Friday, September 03, 2010

Edinburgh Diary part two

Read part one here

The next night I was inveigled to come along to see Camille O’Sullivan, and I stumped up £18 for a ticket on the grounds that with so many good reviews she must have something. Famous for her interpretations of songs by Nick Cave, Jacques Brel and Tom Waits, her posters featured a six-star review from Time Out, plus a heap of five star reviews from other worthy publications; inevitably I found the show disappointing, partly because my expectations, such as they were, were way off the mark, but mainly because I just did not get it. I’d hoped for someone to update cabaret, but she spent too much time giggling at herself to maintain any sort of spell over me at least, although the rest of the crowd, for what it’s worth, loved her.

Me and Sandy took to filling in the days with busking, which was OK, but we rarely seduced much money out of the crowds. We tried the Meadows, a sort of pancake-flat Primrose Hill, we tried Princes Street, we tried Grassmarket, but the crowds weren’t dishing out the dosh. The best we did was from the Friday night crowd of pissheads, who took a liking to our version of Bare Necessities and rapidly dispensed about ten quid. But the best moment was on Princes Street, when a young African girl, maybe four years old, started dancing uproariously to our accordion/bass combo, with the kind of aplomb that you could spend 1000 years trying to copy and never manage, until her dad carried her away.

I popped along to see the free show Three Men and a Hoover, because I vaguely knew Dan Lees, who was one of the three men, and because it was free. Dan does amusing songs about the internet, facebook and such like, but the best thing was the third man, Steve Aruni, and his robotic Henry the Groover hoover, who played sax. Not the best animatronics in the world, but it works, and he has the honour of apparently having got London Underground to ban “robotic sax”.

Saturday night I popped along to the Famous Speigeltent, where at last I found a nightspot not over-run by twentysomethings, likely due to the extortionate price of drinks. They had a bit more of a festival thing going on, with bands and DJs and a slightly louche atmosphere, and I liked it a lot there, but for their habit of closing at two.

Our show had a few days off from our main run, but while busking we bumped into a couple of guys promoting their House Cabaret show, where to save themselves renting a venue they offer to pitch up at your house with their show. They liked us and gave us a gig with Gus at their next show at some vast house in Stockbridge (think the sort of place you get round Great Portland Street). The day of the gig they got a massive write-up in the Guardian, which you would have thought would amount to something, but their internet stream only had 12 viewers. We were lucky to get a great crowd who got right into it; they told us that performing for the Guardian mob had been like entertaining at a funeral. We played three songs, in between which they herded the audience around the rooms of the house to see a mixture of music, fashion and improvised comedy, and we ate the leftovers.

That night a friend of the band squeezed us into see John Cooper Clarke, at the Udderbelly, a vast purple inflatable upside-down-cow-shaped corporate-sponsored arena, plonked in the grounds outside the even bigger McEwan hall. JCC was good as ever and, although not doing a show that different from when I saw him recently, it was nice to see, and I noticed that I’d nicked my joke “like scabies, I’ve got you under my skin” off him without realising.

My birthday came around and me and a few chums took our hangovers up Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that lurks behind many of Edinburgh’s views, where we looked out over the Firth of Forth and away into Scotland and made up a song and were rewarded with 20p from a fellow hiker. From down and away came the sound of bagpipes, which was very nice, and was possibly the only place to enjoy bagpipes – up a hill and a long way away. There's quite a few bagpipe players around, and sometimes they team up with bongo players, perhaps because they share a laissez-faire approach to rhythm. After that we took a bus down to Portobello beach – because it turns out Edinburgh has sandy beaches, where you can make sand castles and dig holes and which are actually quite nice, against all the odds.

