Fringe review 3 – I Felt I Had Earned The Curry

Well that was a strange old day of shows missed and shows abandoned. Having delivered a command performance-slash-dress rehearsal to Sophia Walker in the basement of Forest Cafe, I proceeded to loiter on the wind tunnel that is the Royal Mile in a vain attempt to thrust my flapping flyers into the hands of Swedish tourists just looking for shelter. I then arrived at my venue ten minutes too late to exit flyer Tina’s show, and just in time to miss ‘Yeti’ by Gary From Leeds due to the pressing need to change into performance clothes, warm up, go and do last minute flyering, warm up again and do my first show.

I then went to see ‘Raj Rage’ by Charmian Hughes, which had the exciting premise of a personal pilgrimage to India following the footsteps of her great-grandmother, who escaped the Indian Mutiny and left behind letters containing a species of eye-witness account. Ten minutes into the show and we were still listening to tepid jokes about middle-aged women’s mandatory pixie haircuts and the tribulations of travelling with a friend only to be mistaken for lesbians. When the ancestor appeared it was via the theatrical device of a faintly Victorian looking headband, which was donned before the action continued with no alteration of delivery or language whatsoever. Are these letters real? Was Hughes’ forebear simply an incredibly dull correspondent with no epistolary panache? A thousand words of this painted no picture at all. I left, sadly before the human banana sacrifice promised in the blurb.

I then perched at the back of the Banshee’s torture chamber to sneak a peek at Rob Auton’s ‘Face Show’, which follows the now-familiar Auton format of drawing us in with endearingly awkward whimsy before nearly losing us in a slightly unravelled middle section and then finally approaching what he’s actually talking about via an extended emotional crescendo. In this case, he literally draws us in, as in, draws faces for a while. It’s charming and a bit funny. There’s some energetic facial workouts. It’s absurd and a bit funny. There are a lot of baffled silences. He makes them longer, until they’re a bit more funny. There’s something about mice and aliens, but I was getting a bit tired at that point and had to have a little sit down. Auton is a genuinely lovely and unique performer, and to watch him is to walk a tightrope between confused, bemused laughter and delighted, surprised laughter. Whatever he talks about – the wonderfully poignant interconnectedness of all humanity for example – he talks about from the bottom of his strangely vulnerable heart, often all but breaking mine. I wouldn’t bill him as comedy, though. Not sure it’s spoken word either. It’s Rob.

A swift spell at JibbaJabba ensued, with sets by Jim Higo, Mandy Maxwell and a rather inspired open mic bit from a guy selling his services as a hit-man exterminator of stray helium balloons. Then back across Waverley Bridge to the Banshee for Stand Up Tragedy. An opening set form comedic storyteller John Harding was genuinely funny – it takes some tightly-managed delivery to tell a tale of explosive diarrhoea without being off-puttingly crass. But the next three acts left me and my companions cold, so we absconded in favour of curry, running the gauntlet of Niddry Street after the watershed, when all the people outside venues are suddenly aggressively flyering for shows called ‘Yank Me’, “Phone Whore’ and ‘Sex With Children’.

And now it’s tomorrow already, and I must get some sleep before seeing Jack Dean’s ‘Threnody For The Sky Children’, which may well have just beaten my ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen’ for the coveted ‘Most Pretentious Title’ award at this year’s Fringe…

Fringe Review 2 – Rain Didn’t Stop Play

Arrived yesterday, train pelting through a black cloudburst over Dunbar. The hems of hurricanes are soggy places.

Had a great time with Matt MacDonald at his showcase, taking it in turns with him, Jenni Pascoe, Mixy and Robin Cairns to be talented, funny and profound. We were incredible. You’ll have to take my word for it, as there were only 3 witnesses in the audience and 2 of them have gone home now.

The rest of the afternoon was spent settling into my digs and repeatedly pacing the main drag from Cowgate to Tolcross, past where all the lovely bookshops live. Managed to catch Sophia Walker’s other show, last year’s smash ‘Around The World In 8 Mistakes’, which was fab the first time and is now even better – the emotional texture more defined, better use of pace and vocal changes, lots of physical storytelling. It’s an autobiographical piece about the many countries Walker has lived in, and the reasons behind each move. England, America, Belgium, El Salvador, Vietnam, Russia, Uganda…take a guess which one wasn’t a mistake? Nope, you’re wrong. At times sobering, at many points laugh-out-loud funny, this is is still up there as a must-see show.

