“HOW do you know what shows to choose?” is a reasonable question to ask anyone who loves the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and one that I am often asked. There were 3548 this year. You would need to be iron-willed or foolhardy to attempt more than 30 in a week.
Some shows get chosen because they have been put in the hands of a hard-working PR company. I was first invited to review Luca Cupani’s stand-up comedy way back in April. His show, God Digger, is unusual in treating Christianity sympathetically. He is an Italian Catholic, and he gives the audience a wry guide to religious faith: “We are all going to meet God. He’s our CEO.”
He was disappointed to find only one Christian in the audience (your humble reviewer). A small audience willed him to do well, and he had some good one-liners: “Purgatory is Ryanair for the soul.” But he was hampered by the audience’s lack of knowledge of the stories that he riffed on; so a sequence about Abraham and Isaac fell flat. To be honest, an hour of quiet chuckles does not really make a satisfying gig. But it was refreshing to hear a comedian say, “The Bible is such a beautiful book,” before adding ruefully, “But if they wrote it today no one would publish it.”
This was quite a contrast to Eshaan Akhbar, whose show is Prophet Like It’s Hot. He describes himself as a British-born ex-Muslim with a Pakistani father and a Bangladeshi mother. I describe him as high-risk.
His job, he says, is “to do stand-up where white people come together to laugh at Islam”. It was true: in a festival noted for its lack of audience diversity, this was a noticeably pale roomful. Reading from The Qur’an Made Easy, he targeted Muslim attitudes to violence, alcohol, and women. His hour passed on ripples of engaged but slightly nervous laughter. “Satire and Islam are not natural bedfellows,” he observed. “Are you anxious about the blasphemous nature of the show? Don’t worry. It’s me that’s going to hell, not you.”
By no stretch of the imagination was it a shocking routine. The thing that would really shock Edinburgh would be a practising Muslim honouring his faith with laughter. Or, even more intriguing, her faith.
Of course, not all the comedy in the Fringe is about important themes. Some of it is just about the joy of laughter. Over the past few years, Nick Mohammed has developed a gloriously over-enthusiastic character, Mr Swallow, who, with a mixture of naïve incompetence and delight when things work, has presented shows about Dracula and Houdini.
This year’s Mr Swallow and the Vanishing Elephant is a real spectacle, but the lack of an elephant is apparent from the very beginning. Instead, there is some truly astonishing magic, in which tables float and tarot cards constantly deal out death to a volunteer from the audience. There is an astounding sequence in which he is able to recall the prices of every item on three restaurant menus and work out the square root as quickly as a calculator. Through it all, the laughs keep coming deliriously quickly. Most comedy at the Fringe features one microphone and a stool. This one has moving scenery and a chainsaw. The ending is so satisfying that, frankly, an elephant would have been a disappointment.
This has been a good year for conjuring at the Fringe, notably The Vanishing Man, the mysteries of which were being discussed in bars and queues long after the show had finished. The premise is an investigation into ‘the greatest trick of all time’, undertaken by the Edwardian magician Hugo Cedar. In front of a large crowd he disappeared from London Bridge leaving behind only a fluttering playing card, and was never traced again.
The tale is told through a series of increasingly baffling card tricks by Simon Evans and David Aula. But the story merges with another one, involving a poignant memory of a lost friend, and it becomes increasingly difficult to decide what one believes to be true. In the context of some literally incredible trickery taking place in front of one’s eyes, and an explanation of what happens in a self-deceiving audience, the piece conjures with all one knows about knowledge, belief and truth. “The Lord of the Rings is to the Bible as magic is to miracles.” Agreed! But at the moment when my personally signed and destroyed seven of clubs reappeared whole when a lime was sliced in two, I would have believed anything.
A publicity image for Backup
SOMETIMES the choice of what to see is dictated by the subject-matter. In Chalk Line Theatre’s Testament, young Max is poised between life and death after a car accident in which his girlfriend has died. Wrestling with the reality of what it means to die, he is visited by Jesus and the devil. But some confused writing makes it difficult to distinguish between their messages about life. Dressed in black and white, they speak in shades of grey.
A very young company gives Sam Edmund’s script all they can. It is choreographed inventively around a hospital bed that spins to become the fated car, and it has a sophisticated electronic soundtrack. But the scenes are too fragmented, and the reflections on death are too banal to be enlightening.
An out-of-control car also features in the much superior Island Town, by Simon Longman and presented by Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd. We see three young people progressively stripped of hope and prospects as they age from 15 to 18. They live in a town cut off from the world by a ring-road and distant fields.
