Edinburgh Fringe 2016

I spent three nights at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2016 and wrote some stuff about what I saw.

 

DAY ONE

A Dogs Tale

So, my Fringe adventure starts with a play that I had no intention of seeing. There are only a couple of plays that I hadn’t booked in advance, and my first planned show was one of them – in case of transport complications. The Good News: The show had received rave reviews. The Bad News: it was now sold out. Since I was at the venue, I scoured the reviews of the alternative plays going on next door, and a particularly gushing one about this Musical canine caper made me purchase the ticket.

I won’t be quite as gushing, but it was great fun. A 1930s American gangster homage with the conceit that the characters are dogs. (Except one… Who is a cat. Obviously.) The script has a child-like glee, though whilst the puns started off charming, they became a little tiresome towards the end. The student cast completely made the show with some superb accents and pastiches of movie villains, and brought an energy and eagerness to the whole piece that sparked and crackled. For my money the songs were the weakest bit of the play, though they were performed nicely and didn’t intrude on the pacing.

A fun and enjoyable start to my Fringe 2016 adventure.

 

A Fragile Lift

There seems to be two synopsises of this play doing the rounds in Edinburgh, and if you read both then you have the entire plot already revealed. But this play isn’t really about plot. It’s the sort of bare bones setup that I am a fan of: two couples are trapped in two stuck lifts. Though they behave quite differently, they are more similar then you might think.

I was one of an audience of 7, which was a shame. I really liked the script, which gave the actors a chance to really shine. Which makes it all the more frustrating that they didn’t. The two male actors carried themselves well, though they were both playing to weaker actresses who seemed to be playing completely different characters to the ones the script was asking for – the words were witty, sarcastic, sassy… But the performances were whiny and dull.

That said, the 40 minutes seemed to fly, and I’m chalking this down as a good script that I’d really like to see performed with some added zest and a little more attention to the humour it contains.

Postscript: I later found out that one of the actresses was also the author of the play. Make of that what you will.

 

Stack

A riot. I’ve never seen actor and technician work together in such harmony as in this one-man(ish) show. It’s a supremely silly, frequently hysterical telling of Celebrity Explorer ‘Stack’s’ most recent TV documentary project, setting out to save a rarely-seen African tribe. (In Brazil.)

Self-referential to the end, ‘Stack’ has been on a Theatre course and is looking to wow us with his dramatical ‘real-theatre’ skits, musical experimentation and graphical projections. But it’s his conversations with pre-recorded voices that really impress, being a masterclass in comic-timing, including his conversations with pop star Sting, which gets complicated when voice clips that match the plot can’t be found.

There was a good reaction from the audience of about 30, but that still seemed criminally low for such a fine-tuned hour of entertainment. Highly recommended.

 

DAY TWO

Starship Osiris

On the face of it, this has many similarities to Stack in that it’s a piece about an irritating incompetent who thinks he has the ability to put on a Fringe show purely to massage his own ego. This piece uses the format of the Sci-fi space opera as its basis, but the cast seem to have had a rough time putting it all together. I can’t say I blame them with the insufferable lead actor, and soon enough, this will come back to bite him.

Things bump merrily along, until halfway into the running time, when they come to an abrupt stop as it all becomes too much for the cast to continue. A clever and amusing farce ensues, continuously re-writing the rules on where the boundaries between character, cast, crew and even audience lie.

I love Brechtian style theatre that is self-aware and happy to play with the audience – but I really don’t think I’d ever be brave enough to take that idea as far as this group did. That it worked so beautifully and seamlessly is testament to the skill and talent involved. I left in awe of their sheer cheek.

 

Don’t Panic, It’s Challenge Anneka

I knew I would be buying tickets for this as soon as I saw the poster art of a grinning look-a-like of 90s TV queen Anneka Rice and the channeling of one of my favourite TV shows as a wee boy, Challenge Anneka.

What I got was a marvellous homage to the program yes… But it was also so much more. Supported by the charity Anxiety UK, this was a moving one-woman show that explored various experiences of Anxiety Sufferers taken from real life stories and framed them into those safe and familiar memories of Saturday teatime in front of the telly.

I sympathised with the ways symptoms were presented that explained how debilitating the condition can be in ways that words alone just can’t manage. And when faced with some wise words of advice by Anneka Rice herself, appearing via the magic of pre-recorded video, I felt like I had been gently hugged and patted in the back.

The piece sets out with a mission and it succeeds.

 

Radio Active

Potentially the most mainstream thing I’m seeing over these three days. Radio Active was an 80s Radio 4 comedy that spoofed the new-at-the-time world of commercial radio. I’ve never heard the radio show, but I was a huge fan of its TV spin-off KYTV, which took a similar swipe at Satellite Television, so jumped at the chance to see Angus Deayton and the gang reprise their roles for the Fringe.

It was lovely to sit back, listen and chuckle to the pitch-perfect, ultra reliable performances of these extremely well written scripts. It also made me realise how much I miss Angus from his Have I Got News For You days.

A packed house revelled in the nostalgia, and as an added bonus, it turns out this performance was being recorded for Radio 4 again – so we got to see a few retakes. The cast bantered with the audience a little, then that was that and out into the Pleasance we went. Pity it’s fully booked, I’d have gone again.