Finally I dragged my knackered self out to see Jess Holly Bates’ ‘Real Fake White Dirt’, and man, am I glad I did. I almost don’t want to tell you about it because it was her last show of the run and you’ll only be pissed off you didn’t make it. Bates is from New Zealand, and her show is a stunning exploration of cultural appropriation, continual colonialism and white identity. This sounds heavy, the kind of thing you might hear in an academic lecture, and a very funny mock lecture does form part of the text. But this is not a heavy show, it is fleet-footed, intelligent, full of strangely beautiful poetry that slaloms effortlessly around obvious exposition and grabs you right in your non-rational cognition. Bates plays words, phrases, associations like a jazz legend plays scales, using tangents and ellipses to convey a sparkling, energetic map of mental and emotional connections. More than that, she is in complete control of her presence as a performer, altering body and voice clearly and cleanly with breath-taking swiftness and definition. And she’s bloody funny. Amazing stuff, a masterclass in what spoken word could and should be.

Edinburgh Fringe – review 1

So yesterday I took a flying visit to the Fringe to catch a few things I would otherwise miss when my own run begins next week. This is what I managed to fit into five hours…

I started the day with The Good Delusion by Tina Sederholm at Royal Oak, a teeny, tiny, self-contained cellar room at a very welcoming ‘proper’ pub, with seating for around 20. I saw Tina last year at Banshee Labyrinth doing her previous show, Evie and the Perfect Cupcake. My first thought was that this year’s venue is much better suited to her style as a performer, being less gloomy, less gothic, less plagued by noisy, nosy walk-bys in the corridor. Sederholm is most definitely not gloomy, nor is she confrontational or intentionally difficult – she specialises in warm, charming and accessible poetic storytelling. The Good Delusion is more directly autobiographical than the upbeat moral fable of last year, and is maybe less honed as a narrative, using an episodic structure that sometimes seems quite loosely linked to the purported subject ‘being good’. But of course, this isn’t actually an in-depth exploration of a moral construct, it’s entertainment, and in that it succeeds with plenty of giggles and sherbet lemons – though ironically given the show’s conclusion, I suspect she’s still trying to be good enough for us to like her! And we do…

By contrast, Can’t Care, Won’t Care by Sophia Walker is a very demanding show, and rightly so as it deals with serious and important issues around the realities of working in the care system. The audience is cast in the role of jury as the poet/care worker is put on trial for the negligent homicide of a service user. Walker plays both the defendant and the prosecuting counsel, shifting the language of her speech and body rapidly between the two. It’s a strong performance, obviously springing from personal experience and personal conviction (no pun intended), and there’s no let-up to the pace and emotional pitch. It’s a lot to take in – the exposure of the unwieldy bureaucracy of the care industry that fails to recognise the context of individual needs, the savage and ignorant cuts to funding that have left front-line workers exposed to dangerous lone working, the grotesque injustice of their consequent culpability when things go wrong. And on top of this, the performer’s own expiation of a guilt that may really be hers, or may be an imagined scenario, but in any case is delivered full-force. A few more pauses for breath and contemplation would be a kindness. Definitely go and see this, but do what she asks at the end – deliberate, discuss, decompress over a coffee before you head off to your next show.

I didn’t decompress, I rushed off to do a guest slot at Get Put Down, an afternoon poetry cabaret hosted by Edinburgh’s own Max Scratchmann and Alec Beattie. They work well as a hosting team, in an ‘Odd Couple’ kind of way, Max being genial and self-deprecatory, Alec a bit grumpy and sardonic. After a quick set there I had to do the unforgiveable and run straight off to another guest slot at Other Voices, again a cabaret but this time run by Fay Roberts and featuring strong female performers. I was lucky enough to get there in time to hear a beautiful open mic poem from Miriam Nash, and a guest set from Jess Green.

In fact my next port of call was Jess Green’s show Burning Books, another poet taking a scathing look at the impact of government policy and cutbacks on a public service sector, this time the education system. Green recently went viral with ‘Dear Mr Gove’, a poem written from a teacher’s point of view as an open letter to the then Minister for Education. It’s included in the show, alongside equally eloquent, passionate and stunningly-written pieces from multiple characters – the library assistant, the teacher forced to go to a team-building session with a nightmare poet, the teacher with a coke habit. Green has always been an excellent writer and performer, but for me the great thing about this show is the maturity of vision and empathy she shows in stepping outside herself and into these convincingly realised voices. She has teamed up with a guitarist and percussionist to set the whole sequence to music, and I’m not convinced it adds much to the experience other than providing a click-track that helps her overcome a slight tendency to let her emotions accelerate her delivery. But having said that, there were others in the audience really rocking along to the beat, so what do I know?

The plan is to write something every day next week about shows I’ve seen – if my stamina holds up! These shows are all part of the PBH Free Fringe – there is no charge, so if you’re going to the Fringe please budget to make a donation and/or buy some merchandise. For example, I bought Jess Green’s CD of the show for £5.

The Good Delusion, Tina Sederholm, Royal Oak, 12pm

Can’t Care, Won’t Care, Sophia Walker, Banshee Labyrinths, 1.40pm

Burning Books, Jess Green, Electric Circus, 4.30pm