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Well, the second half started on a high with the National Theatre Of Wales production of The Dark Philosophers*****, stories by Gwyn Thomas interspersed with scenes from his life.  A mountain of wardrobes provided multiple entrances and exits, and eight brilliant actors played the many roles in a wonderfully theatrical and ingenious staging. The tales are dark but the life story funny, and it’s punctuated by a lot of beautifully sung music. I took a short while to get into the rhythm of it, after which I was spellbound. A triumph; I left the theatre wanting to adapt Brian Blessed’s Oscar moment and shout ‘the Welsh are coming’.

More storytelling followed after lunch with another national company – the National Theatre of Scotland – in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart**** (the second of three shows from the prolific David Grieg). Prudencia is an expert on the history of the folk ballad and her story is told in a restaurant / cabaret bar with the cast moving between (and on to) the tables to play out the scenes and play in the folk band at one end. It’s an odd staging for storytelling, but it worked. It’s a touch overlong, but the infectious cast pulled it off.

My fifth show by site-specific specialists Grid Iron was their first real failure.  They’ve moved closer to Punchdrunk’s territory, but it’s too staged and you never get lost in the immersive experience, because it’s not that, well,  immersive. In What Remains?** ,we’re exploring the life of a pianist, composer and head of a conservertoire as we attend a recital and a lesson / audition and visit the museum of his life. More puzzlingly, we also get to apply for the conservertoire during a sleepover! David Paul Jones is a better composer and pianist than he is an actor and it just didn’t stir any emotions or involve you. You can’t be a voyeur at an immersive piece!

Back at the Traverse for Futureproof,**** a play about a freak show, which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It was a much more thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about the motivations and feelings of both those who staged them and those who appeared in them. It needed more pace, but it was beautifully performed by a cast who had to become the world’s fattest man, a bearded armless woman, half man / half woman, conjoined twins and a mermaid (well, she was a fake rather than a freak!).

Alan Bennett’s monologue, A Visit from Miss Protheroe***, about a recently retired man getting a visit from a former colleague was a showcase for Nicholas Parsons (yes, it is he!) and Suki Webster (AKA Mrs Paul Merton). It was a charming if slight 30 minutes and given neither are proper actors, they did a decent enough job (though Parsons appeared to have given up on a northern accent within a few minutes!).

Our final visit to the Traverse was back in sweltering Traverse Two for the third offering from David Grieg, a musical comedy called Monsters in the Hall***. We’re back in storytelling territory with no set or props, the cast left to create everything – and it was their virtuosity that impressed most. It wasn’t a patch on Midsummer, his 2010 hit musical comedy which transferred to London (twice), but fun nonetheless.

Back to music at the lovely Queens Hall. The Burns Unit**** are one of those groups that come together occasionally, with the members having separate bands / careers. I only knew folkie Karine Polwart, so I wasn’t expecting something quite so poppy. It took a while for the sound to fit the hall and for the band to settle, but what followed was 100 minutes in Decemberists / Midlake zone distinguished by good songs, terrific vocals from the three girl singers and a sort of Weilesque quirkiness at times. It certainly whetted my appetite for more.

Tuesday at Tescos*** sees Simon Callow in drag as a transvestite visiting his father who won’t accept him as he is. I couldn’t understand why it was  punctuated by live discordant piano music, and I do wish he’d dressed better to hide his belly and calf muscles! I didn’t really engage with it, I’m afraid, so as much as I admired the acting, I wasn’t moved by the story.

I was moved by Bones****; I can’t see how you couldn’t be by a teenage boy’s tale of neglect and abuse. Forced to look after his drug addict mother and baby sister, he contemplates infanticide. We move between his day today and past events, particularly a life changing holiday in Skegness with his mother and grandfather. It was a harrowing 45 minutes, but it was performed with passion and sensitivity by Mark Doherty. If Africa Heart & Soul showed the international spirit of the fringe and Arthur Smith it’s comic spirit, then this is the spirit of fringe theatre.

