Bifocal

Last weekend, I snuck back up to Edinburgh to take in the very end of the Fringe.  Well, it was sort of on my way to Belfast so I saved the cost of a return journey.  Usually, when in Edinburgh, I stay with friends who live a little distance from the city centre – but as this was a last minute decision, and given that buses are a little scant over the bank hoiiday weekend, I stayed in the city itself.  As is becoming a tradition when away from home, I stayed in student accomodation: which appeals to my desire for both thrift and nostalgia.  This was almost ideally placed – overlooking the Meadows and less than 10 minutes walk from all the main Fringe venues.  It was rather nice being able to pop-back between gigs and stay out after the last bus had departed (for the great garage in the sky) without having to worry about finding a cab and the cost of paying for one!  It was also very civilised strolling across the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links on Sunday morning to have brunch at Konditorei Falko: which provides a very acceptable and unhurried offering.

My little student flat was next door to the “prestigious” Quartermile development – and I worked out I could have stayed there for more than 16 years at the nightly rate for less than the smallest and cheapest apartment in that development (and that lacked my view across the Meadows or the free utilities).  It is always pleasing to lead some part of the life of the wealthy on a vastly lower budget.

Over a little less than 48 hours, I managed to take in 14 shows – a new personal best!  These were mostly quite hard to pigeonhole into a simple category, but most were really very good indeed.  They really made me appreciate the incredible variety of culture and human creativity on offer at the Fringe.  It made me realise the relatively narrow range of offerings that one can obtain via the haunted fish tank: though I rather fear that many of the things I saw would translate only poorly to that most stay-at-home of cultural media.

I shall attempt, with my hopelessly inadequate descriptive pose, to give you a flavour of a few of my favourites…

Spool: was a dance/theatre piece with two young chaps (called Murmurations) representing the mind and body of a single person.  This had some really interesting ideas and very clever use of props and I really enjoyed it.  I hope they take it further as I think there is more in it.

Folie à deux: comprised Andrew Hunter-Murray (who resisted the utge to hug me this time) and Charlotte Gittins improvising comedy for a full hour from a single word supplied by the audience.  This was some of the most enjoyable improv I have ever seen – who knew so much fun could be obtained from the word “pineapple”?  It was so good that I heard one erstwhile audience member saying he would have to re-evaluate his previous dislike of the form!

Letters from Windsor House: this was an amazingly fun theatre piece about housing in London (among many other themes) by a company called Sh!t Theatre (if it’s OK on Radio 4 at teatime, it is fine for GofaDM).  It was so good that I wish I could travel back in time and see their previous work (obviously, if I could travel back in time, there would be further potential benefits – and perhaps some risks).

Sci Fi: was a trio of actors called Singing Trees performing a comedy, sci-fi parody.  They played all the many roles and it was packed with gags and physical comedy.  It can proudly boast that it offered the best pun I have heard in a good long while.

Houdini: was a comedy/musical/magic extravaganza featuring Nick Mohammed’s character Mr Swallow with support from three others.  This somehow succeeded at being good at all three of its elements – often at the same time.  I saw the last performance and I’m fairly sure Nick was going off-script given the difficulty the rest of the cast had keeping a straight face.

Foxdog Studios: this is basically indescribable, but was the most fun I had at any show in Edinburgh this year.  There were hints of Kraftwerk, 8-bit gaming, scrap metal and a whole load more besides.  How anyone thought up the ideas and then decided to make a show out of them I do not know, but I am so glad they did.  The show used what I assume were more arduinos (arduini?), Raspberry pis, tablets, HD cameras, and other IT tech than would be contained several branches of Maplin combined (oh, and a cardboard box).  The show was part of the Free Fringe and, as an incentive to the audience to put a decent contribution into the bucket, offered veggie pasties made by one of the cast.  These were absolutely delicious – if I hadn’t been to the last performance, I would have returned to the show just to get another!  I also think that shows providing food is a very good idea and one that I wish to encourage.

Labels: was a relatively normal, one-man theatre piece by a company called Worklight.  I had missed out on seeing it in 2015 and on my earlier visit to Auld Reekie, but final caught the last show of this Fringe on bank holiday Monday.  I am so glad I finally made it as it was a really clever piece of theatre: both funny and at times shocking.  It was also oddly relevant given that I had just been reading about Pierre Bourdieu and anthropology.  Worklight have some new work in development which I shall definitely being seeking out.

