Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Madness Begins Again

The Festival begins late this year. Technically its first day is today (Friday, I'm publishing this so late at night that I have entered tomorrow, like a cider-fuelled Dr. Who) but in reality the Wednesday and Thursday beforehand are full of 'preview' shows.

Nevertheless the insanity starts even earlier for those of us who live here. Last weekend I was out dancing until 5am, an unusual situation because : I was dancing, I was out on a weekend (a grim thought for anyone who does not work Mon-Fri and so doesn't actually HAVE to do that every week like ritual flagellation) and the club I was in was open until 5am. The latter is one of the advantages of living here - the clubs get their August late-licence at least a few days before the Festival hordes arrive. I think this is an attempt to placate the young and drive the old so far into despair that they are beyond complaining.

As always happens with the Festival Edinburgh's cultural gravitational pull becomes unstoppable and one or another of my old friends will be dragged in. In this case my friends who got married at the start of last year, though as the female half of the coupling only stayed a few days they have decided to celebrate their one year anniversary by spending a month apart. If only all marriages were conducted at such a sensible distance.

Disaster struck, though, when the Powers-That-Be on his production went insane and threw his wife out onto the street. How fortunate that myself and The Moose have forsaked bohemian convention and do have a sofa and not just a string of bean-bags - she found safe haven with us. This is indicitive of another thing that always happens at the Festival - minor crises. I guarantee that almost every show you see will have a crisis somewhere behind the scenes. Maybe a major player is suffering from a bout of flu so bad they might succumb to zombification at any moment, maybe someone is in the middle of a crisis of faith while performing a show about how great/awful God is, maybe - as is happening to a show on euthanasia - Edinburgh City Council have taken an unreasonable dislike and are trying to censor it. Whatever the case may be, at least 50% of the shows you see have as much drama off the stage as they do on it. Maybe more in the case of particularly bad but particularly chaotic actors.

Visiting friends dispatched into the ether and embracing the chaos of the Festival, The Moose and I went to see John Hannah in 'Titanic Orchestra'. I can tell you that it is a wonderful show, while not wanting to give away too much it is as though Godot turns up in 'Waiting for Godot'. John Hannah also does some magic tricks, including a magical ability to make an American accent sound Scottish. Or maybe the opposite. Accents abound, in fact, in this highly entertaining piece of knowing Fringe theatre. Also, when and where else are you going to get to see a genuine A-list star pretend to be a drunk Harry Houdini? Nowhere, obviously. This is what the Fringe is for and what it does it does exceedingly well.

This post has, of necessity, been frenetic. Leaping from drunken dancing to friends in crisis to Holywood stars pulling eggs from their mouth (yes, yes he does). That is what the start of the Fringe is like for those who live within its maelstrom. From the outside, especially those outside Edinburgh, it purrs and sputters into life like a motorbike. For us it flashes intensely like a nuclear bomb and  before you know it you're reduced to ash. Ash and witty one-liners. This is the spirit of the Fringe, a burning sacrifice of sanity made every year in some sort of Dionysian fervor. I wouldn't have it any other way. I couldn't have it any other way. I'm not allowed to have it any other way.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

See you at the Bitter End (Better Late Than Never)

It has taken a month for me to write this final instalment, about the last weekend of the Fringe, but better than never and distance can give some perspective.

The last weekend of the Fringe is a particularly desperate and strange time. The successful shows are riding the end of the crest of a wave that may never come again while the unsuccessful shows are stumbling along, half-maimed, fighting to reach the finish line.

On the Friday myself and The Moose went to see Alice at The Space. Alice was, of course, based on Alice in Wonderland which is the perfect show for Edinburgh in August - nowhere does the line, "You must be mad, or you wouldn't be here," resonate so clearly. Alice began at midnight and was a two-hour long promenade piece, which makes it sound like more of an endurance test than it was - most of the time we just moved from one room to another and then sat down rather than remained standing.

It was, if you'll pardon the pun, an excellent use of the space. As we passed from room to room in what seemed to be a labyrinthine location we were guided by the cats, two women dressed as cats one of whom asked me how long I had been a hedgehog. I replied that I had been for several years which is nothing but the truth, hedgehogging has run in my family for generations. She then later asked me how long I had been a rabbit, I reminded her I was a hedgehog. I will not be slurred in such a manner.

