Ferretbrain Goes to Edinburgh: 2009 Edition

by Dan H

Dan and Wardog, once again, review a bunch of shows that have since stopped showing
Just like last year we did the last week of the Edinburgh festival. We saw a lot more this year than last, and were so shattered when we got back that I've basically only just woken up. As a result, what you're going to get is my foggy recollections of some shows I saw a week ago, some of them after midnight. Ahem, and it's taken me so long to get my bit written up that is now nearly time to back to Edinburgh

Our days were rather less themed than last time, but that isn't going to stop me from using subheadings.

And since this is a semi-joint review, like last year you can find Kyra in italics

Sunday: Serious Theatre is Serious

Sunday was our lightest day, but it wound up including most of what we thought (in some cases wrongly) would be the “worthy” theatre that we saw over the week. Apart from Thursday, which was Walking Around Theatre Day – theatre is always more serious if you see it standing up.

We started with The Event. We went to see this because one of the reviewers for Fest gave it five stars and a review that boiled down to “oh my god this blew my fucking mind.” What had apparently blown this reviewer's mind was the fact that in The Event the narrator talks about how he's an actor and how he's just on a stage saying lines that somebody else wrote. Wow. My mind, she is blown.

To be fair to The Event it's a fun one-man show, although it gets kind of lost in the middle where it starts to compare the “artificiality” of the theatre with the “artificiality” of modern life (because now we get our information from websites, instead of going to listen to “real” people speaking in the village hall – who the playwright thinks creates websites I do not know). Suddenly it went from being an engaging piece of vaguely meta theatre to the worst sort of neo-Luddite shit.

Like Dan, I’m always deeply suspicious of texts that look nostalgically upon a golden past when people spoke to each other more and relationships really meant something. This is, of course, utter utter bollocks. You can’t whinge about the fact that nobody talks to each face to face any more and simultaneously take for granted the fact you don’t have leprosy and a life expectancy of 35 years. Equally, the play didn’t work for me at all because it seemed more interested in pointing out the artificial construct that is The Theatre and The Actor and The Play than exploring how that affects us. Near the end of The Event, the actor tell us the character’s name is one thing and then, half a line or two, decides it’s something else. This has no impact whatsoever because the you never really get a sense of being him the first name. Essentially The Event bogs down in its own meta – in drawing your attention to the fact that a play is just a man who had been coached speaking learned lines to a group of silent, watching people all it was a play in which a man who had been coached speaking learned lines to a group of silent, watching people. My mind remained profoundly unblown by the whole experience.

We followed that up with Icarus 2.0 by the Camden People's Theatre which was, well, just a play really. It was a two person offering from a company whose name I no longer remember, which specialises in high energy, very visual theatre. The basic setup was that a father had raised his son to be a modern Icarus, through some unspecified mix of training, genetic manipulation and cloning. This was eventually revealed to be nonsense, and that the father had actually just had an extremely bad reaction to the death of his first child, and had constructed the whole Icarus story as a way of keeping his son close to him.

It was actually quite well observed, both parts were well played, there were some funny bits and some sad bits, and it's one of the few times I've seen a “modern re-imagining” of a myth that actually worked. Where the original myth is about impetuous youth fucking himself up by ignoring the advice of those older and wiser, the play is about the way parents fuck up their kids which, in a world where we no longer assume that parents always know what's best for their kids, carries rather more weight.

Yeah, I felt broadly positive to Icarus 2.0 as well. As Dan says, it was nice to see the myth re-interpreted from the other direction and the production was generally well done. The “highly visual” nature of it all didn’t work for me personally – it was just a bit too frenetic, and the stage was very small leading not a sense of partially deliberately claustrophobia and partially a sense of mild anxiety that the actors were going to knock something over or hurt themselves. The play as a whole was sparse on dialogue and explication and high on visual metaphor and symbolism, which was certainly a welcome change of style after The Event

Last stop on Sunday was the awesome yet bewildering production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Beijing Film Academy. This was one of those shows where you can't tell whether it was totally mindblowingly awesome, or just a bit bobbins. Told in a mixture of Shakespearean English, modern English, and Mandarin, it was the basic story of A Midsummer Night's Dream re-imagined as an MMORPG – yes this is as mad as it sounds. They took some liberties with the plot – the lovers all kill each other in a massive Kung Fu battle at the end and then get resurrected by a robot angel – but it actually wound up being remarkably true to the spirit of the original play, arguably more so than some traditional interpretations.

I thought this was great but I’m such a cultural derelict I couldn’t properly understand it. I’m sure there was quite a lot of traditional Chinese theatre mixed in with the technology and the Shakespeare but I just had no way of accessing it. On the other hand, the changes they made to the play were fascinating. Because of the MMO-slant, Oberon ended up as this hopeless geek who is desperate to get Titania by any means necessary – although he leans, by the end of the play, that fake love is meaningless and interfering with love is a dangerous game. Also most English productions I’ve seen (and there’s been a few) have always prioritised the clowns pretty much above everything else in the play – there are a couple of interchangeable sets of lovers, some random Greeks, some fairies and, of course, some comedy yokels messing up a play. Lol. In this production, the clowns were excised almost entirely from the plot, bar a few scenes required to introduce Bottom, and main billing was given to the story of the four lovers. They managed to do a very good job of differentiating them (in most productions I’ve seen the best they’ve been able to manage was to make Helena pathetic), in that Hermia-analogue was a very traditional, very feminine looking Chinese girl and Helena-analogue was bouncy, feisty and tiny. The implication seemed to be that part of the reason Demetrius kept refusing Helena was that she simply wasn’t traditionally feminine enough for him. Another nice touch was the way the lovers struggled against the Love-in-Idleness, reaching for their true love because the virus overcame them. Again, usually I’ve seen it treated a jolly joke but this seemed like a genuine violation. It completely changed my whole perspective on the play and, really, for a Shakespeare production that's quite remarkable

Monday: Things We Saw Last Year

One of the cool things about doing Edinburgh two years in a row is that you get to see the same acts and see how they've developed in the past year, and that's more or less what we did on Monday.