All these show used five people (or fewer) and most took place in only a very modest space with no or fairly modest equipment.  It seems a pity that there isn’t a circuit for such interesting work to be a part of, and hopefully thrive on.  Much as I love going to Edinburgh, it would be nice if this kind of stuff could happen a little closer to home – and provide its performers with a year-round income.  Maybe it’s time for me to become some sort of entrepreneur and find a space and try and bring interesting productions to the south coast?  I quite like the idea, but don’t fancy the whole hassle of having to market the thing at the general public: then again, I do know a rather good salesman…

Ah, the title.  Yes, I probably ought to explain that.  While at the Foxdog Studios gig, I found that I had to be able to respond to things on a distant screen whilst controlling an avatar using the much closer screen of my mobile phone.  This did not prove straightfoward using a single pair of glasses and I fear my performance suffered as a result.  In consequence, I finally came to realise the potential benefit of bifocals – it would seem they are a must-have for the middle-aged gamer.

Spoken Word

GofaDM lies, almost exclusively, tied to the written medium in which it was created.  Despite this handicap, readers should not feel embarrassed to read it out loud – nor even to arrange soirées at which treasured extracts are read aloud and shared with an audience of right-minded folk (obviously, if money changes hands at such events, I shall expect to receive a cut).  Perhaps I should consider preparing an audiobook version of this blog?  This could attract those with fading (or faded) eyesight, that class of folk unwilling to commit to the effort of reading themselves and drivers others.

But that is, very much, by the by.  This post will instead form my final dispatch from the Edinburgh Fringe (you do know that I can hear you cheering, even at the back).  The Fringe brochure does have a very modest section entitled Spoken Word – but has much larger sections entitled Comedy and Theatre.  In my experience, both comedy and theatre do involve the verb “to speak” being applied rather directly and repeatedly to the the noun “word”.  For the avoidance of doubt, I shall be applying the title to cover theatre and poetry and the strange shadowlands that lie between.

One of the joys of the Fringe is the huge range of spoken word (my definition) on offer, usually (for budgetary reasons) with a cast of two or fewer.  One can see in a week a bigger range than is usually possible in a year: the challenge is always in the selection and the regret about the ones that “got away”: either from a failure of discovery or excess discovery by others (i.e. sold out weeks in advance).  Below are my recommendations from this year’s Fringe:

  • The Solid Life of Sugar Water: a two-handed play by Jack Thorne.  Given the bleakness of the material, it is about a couple dealing with the death of a child, this play has a lot of laughs – and I coped rather better emotionally than many fellow attendees.  I like to believe that it ended with a slight hint of hope for the future – but this may just be part of my own coping mechanism.  The staging is very clever and the two actors were both disabled: she was deaf (as required by the script) and he was largely missing one forearm (not mentioned in the play, so far as I noticed).  This made me realise how rare this is to see – especially where the disability isn’t a primary focus of the ‘action’.  In the real world, people with such ‘minor’ disabilities are far more common than you could guess from stage or screen – much like women and ethnic minorities and with as little excuse (though even less pushback).  Something to bear in mind in my own future theatre-going.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family by Ben Norris.  I can’t remember how I discovered Ben Norris (I don’t think he’s been on The Verb, so it must have been via Twitter) but this was my first chance to see him live.  The piece fuses theatre and poetry (and slide-show) very cleverly and was really enjoyable.  In a normal year, it would have been my poetry highlight, but this year was eclipsed by…
  • What I learned from Johnny Bevan by Luke Wright.  I’ve seen Luke’s poetry sets before, but this turned poetry into theatre and was at a whole new level.  Luke is a surprisingly decent actor (and can carry-off a top-knot with surprising élan) and the play is incredibly powerful, despite the very simple staging (and perhaps enhanced by the amazing venue at Summerhall – one time veterinary college).  This has rightly obtained very good reviews, though tickets were still surprisingly easy to obtain last week.
  • Stay at Home Dandy by Luke Wright.  After WILFJB, both Luke and I (separately) high-tailed it across Edinburgh to the Underbelly for his other show (the boy does like a challenge!).  This was a more traditional poetry set about his life on the school run, but is a lot of fun and well worth seeing.
  • This Will End Badly by Rob Hayes.  Once actor plays three characters, switching between them apparently at random (I suspect there may be more pattern than this, but I’d have to watch it more times to be sure) each in problematic situations.  The three characters have different accents and mannerisms which helps the audience to keep up, but you do need to concentrate.  Another powerful piece and a veritable torrent of words.  I saw it directly before Luke Wright’s two shows and by the end of this spoken word ‘trilogy’ and the level of concentration needed, I think my brain was starting to ooze out through my ears.