The show itself was a surreal melding of the fictional Alice in Wonderland and the story of the lives behind it (though that itself was a fictionalised version of that story). It was wonderfully performed and at times deeply disturbing, the scene in which they torture a baby with pepper was particularly grim. The whole play did an excellent job of plunging into a world much like that of the rabbit hole - a world where you didn't quite understand the rules anymore. Near the end I was kidnapped by one of the cats, led down a secret passage and told to 'follow Alice'. However, it was never clear when I was supposed to follow her so I ended up doing nothing. It didn't seem to affect the performance any, though, and it certainly reinforced my impression that this was a world in which I did not understand the rules.

Alice was one of those shows the Fringe is really for. Experimental, requiring a large ensemble cast and a unique space - I'm not sure there is any other place or time in the world that it would work quite so well. It drew a large audience on the day The Moose and I saw it and I believe it was one of the most successful pieces in the Fringe.

The fact it was so successful made my final meeting with cat doubly strange. I encountered the cat that kidnapped me on the street the next day, no longer dressed as a cat, handing out leaflets for another show in order to make money. Presumably that particular show needed a last surge in advertising as it had not been so successful. It is part of the perverse economy of the Fringe that someone from a successful show made extra money by handing out leaflets for an unsuccessful show.

* * *

That Saturday was given over to the day job for the entire day but afterwards I went with a fellow guide to the Captain's Bar. There I encountered a multitude of people I knew, Mike Daviot of the wonderful Hyde&Seek whom I had performed with, people involved in the making of the Speakeasy in which I have performed, someone I had performed with last year in the Fringe... all there separately. Half the bar was filled with people I knew in some theatrical capacity.

This sort of serendipity happens often in the Fringe and during the Festival in general but I doubt it is something people who neither local nor performers experience - how could they? Nevertheless the coincidental meetings that would be considered far-fetched if they occurred in fiction are part of the process - the neurons of the Festival firing at random and conceiving new combinations of old acquaintances.

After the Captain's Bar I went to Whistle Binkies to dance and drink until I had drunk so much the bouncers threw me out... or, rather, told me it was time to go and I drunkenly acquiesced. Working all day on the street during a Saturday in the Fringe might not drive every person to drink until they go mad, but it certainly does the trick for me.

* * *

That Sunday was the day to finally see two shows I had been dying to see through all or most of the Fringe. Firstly I went to see my friend Wild Card Kitty, who had also performed with me in the Fringe last year.

The venue she was performing at was an odd spot. Obviously a sports bar for most of the year, it was a bit out of the way to be offering free shows in the Fringe but on the plus side it did serve good hot-dogs at a very cheap price. I believe it was called the Phoenix Bar and if you're ever looking for a good, cheap hot-dog near Leith Walk I recommend it.

Wild Card Kitty's show is a comedy burlesque involving a succession of increasingly wild characters compared by Wild Card Kitty herself. It was amusing and entertaining (and educational, about the backstage world of burlesque) and for that last show drew a fair crowd for a free Fringe show (apparently the average crowd for such a show is six people). Having a quick drink with her afterwards I learnt that my favourite character, the retired 50s burlesque dancer, was generally the one people liked least. I still say it is the character with the most legs. I'd give her her own show.

After that I went back to Whistle Binkies to pick up my diary, which I had lost during my drunken escapades the previous night, and sat drinking a pint while listening to the 'comedy' going on there. I say 'comedy' because that particular act, from what I could hear, was little more than a run of comedy clichés so old Bruce Forsythe's grandfather would have been embarrassed to tell them. Nevertheless the crowd dutifully laughed at every one and he seemed, for what I could hear, to have a better crowd than Wild Card Kitty. What a difference a central location makes.

That evening I summoned The Evil Scotsman. There was a show I had been hearing rumours of since the Fringe began, a show called What The Fuck Is This? During this show, so I had heard, the man performing it - Richard Tyrone Jones - said no words other than, "What the fuck is this?" for the entire hour performance.

It turns out this is not strictly true; he did occasionally change the order and frequency but he never used any words other than 'what', 'the', 'fuck', 'is' and 'this'. I found the show hilarious, though I did accidentally sabotage it by spilling most of a pint on the floor right where Jones later crawled about in what I think was a sleeping bag. He took his revenge, though, by coming towards me and cutting off a piece of my hair, holding it aloft and shouting, "What the fuck is this?" I genuinely had no answer. (I later had The Moose even up my hair, she had been imploring me to get a haircut for some time so had no problems with my new, slightly more shorn, look.)