First of all, though, we saw some Free Comedy from the free fringe (can't remember who the guys were, don't have much to say about them). There were two standup comics of whom the first was relatively forgettable. The second was unfortunate, because he was actually genuinely good, until he suddenly (in the middle of quite an amusing segment about riding the night bus) took a sharp left turn into rampant homophobia. You see, as well as the drunks, druggies, and murderers you find on the night bus, you sometimes also get gays. Please.

Our next random show was Stranded. This was dance. Neither Kyra nor I know anything about dance. There were two guys and two girls, they moved in that graceful dancery way that looks way easier than it is. Seriously I haven't got a clue how dance works, but it was pretty.

I believe the dance in question was heavily inspired by capybara capoeira which infused the, err, whole routine with a sort of graceful power. Yep, as Dan said, I know fuck all about dance. I liked it though. I think they were telling some sort of story but I have no idea what that story is. Also the graceful, muscular guys getting all sweaty and intertwined was, err, pleasing.

After that, it was stuff we'd seen before, starting with Sammy J: 1999. We absolutely loved his last show Sammy J and the Forest of Dreams. 1999 didn't include puppets but was still excellent, although it made me rather afraid to realise that Sammy J's 1999, a story of adolescent turmoil and the horrors of being fifteen was set in the year I went to university. It included comic songs, Tamagochi jokes, a teenage pornography ring and a recurring obsession with the term “fingering” (which appears in Forest of Dreams, and about which he has written a whole song). It's basically just excellent.

I love Sammy J – he writes comic songs about being vulnerable and angsty and liking Disney and, yeah, also about fingering. 1999 come across as almost excruciatingly personal (I don’t know to what extent it is) and hovers always on the edge between hilarity and poignancy – well, maybe if you’re an unpopular ex-nerd like me. Thank God I wasn’t also a boy. And the Don’t Get A Boner song, performed in tiny Speedos, is quite something.

You can appreciate Sammy J at his website here and there's a promotion for 1999 on Youtube here.

Our next stop was The Penny Dreadfuls who had been one of the highlights of last year's fringe with Aeneas Faversham Forever and whose radio series The Brothers Faversham was an excellent piece of whimsy. This year's show The Never Man was a break from the Victoriana, instead being a kind of parody of Bond movies, mixed in with a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style backdrop involving a beef themed theme park. No, it didn't make more sense at the time.

A big part of what was funny about the Penny Dreadfuls last year was the way they took a group of three (count 'em, three) performers and built a whole vast and complex cast of characters, two protagonists, their wives, friends and sidekicks, plus the villain, his minions, and a wide variety of incidentals. It was both genuinely amusing and genuinely impressive. This time around there was pretty much one character per performer. Sure there were a couple of evil minions, but they got killed off in the first few scenes, leaving only the tough cop, the eponymous Never Man, and the eight year old boy (played by somebody very tall – and oh weren't there jokes about that). There was a lot of ad-libbing, to the point where it got in the way of the actual script. It was a shame, because they shone last year, whereas this year they lacked, well, lustre.

This was pretty disappointing, I have to say. It had its moments but compared to last year it seemed pretty lazy and self-indulgently reliant on ad-libbing between the performers. Alas.

Penny Dreadfuls here, though they don't deserve it!

My faith in my own judgement was entirely restored, however, by Sound and Fury who were on full anarchic form in their performance of Sherlock Holmes and the Saline Solution. This was another pun-tastic, cross-dressed, out-of control bundle of chaos by the same group of wacky Americans (who this year informed us that all of them voted for Obama). This year's performance was further enhanced by the presence of what seemed to be a battalion of genuine fangirls who squealed every time Vinny – the tall pretty gay one – came on stage in a new exciting costume. As ever with stuff we basically enjoyed I don't have much to say about Sound and Fury except that they're totally awesome in a completely juvenile way. They were actually running two shows this year, the second of which was entitled Testicles and the Sack of Rome (that's pronounced “Testi-clees”).

I just adore these guys – you can’t not adore three exuberant Americans being very very silly on stage. They have excellent on-stage chemistry and they’re all terribly pretty, not just the gay one. I have a growing affection for their straight man, Richard Maritzer. It’s probably grossly untrue but I think it takes a particularly graceful kind of person to be the straight man with zest and commitment.

The website for the wonderful Sound and Fury can be found here - go and support them, become a fan!

Tuesday: Things that Start With “B”

Okay, we didn't have a real theme for Tuesday but we very nearly had a “starting with B” theme until we added The Lunchtime Club and Six More Impossible Things Before Dinner to our itinerary.