I find it even harder to select spoken word shows than stand-up (there is less chance to catch  works via YouTube, TV or radio – or I don’t know where to look) and I am more dependent on reviews or following writers or theatre companies whose work I have enjoyed in the past.  I guess 80% of this year’s highlights were from writers whose work I somewhat knew and the other came via a review – otherwise, the range on offer is just too great.  Still, this feels like an area of cultural life in which I should try and do better  and expand my horizons (it’s usually inexpensive, so no excuse there) – and not just at Edinburgh!

Fringe mastery

I believe this may be my tenth year of coming up to Edinburgh in August to see the Fringe and, sometimes, a little of the Festival to which it forms a rather overgrown adjunct.  However, as I type this racing south by train, I feel this is the first year that I have truly mastered the experience (obviously, mistressy remains an even higher standard, but one which will ever lie beyond my reach).

This hard-worn mastery has a number of components which, as the more prescient or fatalistic reader will have realised, I am going to reveal to you (whilst studiously avoiding use of the phrase ‘life hack’ – except just then).

Let’s start, as some actors do, with the feet.  Enjoying the Fringe does involve a lot of walking around: most of it up hill and much of it over cobbled ground.  This can – and, in the past, did – play havoc with a chap’s feet and ankles.  This year, in one of those flashes of insight which is such a rare visitor to my intra-auricular void, I travelled north with the perfect footwear solution.  What are these wonder-shoes?  They are a pair of New Balance 1060s, bought several years ago as urban walking shoes: but rarely used.  They entered my life just as I started cycling everywhere and they make for a poor cycling shoe.  As a result, they have lain forgotten at the back of the wardrobe for several years – just waiting their chance to shine.  Shine they most certainly did – taking hills and cobbles in my stride.  Never have I left Auld Reekie with such undamaged feet.  I’ll admit that they lack style – and whilst gloriously breathable (a boon in the hot and sweaty venues that characterise the Fringe) are not the ideal companions in heavy rain or deep water – but they have more than repaid my faith in them.  No longer will they be mocked by more obviously popular footwear in my wardrobe: they have (finally) found their niche.

Next, I shall turn my attention to the duration of the visit.  I started at a mere couple of nights and have gone as far as a fortnight.  This year I went with a week – and I feel that is the perfect length.  Enough time to indulge thoroughly in the delights on offer, but not so much time that the physical and mental toll on the visitor becomes excessive.  To avoid missing out on too much on offer, in the weeks prior to Edinburgh I caught a number of acts previewing their shows – which is also quite a thrifty option (special thanks must go to ARGCOMfest and the BAC).

This year, I also decided that you may have a very fine show – but if it starts after 22:00 it will not be graced(clumsied?) by my presence.  I now miss the last bus home for no man (or woman) – and so can generally have my head in contact with pillow by midnight.

It is generally best to avoid buying beer in most of the paid Fringe venues – the choice for the connoisseur is limited and prices are higher (£4.00-£4.50 per pint!).  The Free Fringe or Fringe-free venues are a better bet with prices falling to £3.90 (that I have lived to see the day when £3.90 seems a relatively reasonable price for a pint) and a much better range of session ales on offer.  This year, I acquired a cold mid-way through my visit – though my immune system has already (almost) sent it packing – so on health grounds, during the day, I switched from beer to black tea for my liquid refreshment requirements.  This was a much cheaper option and must shoulder much of the blame for my current abnormally healthful state.

This year my events formed a rather pleasing balance between comedy, spoken word and circus (of which, more in later posts).  In the past, I think I have tended to over-emphasise comedy and it can all become a something of a blur – but adding circus made for a much more balanced(!) mix.  I also spread myself across a wide range of venues and between the Free and paid Fringe – though, in general, I pay as much (or more) for the Free Fringe – so the latter is rarely the cheaper option.

The final element is my growing knowledge of where to find some decent food or a refreshing session ale when one is called for.   This year’s discovery was Malone’s – an unexpectedly spacious and architecturally-interesting Irish bar which is handily close to several Fringe venues.  Here, standing on the gallery, I took in the second half of the England-France rugby match and indie music from the Free Fringe.  Not a combination which would generally be wise, but it was time-saving and did make for an enjoyable end to an evening out.

The Sussex with the fringe on top

Though only if you move away from the current norm of placing north at the top of your map (which is a purely arbitrary – and fairly recent – choice) .  Yes folks, yesterday I hied myself to the Rape of Lewes, deep within the Hundred of Whalesbone – and no, I was not interfering with a be-corseted woman in an unwanted manner, but was actually visiting Brighton.

Having been an annual visitor to the Fringe in distant Edinburgh for a decade now, I had never been to its equivalent in the much more physically proximate city of Brighton – a lack which I fixed yesterday.  I cannot claim this was as the result of long planning, but rather of a whim on Friday afternoon spurred by an only tangentially connected tweet.

