The end of the party

Well, I am now back from Edinburgh and have to face the return to “real” life.    On my return, I have realised that hurriedly unpacking your life into a new flat and then leaving for two weeks of fun was not one of my better plans (though in my defence, it was less a “plan” and more what happened).  Finding stuff is proving surprisingly challenging as I struggle to replicate my thinking from early August – still, order is slowly being established (I think).

I had enormous fun in Edinburgh and I think I managed to take in 48 shows in my 11 nights in the city – which isn’t bad going for a man of my advanced years.  In previous years, I had booked everything long before heading north leaving nothing to chance of serendipity.  This year, largely down to the move, I had booked virtually nothing and most of my gigs were booked on the day.  This worked really well – though did perhaps benefit from my slightly left-field choices.

Last Thursday worked particularly well – and some of my choices were truly unplanned.  I started in mid-afternoon with Stuart: A Life Backwards – this was an amazing piece of theatre (rightly well-reviewed) and the sort of thing I doubt would appear on TV (or if it did, I probably wouldn’t have watched it).  Amazingly, it cost only £6 for a ticket (making it my cheapest paid event): I have no idea how this can work economically.  After the first half of dinner,  some fine autobiographical stand-up from Ivo Graham – well, I’m always going to love jokes about use of the subjunctive and subordinate clauses.  After the second half of dinner I was joined by one of my fellow best men.  We started the evening with the very funny and moving show from Tom Wrigglesworth as recommended by my host in Edinburgh.  After a refreshment break, we rather randomly selected a show on the Free Fringe at a nearby pub – I say randomly, though the choice may have been influenced by the title.  The show, by one Richard Gadd, was really very good – if quite dark – and we overcame our disappointment at the lack of either cheese of crack whores.  The pub offered decent beer and a pub quiz (which we largely avoided – the questions did seem to presuppose a much greater knowledge of Scottish football than either of us could muster) and also won the hard fought prize for the hottest Fringe venue (narrowly beating the Sportsman Bar at the Gilded Balloon into second place).  My plan for the next show was kiboshed by it selling out, but plan B worked rather well.  We took in the Set List show instead: I had vaguely heard the name but never seen it before.  Five comics do a brief stand-up set based on a series of random (I assume) concepts (usually 4 or 5) which they have never seen before – so this is never before seen material (though it was being recorded, so it may be seen again).  This was quite brilliant, aided by the cast comprising many of my favourite stars of Radio 4: Susan Calman, Marcus Brigstocke, Pippa Evans and Mitch Benn.   The only downside to the event was the slightly wobbly and very slippery stool I found myself perched on – I was expecting to perform my own, very brief, slapstick set at any moment!  Not something I wanted captured on camera.

The festivals also give one the chance to try something completely new.  The Chinese take on Coriolanus – complete with not one but two heavy metal bands – was less a success and more an experience.  It rather reminded me of a school production headed by a trendy teacher trying to make it “relevant to the kids”.  In one particularly emotional scene, the background metal did make me think of the rather camp film of Flash Gordon (sadly, no war rocket Ajax was dispatched).  Circa: Wunderkammer was rather more of a success – and my first exposure to the circus in more than three decades.  The only animals involved were human – all significantly stronger and more flexible than me (and with much better core control).  Is it too late to take up gymnastics?  Back in my youth, I was always defeated by the backward roll and I may now be too tall, but it would make for some decent party tricks if I could gain even a modest degree of mastery!

I loved the chance to make more adventurous choices which Edinburgh in August offers – and the relatively low costs help.  For the price of a decent seat in the West End, I could easily see 5 or more shows in Edinburgh – and, pleasingly, even the longest was only 1hr 40 mins so I could easily average 4 a day.  I’m not sure if this approach offers any way forward for the Arts more generally (for all I know the economics may rely on staff going unpaid and performers making a serious loss) or if it really does need that critical mass of events to make it work – but it would be nice to come up to London (or any other city) for a day and be able to fit in more than a single show in the evening (and still be able to catch a train home at a sensible time again afterwards).

But for now, it’s back to real life – the day job and a work trip to Manchester – but I shall try and retain the spirit of adventure in the months to come…  After all, living in a small gaff, the Arts offer a great way to spend my money: fun without any ensuing need to store anything!

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Skittish

I am now well into week 2 of this year’s Edinburgh festivals experience, so my body is probably running low on green vegetable-based goodness by now and the city’s cobbled streets have played their traditional havoc with my feet and ankles.  It is also probably time to mention my comedy experiences at the 2013 Fringe.

