Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Report from Edinburgh

Well, we're back, after several hectic days in Edinburgh, where there is a Festival in progress; or, to be more precise, several festivals simultaneously. It's a bit late for you to go this year, but if you're thinking of going next year (or sometime), this should give you an idea of what to expect -- as a consumer, that is, not as a provider.

Our main reason for going to Edinburgh, as indicated last week, was to attend the Romantic Novelists' Association lunch. This event was held to honour the lifetime achievements of three senior members of the Association: Lucilla Andrews, Rosamunde Pilcher, and Mary Stewart.

The lunch was a very happy occasion indeed. It took place in the Scottish Parliament building, thanks to Robin Harper MSP, whose wife is a member of the RNA. The highlight of the proceedings was the speech by Rosamunde Pilcher, who spoke on behalf of all three of the honoured writers. This speech was as cogent a defence of the art of romantic writing as I ever expect to hear, and it was doubly impressive in that it was delivered with barely a note.

The rest of this report is a brief summary of the various events that Mrs GOB and I attended, not necessarily in the actual order in which we did them. And what, you may enquire, is the point of that? Well, some of the performances and exhibitions will travel, and not just in the UK. A brief word about some of the others may also serve to give you the flavour of what the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is like; and with some 1800 performances (we were told) to choose from, the range is enormous.

First we went to a talk entitled So You Want to Do a Show on the Fringe? Because, who knows, I might actually want to do that one day. Two or three of my stage plays are at least theoretically possible as Fringe material.

This talk was both inspiring and slightly depressing. So much youthful ambition and enthusiasm was there -- but also, as the speaker pointed out, there was a great deal of naivety and misplaced hope. Still, it was a valuable session. And if you're thinking along these lines yourself, an essential book to read is Fringe by James Aylett and James Lark -- just out.

Lady Boys of Bangkok is a show which has been at Edinburgh in 2004 and 2005, as well as this year. It was a sell-out in previous years and this year it's again in the box-office top ten. As the title suggests, this is a big, glamorous, flashy, vulgar, Las Vegas type performance. It takes place in a circus tent, which holds (at a guess) 600 or so, all seated at tables, cabaret style, to encourage the consumption of alcohol.

This 1 hour 40 minute entertainment is mostly musical and is performed by a troupe of 17 male Thai nationals, virtually all of whom dress as women. Some, it would seem, have had the so-called sex-change operation and hormone treatment to match, because they have breasts. The music is all pre-recorded and, as far as I could see, 100% mimed. It is offered twice nightly.

Personally I thought that this all looked a bit tired and not all that exciting, but I was definitely in a minority of one. The audience was about 90% female, with an average age of 35 or so. They loved it, and I dare say that for a girls' night out it works pretty well.

For me, there was only highlight. A member of the cast came on, dressed up to the nines, Shirley Bassey style, and proceeded to 'sing' a Bassey number: 'My Life.' As she did so, she sat down at a perfomer's dressing table and began to change: change dress to trousers and shirt, remove make-up, remove wig, and become, in short, a man. I thought this was a very effective piece of theatre. Not original, but well done of its kind.

The next stop for this show, in the UK, is Newcastle.

Spymonkey are a small, well established company of four comedy actors. They have been around for some years, and we have seen them before, notably when they performed Stiff, a play about the undertaking business. Their latest offering is Cooped, which is a take-off of the haunted-house, murderer-on-the-loose genre. Much of Spymonkey's humour is now physical, which means that it becomes international, and they have recently been to Canada, Switzerland, Greece, and Australia. Worth seeing if they come your way.

Topping and Butch are a couple of camp, late-night cabaret artists. They were a big hit last year, when they included a number of topical and political songs. This year, however, they have concentrated on what the audience really likes, which is filth. (That's what they said, and they were right. Their act was indeed filthy.)

T & B appear dressed in shiny black leather gear, with Doc Martens boots, and not only sing their dubious songs but question the audience about their sex lives. Various groups in the audience had to put their hands up to identify themselves: gay men; lesbians (few the night we were there); don't knows; and couples.

The couples were asked about the length of their relationship. Mrs GOB and I, at 37 years married, were the oldest straight couple (by a good many years), but we were pipped at the post by an American gay couple, who had been together for 25 years. Gay years, according to Butch, count double; and I am not going to argue.

Topping and Butch also travel the UK. If you're 29, if it's late at night, and if you've consumed a bottle of wine, I dare say that the duo are very funny. But if you're my age, and sober, they are just the tiniest bit wearisome; although they are good at what they do.

On Saturday morning, by way of contrast, Mrs GOB and I went to see The Magical Jello. Jello is a 17-year-old Scots lad who does conjuring tricks for children. He appeared at 11.00 a.m. in a studio theatre which could seat 32, and his show lasted half an hour. There were a dozen or so kids, plus mums and dads, and it all went very well. Corny jokes, simple tricks, lollipops at the end (mine was lovely), and everyone had a good time.

At least two shows at Edinburgh this year were based on blogs, and we saw one: Bloggers -- real internet diaries. This show was put together by Oliver Mann from the genuine blogs of about ten people. These particular bloggers are among those who use their private lives for their subject matter, and the result was a reasonably coherent interlocking of real-life stories: boy meets girl (or husband, son, whatever), and woman loses boy (or husband, son, mother), and so forth. The acting was excellent. Whether this show will have any life after Edinburgh remains to be seen.