The two fringes have many similarities, including exactly the same ticketing system.  I went to two gigs on the free fringe – which, as in the north, take place in the overly warm function rooms of city pubs (in general, the functions are surjections) – and two at the paid fringe.  So, as in Edinburgh, you can see that I tried to fit far too much into a day – which due to the vagaries of Southern Railways had to end by 20:30 to catch the last train home (I believe the burghers of Brighton are unwilling to have Southampton folk loose in the city after sundown – I suspect we lower the tone).

Brighton has some differences from Edinburgh – it tends to be warmer for a start.  It does seem to attract – at least around the North Laine – a collection of folk who make the denizens of Hoxton or Shoreditch seem so hopelessly unhip that you worry their legs might fall off.  I have never seen such a concentration of artisan coffee, vintage clothing and architectural salvage shops clustered together before.  I even saw a shop that sold only bonsai trees – can this really be commercially viable?  As a result, I found it very difficult to keep a straight-face (which I suppose may not be critical, in a certain sense, in Brighton) and almost had to be carried out helpless with mirth.

My free fringe venue of choice (or random selection) was the Croline of Brunswick which offered a very potable pint of Adnam’s Ghost Ship.  Based on the sign outside, I believe the propaganda of George IV may have been all too successful on the south coast and the famously chaste queen was shown in a substantially more lewd pose than modern historical scholarship would support.  The function room has the potential for decent ventilation, but this was curtailed by the noise from outside (requiring the windows to be closed), and relatively comfy chairs (I have, and was about to, sit on far worse).  I saw two James’s (serially, rather than in parallel)- Veitch and Bennison – who both provided laughs from shows in differing stages of completion.  Worryingly, one (James B) recognised me from Edinburgh – which suggests I am even more memorable than I had feared.  I shall have to work harder on my anonymity.

My paid fringe gigs could have been in Edinburgh, as they took place on a patch of worn grass near a larger building (in this case St Peter’s Church).  This grass was largely covered in tents, pop-up food stalls, unsanitary-looking loos and other temporary performance “boxes”: if I had woken there with amnesia I could easily have believed I was in St George’s Square in Auld Reekie.  In Edinburgh, the “boxes” are usually some sort of portacabin but here it was (literally) a shipping container, fitted out in hardboard (which included the seating – all hard wood and right-angles) – and in this container I spent two hours (with a short break between).  It provided a strange admixture of comedy and the feel of being on the wrong end of human trafficking.

Both the acts I saw had a connection to Exeter – coincidence? You decide.  The Jest were a sketch group with some pretty successful and original sketches in their armoury.  However, the stand-out (and indeed, up) star of my day was Mike Wozniak.  I’d previously seen him doing sketches with Daniel Rigby and Cariad Lloyd, but this was the first time I’d seem him doing solo stand-up.  He was excellent, sufficiently funny to make me (almost) forget the discomfort of my body.

My day in Brighton ended with a couple of shocking sights.  As I ascended the steep hill to the station (another link to the Athens of the North) I passed a rather brazen commercial premises.  As an old fogey, I think of mange as a mite-based skin disease of canines (and other animals) but clearly to the young people it has another meaning.  As so often with the popular, there would seem to be an exploitative secondary market where mange is sold to the desperate at many times its face value.  I was shocked to see that a mange tout was plying his wicked trade quite openly from a substantial commercial premises.  Truly, we love in debased times.

Brazen!

Brazen!

On reaching the station, I found myself a little peckish (a virtually unheard of occurrence, as regular readers will realise) and so popped into the M&S for sustenance.  Being a healthy chap, my eyes were draw to a pack of four small apricots.  My eye was then repelled from the price associated with these very diminutive fruits of the Prunus armeniaca – £3.70! which M&S helpfully explained was 92.5p each.  I guess a city whose economy can support the purchase of such fruit would think nothing of a weekly trip to bring fresh bonsai home.  Still, too rich for my blood and I slunk back to Southampton.  Nevertheless, a very enjoyable – if at times sweaty and uncomfortable – day, just remember to bring your own fruit with you should you visit Brighthelmstone without a few million in the bank.

Final Fringe favourites

This morning I find myself leaving Edinburgh bathed in glorious sunshine – and, if the weather forecast is to be believed, will return to Southampton to be bathed again, this time in torrential rain.  Still, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive (or so I’m told in a metaphor for life) and the scenery from the train window as we head toward Berwick has rarely looked finer.