I should perhaps make clear that I have “views” on comedy – though as with most of my views, these are really rather mutable as I am not terrible good at sustaining dogma in any area of my life (I’d make a very poor fundamentalist).  I think that comedy, like jazz, is best served live in an intimate (even sweaty) venue – it really doesn’t work in a stadium (or even large theatre) and loses something when televised (though survives the transition to radio quite well).  As a result, I tend to stop seeing comedians when they become overly successful and start playing larger spaces, but this has the positive benefit that I do keep having to seek out fresh (to me at least) talent.

The seeking out of novelty does lead me to believe (wholly unrealistically) that I “discovered” some people and I am then quite inappropriately proud when they go onto greater things or critical acclaim.  On the plus side (for the performer at least), I do feel a responsibility to support their career until they become too successful (see above) and I can feel that my work is done.

I first saw Bo Burnham as a rather brief talking head on a BBC4 documentary on musical comedy (two things very close to my heart) and was forced to use a well-known search engine (you know, the one that encourages you to stare) to find out who he was.   Back in 2010, I booked his show on the basis of this rather limited knowledge and it totally blew me (and the critics) away – it was incredible dense with ideas and jokes.  I have been somewhat obsessed by this show (and his recorded output) ever since and was properly excited by his return to Edinburgh this year.  Despite him playing (and filling) an undesirably large venue, I went and he really didn’t disappoint – I should also mention that he is quite sickeningly young and American, so I was overcoming a lot of prejudices to love his show.

I’ve been following John Robins since he MC’d a gig in Cambridge several years ago.  I do worry about the lad as he remains resolutely unfamous (despite producing consistently funny shows) and he seems to play to small and less than full venues each year.  This year’s show was his best yet and I was really pleased to read some good reviews for it.  He deserves some success and I am going to make it my mission to ensure he gets it – though will admit I’m not quite sure how to make this happen.  A project for the long, dark winter evenings, perhaps.  Stuart Goldsmith is a similar project, but more about him in another post.

This has been a very good year for sketch comedy – both the Beta Males and Max and Ivan were largely new to me but excellent and Jigsaw were as stunning as I’ve come to expect.  For me, WitTank were this year’s top sketch act in an extremely silly but very funny show – I even got to take part, playing the triangle in a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria (which I think we can all agree is a pivotal role).  Actually, I have been starring in rather a lot of shows this year – I think it may be down to the fact that I have reached the age where I am more worried about leg-room than embarrassment and so am not afraid to sit in the front row (though not as yet, with Mark Lawson).

Whilst mentioning sketch comedy, I would also thoroughly recommend Daniel Rigby’s Berk in Progress – which was a little rough around the edges (given its “in progress” status), but exceeding funny.  I shall carry the phrase “mind beard” with me for a while and will never be able to look at Hungarian dance in the same way again.

I’ve tended to avoid “character” comedy in the past, but after seeing a little of him as part of a larger bill earlier in the year I took a punt on Kieran Hodgson.  HIs show based around a fictional(?) flood of the Lincolnshire town of Gainsborough was very funny indeed and once again provided a part for yours truly, as the police inspector’s deputy.  It also marked one of three shows where there has been some form of osculatory action between myself and the comic – another theme of the 2013 Fringe which the broadsheets seem to have missed.  Michael Legge also planted a smacker on me  — though I think I may have been the first audience member willing to play along with the conceit.  I also had a significant role in John-Luke Roberts’ wildly silly and very funny Free Fringe show which involved my apple balancing skills (using only my head) – initially very poor, but then rather too good – and also a slightly uncomfortable (and plain weird) serenade.

I tend to avoid one-liner comics as they relentlessness tends to grate after about 20 minutes.  However, I have heard so much about how great Gary Bainbridge joke-writing is that I decided to risk his show and was not disappointed.  I lasted the whole hour with no difficulty – and could have taken more – and boy can that man write a joke.

In terms of more traditional stand-up, I can also really recommend Alex Horne who’s show has an extremely clever McGuffin and is very funny.  I would also recommend James Acaster, who’s show as very good and very interesting to me as I’d seem a very early incarnation as part of a live ComComPod.  It was funny then and it was fascinating to see how much more funny he’d managed to extract from what might seem rather unpromising ideas in the intervening months.  I’d also really recommend Liam Williams – I’d only seen a little of him before, but his full show is very good and rather original.  It also one of very few occasions where I have found that my knowledge of English Literature was slightly inadequate.

Two people I didn’t see in Edinburgh, but caught in London’s terribly hip Spitalfields (not quite sure how I was allowed in) and would heartily recommend are Tom Rosenthal and Romesh Ranganathan.  I was singularly pleased when I discovered that their shows were deservedly  well-reviewed.

Jonny and the Baptists and Mitch Benn provided some excellent music-based comedy.  Mitch also provided my most exciting moment of the Fringe so far.  At the gig, I found myself sitting next to Ian Rankin – not planned, I just sat-down and looked to me left and recognised the chap and after a few seconds worked out why.  Given the cramped nature of most Fringe venues I was literally (in all senses of the word) touching with him.  I found myself trying to be cool, whilst also trying to decide how much accidental frottage I could get away with – in the hope that even the tiniest iota of his writing talent might rub off on me.