Now for some proper culcha. Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet is one of Mrs GOB's favourites, so we went to hear it performed by the Hebrides Ensemble, with Lyr Williams. This was in the Usher Hall, one of Edinburgh's most famous permanent venues; and a mighty impressive place it is too. This was part of Edinburgh's official festival, the International one, to which the Fringe is, supposedly, a minor adjunct.

Navy Pier, by American playwright John Corwin, is a play about a writer who steals another writer's work and gets away with it. 'Corwin is a playwright of profound insight and rapturous word-play,' says the Chicago Sun-Times, causing me to wonder, just casually, whether the critic was entirely sober at the time, or whether he was, perchance, sleeping with Corwin's sister.

Not that I would want to knock the play too hard. It's a tolerably interesting piece, if you can stomach hearing about a writer who gets a short story published by the New Yorker and builds a whole career on the back of it. But dramatically it is not so much a play as (like the above Bloggers piece) a collection of monologues. Should you want to form your own opinion, you can find it in book form.

Marlon Brando's Corset is the title of a play put on in a very big space at the Pleasance: capacity several hundred, and fairly full on the day we saw it. This stars Les Dennis. And before I forget, let me say that I never did figure out what either Brando or his corset has to do with anything.

This play seems to have received pretty poor notices, by and large, but I thought it was well constructed and entertaining. True, we have nothing very original here. We have the writer of a TV hospital soap (Les Dennis) who owes Mr Big a huge gambling debt and is going to get his legs broken unless he raises the money. And we have four self-obsessed actors. And a megalomaniac director. All stock characters. But then in any good farce you have a vicar and a prudish old battle-axe, and so forth; it all depends what is done with them.

In this case I thought it was all satisfactorily entertaining, at least for a rainy Sunday afternoon, which is when we saw it. But King Lear it ain't.

The Slush Pile features no stars whatever; just four young actors with a modestly amusing script about a publishing company which is run by complete incompetents and has lived for years on the proceeds of one book. Quite unlike, therefore, any company we could possibly imagine.

The four performers of this piece are evidently struggling to make a name for themselves in radio and show business generally, and, who knows, this might help. It was performed in a small space in the Pleasance Dome, with bar stools rather than chairs; but the modest of about 35 put up with all that and seemed suitably entertained.

Twinkle Little Star, by Philip Meeks, was at the Gilded Ballroom. It's not a brand-new play, and it presents us with a mystery. Billed in the advance programme (finalised in April) as a one-man play starring Christopher Biggins, it turned out to be performed by Tim Healy. Why? Was there an unholy row? Did Biggins back out? Or was he ill?

All, as I say, a mystery. However, Tim Healy is a very fine actor, and he plays the part of an ageing performer who has had a career as a pantomime dame. He is an old-fashioned man, therefore, and one who does not take kindly to the modern show-business practice of casting Australian TV soap stars in leading parts in UK stage productions. In this case, our hero actually bumps off his enemy number one, in amusing circumstances.

For my money this was, I think, the best individual performance that I saw at Edinburgh. I doubt that Biggins could have done it better. From what I've seen of him he would lack the ruthlessness which the part requires.

It so happens that Mrs GOB and I concentrated on theatre during our visit, but there are many other things to see and do. For example, we managed to fit in three major exhibitions.

At the Queen's Galley we saw Canaletto in Venice, a wonderful selection of the great man's drawings and paintings. It is there until 7 January 2007.

Anyone who is seriously interested in photography might pay a visit to the Edinburgh Photographic Society's 144th (yes, really) international exhibition. Entries were invited from all over the world, and over 3,477 were sent in from 53 countries. Of these, 217 were selected by three hard-working judges and are on display until 3 September.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the huge pool of entries, the standard of work on display was high. However, I continue to feel that photography as currently practised by the dedicated amateur enthusiasts of this world remains a very limited medium. Not, I hasten to say, that the full-time artists of today, who produce photographic work, impress me much more.

Hugely impressive, in every way, was the Ron Mueck sculpture exhibition at the Royal Scottish Gallery. The Gallery web site shows some of the figures which are on display, but in no way conveys the impact that they have on the viewer. In particular, the first piece that one sees, on entering the exhibition, is a naked seated man who must be twelve feet tall. The realism of this statue, if that's the right word, is startling and alarming. The rest of the exhibition is equally good.

And, er, that's about it.

Is it just me, or is Edinburgh the hardest word to type? I don't think I got it right once at the first attempt.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's good to have you back.

clare said...

Yes, you've been missed. Thanks for the resumé.

dh said...

Thanks for that. I especially enjoy the little personal observations.

Andrew O'Hara said...

You were certainly exposed to some variety. It sounds like the quintet was probably the highlight. Otherwise, to survive some of the events you describe, I just resort to very heavy drinking.

Jamie Douglas said...

This is a self-promoting comment ...

half the spirit of the fringe is the attempt to do unlikely things.

I spent July making short films starring people like Simon Day, Phil Nichol, Greg Davies - fringe veterans all - and they are being screened on Thursday 24th and Saturday 26th August at 1.30pm at the Underbelly, Cowgate.

the name of the show is jamie douglas vanity film retrospective. the films rock - come along and tell me what you think of them

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