I have had a wonderful time in Auld Reekie, not just enjoying the various festivals but also catching up with a load of friends.  Nevertheless, I am quite grateful to be returning to “real” life as I need the rest!  Too much stimulation and too many late nights makes Jack a very tired boy (or middle-aged man, as the case may be).  My head, well those small parts not devoted to empty space, is overflowing with culture – high, low and all points between – which is slowly stewing together to make some sort of cultural casserole between my ears.  I have yet to tot up how many events I attended this year, but I am quietly confident that it will be a new personal best – perhaps around 60.  This seems a lot to me, but a couple of days ago I encountered someone who had attended 283 (and he was no spring chicken).  That’s more than 10 a day!  Surely this must be a lethal dose? It makes me question my own commitment to the Arts  – but I am not planning to compete any time soon, I just don’t have the stamina.

I do realise the essential futility of recommending Fringe shows as the festival has, essentially, ended – but, if I was put off be the pointlessness of my actions this blog would be a great deal shorter than is, in fact, the case.  Plus, it is always possible that these shows may tour to a village hall or cosy drawing room near you and then you’ll thank me! (Well, a chap can hope.)  So, here goes nothing…

Signal Failure: a two-handed play, which would probably be described as a rom-com, was very good, though in a move which may disappoint at least one regular reader, railway signalling took no part in the action whatsoever – not so much as a cheeky permissive block reference.  This does mean the market is still waiting for a line-side signal-based romance.

Donald Robertson is not a stand-up comedian: was also very good, if initially slightly confusing as it was a play about a stand-up comedian (all very meta after all my recent exposure to stand-up).  Very nicely constructed story-telling with (to me at least) an unexpected twist at the end.

Will Adamsdale: mostly sedentary stand-up which was both funny and oddly uplifting.

Mark Watson: as excellent as ever and a chap who can make a larger venue (Pleasance One – there is no Two) feel intimate.

John-Luke Roberts: the man is barking, but very funny – and likely to be scurvy-free for some time to come.  Luckily I was not required for the extensive audience participation this year, though I did have the good fortune to sit next to Thom Tuck who must have the filthiest laugh on the Fringe.

Mat Ewins: this was even more stupid than J-LR and I am slightly worried we may have been laughing at, rather than with, Mat.  We may have been witnessing a man having a breakdown (though I’m used to this as a listener to the Shaun Keaveny Breakfast Show) and you would have to be in the right frame of mind for the show, but if the stars align(or you are as silly as I am) you will laugh a lot.

I saw many other shows that were a lot of fun, but it’s always best to leave the audience wanting more (says the man typing post 512 – or thereabouts).  I think the moral here is to give the Arts a chance – often it does’t have to be wildly expensive (very few shows cost as much as three pints of bitter) – and they can provide fun for all the family (and beyond), though feel free to spread your fun out over a slightly longer period of time than I have!

Navigating the Fringe

According to the Guardian, the broadsheets have largely abandoned reviewing productions on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and folk are having to turn to other less traditional sources for information (though I don’t think they were directly suggesting GofaDM).  This came as news to me (which I guess fulfils their remit as a soi disant newspaper) given the tendency of these same broadsheets to give very good reviews to things I want to see, thus making them either very crowded or sell-out in advance of my intended visit.  Or perhaps this is just further evidence of my deep connection with the current zeitgeist and I should soon expect a lucrative writing gig with one of the aforementioned broadsheets.

I am far too lazy, and frankly lack the skill, to offer readers detailed and star-based reviews of the shows I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.  Instead, I shall offer you my recommendations of the best shows I have seen to-date.  Why is he inflecting his irrelevant opinions on us again, mummy?  Well, at least one person asked for it (though not, I will admit in blog form) and so now you will all suffer!  So, please blame him or her: as so often it is always one person who spoils it for the rest.

Before I proceed, I should remind everyone that comedy (as so much in life) is a rather subjective experience and so just because I enjoyed something, there is no guarantee that anyone else will (though I would note that other people were at least laughing and giving the appearance of having fun at all of the gigs I am about to mention – however, this may have been the result of peer-pressure or the use of mind-altering substances, like cheese).

In roughly the chronological order in which I saw the shows, the following receive the GofaDM imprimatur of quality.

Nick Dowdy: never has going to a hardware shop in Crouch End been so much fun (or so disturbing).

Josh Howie: some have said he under-sells his punchlines, but this was great fun for those who remember the 80s.  I also learnt how useful a pregnant woman can be, as I sat near one and she (and by extension, yours truly) was cooled by the only fan at the gig.  Could the gravid hire themselves out to over-heated Fringe-goers as a way of defraying the high costs of bringing up a child?