The Lunchtime Club billed themselves as a group of “nice middle class boys” and by and large they were. None of them looked much past the age of twelve and they mostly performed a kind of inoffensive, cerebral comedy involving things like “words that rhyme with Synonym” and “funny reviews I found on Amazon”. The third act of four had a more acerbic persona, which earned him the moniker “cunt guy” [from us, I should add, I don’t think he goes by this in day to day life. The basic issue here was that he came across as a smug middle class twat who didn't know what he was talking about. The thing was that it wasn't entirely clear whether he was supposed to come across as a smug middle class twat who didn't know what he was talking about, or whether he was, in fact, just a smug middle class ... you get the idea. His faintly misogynistic ranting about dirty dirty women hovered on the brink of irony, but he really lost the two of us when he complained about the use of the word cunt in modern theatre, insisting that Shakespeare would never have resorted to that sort of thing. Right, of course. No pussy jokes in Shakespeare whatsoever.

The last performer in The Lunchtime Club was an Oxford student by the name of Ivo who was shortlisted for So You Think You're Funny and holy crap have Oxford students started looking young. Like seriously, if I'd met him in the street I'd have been asking about his GCSE results. He was actually really good. He seemed a little bit nervous – he was visibly shaking – and his material was sweet (there's a whole set of jokes about his embarrassment in games of “I Have Never”) but not earth shattering. All the same there was something about his delivery that spoke of a genuine comic talent. He had, for want of a less tacky term for it, timing. One to watch.

I liked all of these fresh-faced young fellows, except Cunt Guy. I don’t think there’s going to be a stage in my life when I find filthy-dirty-harlot comedy amusing. I’m not sure you can get away with dark, cynical lamentation against the soiled and sordid nature of the universe when you’re 12. Okay, maybe he wasn’t 12 but he might as well have been. Like Dan, the problem with Cunt Guy was that I couldn’t establish if he a) genuinely thought he was smarter than us (in which case, no, dear boy, no, Shakespeare wrote a play called Much Ado About Nothing, do get yourself a clue before you start writing about the use of cunt in modern theatre), b) he was self-parodying just a little too effectively c) he was actually Hamlet Does Stand Up. If it’s b) or c) the guy seriously needs to hone his craft, if it’s a) he needs to fuck off and die somewhere.

The other chaps were all terribly charming – I do appreciate the honesty of nice middle class boy stand up. You could tell they were amateurs – one of them fluffed his material horribly – but they were pretty promising. Also Ivo did a series of jokes about trying to explain Your Mum jokes to his Mum. So sweet!

Befitting their youth, The Lunchtime Club seem to have *shudder* a Facebook page.

After that we got into our ostensible “theme” for the day by going to see Bane, by White Bone Productions, which was a one man noir parody (or, more accurately, pulp parody – the difference between pulp detectives and noir detectives is sort of like the difference between Indiana Jones and Time Team – sorry, pet peeve). It concerned a detective called Bruce Bane, who went around shooting people on the way to uncovering a killer called Shelby (it is, I think, deliberate that Bruce kills far more innocent members of the public than his nemesis over the course of the show). It's a little predictable, but mostly in the way that makes things funnier, rather than more annoying – it even includes the obligatory “gosh, it's a good thing I'm not going to get killed, because I'm extremely happy with my life and am about to do a bunch of things that will manifestly improve the world in direct and measurable ways” gag. It was one of those shows that just did everything it set out to do as well as it could possibly have done it. It wasn't what you'd call worthy, but it was awesome good fun.

Bane was actually one of my favourite shows of the Festival this year. Absolutely everything about it was excellent – from the script, to the music and scene setting (provided by one guy on a guitar), to the fantastic performance of the One Man playing everyone. I wish it had received a bigger audience on the day we saw it, it truly deserved more attention. As Dan says, they jokes were obvious but they were just the right sort of obvious.

There's not a lot I can say about the next show: Morgan and West Present: Bamboozlement because well, one of them was my brother. They present a Victorian-themed magic show which in my somewhat biased opinion is rather good. Like most magic shows, it was inexplicably filed under “comedy” in the Fringe guide – while the show does contain a good deal of light-hearted humour, you don't go for the jokes, you go for the tricks. Even if it wasn't my brother's show, it's always hard to review magic. Most reviews I saw on the fringe said something along the lines of “I didn't know how they did it” to which you have to say “well it would be a kinda crappy magic show if you did”. Morgan and West have good stage presence, genuine chemistry, and I didn't know how they did it. Since it's my brother, I'll also add that you can book them for parties and stuff here.

Neither West nor Morgan are my brother so I’ll just add more emphatically: an excellent show, genuinely bamboozling magic tricks, presented with flair and mischief. These two work really well on stage together, not just because one of them is Very Tall and the other is Rather Short.

Directly after Bamboozlement we went on to see Six (More) Impossible Things Before Dinner. This was another magic show, presented by a man with a mission. Phil Escoffey is, in essence, a debunker. His show is presented as an experiment into whether psychic phenomena exist. He performs a wide variety of standard mentalist effects but they're always presented from the assumption that his audience believes in psychic powers.

