On alcohol, theatre and the Edinburgh bubble
[I’ve just finished writing this blog and it turned a bit of a lengthy reflection on this year’s Edinburgh experience. If you can’t be bothered with all that and just want some damn show recommendations – and who can blame you? I do go on a bit – then skip down to the next bit like this in italics.]
Getting back from the Edinburgh Fringe is a bit like waking from a dream. Looking back, your memories have a similar hallucinatory quality – snatched images from shows and late night bars, the noir-ish quality to the architecture and the light, and the way that time seems to have simultaneously elongated and truncated itself, so that you recall having fitted in way more than seems possible, yet the whole thing was over in almost the blink of an eye.
Alcohol has a lot to do with that, of course. This is partly the excitement of being on holiday (my only one this year), and partly to do with the general student-y excitement of the festival atmosphere. But then again, spending the day in a state of constant semi-drunkenness is how human beings traditionally deal with cold, wet climates (one of the reasons, I would hazard, that Islam has never had much success in cold countries.)
And my God was it wet. Torrential, biblical monsoons that turned your umbrella into a drumskin and sent rivers cascading along pavements, ruthlessly soaking into every crack and pinprick in your shoes, and dampening your trousers to the knee. All of which makes for a strange, if unique, theatre experience.
I’ve been to Edinburgh before, of course. For three years running between 2007 and 2009 I premiered a show there with Mulberry Theatre Company, and will probably do so again before I retire. But being there with a show is a totally different experience to being there with nothing but shows to see. When I was there with the Mulberry girls I was there to work, and felt lucky if I caught one or two shows during a week. The day is spent flyering, chaperoning kids, lugging sets, ringing journalists and checking newspapers. Last year was the first time I went as a mere punter, but that was a snap decision at the end of the month and lasted barely a long weekend. This year I did a full week, and properly planned ahead. This ended up translating into 25 shows in 6 days. I have just looked back and done a quick tot up, and I have to admit that I walked out of ten of them.
Last year I went right at the end of August, which meant most shows had settled in and the reviews were out. The flip side of this means that the runaway hits are of course sold out, but at least you have something to go on. Going at the start is more of a gamble, and I published below some of my recommendations based on some very loosely-educated guesswork. The flip side here is that the first two ‘official’ weekdays of the festival (not counting previews) are 2 for 1 days which makes taking those risks a lot cheaper. But then they are risks, and I ended up feeling pretty stung with some shows, even if I did get in for half price.
I have certain rules in Edinburgh. There are the obvious ones like bring some waterproof shoes and don’t forget to factor meals and journey times into your show itinerary. Carrying a small bottle of single malt on you at all times can also help – such as on the top deck of an open top bus for James Graham’s The Tour Guide. But the main one is about where you sit when you walk into that auditorium. I always, without fail, make sure I am sitting on the end of a row, even if it means a worse view. This is so that I can walk out.
I have a pretty low tolerance for what I consider to be poor theatre at the best of times, but in Edinburgh, I just don’t have the time to have any time wasted. I’ll be discreet, of course, and choose an appropriately noisy moment. But if a show hasn’t grabbed me within 10 minutes then I will almost certainly have left by 20, unless they pull something amazing out of the bag. Twenty minutes is easily enough to grab an audience and demonstrate that you have something original to say, or show. In fact, what I was struck by more than ever before this year was how precisely you can tell in the opening few seconds whether or not a show is going to be any good. Those key moments once the lights go up reveal straight away whether this is a company with a sense of stagecraft, who are in control of their material, who have a sense of space, imagery, atmosphere, metaphor; whether or not they possess a quality of mind and an understanding of the audience experience.
A lot of the companies in Edinburgh are young, experimental, or both – and of course it is worth cutting these companies a bit more slack and waiting to see where the show is going. But I was astonished at how often I felt disappointed by professional companies in this way, companies who I would have thought would have been a safe bet. Some even made it onto my Recommended list, which in retrospect is a little embarrassing. (Sorry if you wasted any money. I have edited accordingly.)
I think the background of the UK riots might have had something to do with this. It was strange getting this news through in glimpses between shows, and made many productions seem frivolous, disconnected or self-absorbed by comparison. If ever there was a time for theatre to have a sense of urgency then this was it. But then again, I have always had a yearning to see theatre more politically and socially engaged, and I’m not sure how much this hourly news-feed reminder of theatre’s general detachment from the world would have changed this. Maybe I’m the freak. As a theatre-maker myself I get irrationally annoyed when it’s bad. It really affects my mood. I feel personally affronted, like my art form has been degraded, and a sense of despair at the swathes of future theatre audiences this tripe is going to alienate forever. (Note: never go to the theatre with Fin Kennedy.)
Don’t get me wrong, I saw some great stuff as well, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. But after everything that has happened this year, from the ACE funding announcements, to some of the shocking vitriol that has been directed towards the very idea of state investment in the arts, along with the most incredible year for current affairs on pretty much every front, I get particularly upset when I see state-funded companies putting out what I consider to be sub-standard work – by which I mean dramaturgically and artistically incompetent as much as socially unengaged. This is not a time to be giving our critics ammo by putting on dull, sloppy or self-absorbed work.