Nish Kumar: how could I resist a fellow insomniac with a “statement” nose.  Sadly, I had tried even his most outré aid to sleep – and, for me at least – it doesn’t really work (though I had never tried mixing the two elements).

John Robins: even better than last year’s show (which was a tough act to follow) and somehow quintessential Robins.  Incidentally, I would thoroughly recommend his show on XFM with his radio wife – Elis James.  I listen via the podcast as it neatly avoids the adverts which otherwise make commercial radio anathema to me.

Stuart Goldsmith: a show for which I had seen an early preview – which was itself very good.  The final show had changed enormously and was even better – and for those that listen to comcompod covered all the key elements of “Goldsmith”.

Wittank: by some distance the silliest show I have seen this year and also uproariously funny.  I do feel that anyone who doesn’t laugh at this must be at least somewhat dead inside.

Tim Key: I can never explain why he is funny, but even in the cavernous surroundings of the Pleasance Grand he still made me laugh.

More recommendations may follow, as an unusual proportion of my first week was spent at the “proper” Festival, pretending to be a serious adult, and so attendance at more comedy gigs will be scheduled in the week ahead.  You have been warned!

All of the other shows I’ve seen have been perfectly decent with many a laugh, but didn’t achieve the consistently high standards of those listed above, so I’d thoroughly recommend taking a punt on a show on the basis of an even sketchier recommendation than mine.  This is especially true on the Free Fringe which seems to improve in standard every year and where you can also, in a very modest way, feel like you are sticking it to “the man”.  It also one of the few times when you can feel a moral obligation to partake in a pint of beer.  When I bring my middle-aged, gymnast comedy show to the Fringe to mark my fiftieth sidereal year on this rocky outcrop, I’m wondering if I can stage it in a fromagerie  – with the venue costs being covered by purchases of cheese by my audience.  I will, of course, need to find a cheese shop with nice, high ceilings – but, frankly, that is the least of the issues involved in preparing my “show” as the comedy stylings of this blog will have made clear to regular readers.  I may be presenting the first Fringe show which requires its own York Notes or (alternatively) to insist that the audience pre-qualify (perhaps by means of an NVQ) for attendance to ensure that they will at least understand my faltering attempts at humour.  Twenty-three months and counting to EdFringe 2016, so given my usual rate of progress I better get my skates on (and invent a time machine).

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…

Yawn free?

My Fringe binge is drawing towards its close and I have this morning “off”, except for a modicum of IT support (which is the currency that I exchange for my accommodation), so I felt it was time to bring my readership up to date with my “doings”.

Booking later and to a less rigid plan, coupled with fewer late night gigs, has definitely been a success – though, perhaps oddly, has failed to result in my aged limbs finding the duvet’s embrace any earlier.  My gig choices have generally been sufficiently obscure (or, indeed, unpopular) that I have failed to obtain tickets to very few of my original selections – and the resulting need to explore more interesting alternatives has resulted in some excellent choices.

This is the first year I have tried Fringe theatre and my two examples so far have been excellent – with my third to come just after lunch.  I can thoroughly recommend Blink! at the Traverse and Oh the humanity… at St Stephen’s: both combined small casts and minimal sets but still provoked real laughs and some serious thinking, as already established it is much easier to sneak a “message” past my defences if it is accompanied by a good sprinkling of jokes (though whether I’m thinking the “intended” thoughts I’m never wholly convinced).

With the exception of the theatre, none of my Fringe choices have cost more than a tenner (obscurity is your friend), and even those have been some of my cheapest theatre going experiences of the past year.  As treasurer of an arts charity, I now found myself counting seats and worrying about the financial viability of the artists who have been entertaining me over the course of this last week.  Even if the venues are very cheap to hire (which I suspect may not be the case, despite their rather ad-hoc nature), the costs of a month in the Athens of the North (which given the collapse of the RBS and Bank of Scotland may be a more appropriate choice of alias than in days of yore) are going to make break-even little more than a dream for most.  Laundry costs alone must be substantial given the small and very sweaty nature of most of the performance spaces.  If I were ever to perform at the Fringe, the music played while the audience are waiting for my (not-so-grand) entry would be a recording of me playing a piece of 100+ year-old music on the piano or recorder to save on PRS costs, though oddly no-one has gone this route, yet…

Most stand-up is just the one person, but I’ve been to see a couple of sketch groups – which must have higher accommodation costs or else be very close.  Both Jigsaw and the Three Englishmen (Spoiler Alert: ** contains four men **) were very good (and extremely silly) and far more hit than miss (unless you count Nat Luurtsema as a miss).  Both shows may provide fodder for future nightmares: in the case of Jigsaw relating to fellation of Tom Craine (one of the risks of sitting in the front row) and for the “beef” Englishmen (ask Tom Goodliffe) I shall never be able to watch Nigella again.  I think sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my late night Radio 4 listening when a lad (for some reason it seemed to be banished to the post 23:00 slot), may be having a bit of resurgence.