The thing is, I sort of get where he's coming from. “Psychics” have got more and more popular in recent years (and have indeed caused me genuine fury in the past). I can absolutely see that if you were a magician and knew for a fact how easy it is for frauds and swindlers to bilk money out of otherwise intelligent people that you'd want to expose them, and setting yourself up as a “psychic” (the word “magic” doesn't appear anywhere on his flyers) and then deconstructing the whole thing would be an excellent way of showing how fraudulent the claims of psychics are. The problem is that I went in expecting a magic show, and as a result I felt rather talked down to.

At the start of the show, Escoffey asks the audience members to write two unrelated words on little bits of paper, and has one such piece of paper randomly selected by an audience member, at which point he directs our attention to a board hanging above the stage, and asks us to put our hands up if we believe that he can have predicted in advance, and written on the board, the words that were randomly selected from the box. At the end he asks the same question, and then tells us that he will require us all to donate an extra 20p in order to see what is written on the board. This, he tells us, is the sixth impossible thing – that an audience full of rational people would actually pay money for the chance of seeing something they know to be impossible. And indeed when he takes the board down, it simply has the words “not possible” written on the back.

This, I personally found rather patronising. I did, in fact, believe that Escoffey could predict what was going to be pulled out of the box. I believed it because I know of a good half-dozen ways he could have done it (rigged the box, used a plant, swapped boxes, swapped envelopes, tampered with the board during the show, tampered with the board as he was setting up the reveal). The fact that he then switched on a projector which displayed the words “NOT POSSIBLE” on a screen, and that those words then rearranged themselves into the two words chosen at the start, only served to highlight the fact that I was, in fact, right.

Basically I think the problem we had with Six More Impossible Things was that we fell into a kind of intended-audience-uncanny-valley. There's a lot in the show which I think would be amazing if you were in any way uncertain about psychic powers. There was also a lot in the show that seemed to be a deliberate nudge-nudge-wink-wink to professional magicians, who knew that it was all bunk but were interested in watching another performer - for example, the first “experiment” was a classic “who has which cards” trick in which anybody paying the slightest attention would have noticed that one volunteer had all the odd cards and the other all the even cards, which struck me as a deliberate way to signal to clued in audience members that Something Was Not Right Here. The problem is that I never felt that I was being treated as “in on the joke” - rather I felt that I was counted amongst the credulous, which annoyed me.

I hated this. I have never felt so fucking patronised in all my life. Well, yeah, okay, I feel patronised fairly regularly but not when I’ve paid for entertainment. He does his thing but I loathed the way it was presented. I’m sorry, but I’m intelligent human being for God’s sake. Also it didn’t seem to have crossed his mind that, although I didn’t believe in magic, I did believe in stagecraft. Ultimately I believed his trick was going to pan out the way he said it would, not because I’m a credulous fool, but because he’s a fucking stage magician for fuck’s sake. I suspect, as Dan says above, we were probably mis-sold this show. But having come straight from Bamboozlement, where one is not treated like a moron, I wasn’t prepared.

I refuse point blank to try and find this guy's website.

Slightly peeved from that, we went on to see Barbershopera or, more precisely, Barbershopera II. This was ... umm ... sort of exactly what you'd expect. It was a comedy musical, sung in Barbershop style with a cast of four. The premise was that a member of the Shavingham Shantymen (a barbershop quartet) had jumped to his death in mysterious circumstances, leaving his barbershop to his estranged Spanish son Estavez. It was all mostly an excuse for wacky humour and close-harmony singing, but it was actually really funny. As with most things we liked there wasn't much to say about this. Comedy songs, barbershop jokes, and a bit in which the dashing matador talks about the joy of the kill, comparing it to the sense of victory you get when you're making tea and then somebody else asks for a cup and you aren't sure if there'll be enough water and then there is and everybody can have tea. Silly-songs theatre at its best.

Yay! This was just great! Completely silly but great! I loved it. It was the sort of show you grin all the way through and come out of feeling much happier than when you went in (especially if you had the misfortune to be patronised by Phil Escoffey beforehand

The Barbershopera team seem to be on Myspace here.

Wednesday: Stuff That Got Good Reviews, Plus Barry Cryer and Something Random

We went into town rather too early on Wednesday and decided to kill time with A Stroke of Genius, a play about murder and illegal sperm harvesting. It was one of those technically competent shows that didn't do anything terribly wrong (and I thought some of their staging was rather clever – it was set in a library and most of the set was constructed from archive boxes, which were sometimes opened to reveal live film playing at the bottom). It was sort of about eugenics, and sort of inspired by the (actually true) story of the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” (or “Repository for Germinal Choice” to give it its correct name). There was a bit of a Darwin theme at this year's Festival, and A Stroke of Genius hit most of the buzzwords (genetics, evolution, sperm) but it didn't seem to have a clear idea about what it was saying beyond, possibly, that eugenics was probably bad.

This was one of those shows in which a lot of effort has gone into presenting something actually quite dull in the best way possible. Excellent acting, excellent staging … mediocre script. Shame but an easy enough way to pass an hour in Edinburgh. Also I got a button that says “No 1 Sperm Donor” which I wore for the rest of the trip

A Stroke of Genius was a reasonable way to fill an hour. We then went to see The Gannet. We should have know what we were getting ourselves into when it was billed as “surreal” and been even more certain when the promotional material mentioned “a dancing cupcake, yes a dancing cupcake!”. And we should have run a mile at the realization that it was a “modern fairytale”. It started off extremely promisingly, with Hansel and Gretel escaping from a dystopian near-future city down a tunnel into a forest, where a series of peculiar creatures told them they could find employment at a place called “The Gannet”. So far, so funky.