I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate and uplifting ending than seeing Dundee’s Michael Marra**** at the St Brides Acoustic Music Centre. He’s got a lived-in voice and a lived-in face and delivers his delightfully funny and quirky songs like a cheerful Tom Waites. He’s a real one-off who sadly hardly ever ventures south of the border, though if he did they may have to provide a translation; the Dundee dialect is certainly challenging. A lovely heart-warming happy end.

So there you have it – 21 shows and 9 exhibitions (subject of a separate Art in August blog shortly, also covering London and trips to Chichester, Margate and Folkstone! – how can you wait?) in 7 days; a bit tame by Fringe standards. Even after 20-30 years (I’ve lost count) I’m still making mistakes – this year booking too much in advance again (only two added whilst I was here), not enough comedy and trusting the Traverse too much (is it losing its magic touch?). The theatrical highlights were both Welsh, which made me very proud, and music the most consistently excellent with three lovely shows. It’s impossible to tire of this feast of the arts and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back. Until then…..

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Well, here we are again at the world’s largest arts festival, and this year without any main festival shows booked because the programme for our week looked a bit dull. Still ,with more than 2000 shows on the fringe, you’re not going to be twiddling any thumbs up here.

We started with Africa Heart & Soul*** by a group of five performers from Zimbabwe who tour their show to raise money for their youth work. The harmonic singing was gorgeous and some of the dance was good too, but they tried to create a narrative that came out a bit embarrassing; they’d have been better sticking to a song and dance show. Still, a good cause and the spirit of the fringe.

The first highlight was Antonio Forccione***** with his trio including regular Brazilian percussionist and a new Senegalese Kora player. The sound is gloriously uplifting and it’s without question the best band he’s put together. They’re clearly loving it and it was infectious.

The first trip to the Traverse Theatre was for The Golden Dragon***, a show that weaves the stories of the staff of the Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese restaurant of the show’s title with those of its customers and neighbours. It was clever and original with some lovely touches, including regular ‘punctuation’ by menu descriptions ,but it outstayed it’s welcome by about 10-15 minutes and became a bit too surreal in the end.

I always seem to make the mistake of booking monologues when I know I don’t like them, and I did it again with A Slow Air**, lured by favourite playwright David Grieg and favourite theatre The Traverse. This was a sad tale told in two interlocking monologues. It’s well written and you can’t fault the performances but for someone with a visual imagination, under stimulating. For me, something for the radio not a theatre.

Faure’s Requiem by candlelight*** at 10pm in a church after a nice supper with rather too much Montepulciano – yes, you guessed, I joined Narcoleptics Anonymous rather quickly and the rest is a bit of a blur, but a rather pleasant blur nonetheless!

The two Welsh members in this year’s party booked for Llwyth (Tribe)*****, a play in Welsh, partly out of loyalty and partly because theatre company Sherman Cymru had given us two treats in the last two years with Deep Cut and Speechless. A play about a group of gay boys in Cardiff on the night of an international rugby match didn’t sound that promising, but it turned out to be an outstanding piece of writing which was staged well and brilliantly performed. It was captivating throughout, often funny and occasionally moving. Being from the valleys probably helped, but judging by the enthusiastic audience reaction not essential. When it opened with gorgeous choral singing I was impressed by the sound; when the choir walked onstage in the final scene, my mouth fell open. A highlight.

Sadly, we had to follow this with Wondrous Flitting*, a simply dreadful play from the Lyceum Company no less, at the normally reliable Traverse. Allegedly a social satire, it was a series of preposterous scenes that added up to nothing except a numb bum and a feeling that I’d waste of 90 minutes of my life. To appreciate the bad, you have to put up with the good, I suppose. Following Llwyth didn’t help, but it would have been bad following anything or nothing.