In short, this Fringe has provided a whole range of opportunities (real and imagined) to improve my performing and blogging skills – while I have an immoderate amount of fun (and consume quite a lot of IPA).  I fear it may prove quite tricky returning to my real life next week…

Moving times

This poor blog has been rather neglected of late, which I blame on the inconvenient need to live my life rather than just try and write a heightened and more humorous version of it.  In the last couple of weeks I have moved house (of which more in another post) and then, well before the unpacking was done, headed up to Edinburgh to enjoy the festive delights it offers the visitor in August.

In fact I have been in the Athens of the North (not quite as financially-challenged as the Edinburgh of the South) for almost a week now – and still have another five days before I must return to reality (and boxes).  When I first came up to the festival, it was for a mere three days – and the visit was annual.  I am now coming here four times a year and for ever longer periods – in practical terms, I am slowly moving to Edinburgh, but doing it with (I like to imagine) sufficient subtlety that no-one notices.  It’s a whole new way to “do” immigration – though may work less well if there were any border security.

For me, the “serious”, International Festival has been a festival of the piano – with three quite excellent piano concerts.  Any could have been the best of the year, but in a close-fought field Nikolai Lugansky came out on top of Mitsuko Uchida and Andreas Haefliger to claim the crown (not that any royal millinery was on offer).  Should his concert be repeated on Radio 3 I strongly recommend you try and catch it: it is only slightly marred by the severe and widespread TB outbreak during the early stages of Janacek’s In the Mists.  Fortunately, a cure – or merciful death – had arrived before the Schubert Impromptus.

The Fringe has been the now traditional combination of comedy, spoken word (a category that would seem to incorporate most comedy and theatre – with the exception of the sung and mimed) and theatre – though I have noticed theatre being pushed to the liminal space of the afternoon with comedians now dominating the evenings.  I quite like the matinee – as it means I can be earlier to my bed (and places me much closer to the youthful end of the audience age spectrum) – but it can’t be great for those with a day job.

Picking theatre – from the huge range on offer – is always a challenge.  I do use reviews – but only a pretty small percentage are reviewed in the broadsheets and their opinions often vary rather more widely than the layman might expect – so have had to rely on my own skill and judgment.  This year, I pinned my faith on writers and/or actors I knew and on the Invisible Dot as generally being reliable purveyors of stuff I might enjoy.  So far, so good – no duffers and I haven’t drowned.

Threesome was excellent and did involve the now traditional removal of most of their kit by the cast.  I’m not sure if this dis-robing trend is big in theatre at the moment, or just in the plays I have attended, but I have seen far more of actors – both famous and less well-known – over the last few months than I had ever anticipated.  Perhaps it reflects falling budgets and cost-cutting in the wardrobe department?

Holes had the added excitement of a mystery location – which turned out to be Portobello Town Hall and a coach trip.  We were dropped a little way from the venue and so enjoyed a walk along the promenade at Portobello and an ice cream – oh yes, not content with a volcano, castle, towns old and new and a bunch of festivals: Edinburgh also has its own beach resort.   The play was very good – funny and dark – but if you sit in the front row, do beware of flying sand and water!  Daniel Rigby was particularly excellent  – and tonight I shall be seeing him as a stand-up (in which role I first saw at the Fringe many years ago, before the acting – and broadband selling- rather took off).

Each of Use by Ben Moor was more a monologue with actions than a play, but was stunningly written.  One of the inspirations behind this blog – or at least something in the very far distance to which I aspire – is the radio show Elastic Planet written by Ben back in the mid-nineties.  Each of Us was at least its equal being packed full of wonderfully off-beat ideas and beautiful turns of phrase – who could resist “caramelised sellotape” to give but one example.  My writing has an awfully long way to go – as you, dear readers, will be all too well aware.

My most recent play was Moving Family – set in the back of a removal van driving across Newcastle.  Both funny and moving and making a serious political point this was a near perfect 55 minutes of theatre (and no clothing was removed).  My knowledge of Tyneside – gleaned from several years living in Jesmond and North Shields – even came in handy.

My comedy picks, I shall save for a later post.  But, in summary, it has been a very good festival so far and I’ve enjoyed rather un-Scottish weather: a lot of warmth and sunshine and very little rain.  It has been good to have the longer stay as it feels a little less rushed trying to fit things.  I hope to manage a few more plays before I go, but there are just too many to see – even if I spent the whole of August in Edinburgh (always a tempting prospect).  I shall have to hope that some of them make it down south and give me a second bite of the cherry – or just accept that part of the charm of live theatre is its transience…