Then the whole thing took a sharp turn into Suck Alley by way of Self-Conscious-Surrealism Boulevard. The Gannet, rather than the creepy, evocative tavern-at-world's-end I had been expecting was instead a cabaret nightclub and the whole show devolved into this rather sub-par song and dance fest which was “surreal” (you can tell because people had animal ears on) and possibly “gritty” (you can tell because the people with the animal ears on were all hooked on sugar and talked about it like drug addicts). People actually walked out, and I don't blame them. What could have been an interesting interlude was literally the entire second half of the show. It wasn't experimental, it wasn't mould breaking, it wasn't an exploration of anything or a representation of anything, it was actually just shit. Probably the worst thing we saw all week.

God, this was just so terrible I can’t bear to bring myself to remember it in order to comment.

From there we went on to see The List Operators who are two Australian comics who do funny lists. This is one of those “actually funnier than you'd think” situations, which is marred because it then becomes less funny than you'd think. Specifically, the lists they do are genuinely funny (the way in to the venue is plastered with them, including such things as “The Way to San Jose” and “Things To Do While Waiting For the Show”). Unfortunately the stage show actually involved very few lists (three, I believe) and the rest was a mix of standup, sketch comedy and your standard double-act banter.

Again, I felt this didn’t live up to its potential – the lists were much more interesting than the sketch routines about the relationship between the comedians. The first list they did required audience participation and was ‘Countries It is Okay To Be Racist About.’ Very funny and a little bit uncomfortable-making. Good stuff.

The List Operators have a website here

After that it was music, beginning with Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden at their Pique this was something I dragged Kyra along to because I'd grown up listening to I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue but we both found it embarrassingly funny, despite being the youngest people in the audience by a clear decade. They sang songs about the Freedom Pass (that's what the UK calls the bus pass, for our international readers) and ended with a rendition of Peace and Quiet that got progressively louder, while a sign overhead informed us that this was “really annoying people in the cafe outside”. Basically it was the sort of performance you'd expect from two guys who had hit sixty and could therefore do whatever the hell they liked.

This was awesome. I laughed so hard I cried. Cryer and Golden seemed to be having a blast as well.

That evening we saw Camille O'Sullivan: the Dark Angel. Half-French, half-Irish, Camille was the big ticket of this year's Fringe. She sang, she had incredible stage presence and an amazing voice. She starts the set impeccably dressed in black velvet and a veil, and gradually disassembles herself while working through a set that contains the likes of Jaques Brel, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave. The sight (and of course sound) of this rather beautiful young girl performing songs written by haggard old men is peculiar but it works remarkably well. She's confident and convincing, and a little bit disturbing.

On a surge of enthusiasm, we bought a bunch of her CDs and, although they’re very listenable to, I’m quite struck by how much of what she does is carried by her stage presence. Don’t get me wrong, she has a great voice and I love female singers performing songs written by and for men, but the power is in the performance. Seeing her on stage is quite something. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience – she seems to tear herself to pieces over the course of the performance, deconstructing the very sexuality she flaunts – but, God, she’s gorgeous, and she has a amazing, very emotional voice.

Camille's website is here - I notice she's performing in London in December to January. You should go!

Thursday: Walking Around Theatre

Thursday was our second Serious Day of Seriousness, but we decided to kick it off by watching The Marriage of Isabella: A Commedia Dell'Arte. Unlike most efforts to recreate the theatre or literature of a bygone age Marriage of Isabella basically took the stance that the Commedia dell'Arte was basically just a bunch of dudes pratting about, and went on from there. They make no attempts at historically accurate costume or dialogue, instead relying on a historically accurate sense of anarchy. The cast argued, quit, got replaced by understudies, and generally made fools of themselves against the notional background story of two sets of lovers and their road to marital bliss. Mostly, though, it was an excuse for a lot of knob gags.

Something else I really liked – they cast seemed to be really enjoying themselves and they genuinely captured something of the anarchic nature of Commedia Dell'Arte. I was well impressed that they managed to translate a pretty much lost type of theatrical performance into something appealing and understandable to a modern audience.

Next up was The Hotel which was our first bit of walking around theatre. It was sort of interactive sketch comedy with horror undertones. The “audience” took on the roles of guests at the hotel, and were shepherded around by various concierges to different rooms, each one occupied by an outlandish member of the hotel staff (all comedians working the fringe in their own right, including cunt guy – see above). The whole experience fell down another uncanny valley, for me at least. It wasn't quite interactive enough that I could go into RPG mode and run with it – most of the performers seemed to be interested in playing their scenes at you rather than actually interacting with you, and the whole thing had a slightly scripted feel. On the flip side, the requirement to walk around and talk to the performers meant that it required just enough effort to be – well – an effort. Similarly the Fawlty-Towers meets Steven King vibe didn't entirely work, and the nominal plot (which admittedly seemed mostly there to give the event some semblance of structure) about the hotel owner's spiral into mounting debt and madness seemed at odds with the more frivolous nature of the rest of the rooms. The fact that the culmination of this plotline takes place at the top of a staircase where the majority of the audience can't actually see what's going on is also a problem. A nice idea, but some of the execution needed work.