We ended Sunday with stand-up Sarah Milican***, whose Geordie charm is irresistible. Her use of ‘fuck’ doesn’t really suit her and we’d have liked more interaction with the audience because she’s good at it, but it was a funny hour which we enjoyed and brought the day back up again.

Monday started with an impulsive addition – Stepehn Berkoff’s adaptation of the Oedipus**** legend. I hadn’t realised Berkoff was in it, which was juts as well as he wasn’t, having pulled out following a slipped disc. I also didn’t realise Anita Dobson was in it too, which explained her sighting with Brian May at the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before. As it turned out, it was the eight man chorus and Simon Merrells who stole the show – not that Dobson and assistant director Matt Cullum standing in for Berkoff weren’t good too – they were. It was a touch long for the amount of story to tell, but was on a scale you don’t often see at the fringe and a thoroughly enjoyable show.

Judith sat next to two actors on the train up who were finishing off their show, as one does, so of course we had to go! It was an audio experience where you wear headphones and listen to stories unfold, but unlike similar experiences, the scenes were also being acted out amongst the crown in the Pleasance Courtyard so you could also wander around and if you found them, watch from as much distance as you wished (or not at all). In Invisible Show II****, four actors played a number of characters each and though the scenes did not seem to be inter-connected, it did add up to a satisfying dramatic experience.

We ended the first half as we had started with the spirit of the fringe, but this time it’s comic godfather Arthur Smith in his latest incarnation as chat show host for Arthur Smith’s Pissed Up Chat Show***. He’s now famously dry and the premise here is that the guests have to be pissed – they are breathalysed by ‘a licensing officer’ (his mate Terry!) to check. Our guests were a new labour spin doctor turned comic whose name escapes me, poet Monkey Man and comedian Andrew Maxwell, breathless from running straight from his show, but the highlight nonetheless. It was all rather eccentric fun, ending with a sing along Wild Rover with song cards held up by a naked woman and a naked man (who looked extremely uncomfortable, so I hope he got a decent fee!).

To be continued…..

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Wednesday started with another highlight – My Romantic History at the Traverse. This play about a present relationship and the past relationships of its protagonists is told in two halves (though without the interval in the customary Edinburgh tradition) from the prospective of each protagonist respectively. The writing is outstanding with dialogue that sparkles with realism and humour and the three actors are exceptional. A hugely uplifting experience and if you live in London and don’t catch this when it transfers in October, you’re completely bonkers*****

Another World is another one of those excuses for an exhibition that adds some borrowed items to the Dean Gallery’s extensive permanent collection of surrealists to justify an entry fee for something that is in reality not particularly illuminating.  There are some good Magritte’s, a magnificent Dali and some interesting British surrealists but I left unconvinced*** The lunch and the walk back along the Water of Leith, Edinburgh’s inner city country river, were both lovely though.

One of the few main festival’s new plays, Caledonia, was an enticing prospect – satirist Alistair Beaton’s take on a little known 17th century attempt at colonising part of Central America by a then independent Scotland through a trading company not unlike the England’s East India Company. The modern parallels with Scottish independence this century and the role of banks were striking. Apparently, the writer fell out with the director (playwright Anthony Neilson) and given that the production was a sort of Carry On Panto, I think I can see why. A lost opportunity, not unlike last years The Last Witch and I’m beginning to think that the festival pressure doesn’t allow new work to mature enough before its high profile exposure to the press and public**

My final exhibition was the annual open submission International Photography one at the Edinburgh Photographic Society and this year was a cracker with more portraiture and less (often Austrian and Ukrainian) 70’s-style tacky collages! The talent of these amateurs is extraordinary and makes me feel completely inadequate****

The Scat pack’s Lights! Camera! Improvise! develops their three-year-old formula into an award-winning improv. show where a film is created from audience suggestion which on the day we saw it was very funny indeed and somewhat appropriately based on the rape of Wales forests!****