 

The Cucumber Crime

My method at the Fringe has been to use the program in advance to look up all the shows that look like something I might enjoy, book tickets, and plan out my days so that I have very little decision-making to do once I am in Edinburgh. I then tried to avoid reviews and simply go wherever my pre-planned notes tell me to go.

This approach can be risky of course, and my luck finally ran out tonight. It’s not that I actively disliked The Cucumber Crime, more that it didn’t tick any boxes at all. It feels like it was written purely to get some young drama group members into the programme, with a witless and unoriginal script sporting a slightly unnecessarily crude sense of humour. Likewise, whilst the cast were adept at shouting out the lines quickly and moving in a cartoonish way that (mercifully) sped the script along, there was no stand-out performances, no characters, no light-and-shade.

Bit of a weak end to my second day at the Fringe.

 

DAY THREE

Holes by Tom Basden

4 people survive a plane crash into a desert island. One of them is a 16 year old girl, the other three are young adults who work in ‘Demographics’ and exist purely in a world of statistics and iPads, with little grasp of world affairs. After initial thoughts of how to get themselves rescued, they soon come to believe they are the only humans left in existence. Though with no relevant skill sets (some would say none at all) to lean on… What happens next?

This play provides one possible answer to this and, despite probing some dark territory, is both amusing and entertaining. Could everything we continually strive to learn and improve on actually help us even one iota if we end up outside our own self-created society?

The cast impressed me with their grasp of the script, and inventive staging created a whole world (well, island) for them to inhabit as we digest the fact that, in the end, the only skills that most of us have, is the ability to dig holes… Both physically and socially. Far better to have a way of getting out of them.

 

Ada Ava

The Fringe isn’t all about sitting in tatty basements watching a group of amateurs perform in front of small audiences.

No, some of it is quite cultured. Such as this amazing piece of puppetry fresh from Chicago. Although calling it puppetry is most certainly doing it a disservice.

With the aid of four overhead projectors, four puppeteers, three live musicians and an almighty stack of acetates, a beautiful cinematic show of shadows and props is built up on a screen above the performers heads. It’s hard to know where to look, up at the screen or down at the ingenious dexterity of the performers. In the end, I mainly focused on the finished product – a majestic, atmospheric, gothic piece that I would gladly watch in any cinema. That it was being created in front of our eyes using flapping hands and shapes on sticks was mesmerising.

Nothing I write can fully describe the visual luxury that this performance created, all I can really say is this was a highlight of my trip and possibly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

 

The D-List

I got tickets for this simply because a line in the programme blurb made me laugh… About how a man is thrust into celebrity life because he accidentally swore live on Children in Need. Housed in a tiny portacabin with barely room for the 4-person strong cast to breathe, they didn’t let this affect their efforts in this satire of those talentless reality TV winners who somehow become “celebrities”.

What the script lacked in originality, it made up for with a warm heart. The cast created mainly-lovable characters who I actually started to care about, and at the Fringe, to go with a sugary happy ending is almost as brave as it gets – so kudos there.

An enjoyable hour.

 

Parish Fete-ality – A Game of Scones

I rather dropped the ball with this one. This was an energetic satire of rural village life, where NIMBYs rule and everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Unfortunately it was also a satire of Game of Thrones,  that incredibly huge and unbelievably popular television series. That I have never seen an episode of. Oh dear.

No doubt each character in the cast was meant to channel a different performance from the television series, but not having seen it, this all went totally over my head. The plot was something about a parish vicar taking over the village against the wishes of a rich family who indulged in incest and all manner of lustful behaviour. Again, something to do with the TV show I suspect.

What I can say is that the cast threw themselves into their performances with a relentless energy that was reasonably compelling… Even though I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on.

 

Katie Brennan’s Quarter-Life Crisis

If I accidentally fell though a crack in the space-time continuum and ended up in a world where people sang their inner-most thoughts at other rather then, you know, just hold a conversation, I imagine this is what it would be like.

Katie has an immediate rapport with the audience that’s bubbly and energising, and a character that, at the very least, is as sparkly as the sequin-clad top she’s wearing. If you’re not sure whether you’re really going to enjoy someone bursting into song every few minutes ala any number of Broadway musicals, you are soon brought into the fold via a rousing and very non-Broadway medley of 90s pop hits that acts as the ice-breaker for the audience to know that Katie is not going to be shy this evening.

That thing about holding a conversation is the key here – for that’s what this is. A private chat between Katie and the audience, but with much of the wisdom extolled through powerful songs, performed with a superb voice that’s reaching for the last row of the Palladium… even though this venue is three rows of chairs in a wooden box. But for the atmosphere and glitz that’s created, we could be anywhere. The audience are lapping up Katie’s jokes, comic-timing and strong vocals.

‘Back to the filth!’ she cries after eliciting real tears from the audience after a genuinely emotional rendition of The Beatle’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’. And boy she’s not joking, the next song plumbing the depths of Katie’s views on ‘Bad Sex’.

It can be hard to cut-through at the Fringe. There’s musicals, plays, stand-up, and all sorts of various combinations and mash-ups of the lot. I’m not sure exactly what genre I would place Katie’s musical, devised, meaningful show, but I do know that I would put it high on my list of entertaining evenings.