My band then took me out for dinner at the Dogs restaurant, a pretty posh, gastro-type gaff, serving posh Scots food, before they blagged me into see Aussie stand-up Jim Jefferies. Seconds into his show and he had me on side, gratuitous stereotyping of gays and lesbians but very funny with it; a bit of heartfelt I’m an alcoholic, sometimes I shit blood; some religion bashing – at which point the two girls next to me started going to each other “he’s such a cunt ner ner ner ner” and walked out, and apparently there were walkouts all over the hall at this point much to his bemusement; a long and brilliant bit about sexual relations – “women are like, you have to get me wet. Why? I’ve got an erection. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain.”; and ending with a great story about taking a severely handicapped mate to a brothel for his first-ever blowjob. After the show I met him in the bar and had in my hand his merchandise, a mug that just says CUNT on it, which I’d half-inched more-or-less against my will from the stall outside. I asked him to sign it but none of us had a Sharpie and eventually I borrowed a marker pen with a nib the size of a small child, which he gamely tried to use to sign the bottom of the cup, resulting in a scribble that won’t impress anyone. In order to prove that the cup and signature are authentic, however, they filmed him giving me a kiss, me holding the cup, for his DVD extras, so hopefully I’ll be on there and I can sell the cup on eBay for millions. He told me a story about meeting Jim Jefferies, the manager of Hearts, and having nothing to give him as a souvenir except "a cup that says cunt with your name on it". A likeable guy, but he definitely had the air of a man for whom alcohol is doing no favours anymore, and instead acts like a blow to the head, and he has pledged to give it up, after his Edinburgh run is over. After our meeting I took to carrying a Sharpie round at all times, although not the cup. Overall, though, a good birthday, only missing a shag to finish it off.

Yes, it's THE cunt cup. Offers in the comments section please

Now we were into the second week of shows and I was into my Edinburgh stride. Our show was promoted to the big hall, sharing the space with Kit and in between our shows a stage school version of Jesus Christ Superstar. In my pursuit of the ultimate Fringe experience I don’t suppose you can get much closer than snoozing in the corridor waiting for your show to start, while bit parts run around changing costume, sounds of the resurrection echo out from a near-empty theatre, and finally Jesus himself appears through the backstage door, having choked nearly to death from the effort.

Other classic fringe experiences: being blocked from crossing a completely empty road by a group of worried Americans; suddenly being surrounded in the street by a posse of air stewardesses or monks or some other costumed numpties; sitting quietly at an outdoor table and looking up to find you’ve been swamped with flyers; swearing off corporate hellholes after paying £15 for a ticket and then being charged £4 a pint; swearing off free venues after sitting through several hours of drivel and then being charged £4 a pint. Actually, that last one was not true: the free venues provide great value, or at least fair value for money, and you can get the stench of backpacker out of your clothes with only two or three washes.

The bigger hall meant we could cram in more punters, and there were a few more, despite the fact that we hardly did any promotion, and that which we did was up on the Royal Mile, too far away from the show to be likely to help. But they came through the gate nonetheless and they popped their money into the hat at the end, and one pair even asked for a signed poster to go with their collection of famous Fringe debuts. By the night of the last show I’d more or less done away with my sheet music, and more or less got through the show without any gratuitous cock-ups, and we had moved on to working the crowd. So it was a success, of sorts, from a fairly low measure.

Meanwhile, I’d collared a free pass to the Space set of venues, and had narrowed down those worth paying for to a manageable few. Breaking the habit of the week, I went to see another stand-up, this time the ex-stage magician Carey Marx. Beginning with a story about a seance he had conducted amongst Pontins staff aged 19, he set about an hour of debunkment, taking in some admittedly low-hanging fruit, such as Uri Geller, homeopathy and God himself, but done in a as lovably roguish way as a nice Jewish boy can manage and very funny with it. His best line of the night was probably: “God made the Jews the chosen people; he didn't say what they were chosen for though, it seems to have been to suffer a lot.” I got my biggest laugh of the festival as a well-natured heckle in there: He told us that he would prove the non-existence of God right there and then and proceeded to shout out to the heavens “God!” whereupon I replied in a booming voice “Yes!”. A well-timed, if obvious retort I thought, but he took it well and told me I suffered from delusions of grandeur.

The Space venues mainly put on fairly cheap theatre, so I saw quite a lot of that. Stitched Up, a comic retelling of Frankenstein from the point of view of Dr Frankenstein, overseeing both the book and the films had a great comic script by Robin Johnson and some nice acting. One critic apparently called it "unashamedly intellectual"; one of the cast told me they probably meant "literate"; everyone seemed amazed that the playwright had bothered to read the original book all the way through. There was added amusement in comparing the play to the write-up in the Scotsman – word to the wise, some reviewers are apparently unable to follow a basic plot. 500 Miles grew from a slightly suspect opening of a widower soldier visited by his late wife into an effective if fairly pointless revenge drama, which only really came alive with the entrance of Raphael Verrion’s psychopath. Bare, a drama about bare-knuckle fighting, was hard-hitting and pulled no punches, etc. At times brilliant, particularly when either Skinner the prize fighter (real-life martial artist Paul-Michael Giblin) or the snake-like old school fight promoter Arden (writer and director Renny Krupinski) were on stage; at other times it dragged, especially when Skinner’s wife was asked to spiel acres of unlikely dialogue. The fighting scenes were brilliantly realised and although not completely avoiding cliché it still made a stand out drama.