The final show of the day was Teenage Riot by the young Belgian company with whom I stared last year’s festival sort of speed dating at Internal! This one took place in a large cube with most of the action of the eight teenagers inside projected live onto the outside. It had its flaws but you had to admire the ingenuity and much like the ‘speed dating’ it has more impact on your thinking after that it did at the time***.5

Our last day began with our biggest disappointment but had a perfect ending. When You Lie is a play about cosmetic surgery, comparing the excellent job it does restoring people after tragedies with it’s pandering to vanity and lifestyles. The trouble is it’s not particularly well written or directed (another writer directing – is there a pattern emerging?!) and comes over as a heavy-handed preposterous and rather distasteful cocktail**

Laura Solon is more comic story-teller than stand-up and her show was gentle charming and witty, if not exactly ground-breaking, and made a pleasantly diverting hour***

We ended at Rosslyn Chapel for a production of Benjamin Britten’s opera of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was a long way out by taxi and cold in the venue, but somehow it proved to be the perfect event to end this year. With 25 performers on a tiny stage, it was a bit cramped and I could have done with less choreographed fairy business (and maybe half as many fairies!). The playing was occasionally ragged but the singing was terrific and for a University company – Cambridge’s Shadwell Opera – hugely impressive.

Well, that’s it for another year – En Route and My Romantic History the top two shows so look out for them, but Roadkill, Speechless, Beautiful Burnout, Simon Keenlyside, Latin American Vespers, Five Guys Named Moe and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all treats and Flesh & Blood & Fish & Foul, Grandpa Fredo (sorry, Malcolm!), Lights! Camera! Improvise! and Teenage Riot getting special mentions for inventiveness. I’m now in the Outer Hebrides, but more of that in a few days…..

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Monday started with England’s best baritone (and the world’s second best – guess who’s the best), Simon Keenlyside, in the lovely Queens Hall with a programme of Rorem (never heard of him until this year, now featured in two concerts in quick succession), Buttterworth and Schumann. The Butterworth songs were gorgeous and the Rorem intriguing, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the Schumann so much; I normally find German lieder a bit too strident, but this was beautiful – though we had some strident Shubert for the encores****

I’m off to the Outer Hebrides on Friday, staying in Stornaway on Lewis, so I was thrilled to find that the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland had combined their collections of the Lewis Chessmen for a special exhibition here in Edinburgh. The story of the pieces (well, what’s known of them) was well told, but it was disappointing to find the pieces split up within the exhibition – I’d have liked to see a complete set at some point***

I lost a shit load of money investing in the West End production of the rock musical Spring Awakening – a critical success but a financial loss – but I have to say I’m proud to have been a small part of it as I consider it ground-breaking stuff and I’ve been thrilled to see the talented cast subsequently turn up all over the place; the last occasion only 6 days ago at the National. I couldn’t resist seeing the first amateur production by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama here at the fringe. The decision to cast the London production with raw talent was completely vindicated. In the hands of singers /actors in training at a premiere league conservatoire, it lost a lot of its edge. Though it was well sung (and particularly well played by the small band) there was a sort of ‘posh boys saying fuck to be cool’ about it – though I have to say the ending was somehow more moving***

Back at the main festival in Greyfriars Church we went to some Latin American Vespers that were both fascinating and beautiful. I’d had no idea how liturgical music was transported with Spanish colonisation (and apparently back again). There were fewer Latin American touches than I was expecting, so it did sound rather European, but a treat nonetheless****

Monday ended with our first stand-up (we missed Sarah Milican because I’d misread the 24-hour clock and double-booked us), Shappi Khorshandy. She’s gone through a divorce recently and she chose to make this a very personal show (therapy?) and I thought it was very funny; she has a genuine charm and appealing self-deprecating humour***.5

Back at the Traverse Tuesday morning for a play called Girl in the Yellow Dress about the relationship between an English teacher and her French (adult) pupil. It took an age to take off, but the second half – when the psychological games between them unravel – was excellent***

