Friday, 12 August 2011

fringe benefits

The Edinburgh Fringe is one of my favourite places in the world. Although that statement does come with the caveat that there are a bunch of places in the world I still haven't been, it cannot be denied that the Fringe makes me so excited I do that thing where my hands wave about and my voice goes all high-pitched; let me tell you, the internet, that is MIGHTY EXCITED. I've been every summer for the last four years, either watching or performing, which I suppose makes it my annual holiday destination in much the same way that some people visit the south of France every year or whatever, except that it rains a shit ton more in Edinburgh than on your average holibags location of choice (I got back yesterday morning and some of the things I own are still damp). When I think of the best and the worst theatre and comedy that I've seen in my life, so much of both have been at the Fringe - trapped in tiny hot rooms where the door's too near the stage and there's too much audience on either side of you, thinking, 'can I leave? no, no, I can't possibly, but when will this end'; packed into venues that used to be conference rooms and backs of pubs and myriad other things, crying with laughter; stuffing my face with too much pie. I include the bad as well as the good in my remembrances because in a lot of ways they're just as important. I like that I've seen terrible, terrible things in Edinburgh because I like that it exists as a platform for Anyone Who Wants to Make Theatre to just do it and it's right that inevitably some of those things don't work. If theatre was easy, there'd be no point slogging away at it, would there? It should be hard. It should fail sometimes. That's why it's art.

This year I went to the Fringe for six days, travelling up with my boyfriend on Thursday night, on the overnight coach from London to Edinburgh, which was a little bit rough, because how can it not be, but better than I expected. We arrived at 7.30am and saw shows pretty solidly for two days. Some had been made by our friends, some by people we were fans of and with some of them we had absolutely no idea what to expect; in addition to this, we socialised, had a few drinks, ate pie (how many times can I mention pie in this blog? Let's get a tally going: ii), got flyered a LOT and went on and on about how beautiful Edinburgh is. I have been known to shriek "look at the VISTAS" almost constantly in that city. Look at them though!! After he went home to do Real Life Stuff (i.e. earn money like a grown-up), I stayed on for a few extra days with my friends, who are working at the Pleasance and being put up in student halls. I've been a punter and a performer at the Fringe but I've never been staff, and I've got to say that while it looks awesome in lots of ways it also looks super tough - my friends are flyering for sometimes twelve, thirteen hours a day on the Pleasance's street team and I am amazed they're not dead. Be nice to the flyerers, guys; you've been in the rain for ten minutes between venues, and yes it's shit, but they've been in it all day for the last million days. The older I get, the more I realise the extent to which hungover students are the glue holding the Fringe together.