Perhaps my biggest insight from this year has been the joys of the Free Fringe.  These events have no tickets or entry cost, you make a donation on exit, and the artists don’t pay for the venue – which I think is funded through bar sales (as they seem to take place in pub basements, usually of establishments offering a rather better range of beer than the paid Fringe).  I am wondering if this can be a funding model for classical music?  I’ve been to three FF (and now I abbreviate it, it is obviously my natural home) events so far: all have been excellent and include my two top Fringe shows of 2012.  Domestic Science was good fun, and properly educational: I shall never look at turmeric in quite the same way again and now want a stick dulcimer.  Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD was hysterical and I’ve now booked to see his new show this evening.  However, this year’s winner of the comedy Fringe is Nick Doody and his soi-disant Massive Face.  Most shows have been good for 50-55 minutes – a few with material for only around 40 – but have reached a conclusion after an hour and I’m happy to leave. I reckon Nick did a good 70 minutes and I would have been happy to stay all night.  I’ve only really seen him once before, also in Edinburgh, and he was brilliant then as well (a show I still remember bits of years later) – this man ought to be properly famous and not just to those of us who haunt late night Radio 4 and listen to the full list of writers at the end of the show to pick their choices for next year’s Fringe.

I know readers worry about the level of my calorific intake, so let me put your minds at rest.  I am now so well-known in Bonsai, that they know my usual – not bad in a bar-bistro more than 300 miles from my home.  Yesterday I also discovered the Edinburgh Larder – which provided quite the finest takeaway sandwich I can ever remember consuming and the accompanying brownie was pretty special too.  I may have to return in around 90 minutes time… (assuming I can hold out that long).

I have also learned some stuff about myself – and not just that I am now obsessed about the financing of the arts.  I have now reached an age where I am no longer afraid to sit in the front row – it usually has the best leg room, and that is way more important than the risk of being “picked on”.  I have also let go of yet another element of my masculinity.  I used to find the individual rooms at some of the larger venues using my own skill (or an exhaustive search): now I just ask some child employee (there seems to be almost no-one employed who would have had their own door key in my youth) or, at a pinch, anyone wearing a lanyard.  It is so liberating – and quick – I think the rest of my masculinity may not be long for this world (if only I had a feminine side to fall back on).  Or is this just the last of my shame finally departing for a less challenging assignment?

Traditions

For those of a certain vintage, tradition becomes increasingly important – if only as a bulwark against the ever-increasing rate of change.  I also find that I start to develop a growing number of traditions of my own – and the last couple of days has scored quite highly in the I-Spy Book of Fish Traditions (a book with a rather limited potential market I’ll admit – but that’s the joy of e-publishing, or so I’m told).

On Thursday I made my annual August pilgrimage to Edinburgh and, as is my wont, spent most of the journey stuffing my face with the nourishing largesse provide by East Coast to its first class passengers.  Unusually, my journey was routed via Kings Cross – as this offered the cheapest Advance fare at the time of booking (I may be first class, but I am still cheap and do manage to consume most of my fare in free food and drink, further boosting its value for money credentials) – so I was able to check out the newly revamped station.  This is a significant improvement on the old rather tatty concourse, and has even gained a platform – though those travelling with an owl will be disappointed to learn that it is numbered 0 (zero) rather than 9.75.  As part of the revamp, there has been a major boost to increase standards of customer care, evidenced by the announcements advising us to take care as we wandered around the terminal because of the “inclement weather”; this on one of this year’s all-too-rare warm, dry and sunny mornings.  If only other sections of our rail network aspired to – and better still delivered – such high standards.

Auld Reekie was bathed in glorious sunshine and in my first 24 hours in the city I managed to cover pretty much all of the traditional activities I have accreted over the last few years.

