An eleven o'clock start! Jesus Christ On A Ten Speed Bike! Still, thanks to Spank's pals helpfully waking me up in time, I make it to the Traverse Theatre just before the beginning of Perfect Days, a new play by the Scottish writer Liz Lochhead. I've always said that if you're looking for straight theatre at the Fringe, you go to the Traverse, and every other theatre in town can go to hell. Two gorgeous studio theatres and a suitably large bar area, in a flash new building right in the centre of town: but even when the Traverse was residing in a stone ruin at the top end of Grassmarket (as it was up to a few years ago), the thing that's always distinguished it has been its policy of getting the very best in theatre from around the world at Festival time.
The Traverse puts on a combination of touring companies and its own productions, and Perfect Days is one of the latter. Built around a staggering performance by Siobhan Redmond, it's the story of Glaswegian hairdresser Barbs Marshall, occasional daytime TV celebrity and co-owner of the splendidly named Razor City salon. The career's doing just fine, but Barbs is worried that she's just turning 39 and the biological clock is not so much ticking as going into those final two bars of the Countdown theme music. She's still friendly with her ex-husband Davie, but he's obviously unsuitable for the job of providing suitable sperm, having just picked up some 22-year-old totty for himself. Who among her friends can she turn to for help? The fact that Barbs' best male friend Brendan (John Kazek) is gay may make you think you know which way this is heading. But matters are confused by her best female friend Alice, who's chosen now to reveal that she's got a 26-year-old son called Grant (Enzo Cilenti) who she's been keeping quiet all these years. And he's gorgeous...
Lochhead carefully walks the tightrope between outrageous farce and heartbreakingly sad bits, and always knows exactly when to jump off the tightrope for maximum effect. Here's Barbs talking about a lawyer she had an affair with long ago: "No I did not want him. At least not while his wife was dying of cancer and he had that boy and girl to bring through it all, no, I did not want that on my conscience thank you very much, I was glad when we agreed we wouldn't see each other any more, fine, but I must admit it did hurt when he married the Macmillan Nurse..." Apparently the boss of Channel Four Films saw this on Sunday and bought the rights immediately afterwards, so if you can't see the play then watch out for the film, and pray they get Siobhan Redmond on board for it.
So yes, the Traverse is a great theatre, and Perfect Days is a magnificent play, and we even get to sit next to Richard Wilson in the audience. The only fly in the ointment is that the play lasts 2 hours 45 minutes instead of the advertised 2 hours 15: no objection to that as such, it's just that this messes up the tightly planned military operation that is the Handover Lunch. Nick and Rob G are leaving us today on the 3pm train: meanwhile, Christine and Rob D are arriving on the 1.30pm train, and will take over Nick and Rob G's rooms in the flat. We've made plans to get as many of the crew together during the 90 minute overlap when we'll all be in town simultaneously, to have lunch and hand over the keys and wave the departing pair off. The overrun of Perfect Days means we don't get to the station till 2pm, unfortunately. Given the short amount of time left, we make a tactical decision to hold the Handover Lunch in the slightly cacky environs of the Food Court of Waverley Station, rather than venture any further and risk missing the 3pm train. It all works out in the end: pizza, burgers and baguettes are consumed, keys are handed over, and Nick and Rob G depart our narrative as advertised, sharing a carriage with comedian Tony Hawks and this fridge that apparently he takes everywhere with him these days.
We drop Christine and Rob D off at the flat, and I pop into the Web 13 cybercafe to belatedly upload the previous day's diary, and I hope you're satisfied now Mr Caldicott (see Letters). Then off to the ABC cinema for the Terry Gilliam Scene By Scene talk. This is one of the innovations that the Edinburgh Film Festival can be most proud of (which is probably why the London Film Festival stole it off them a couple of years later) - directors play scenes from their movies on large screen video, and talk through what they did and why they did it. Gilliam's talk is primarily concerned with his new film Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which screened last night to a packed house while I was seeing PJ Harvey, dammit. Based on Hunter S Thompson's classic tale of a dope-fuelled journey through Vegas, the bits we see look terrific, although the muddy video copy they have to use obviously doesn't do it justice. Gilliam explains the various effects he used to get the hallucenogenic feel that the book positively demands, and reveals that the cocaine substitute used by Johnny Depp (who plays Raoul Duke, Thompson's alter ego) was actually powdered milk. Apparently by the end of the shoot, Depp had shoved so much powdered milk up his nose that he was practically lactating. A quick mention here for one of my favourite film critics, Mark Kermode of Radio 1 and Sight And Sound, who chaired the session very effectively and came up with the wonderful idea that Gilliam's movies are like great pop records, that you can pull off the shelf and watch any time and always get a different response from them. Whereas most people whistle pop songs as they go about their daily business, the Kermode household rings with family members quoting lines from Brazil at each other. "Something for the executive..."