One quiet morning I popped along to see a show called Queen Victoria’s Parlour, which happened to be above a nice Italian delicatessen just opposite my flat. A serious show of harp music alternating with Victorian poetry – the sort of show that might have been enjoyed in Queen Victoria’s time, was I think the idea – it was in its own way refreshingly silly, much more so than the more contrived wackiness up the road. The man read poetry in a very studied manner with the sort of slightly portentous voice you'd recognise from watching Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. The harp music was fantastic. I almost wished I had a worse hangover for it to soothe.

Through being flyered by the man himself I ended up going to see Ray Green: Adventures in Telly Land 3D. Ray (played by Dave Gibson) is a sort of Alan Partridge type character, a failing cheesy TV host, and already not the most original of shows went on to include his very own Downfall parody, a superhero pastiche and a Derren Brown rip-off, all delivered via video clips filmed mostly in Stoke Newington, with the man himself acting as between clips host; still he provided a genuinely entertaining hour of undemanding comedy. He won second best joke of the fringe for: "I'm currently dating a couple of anorexics. Two birds, one stone." But I liked his description of Preston - "You go into Gregg's on the high street, right, turn round, look out the window and you can see two more branches of Gregg's." - which is also true of Edinburgh.

Saturday morning, having read a review in the Guardian, I went to see Ovid's Metamorphoses, as presented by the Pants on Fire theatre group. Within minutes of the start, as the cast vanished and reappeared behind movable blocking boards in seamless choreography, you sensed you were in the hands of an awesome show, and so it proved. With extraordinary ingenuity and imagination the cast retold the stories of Metamorphoses in Second World War garb, featuring wartime songs, Nazis, Yankee soldiers, bomb shelters and gas masks. In keeping with Ovid’s theme of change, the young cast at times morphed their accents, their costumes, transformed into monsters, gods, puppets, film of themselves (at one point Narcissus dives into a film of a lake and ripples appeared on the screen), and into each other, without a lull throughout. A dazzling tour de force, which could hold its own on the stage of the National Theatre. (Those in the know seemed to agree: the show was named Best of the Edinburgh Fringe, and it's moving to London (well, Croydon) for a month from September 8th.) Only at the end did it fade slightly, as they suddenly started preaching about the forthcoming environmental catastrophe; I thought they somehow made a return to the primordial chaos sound quite cosy, but that may just be me. According to the literature the cast are all students of the Jacques Lecoq school of theatre. I was impressed by this, but other actors I met warned me that they may be the exception, and that generally Lecoq students are more cock than Lecoq.

Whilst hanging around afterwards I met John Cooper Clarke leaving his hotel on his way out of town. He was unfailingly charming and when I told him how after listening to him I can't help going around talking in a Salford accent he gave me a flash of his bronze teeth and said “oh you do my voice, brilliant, thanks mate!” seemingly as pleased as punch, and even waved to me from the taxi; but he was frighteningly frail and I had to stop patting him on the shoulder for fear that I might break something.

Walking down the street I spied a mob of student-aged mob strolling down the street in flouro vests, with bin bags tied to their heads; if it wasn't for the small police escort hovering at the back I'd have taken them for a particularly shoddy drama group but no instead this was Climate Camp out on an anti-RBS action all dressed allegedly as Lady Gaga, for some reason. I tagged along vaguely for a bit since we were all going in the same direction before one then reminded me what I hate about them by telling me when I asked where they were going that I'd have to watch YouTube later to find out. Diagnosis: In need of a severe dose of get over yourself. Of course you can't have the foolproof top secret plans of a bunch of students just given away to the likes of me, I quite understand, but not feeling comradely, I left them to it, having had several disappointing experiences with Climate Camp, an over-earnest and consistently less imaginative version of the much-missed Reclaim the Streets. But at least they're trying, for christ's sake.

Climate Camp aftermath

Read part three here