Alice, Wild Card Kitty and What The Fuck Is This? all have something in common, despite being on the face of it quite different shows. That is that they are the essence of what the Fringe is really for. Forget innumerable interchangeable comedians, some funny and some dire, it's the experimental stuff that matters. We can throw in Rebranding Beezlebub and Hyde&Seek into that category as well - shows that the Fringe is really about, shows that would struggle to exist without it even if, sometimes, they struggle to exist within it as well.

* * *

Monday was technically the last day of the Fringe, although many shows made Sunday their last day. It was truly the dying of the light, I didn't plan on seeing any shows but I had work during the day and as such I walked the streets of a city that had just had the shit beaten out of it by theatre and comedy.

Frank Skinner stood resplendent in his suit for his show Man in a Suit but it appeared as though someone had bitten a massive chunk out of him. Somebody else had stuck a Yes sticker on the nose of pug Russell Kane was holding in his posters and (presumably) somebody else had scratched his eyes out. In my view a reasonable reaction to a man taking up several prominent boards around the city to advertise a show that was only on for three days.

The crowds were dispersing and the city was subdued. The Festival was gone for another year. In a week there would be the Festival Fireworks, something that happens every year a week after it finishes, presumably to give frustrated locals something to look forward to. For a short time the city was calm and pageantry done with.

Only for a short time, though, the referendum on independence was upon us and the fear and loathing was about to really ramp up...

Friday, 22 August 2014

Ruby Dolls, Hawksley Workman and the triumph of Dionysus until the end.

The Festival is dying now but it does not go with a whimper. Yesterday I saw three shows as well as performing the day job. This is not uncommon, several of my friends who have been performing all Festival are now planning to fit in as many shows as they can in the last weekend and so a frenetic whirl of performers-seeing-performers begins as the last weekend run of tourists surge in.

The first show I saw involved an old friend of mine from Youth Theatre back in the Black Country (those of you imagining me with a Black Country accent now couldn't be more wrong, let's get that clear right now). She's not the only old friend of mine to appear in Edinburgh thanks to the festival but this year she is the only out-of-towner I know.

This show was the Ruby Dolls : Fabulous Creatures, a show which defies classification - a phrase whose cliché status is ironic since it is used to describe shows which have abandoned cliché. There is no other way to describe a show which combines singing, dancing, magic tricks, feminism, classical references, Jane Austen, Mary Poppins and a puppet goat though. If you find that description enticing you should, the Ruby Dolls are fast establishing themselves as an act par excellence. A cult following and poor imitators cannot be far away but they are the original and the best, catch them now before they shakes hands with Midas and turn to gold.

I had a drink with my friend afterwards in the venue. The venue itself is a sign of the bohemian world and the business world clashing the bohemian world winning. Previously the venue - Assembly Checkpoint - was a café known as The Forest. The Forest was a place which served vege food and put on, all year, the kind of stuff the Fringe is known for - smaller acts as well as internationally renowned people like Jason Webley.

Then the owners of the premises went bust and PriceWaterhouseCoopers came in to take over. They immediately gave The Forest notice, saying the place would be easier to sell without current occupation. The Forest fought hard, raised a lot of money in order to try and keep the place but it was to no immediate avail - they were kicked out. They found other premises elsewhere, though, and to the relief of the Edinburgh arts set The Forest lives on (though I admit that their new location is not as close to my own stomping grounds).

However, the building remains empty used only for one month in August now taken over by Assembly. So the only thing they have found to do with it is the same thing it used to do all year round but now only in August. Alas the toilets no longer have trans-friendly notices on them but despite that the forces of Bohemia have won an unexpected victory over the men in grey suits. Heartening to anyone with a soul but not to PWC. The forces of Dionysus defeat the forces of order and oppression through the twisting of fate and irony, a story at least as old as time. Which brings me neatly to...

The next show I saw, The God That Comes. A musical narrative by Hawksley Workman whom a friend of mine, HFO, swears is incredibly famous in Canada. It was HFO's fault that the Moose and I were there - I knew nothing about it other than its title and that she recommended it. I trust her recommendations and I was not disappointed. Hawksley deserves to be incredibly famous everywhere.

The God That Comes is about the God Dionysus and his ultimate victory over the forces of the oppressive and the ordinary via the embrace of carnal power as opposed to military power. Passion trumps order and the king is torn apart. (I'm giving away little by telling you the end, by the way, as Hawksley himself gives you the entire story right at the start of the show.)