This annoyed me a bit, since I wasn’t entirely sure how to be interacting with it, or, in fact, interacting at all. I think I probably thought I was in a cRPG or something and the actors thought they were in a play, so I think there was definitely a disconnect in the expected role for the audience, if that makes sense. Dan and I made several attempts to get into the spirit of the thing only to be pretty much rebuffed at every time; and then I got paranoid in case we were being a “difficult” audience. It was a great venue though and they’d put an immense amount of detail into the rooms themselves but I think they needed to establish what they wanted to do with it all – either create something unique and organic through audience interaction or tell a banal story quite badly in a setting that meant half the audience wouldn’t be able to see it. Sigh.

Next up was Randy's Postcards from Purgatory this was a one man (and for that matter one-puppet) show from the puppeteer behind Sammy J and the Forest of Dreams. It was basically a comic-melancholic monologue from a big purple puppet, lamenting the way he had ... well ... kind of fucked up his life actually. Only funny. Like most things I unambiguously enjoyed I don't have much to say about this except, well, that I unambiguously enjoyed it.

Me too, it was great!

The penultimate thing we went to see on the Thursday was Fucked. Fest described it as “the surprise hit of the Fringe” which was a little disingenuous since it had just come from a sellout run in London. I've got a fair bit to say about Fucked, which is both exactly like and exactly unlike you'd expect a show with that title to be. It's a semi-autobiographical one-woman monologue, told as a series of “mornings after” and running backwards through the life of the protagonist, who when we first meet her, is struggling with a rather horrible situation (she is, you might say, “Fucked”), working as a stripper, doing coke and wondering where her life went wrong. We slowly work back to see her with previous boyfriends, at university, and finally celebrating the end of her A-levels (in which she got two As and a B).

There are about four hundred ways in which Fucked could have been awful. It could have been preachy. It could have sought to assign blame for the narrator's predicament, either in her own moral weakness (“She was a whore! No wonder she wound up a junkie stripper!”) or in some nebulous notion of “the establishment” or possibly “men” (“This is what society does to women!”). It could have tried to pretend that being a stripper was zomg! Empowering (“while I understand that for many women it is a different story, I felt that it actualised my inner being by allowing me to properly express my sexual nature...”) or that being a stripper was zomg! Abusive (“This is what society does to ...” okay you get the idea). It's a show about female sexuality, but it doesn't reduce the whole concept to a single, simplistic message – unless you count “this shit is complicated, y'all”.

The six vignettes are all surtitled with a rough date (one year ago, February 15th, for example) and with a label, severally: “Whore”, “Girlfriend”, “Victim”, “Bitch”, “Object”, and “Virgin”. There's an extent to which I found the device a bit heavy handed (do you see, women are given labels by society) but they actually interact with the text in a more subtle way than I initially gave them credit for. For example, the third vignette (“Victim”) sees the narrator leaving her boyfriend's house to pick up some “herbal sedatives” from a dealer in a dodgy part of town, and you spend the whole thing going “oh god she's going to get raped and it's going to be either really traumatic or really annoying, possibly both.” In fact everything's fine, the title of the segment refers to the fact that later that evening she finally tells her boyfriend about an event in her past, so the label on the scene applies specifically to the change in her boyfriend's perception of her, not to anything that actually happened. Similarly the last (or chronologically first) vignette “Virgin” sees the narrator describing her first, rather perfunctory sexual experience with the observation “so technically I'm not a virgin any more”. The notion that society tends to label people isn't a new one, but I've rarely seen a show that highlighted how functionally arbitrary those labels are (normally “labels” are presented as either correct-but-pejorative or just-flat-out-wrong, c.f. Joss Whedon's tendency to have his Cardboard Misogynists call people whores).

Ironically, though, the thing that raised my opinion of Fucked from “a good show about issues that have already been covered quite well” to “serious theatre saying things that really fucking need to be said” was the audience – and indeed critical – reaction to it. Interviewed in Fest the writer tells of one critic who insisted that the play was “unrealistic” because a girl who got two As and a B at A-level would be “too clever” to wind up “on a hiding to whoredom”. The same critic also complained that the actress who originally played the narrator looked “too mumsy”. Which sort of missed the entire point of the play.

Then again, the point also seemed to be missed by a number of the more positive reviewers. A five-star review in Fest (by one Hannah Thomas) described the six vignettes of the play as “the significant mornings-after that marked her transition from virgin to whore”. Yes, well done Hannah, you saw that the words “Virgin” and “Whore” appeared above the stage. Did you miss the bit where she was not in fact a virgin in the bit marked virgin, and arguably not a whore in the bit marked whore? Did you miss the bit where her life went through a series of highs and lows, kind of like real life does, rather than just spiralling downward from innocent feminine virtue to promiscuous feminine corruption? The review also mentions that she has “resorted to paying her coke dealer in sex” - in fact it is clear in the play that the coke dealer is actually her boyfriend. Yes, part of the reason she has sex with him in that particular instance is because he gave her a gram of coke for free, which served to enhance the already present sense of obligation, but that isn't “paying her coke dealer in sex” that's a complicated dynamic which is reflected in a less extreme form every time somebody has sex with a person who bought them dinner.

That particular review gets even worse when it starts to praise the actress (Becci Gemmel) and her ability to “expose the self-loathing born of her [the narrator's] accidental promiscuity.”