The rest deserted me at this point, but I stayed for a quirky show called The Not So Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo. I’d seen a show before by the same company and I liked their cartoonesque style with ingenious sets and great use of music. This wasn’t as satisfying as the previous show, but it was even more inventive as a small hut became, amongst other things, a diner, a laboratory, and ultimately a boat on a lake in Norway!***.5

We had lunch 100ft above Edinburgh at a table raised by a crane – this is true!!! It was a great experience and the food was surprisingly good. I had to have a drink beforehand for Dutch courage, but it actually wasn’t scary at all and I even looked down and twirled my seat!****

I saw the original production of Five Guys Named Moe at its first outing at Stratford East (that night local boy Dudley Moore was in the audience and in the interval impresario Cameron Mackintosh allegedly made the Theatre Royal Stratford an extraordinarily generous offer for a speedy transfer) and subsequently in the West End and in Germany. It’s based on the terrific 30’s / 40’s jazz of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway and this new production is at least as good as the original. Its toe tapping, funny, high energy stuff which they’ve updated cleverly without losing the essence.  All six performers were outstanding and the six-piece band was terrific. Catch it when it comes back to Stratford East, though I suspect its West End bound once more****

Tuesday ended at a Comedy Gala for AIDS charity Waverley Cares with 26 stand-ups over 3.5 hours. In truth it was exhausting and I suspect less would have been more, but there were excellent mini-sets from Welshman Mark Watson, Edinburgh’s Danny Bhoy, Aussie Adam Hills, Tooting’s Stephen K Amos, and archetypal Englishman Simon Evans. It’s a great way to ‘sample’ and decide who to see next time***.5

Two more days to go……..

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Well here we are again; I’m not counting but my guess would be something like my 25th year.  It’s a drug and I have a habit. Here’s the story so far (with added star ratings!)…..

This year started very well with Roadkill, a ‘site specific’ piece about sex trafficking.  Fifteen of us boarded a bus outside the Traverse Theatre and were joined after a while by a bubbly naïve Nigerian teenager fresh off the plane, who chatted incessantly, asking questions about her new home city. She was here with her ‘auntie’ for ‘education’. When we arrived at a flat a mile or so away, the meaning of ‘education’ emerged in a series of harrowing scenes that took place in three rooms and the corridors.  It was so believable you could feel your blood boil with anger at the ‘pimps’ and the punters. It was often difficult to watch but this was important theatre covering issues often buried. The staging was outstanding and the acting stunning ****

The juxtaposition of shows often means your next experience is affected by the last, and so it was I think with Penelope, Enda Walsh’s setting of the Greek myth in a swimming pool where four men take it in turns to ‘court’ the one who hates men and whose lives depend on their success. It was clever, surreal, well staged and acted, but just seemed trivial and unimportant after Roadkill; needles to say, the remaining three in the party – for whom it was their first show – rather enjoyed it! ***

Day Two started with a classic – En Route – which I will be talking about for years to come. The day before I received a text telling me where to go and to look out for someone who would be clearly marked. When I arrived there was someone with a hand-written sign which said ‘ Clearly Marked” and that got me off to a smiling start. I was given directions to turn right outside the theatre then turn right again and off I went. Just before I got to the point where I was thinking ‘what next’ another person caught up with me and gave me an I-pod and some instructions and checked my mobile number. I walked alone through Edinburgh receiving instructions by text, calls on my mobile and in a phone box, behind doors, in the racks of record shops and chalked on pavements. The I-pod provided a music soundtrack with occasional dialogue.  I had to take a photo and call a friend (who turned out to be – unexpectedly – in Greece and hence had to incur the not insignificant cost of my call!) and at one point was asked to raise my hand only to find it grabbed by a passer-by who held it as he walked me for a few minutes. I saw parts of Edinburgh I’ve never seen in c.25 years (including a stunning view from the 8th level of a car park) and it made me realise how much you don’t observe when you’re walking. The soundtrack heightens your visual senses and the whole experience was intriguing and thrilling. I don’t know how many of the people I saw en route were part of the experience but you get to the point where you’re convinced they all are. I ended up at a café with a complimentary coffee where the person who gave me my I-pod 90 minutes earlier and three miles away joined me. This is what the Edinburgh fringe is for *****