The word that comes to mind when describing the show is 'primal'. From the very start to the very end it evokes a cave in the mountains where passions rule, a place of darkness and beauty - wine, sex and poetry away from civilisation and given pure form. An impressive evocation considering Hawksley uses a mess of wires and technology to achieve it all on his own, creating melodies and duets with himself (maybe there's a little bit of Narcissus in Dionysus).

Afterwards I went for a drink with HFO and her partner - in life and music - RFH and, unusually for HFO she was giddy with happiness. Turns out that after meeting Hawksley after the show he invited them both to lunch on Saturday. One can be so cynical about showbusiness but can you say anything but, "What a nice guy," when he's so willing to reach out to his fans and fellow musicians like that. Excellent show, excellent guy and I've seen another show I'd recommend to anyone.

By now the regular readers of this blog, if such creatures exist, must be wondering when I will see an awful show. Well, after sunset comes the darkness.

After my day job myself and the Ghost Gang went to the City Café. As the night was winding up there and we were wondering where to move on to a woman approached us and told us that we were going to see the show downstairs. I told that was a bit fascist and after a brief talk about fascism I decided that a show recommended and compared by a drunk woman might be entertaining.

It was entertaining... in a way. The comparing was drunken but of the four comedians introduced three of them died on their arses. It is a strange thing to watch joke after joke, if any of them could be called jokes, fall utterly flat. Alright, if the last one was deliberately terrible just so the line, "Pause for laughter," would get a laugh then kudos, it worked, still it was quite the build-up for one gag. The only funny one was the one at the end talking about how he doesn't have real testicles anymore owing to cancer. Sounds dreadful but somehow he made it funny, especially after the other acts just stood up and died.

After the act I made my way to Banshee to try and find the Ghost Gang but they were nowhere to be seen so I had a beer, read my Fortean Times magazine and left in time for the night bus. I had seen two excellent shows but finally I had seen something awful.

Dwarfs Disappear and Ghost Cops go down a storm...

Two days ago I was awake before noon. This is not a normal circumstance for me, my day job is more of a night job and then there's watching entire TV series on Netflix when I get home afterwards. Mornings are something I only normally see from the wrong side. This is the perfect sleep cycle to experience a festival that wakes at around noon and goes until 5am.

Sometimes, however, a famous dwarf insists that you get up in the morning. As I was supposed to be at 10am the next day to terrify a famous dwarf I got up relatively early to try and set my body clock to something which approximates that of an actual human being. As soon as I got into town I learnt that the famous dwarf had cancelled. This happens. Never work with famous people, no matter their height.

I had another reason for being in town at such a godly hour, though. I wanted to see my friend and colleague (a man who is so tall he is the opposite of a dwarf, not a giant as he has not the girth of stomach for that, but a man of great height) in a show called Ghost Cop in the Free Festival at the Three Sisters (which calls itself the 'Free Sisters' - not the sharpest of name changes perhaps but its a lot bloody better than 'Unboring').

Ghost Cop was hilarious, a pastiche of 80s cop movies with a cavalcade of sexual innuendo. Perhaps most impressive was the sound use, for an amateur show the sound effects were very... well... effective. There is no better word and if there's anything effects are supposed to be it must be effective. I would very much recommend seeing it, if you can drag yourself out of bed by noon in the last weekend of the Festival.

Ghost Cop is the perfect example of what the Fringe can do. Although it was made by an Edinburgh troupe the Fringe gives people the impetus to create and to be on stage. Some are eaten alive, some are remarkably successful, some launch careers and some just empty bank balances... oftentimes both but as we reach the tail end we can be sure that people have been made and broken as they are every year.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The third week and the culling of the weak.

We have entered week 3 of the Festival and the Fringe (those wondering how that is so should check out a previous blog, lazy bastards). Things are, as I promised they would, turning baleful. The Director posted on her facebook page that she had seen a performer standing on a bollard and handing out leaflets being kicked in the back of the knees. This is the darkness that engulfs us after two weeks of trying to be cool.

Trying to be cool is always a mistake. Do you remember your teenage years, when the coolest boys in school had - for some reason - dyed their fringe blonde and shaved the rest of their head? If you don't you probably remember something equally asinine. That is why you should never try to be cool.

Tonight I finished the day job at 10:30pm. I attempted to meet a friend at a place called Sneaky Pete's. I quite like Sneaky Pete's in that it gives a very good impression of what solitary confinement with all the demons you dreamt about in your childhood years would be like. Sadly, they were changing shows and had shut down for an hour. Again, eerily similar to childhood dreaming.

