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Round-up from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2021

26 August 2021

Peter Graystone finds the performers heroically festive against the odds

Simon Messer

Cast members in Sweet FA

Cast members in Sweet FA

THIS year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival is much reduced from its former glorious excess. There are 400 events to choose between instead of the customary 4000. Railings usually plastered with posters are bare. It’s possible to walk through Old Town with empty hands, since the distribution of fliers by importunate actors is banned. The Royal Mile has just two street entertainers and not a single living statue. And it’s almost impossible to get something to eat after 10 p.m. in a setting where restaurants were once hospitable until 2 a.m.

It has to be said, though, that the inventiveness and tenacity that have made it happen after its cancellation in 2020 are heroic. Covid-related restrictions were relaxed in Scotland later than in England, and the Fringe Society took a gamble on opening the festival when it was not yet confirmed that indoor audiences would be allowed. That gamble has allowed some outstanding work, and everyone is working doubly hard to create the impression that nothing untoward is hindering the joy.

Companies have approached the challenges in resourceful ways. Many have presented their work live, but online. Shedinburgh offers a varied programme, mostly solo shows, filmed with a garden shed as a shared set. It includes Funeral Flowers, written and acted by Emma Dennis-Edwards. Seventeen-year-old Angelique is training to be a florist and striving for success with a mother in prison and men using her badly. It has the strengths and weaknesses of all theatre live-streams. It offers a front-row view of a compelling performance, but it makes you long to be there in person to smell the flowers.

Duncan McGlynnChloe-Ann Tyler in Doppler

Others stretch their ingenuity to give their audience a live experience safely. Paul Beeson and Tim Barrow stage their play about the early days of women’s football under one of the stands of Tynecastle Park, the home of Heart of Midlothian FC. Its cast of nine women bring tremendous energy to Sweet FA, a bittersweet story with songs by Matthew Brown. They are factory workers, discovering unprecedented opportunities through sport while losing their menfolk in the horror of the Somme. They double as ghastly caricatures of the Scottish football authorities who responded to the huge success of the women’s game a century ago by introducing a ban that would last 50 years. A great deal of history is crammed in, and a love story is under-developed. But it’s extremely enjoyable and, with a backdrop of the very football pitch that was the site of the women’s triumph, it was greeted with cheers.

Grid Iron TC, renowned for site-specific theatre, have responded to the particular needs of the time by staging Doppler in a wood owned by the National Trust of Scotland. Seated on sawn-off tree stumps around a burning fire, the audience is completely drawn into the tale of a man who turns his back on all that he hates about people and consumerism, and makes his home in a Norwegian forest. Keith Fleming plays the role of Doppler, managing to preserve a little of our sympathy despite all his driven misanthropy. And although the setting is the star, Ben Harrison’s production is enriched by live Foley sound effects by Nik Paget-Tomlinson, and excellent performances from Sean Hay and Chloe-Ann Tyler, especially when playing a variety of woodland animals.

For those willing to venture inside, masked and distanced, there are traditional solo shows such as Shakespeare’s Fool, which tells the story of Will Kempe, who reached the height of celebrity in William Shakespeare’s company, but died penniless, having fallen into obscurity after a row. Robin Leetham plays Kempe in T. G. Hofman’s play. It will win no awards for originality of form, but it holds attention with great charm and has some timeless jokes: “Why do morris dancers wear bells? So that they can irritate the blind as well.”

Leslie BlackJoyce Falconer in Aye, Elvis

The best-known names in stand-up comedy have stayed away this year, with the exception of Mark Watson, who gives a generous hour of laughter in an open-sided tent. He contends hilariously with honking geese, the weather, and strangers without tickets wandering by to see what’s going on. But at the heart of his set is a reflection on how his chaotic circumstances took him to a website that predicts the age at which he will die. The result is the most spiritually uplifting event of a Fringe that is more notable for sidestepping profound or religious issues in favour of rewarding audiences with cheerfulness.

That point is best illustrated by Aye, Elvis. Morna Young’s sweet play is about a broad-Scots, female Elvis impersonator, powering forward on zero talent and unstoppable hope (“Are ye lonesome the nicht?”). It is staged in a custom-built venue on top of a multi-storey car park, open to the elements, with Edinburgh Castle perched on a sheer outcrop as a spectacular backdrop. The venue swallows up subtlety, and Joyce Falconer has to give a powerhouse performance to compete. But she is hilarious, the romantic comedy wins over a chilly audience, and the show triumphs against the odds. That typifies everything you need to know about this year’s festival.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival continues until 30 August.

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