Longstanding readers will know that I don’t do reviews. This is partly because I love my art form and want to keep the tone of this blog broadly celebratory (though I have admittedly fucked that up a bit in the last couple of paragraphs). But it’s also because, as a creator of the work myself, it’s impossible for me to criticise with any specificity without the subtext being read as sour grapes or self-elevation of some sort. That and the fact that it’s a small industry. And it’s nice to be nice.
So, I’m afraid, until my own ideas dry up and I turn to professional punditry for a living, that is all I am going to say about that.
But I noticed something else this year. And that is that some shows I had walked out of went on to get four star reviews and even sometimes award nominations. So perhaps I am the freak after all. Which raises an important question: Which of us is right? The professional critic or the professional playwright? Surely, we should both be in agreement? But therein lies a maddening fact about art. It’s a slippery bugger. Your best bet is to work out who you agree with, which takes time, patience and not insignificant expenditure and disappointment. But if you find a pundit whose tastes coincide with yours, hang onto them.
Which I hope is why you have read this far.
[Attention busy people: This is where the show recommendations begin.]
The good news is that the internet age has meant there are a lot more of those voices out there than there used to be. One of my best experiences this year was care of the West End Whingers, whose no-nonsense reviews continue to contain a critical honesty about the lay audience’s experience missing from many paid critics. (I even once agreed with the Whingers when they slagged off one of my own shows … reluctantly of course, but they had a point.) Anyway, The Seagull Effect turned out to be one of the most confidently theatrical productions by a young company I have seen in a long while, with a beautiful understanding of stage metaphor, and simple but striking effects. So that would be my first recommendation.
Others that are worth a look include Translunar Paradise, a beautifully simple mask piece about old age and loss. Dry Ice is a clever, lyrical, multi-layered insight into the reality of working as a stripper. The Table is a hilariously witty piece of adult puppetry, looking at existential despair from the perspective of a gruff, sweary puppet, if you can imagine such a thing. If only they had had the confidence to stick with that idea for the full hour... The Strange of Undoing of Prudencia Hart is a gloriously celebratory piece of mythic, Scottish folk-inspired ensemble storytelling told among the tables of a historic Scottish drinking hall – you even get a free whisky. I understand it’s firmly sold out but queue for a return if you can, it’s wonderful. The TEAM’s Mission Drift has now ended but not before they earned a well-deserved Fringe First for their hugely ambitious mapping of the spirit of American capitalism from 17th century Dutch settlers to present day Las Vegas – every bit as gloriously theatrical as I hoped it would be. I will certainly be keeping an eye on their future work. I Hope My Heart Goes First is a precociously confident piece of performance art from Glasgow teenagers Junction 25, not a play in any traditional sense but an incredible style for this age group to pull off. I left inspired at what can be achieved with young performers in my own work I do with them. What Remains was wonderfully atmospheric if ultimately inconsequential – as I am unwaged at the moment I got in for the cheaper rate, otherwise £17 a pop seems a bit much for such a slight piece. I also enjoyed Two Johnnies Live Upstairs, though it turned out to be utterly insane. If anyone can tell me what the hell the middle bit involving a science lab stuffed rabbit massacre is supposed to be about then I would love to know.
I had a good run of luck with non-theatre shows this year. Geordie comic Tom Binns has a brilliant concept in Ian D Montfort, the spirit medium who cold reads his audience. Much of it is a hilarious and knowing spoof of this world of course, but every now and then he plucks something deeply personal about an audience member out of thin air and you can hear the gasps. It’s an inspired combination. German stand-up Henning Wehn has a nice line in sending up the often mutually-troubled Anglo-German relationship – and I was interested to discover he had supported Stewart Lee in the past, whose new show takes reflexive meta-comedy to a whole new level. On the music and music-comedy front Alex Horne’s late night band The Horne Section skilfully combined improvised song and warm, gentle stand-up to hilarious effect. It made me wish I’d had time to see his solo show. And finally, human beatbox Shlomo delivered a belter of a performance, combining his own incredible mimcry of impossible sounds with a ‘loopstation’ recorder to build up the electro-grime version of an orchestral score – made all the more unexpected by hearing it all come out of the mouth of a sweet home counties lad of Iraqi-Jewish descent. At one point he even pulls off a full-on recreation of an eight piece Arabic-Klezmer band at a family knees-up.
Oh, and I can seriously recommend the Maple Manhattans in Under The Stairs cocktail bar on Merchant Street. Just don’t have more than one. Oh actually fuck it, go on then.
So that was my Edinburgh 2011. A drunken rainstorm of watching, wishing, wading, wassailing, whooping and walking out.
I enjoyed it and hated it so much I am even wondering if there’s time to go back for a quick weekend right at the end. If I do, what would you recommend?