Let's talk about that “accidental promiscuity”.

The fifth vignette in Fucked is entitled “Object”. Unlike the others, it contains no speech, being expressed entirely in text projected onto the stage. The narrator wakes up uncertainly, and the text says “Where am I?”. A ripple of laughter goes around the room. She sits up, cautiously. “No really, where am I?”. Another ripple of laughter. Okay, fine, nervous laughter, that's fair. The show has been injected with a vein of dry humour up to this point, it'll take people a while to settle in because this is clearly the serious bit. “Who's he?”. Laughter. “He's the guy that bought you the drink.” More laughter. And this is the point where I realise that holy fuck they actually don't get it do they.

Let me spell it out for you, audience members and – apparently – Hannah Thomas of Fest magazine. This scene is entitled “Object”. It involves the narrator waking up next to a man she does not recognise, except as having bought her one drink. Normally witty, articulate and confident, she is reduced to silence, fear and uncertainty. She did not just get wankered and bang somebody, people who are still laughing. She was not “accidentally promiscuous” Hannah Thomas. She was drugged and raped. I really don't see how it could be clearer (heck, Kyra and I both found that section slightly heavy handed). But a lot of people, some of them actual industry professionals, appear to have read it instead as the wacky story of a naïve young girl who gets herself into a whole lot of trouble.

One of the things I thought was excellent about Fucked was the fact that it very seldom presented a clear sequence of cause and effect. Yes, we can be fairly sure that sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend (“Bitch”) is a direct response to the events of the previous night (“Object”) but we never find out exactly when she starts stripping, or why. We never find out when (or indeed if) she drops out of university. We don't even know how sexually promiscuous she is at any given point in her life (except that she's voluntarily celibate at the start of “Victim”). What I liked about this was that it underlined – for me – the fact that we were basically seeing glimpses of a complex situation, something that wasn't as simple as “she got raped and now she's a slut” or “she acted like a slut and now she's a junkie”. The downside of this method of storytelling, however, is that it allows people to construct their own narratives and cling to them, narratives which are as likely as not to support the myths that Fucked seeks to challenge. Hannah Thomas, for example, clearly saw it as the story of an innocent young girl who made a sequence of bad decisions leading to “an intimate documentary of a life in downward spiral”. Which is a shame because what's brilliant about the play is that it isn't about that at all.

So ... yeah, it's awesome, go see it if you get the chance.

I think Dan’s pretty much covered it – I, too, went from “yes, yes, seen it all before, very competent, slightly heavy handed” to “holy fucking God, this is NECESSARY” the moment I realised the audience were laughing clueslessly after the protagonist has been date raped. Way to go. Fucked is seriously good and seriously important.

And of course we finished off “walking around theatre” day with The Trial (yes, that “the Trial”). This production started with the audience being blindfolded and led into a dark room. Mine fell off, leaving me standing there looking at a bunch of other people standing in the dark like lemons. To give it its due, The Trial did succeed in creating a sense of confusion and alienation, which could arguably aid your appreciation for the plight of Josef K. The problem is that this sense of confusion and alienation is established in the first ten minutes, and nothing that happens in the next hour really elaborates upon that. You gain no further insight into the text, or into anything else. You just remain mildly confused and increasingly aware that you have been standing up in the dark for quite a long time.

Bizarrely, for me, the thing that made the strongest impact was the thing I did wrong. My blindfold didn’t fall off, I took it off – not because I was trying to be a smartarse but because if someone leads you standing in the dark with a blindfold on, you take the damn thing off. And I looked round through the misty darkness at a group of perfectly intelligent people all standing there in rows obediently wearing blindfolds … and, yes, I felt very freaked out and alienated indeed. But let’s face it here, this performance was entirely reliant on its gimmick. Although they used the space very well, and all the performances were more than acceptable, you can’t wrestle with a convoluted, intellectual, obscure text while shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other and jostling to see past the tall guy in front of you. It was boring. It was hard to see and hard to understand. There were some striking visuals but, feh, it brought nothing to the text and brought not out of the it either. A waste of an hour, if you ask me.

Friday: Wind-down

Friday was rather shorter than the rest of our Festival Experience. We were both a bit tired and a bit ill, and we started off with Two Loves, a play based on (or perhaps we should say inspired by) Shakespeare's sonnets. It seemed primarily preoccupied with the notion that some of the sonnets were probably written to a pretty young man (which they unquestionably were, some of them are pretty explicit about this). The problem is that beyond this central conceit the play didn't have much going for it. It swung jarringly from modern English to Shakespearean English. It was also curiously lacking in cojones. Despite its central concept being “zomg Shakespeare was teh gey!” the play wusses out of actually making the play explicitly about Shakespeare, and as a result it winds up not really being about anything.