I should have rested, but a couple of exhibitions nearby proved too tempting. Impressionist Gardens is really one of those (seemingly frequent) ‘excuse for an exhibition’ exploiting the British’ insatiable appetite for anything impressionist. There were some lovely paintings but it was so much of the same that it was overpowering *** Just because it was free with the combined ticket, I took in an exhibition of an early 19th century Danish artist I’d never heard of called Christen Kobke and it was a revelation – I admired the quality of the portrait painting, but it was the landscapes, and particularly their light, which bowled me over. A surprise treat****

The same now happened as it had the day before, of course – disappointment to follow. Freefall is again a clever and well staged & acted play set at the moment after a stroke where the patient is rapidly reflecting on moments from their life. I was by now very tired so it was hard to get into it and I’m afraid as much as I admired the craftsmanship it never really engaged me; yet again, the other two members of my party for whom it was the first show of the day enjoyed it a lot more. ***

The Day ended with one of those things you book because it sounds so intriguing. Flesh & Blood & Fish & Foul was billed as theatre meets art meets taxidermy…..and they weren’t wrong! Two people inhabit an office where they seem to have little to do so end up employing those diversions we all at some point do to kill time. Their world collapses around them as plants and animals (stuffed!) rapidly appear and grow all over the place. It gradually becomes more and more absurd with the plants invading like triffids and the animals getting bigger – what starts with a rat ends up with a bear and a deer. It’s a surreal and absurd combination of slapstick and physical theatre and it made me smile and laugh ***.5!

Sunday started with a cracker called Speechless from Shared Experience / Sherman Cymru (makes you proud to be Welsh!) at the Traverse. I knew something of the story of the silent twins Jennifer and June Gibbons (I’ve seen the opera!) and this play focuses on their early life – until they are committed to Broadmoor. It was gripping from the start and the performances from the girls were positively mesmerizing. Their mother, and the boy who they befriend and who exploits them, were also brilliantly played. This was a fascinating psychological drama and high quality theatre indeed****

More art followed with Martin Creed’s quirky stuff at the Fruitmarket Gallery, the best of which was the staircase wired for sound*** Across the road at the City Art Centre there are two contrasting photographic exhibitions. At first, I thought I’d find the dressed up /posed dogs of William Wegman distasteful but they made me smile and the relationships between the pets and the photographer meant it wasn’t really cruel*** Early 20th century photographer Edward Weston covered a broad range from still life to landscape to portraits to nudes and though it was clearly technically very accomplished, there’s little more than historical interest almost 100 years on***

Oedipus at Colonus sounded like a brilliant idea – Greek tragedy (though a rare one where no-one dies!) as an African-American gospel oratorio.  There was an ancient building backdrop (used for projections) and steps for the performers. The music was very good and the costumes gorgeous. The problem was it didn’t work turning Oedipus into a Christian Everyman who is redeemed by repentance and setting it ‘inside’ a church service just wasted time and dented the impact. The projections were of dubious taste and reached their peak when Oedipus rose to heaven to be replaced by a rainbow; I’m afraid we laughed***

The day ended on the high on which it had started with the Frantic Assembly / National Theatre of Scotland co-production of Beautiful Burnout. I’ve lived my like until this year without a play about boxing, then two come along in quick succession. I think Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch at the Royal Court is the better play, but this production is simply stunning. You’d never think that Frantic Assembly’s stylised choreography and boxing would mix but they turn out to be made for one another. The energy is extraordinary and the performances stunning. I can’t say I approve of boxing, but you get caught up in the excitement at the same time as being horrified at the hurt. We left exhausted but exhilarated****

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