Anyway, I could go on and on and ON about how great Edinburgh is and how much I love it - you may have guessed this - but that won't get us anywhere and, contrary to appearances, I do actually have stuff to get done. So I'm going rely on the preserve of the blogger, i.e. some arbitrary self-imposed rules, and instead name my Top Five Fringe Shows 2011. Although I've talked about theatre a lot here, I'm actually a massive comedy fan too - I just find the former easier to talk about because I know more about how it's put together and works, whereas I love comedy in the same way I love magic, in total ignorance of how they have managed to do this thing - so I was almost tempted to do three comedy and three theatre. But five is the perfect arbitrary self-imposed number, I'm afraid. So, in no particular order (and entirely subjectively), here are my five favourite shows from this year's Edinburgh Festival:
1) Translunar Paradise, 15.40 at the Pleasance Dome, then touring the UK I think? A beautiful story about love and bereavement told entirely without words, using only mime, live accordion music, masks and movement, and it made me cry lots. There are only two actors (and one accordionist) on stage, playing a couple who have grown old together - the actors use incredibly realistic hand-held masks in the old-age sequences which can easily be removed to show that the line between youth and age is actually not a huge one. It was just stunningly performed and all I can say is that if you have the opportunity to see it, you should take it. Aside from being charming and ridiculously well staged, rehearsed, directed and performed, it is genuinely one of the most moving pieces of theatre I have ever seen.
2) Alex Horne: Seven Years in the Bathroom, 20.20 at the Pleasance Courtyard. Alex Horne has a very likeable manner and I was pretty certain that I would enjoy the show even before it began, because just watching him talk is enjoyable. I've been aware of Horne for a little while; I'd seen We Need Answers, his BBC4 forgotten sports programme and was generally aware of his involvement with the Cowards/Mark Watson ex-Footlights set. But this show far outstripped my expectations - in addition to his engaging persona, Horne's chosen conceit works really well. It is that the average man will live for 79 years and spend 7 of those in the bathroom, and he then breaks down not only the average amount of time spent doing most things (sleeping, eating, driving, whatever) but also divides the hour of his show into the equivalent percentages of time spent doing these things. If that makes sense. So, 5 minutes in the bathroom, however many minutes 'working' or 'dreaming'... He eats a Rustler's burger, gets an audience member to paint his portrait and another to do the housework, a panda talks with his voice - it's really quite something. And the main thing, of course, is that it's very, very, very funny. Also on the night we saw it he accidentally covered two audience members in sauce and I nearly fell off my chair.
3) Swamp Juice, 14.00 at the Underbelly. A very charming, weirdly exhilarating show, ostensibly for kids, but also for wide-eyed grown-up kids like me. Bunk Puppets, the company, had a piece up last year called Sticks and Stones and Broken Bones, which was also very beautiful and even made me do a little cry (this list is making me look like a wussy, but in reality I am extremely tough and manly and in my defence I was quite hungover that day); both are one-man shows performed by Mr. Bunk himself, a semi-mute clown character played by Montreal's Jeff Achtem. In both shows, he brings a bunch of shadow puppets to life; Swamp Juice is more narrative-based than its predecessor and the finale is stunning - first he brings the puppets out into the audience, with various audience members having to hold things up to create the scenery, and then HE MAKES THE SHADOWS GO 3D. I think Swamp Juice is my favourite for that reason (you've never heard a room of so many adults go "ohhh my gooooodddd" with such pure amazed happiness), but Sticks and Stones is returning to the Fringe for a brief run at the Udderbelly towards the end of the month and is also very, very worth watching. In conclusion: I love puppets so so much and Bunk Puppets shows are better than real life.
4) Humphrey Ker is Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher!, 19.15 at the Pleasance Courtyard. All three members of my favourite sketch troupe The Penny Dreadfuls have gone solo this year, which is sad in some ways (no Penny Dreadfuls show!) and great in others (three hours of Dreadfuls instead of one!), but mostly it is Interesting. I've been a big fan of theirs since 2008 - can't recommend their Brothers Faversham radio show highly enough - and seeing the very different directions all of their shows have gone in is fascinating. Thom Tuck's confessional Straight to DVD show, in which he discusses straight-to-DVD Disney films and heartbreak, and David Reed's Shamblehouse, off-the-wall one-man sketch comedy featuring a moving doughnut acrobatics tale, are both very funny and very much worth watching, as well as being admirably different to what I think of as characterising their previous work. But Ker's show is just so silly, so tightly written, packed with ridiculous accents and a tiny Romanian dog that it was one of the highlights of my Fringe. It's slightly Milliganesque in its pure beautiful silliness and it made me laugh so, so much.

5) The Behemoth, 16.45 at the Pleasance Courtyard. I'd seen John-Luke Roberts and Nadia Kamil do a few bits and pieces at Latitude 2009 and 2010 and couldn't wait to finally see their whole show because they just make me laugh so much; I saw John-Luke Roberts' solo show last year and loved it, but seeing them together is even better. Much like my last recommendation, it's glorious silliness throughout, right from the beginning, which features a truly special rendition of Stand By Me. After we left, my boyfriend was like, 'You know when you can tell from the first minute that you're going to like something...?' In addition to the show being generally hilarious, Roberts and Kamil have a fantastic rapport and make each other laugh a lot on stage, which I LOVE. I adore the transience of comedy, the feeling that the performance you see is special for you as an audience, so when something goes awry or people adlib it is just my favourite thing, and they were great at it. Also (and here's a shallow extra point for you), ALL of Nadia Kamil's outfits are super awesome. Ugh it's hard to talk about comedy, isn't it? Because just saying "it was really funny!!" doesn't really sum up why that is true, but we quoted this show a lot throughout the rest of the Fringe because it is packed with good stuff and I can't wait to see future offerings from them.

Some honourable mentions of things that very nearly made the list go to Death Song by You Need Me theatre company (I've seen and adored everything YNM have done after stumbling across How it Ended in 2008 and definitely not crying everywhere because, as we have discussed, I am So Manly), the brilliant Max and Ivan are Holmes & Watson and high-energy one-man-show Bane. Also I wanted to mention LUDS' Cagebirds, 13.35 at Greenside, which everyone should definitely see, but I felt this blog post had come a little late to do so properly, as it closes tomorrow; nonetheless, it's full of my friends and they're all bloody great in it, so GO if you can.

In conclusion: Edinburgh is great, I love lots of stuff, my body is still trying to process all the pie carbs I put into it (pie tally: iii) and I'm not sure my brain has recovered yet from two overnight coaches and lots of late nights. Bring on the next Fringe please.

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