Yep, it wussed out of either being about Shakespeare, poetry, love or gay. And all the characters sound really stilted as if they were written by a mediocre playwright trying to imagine how clever people talk. Le sigh. They did some nice readings of the poems though… I guess…

Next up was Princess Cabaret, which was an excellent sketch comedy show with really poor marketing (their flyers listed all of the publications that had given them four and five star reviews by name, but only printed one lot of four stars and one lot of five rather than just plastering them with the rows of stars they were, in fact, entitled to). The show was basically a series of “after the happy ending” stories involving the Disney princesses (although they sometimes based them more on the original canon than the actual movies – their Aurora was asleep for a hundred years when in the film she was out for about ten minutes, and I've just realised it was really geeky to notice that). Although it contained a number of pretty girls in shiny frocks, it was actually – on the sly – remarkably bitter and edgy (they even have a song called “Too Soon” which is basically a big list of things it's totally not okay to do jokes about). You get halfway through the show and say to yourself “hang on a second, I think these girls might be feminists”. The basic thrust of the show is that, when you get right down to it, the Disney Princess ideal is five kinds of fucked up, promoting the idea that women are supposed to sit around looking pretty and not achieving anything. So we get Jasmine lamenting the fact that she's supposed to leave the running of Arabia to her idiot husband, Cinderella finding that the prince still treats her like a servant, and Sleeping Beauty espousing a hundred-year old value system (“Is that a darkie? Why isn't he tied up?”). Also, Segway jokes.

These girls were absolutely terrific – terribly bad at marketing themselves, but terrific. They extremely funny, extremely edgy, and, err, extremely pretty in their Princess outfits but, ahem, I think I’m missing the point there. Also singing, and lots of filthy, mischevious re-interpretations of Disney Songs. Their lesbian-themed “A Whole New World” between Jasmine and Cinderella will make me happy forever.

The Princess Cabaret Team have a website here.

The last thing we went to see in Edinburgh was Scrimshaw. This was a National Youth Theatre production about pirates. Yarr. Being youth theatre it wasn't actually ... well ... good in the conventional sense. But yay pirates. It was billed as “Les Miserables meets Pirates of the Carribean” and while the description wasn't really accurate, it gave you the right set of expectations going in – in that it felt very much like it was written by somebody whose interest in musicals ended at Les Mis, and whose knowledge of the golden age of piracy ended at PotC. It also had the unfortunate property so common in youth theatre of casting the best looking kids in the lead roles, and casting the kids who could actually sing and act as the sidekicks and comic relief.

We were sold this basically by the cast rampaging through the streets of Edinburgh being incredibly enthusiastic and charming but I was pretty pissed off by the casting choices, I have to say, given that the two main supporting characters were WAY better than the two main characters, both of whom were generic pretty young things with a sort of trained ability but no particular talent. I don’t know if the NYT is trying to prepare kids for life - “I’m sorry, love, I know you’re really good but you’re just a little bit larger than we like our actresses so I’m afraid you’re going to spend the rest of your life playing the comedy best friend, get used to it” – but surely I’m not the only person who thinks that’s basically Not Okay?

And that was it. We came home, feeling rather like we'd been run over by a truck filled with experimental theatre, and did the writeup.

Tune in next year for Ferretbrain Goes to Edinburgh: 2010.


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Comments (go to latest)
Viorica at 16:25 on 2009-10-30
“He's the guy that bought you the drink.” More laughter

. . . holy shit.

both of whom were generic pretty young things

I don't suppose the show was self-conscious enough to point that out?

(There could have been something else going on there. I was once in a show where the leading lady was cast because she'd made the two previous shows hell when she didn't get the lead. The "best friend" role was, again, given to a heavyset girl with a powerhouse voice.)
Guy at 12:18 on 2009-10-31
Regarding The Event and being meta... I think I've developed a bit of an allergy to works which exist only in order to comment on their own nature/medium/navel, although I don't mind a bit of meta-ness so long as the work is doing something else as well - or better yet, actually using the meta-ness to illustrate or comment on something else in a way that wouldn't be possible without it. Since you mention Shakespeare, it's pretty meta to have an actor in a play pretending to be a person in the real world, saying "all the world's a stage...", for example, but Shakespeare gets some joy out of the speech and then moves on. He doesn't bang you over the head with explanations of how meta it is for an hour, demanding that you share his opinion of its interest and importance. I think the only thing I've enjoyed which does that is this David Moser thing, which is obviously a parody.
Andy G at 15:45 on 2009-10-31
That David Moser thing is brilliant! It reminds me of what the blurb on Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveller" makes it SOUND like it's going to be like (i.e. it's a book about itself being read) - though actually like the Shakespeare example it starts with the "meta" idea but isn't a one-trick pony that bangs on about nothing else.
Shim at 19:20 on 2009-11-02
I've been thinking about the audience reaction in Fucked. It seems to me like a lot of it is about expectations. There's a lot of stuff out there where women (and indeed men) are portrayed in a wacky/embarrassing/"hilarious" way, right down to awkward drunkenness and sexual encounters, which often end up basically as anecdotes to recount. The other end of things is the "heavy, serious" portrayal where things are deeply scarring. But from what you've described, the "Object" scene fits the wacky framework at the beginning, and I suspect what's happened is people who weren't that clear on what to expect have just fitted everything they saw into that pattern. It sounds like it wasn't heavy-handed enough to shake them out of that viewpoint (alternate phrasing: it was subtle and perhaps more realistic, and just as in real life, people misinterpreted the situational cues and someone else's emotions). Although I tend to actively avoid them, I've seen tons of books and films that seem to be founded on "person has life of drunkenness and stupid possibly-traumatic sex, eventually finds true love/becomes rich/gets pregnant but it's all okay/realises friendship is all you need/repairs broken family/continues on existing path" and treat it very light-heartedly. If you're used to that, and not looking for other interpretations, I can see people assuming that's what's going on.
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