in all the roles. So, a fun idea and successful in execution.
Old Lag - The Joy Of Wine is a really good idea marred by an amateur comedy script, and a lack of serious content to balance the humour.
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