One of the reasons why Terry Gilliam took on Fear And Loathing was his concern about a PC climate where certain things are deemed unsayable, and he felt it was his job to go out there and say them as loudly as humanly possible. His theory is that ultimately, open discussion has to be better than any of the alternatives. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah covers the same point in a different way during his reading at the Book Festival, complaining how his life as a black man had been totally destroyed by those local councils that hadn't banned the use of terms like "black coffee". As he points out, there are more important things to get worked up about, and his storming poem about the death of Joy Gardner brings that across superbly as he focusses on tiny details like the thirteen feet of gaffer tape that the police used to fatally bind her. He's relaxed and enjoyable, swinging between the political and the humorous with great ease. I kind of wish I'd been there for his early morning reading of children's poetry, as the odd kids' poem he throws into his "grown-up" set sounds great, like Talking Turkeys: "Turkeys just wanna play reggae / Turkeys just wanna hip-hop / Can yu imagine a nice young turkey saying / 'I cannot wait for de chop'?"
Finally off to the Cameo for Hal Hartley's film The Book Of Life. There's a full house and a big sign warning people that no return tickets at all are available, which pushes up the anticipation for the movie. Unfortunately, it isn't all that good. To be fair, it's part of a series of ten short films commissioned by a French TV station, asking directors from around the world to come up with a story set on December 31st 1999, a bit like the book Disco 2000 did. Hartley's film feels like he had a basically good idea, but didn't have the time to develop it fully. The premise is terrific: Hartley's plan for 31/12/1999 is for Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan) to come back to earth with his assistant Magdalena (PJ Harvey, who was in the audience) to kick off the Apocalypse. Some nice touches to update the story - the seven seals which bring about the end of the world are held on a laptop computer ("Do you wish to open the fifth seal? OK/Cancel"), the devil is in town trying to screw things up, and all of their initial contact is made through lawyers - but ultimately it doesn't hang together. It doesn't help that it's filmed in a sub-Wong Kar-Wai style with lots of stop-motion effects and crazed colour schemes, which make you appreciate that this sort of approach works in movies like Chungking Express because they don't do it for every sodding frame of the film. A quick nightcap in The Illicit Still over the road from the cinema, and then home.
Notes from Spank's Pals
Rob G - really enjoyed Perfect Days. Lots of up-to-date themes like surrogate parenthood, held together by great acting. Thanks to Nick for choosing this one - after his earlier selections (Shaved Splits and Die Ahnlichen), this counts as third time lucky.
Nick - Siobhan Redmond was outstanding in Perfect Days: it's obvious that both her and Liz Lochhead are going through the age that Barbs is in the play. She's juggling all these balls with her career and relationships, and when her mother dies she doesn't know how to keep on juggling any more...
Christine - the station is great! Highly recommended. Haven't really seen anything else yet, sorry.
Lesley - Louis de Bernieres was at the Book Festival, and read a 45 minute short story which was very silly but highly amusing. He was very sweet during the Q+A session afterwards - he's very English. His next book's going to be about the expulsion of the Greeks from Turkey. The film The Tichborne Claimant had some great looking faces in it, and was very good on the snobbery of the English upper classes when they close ranks.
Ken - enjoyed The Tichborne Claimant. You'd think with a budget that size they could have paid for some DNA testing and sorted it all out much more quickly. Good acting by all concerned, except for Stephen Fry who insisted on appearing as Stephen Fry. Couple of good comedy shows - The Devil In Miss Jones featured the tragic tale of Earl Spencer's hamster, The People's Hamster, who was tragically killed by a landmine and is having his body parts auctionned off for charity - and Tripod Are Handsome, who somehow managed to do a song combining Aqua and The Prodigy, and also have a potential number one in "Do You Mind If I Stalk You?" The Hal Hartley film The Book Of Life had some good ideas which weren't thought through properly, but at least it wasn't as bad as the supporting short film. (It was called Burnt. It should have been.)
Jon - Perfect Days was wonderful theatre: I doubt I'll see anything better on the Fringe this year. Bit weird seeing it at 11am, though. The Tichborne Claimant was solid, well acted, but not particularly inspiring. The Book Of Life wasn't very impressive, it felt like a commission rather than something that Hal Hartley was committed to, and he'd just padded out half an idea. I have no idea what the short film was about at all.
Rachael - Some Nudity Required was a very good film documentary about the adult film industry, although I was a bit worried about what the guy sitting in the audience next to me was up to. And the free stand-up comedy at the Footlights and Firkin is great, every bit as good as the stuff you have to pay money for.
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