  • Seriously good classical music: Tick.  The Arcangelo consort and Iestyn Davies doing the honours at Greyfriars Kirk (no relation to James T, so far as I know).
  • Quirky comedy: double Tick.  Both Matthew Crosby and Stuart Goldsmith were huge fun.  I’m always puzzled where Mr G is not better known: I caught him as part of a triple bill of folk trying out their Edinburgh acts in Cambridge a few years ago (3 for £5) and discovered he was brilliant.  Yet another example of why it is important to try things you don;t yet know you like.  Push that envelope!  Lick that stamp!
  • Serious cake: Tick.  The Falko konditorei in Bruntsfield does provide some serious cake (or more accurately torte) action for the true connoisseur – and the hike across the Meadows from the Pleasance does significantly ameliorate any feelings of guilt that might otherwise be involved.
  • Bonsai: Tick.  On my first ever visit to the Fringe, I needed to find a decent eatery near the Pleasance – and the miracle of the interweb brought me to Bonsai.  This could be the best bit of browsing I’ve ever done as it is now my regular haunt whenever I’m in Edinburgh.  Japanese food is genuinely fast and sustaining, and so I can grab a quick “course” between gigs.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day – so often have I been, that the staff recognise me even though I’m only a customer for a single week each year.

The second 24 hours was pretty good too.  I can add Michael Legge and Lloyd Langford to my comedy recommendations – though I’d see the former sooner rather than later, as I’m not sure his heart will hold out much longer.  My plan to try and do a little bit less is working nicely – though doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of earlier nights yet.  Yesterday, it meant that I escaped from the rather limited (for which read, non-existent) cask ale offerings at the Fringe venues to visit the Regency splendour of the Cafe Royal.  Not a cafe, but a very fine pub which provided your truly with a brace of pints of Deuchars IPA at a significantly lower price than the nitro-kegged horrors on offer at the Assembly Rooms (though still at a price level that shocks those who fondly remember Joey Holt’s at 99p/pint in the Bluebell in Moston).  My visit also scored me another minor celebrity spotting to add to my list: the long-haired TV archeologist Neil Oliver.

Yesterday also yielded another traditional (and for the reader, tedious) trope with news reaching me of the official opinion on my latest OU essay.  It once again yielded 95 of your English marks (somehow I can never quite make it to 96): given the amount of blowing this particular trumpet is receiving at my hands, my embrasure must be coming along nicely.

Today I shall be breaking new ground, with my first visit to the theatre in Scotland – but first, back to tradition: the full Scottish breakfast.  So for the next hour or so, black pudding, bacon and sausages will be deemed to be vegetables (mostly).

Not a flyer in sight

No, I am not reporting live from Heathrow but remain in Auld Reekie. For the first time in several years, I am visiting Edinburgh away from its famous Festival and Fringe.  As a result, the streets are strangely empty of tourists, performers and their provisional, marketing wing: no-one has tried to hand me a flyer all week!

Despite the apparent entertainment vacuum, there is still plenty for a chap to do.  For a start, it has been great to catch up with old friends (by which I mean long-standing, rather than antique – though at my age, the two are becoming synonymous concepts) and their new arrivals.  And what a charming new arrival… just don’t show her a hat! (I was unable to test her opinion on the fascinator issue – jumped-up alice band or mini hat?).

For the first time ever, I saw the Forth Rail (and road) Bridge: up close and personal. There is always a risk with such an iconic star of page and screen that reality will disappoint – but not in this case.  Its sheer physical presence just can’t be captured by an image (though I, in common with many before me, have attempted to do so) – and, for the first time in many years, it is not being painted at the moment and so is scaffold-free.

In the glorious afternoon weather yesterday, I ascended to the summit of Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the stunning views (and obtain a little exercise).   As a result, I would like to suggest to Arthur that his seat could do with some work in the upholstery department – even the odd scatter cushion (normally anathema to our hero) would provide a more comfortable sitting experience.

Prior to my ascent in search of a sit-down, I visited Earthy – a splendid eatery in Causewayside – where I was furnished with the finest example of the quiche-maker’s art that has ever passed my lips: aubergine, chilli and feta were the headline ingredients, but I suspect the secret was in the fluffiness of the underlying egg-based substrate.  Possibly even more excitingly, I sampled a new vegetable – new not only to me, but also to the world (having been first reported only one year ago – almost to the day!).  This was the flower sprout the bastard love-child of kale and the brussel sprout.  Apparently, this off-spring was achieved without genetic modification – so I can only assume the “process” required huge patience, subdued lighting and a Barry White CD.  Luckily, their efforts were not wasted and the child takes after its father in taste (assuming kale was the daddy) – and is delicious served  cold with chilli and sesame seeds (and probably in many other ways too!).

There has been culture too – with the visual arts being complemented by a stunning performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Queen’s Hall last night.  Not many laughs compared to my traditional Edinburgh cultural fare perhaps, but some of the finest live music it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy (and at a very recession-friendly price too!).

So, if you are looking to escape the depressing winter weather of the home counties, I can thoroughly recommend a mini-break to Scotland!