The bleakness of their situation is lightened because the characters are so funny and likeable. Played by Charlotte O’Leary, Jack Wilkinson, and Katherine Pearce, Sam is focused on survival, Pete longs for a family to love, and Kate is so angry in her desperation to escape that only trouble can possibly follow. When it does, the laughter stops abruptly and the pain is intense. All that is left is a forlorn longing to begin again in the hope of changing the story.
ANOTHER reason that shows make it on to the shortlist is that themes emerge as the festival progresses. The themes are never planned, because, unlike its formidable parent the International Festival, the Fringe is not curated. Anyone who wants to turn up and stake their life’s savings on staging a show can do so. But every year particular subjects emerge, having grasped the imagination of the arts community. Predictably this year there were many shows about Brexit: plays, musicals, sketch shows, satires and verbatim pieces of variable quality.
A more interesting theme to emerge was the meaning of masculinity for an unsettled generation. No one explored this more entertainingly than Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair, whose play Square Go was a riotously audience-pleasing two-hander. Thirteen-year-old Max and his friend Stevie are cowering in the school lavatories, dreading an inevitable playground brawl that has been demanded by “the school ape”, Danny Guthrie. Delightfully played by Scott Fletcher and Gavin Wright, Max and Stevie are trying to live up to “the seven attributes of being a man”.
Knowing that he is going to be roughed up, but facing it as an inevitable passage to manhood, Max summons up fantasies of macho prize-fighters and reckless drinkers. But it emerges that Guthrie has reasons for his aggression, and there is a sliver of hope for the young guys which reveals itself in the closing moments.
The play fizzes with funny one-liners. Max laments to his best pal: “Having you in my corner is like having marshmallows for teeth.” The play is superbly directed in the round by Finn den Hertog, and the audience is whipped into a wrestling-ring frenzy. When the fight comes, nothing transpires as we imagine. Every word of the lads’ broad Scottish dialogue rings true, and our hearts go out to them. Finding a way to be a man in a culture of unhelpful role-models is not going to be easy, but I have a feeling that these two are going to be OK.
I am much more worried for the family at the centre of First Snow/Première Neige. Isabelle Vincent has gathered her warring children to her home in Quebec. She will give away everything to the next generation if they can agree between them how to divide it up. Cue ferocious family fights. The story is told as if in the rehearsal room, with actors breaking out of character to address the audience. Is what they have just said part of the story, or their own opinion?
Underscoring everything in the play are two referendums: the votes concerning independence in Scotland in 2014 and in Quebec in 1995. The question what happens now, particularly for those on the losing side, splits open the family, the nations, and the structure of the play itself. It slides uncompromisingly between English, French, and two kinds of sign language. It constantly interrupts itself. It is set among a jumble of mismatched chairs. It ends in destruction. Its awkward questions undermine any attempt to resolve the narrative. A co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and two Canadian countries, it is a troubling piece for fractured times.
Luca Cupani, whose show is Gold Digger
SOME shows get chosen simply because the Festival attracts the kinds of performance that it is not easy to find at other times of the year: for instance, puppetry and mime. The Artist is a wonderfully inventive circus and clown show set in a painter’s garret. Thom Monckton’s character makes riotous physical comedy out of doing simple things in bizarrely difficult ways. Reaching a paint pot from a top shelf becomes an acrobatic feat. Step ladders, staple guns, and even a drip from the ceiling become objects of unpredictable excess. At once surreal and innocent, it is held together with great charm and impeccable comic timing. The ending, in which Monckton reveals that he really can paint, drew gasps of contentment and then wild applause from an all-age audience.
The advantage of seeing a great deal of theatre in a short space of time is realising that there is no limit on what can be presented in each genre. The same mime skills that produced the splendidly trivial The Artist were used by the Brussels-based Focus/Chaliwaté Company to heart-rending effect in Backup. Three reporters arrive in a beaten-up van at the North Pole, beautifully realised in the flickering lights and smoking chimneys of tiny model houses on a snowy landscape. They are met with challenges far beyond their experience, and narrowly escape as the ice begins to crack.
The cleverly changing scale of the piece, manipulating props of differing sizes, reaches its climax when the three come face to face with a life-size polar bear. Wriggling beneath its power is a bear cub, both rendered with tenderness and strength through exceptional puppet skills. The ice cracks, and the cub begins to float away in an ending that serves as a timely environmental warning.
THE only way to negotiate Edinburgh’s choices is to leave space in your schedule and talk to the strangers alongside whom you are queuing. The same shows come up in conversation repeatedly and lure you in. Sometimes they are disappointments; sometimes they are unforgettable. Somewhere in the city, a man on a unicycle will wobble past a woman dressed as Marie Antoinette. They will both give you a flyer and tell you why you should come to their show. Give them a smile and hear them out. They have chosen to invest their souls in the world’s greatest arts festival. Now it’s your turn to choose.