So I ambled back up the Cowgate. I chatted with The-self-employed-manic-tour-guide for a while. The Fringe/Festival is hard on those of us who live here and especially those who make their money from tourists. Everyone assumes we will all be busy but the truth is with so much competition it is difficult to be noticed... so he was giving out cards which allowed free entry and £1 shots to a nightclub I would never consider visiting.

Then I contacted The Evil Scotsman. He and I are alike in three ways : We like to drink, we love politics and we like to torture tourists. This is enough to make a drinking partner you can always rely on. We went to see comedy from Estonia at the Banshee Labyrinth, we didn't realise it would be from Estonia but it was... although it was compared by a man who looked like Jesus/Conchita.

Funnily enough a friend of a friend, Jo Clifford, is doing a kind of female-Jesus show in the Fringe. I haven't seen it yet, I may not get a chance. You should probably see it, though, because I saw a pre-Fringe show of hers and it was moving and funny, like Bugs Bunny in a camper van.

After the comedy The Evil Scotsman and I got chatting with Jesus and friends. As I, too, look a bit like Jesus we compared notes until finally I decided to go home... hopefully The Evil Scotsman encountered the Estonian comedian woman and got her number. It's about time he slept with an Estonian, a right of passage for all good young evil Scotsmen.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Unboring is a Dreadful Slogan

The slogan for the Edinburgh Fringe this year is 'unboring'. This is technically true, the festival is never boring. Frustrating, yes. Irritating? Yes. On the plus side it is entertaining, invigorating and unique but never boring.

However, to advertise it as unboring is immediately suspicious. Don't believe me? How would you consider a restaurant that advertised its food as 'unpoisonous'. It probably wouldn't be the first place you chose to eat at. Besides which it is horrible ungrammatical (though, oddly enough, you can get away with 'ungrammatical').

Its unboring nature, though, is inherent in how long the bars stay open. You can never claim a bar is dull when it stays open until 5am... at least, if it seems so, it probably isn't the bar's fault. Re the previous blog post it is the Fringe we have to thank for the nights that go on forever - while the tattoo may be more auspicious and the International Festival have more pedigree neither bring in the crowds that make the city council extend drinking hours - is the Fringe that commands such power.

I was out until 5am on Thursday night, preparing for a similar night on the 'day' job. Like any such night it expanded from people having their faces drawn on with make-up to a bizarre drunken argument I still don't understand and finally just quiet drinks. While sitting quietly drinking a friend of mine was given tequila by some stranger. Fearing it was spiked she refused to drink it. With the expectation of free drugs I drank it anyway. There was something deadly in it... tequila. I vomited just late enough that I managed to get to the toilets.

Never drink spiked tequila, if the drugs don't get you the fact that tequila is unbearable with salt and citrus fruit will!

The Many Names of the Edinburgh Festival

As promised, an explanation of terms...

August in Edinburgh has many names but the primary two are The Festival and The Fringe. There are actually several festivals that happen in August in Edinburgh. Perhaps the most august is the Tattoo. The military tattoo is the last that happens in Britain and it happens at Edinburgh castle throughout August. It is to blame for the fireworks which explode every night and twice on Saturdays. I quite enjoy fireworks - explosions, pretty lights, what's not to love? Those with sensitive pets in the city, especially in the centre, are not so keen.

Other minor festivals include the jazz festival (which has started earlier than August in recent years in order to re-energise) and the book festival (minor only in comparison to the other festivals - George RR Martin was at the latest one).

Then there is the International Festival. Nowadays this is not what draws people to the city but it is where the Festival became the behemoth it is now, because it is the festival the Fringe grew out of. The International Festival drew people from across the world to perform officially in Edinburgh. On the back of the crowd drawn by the combination of the International Festival and the Tattoo other performers began to come into Edinburgh and hire out their own venues to play to those crowds, this became the Fringe.

While the Fringe was originally about fringe theatre performers as the medium of stand-up comedy grew it became more about that and nowadays, while theatre etc. still thrives, the vast majority of acts are stand-up comedy.

That brings us to the present day. The Festival is how locals refer to all of the festivals at once, essentially it is another word for August and if, somehow, the months of the year were to be named by an empire based in Edinburgh rather than Rome then August would be Festivus. The Fringe is the part of The Festival that most (if not all) of the shows I have seen and will see are a part of - more exciting, if truth be known, than The International Festival that spawned them and the part of The Festival that truly attracts the misfits and lunatics that inspire this blog.