“Did you enjoy the show?” “Yes, it was good.”
Good. Bad. The only words I have left after seeing over 100 comedies, dramas and everything inbetween at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Sorry, all of the rest have gone in reviews – and even there they ended up repeating themselves. I’m pretty sure you could devise a drinking game around the times I’ve said “the play’s world”, “emotional journey” or “a celebration of [insert something rousing]”.
A lot of people think it’s not possible to do justice to every show you see when you’re writing up four, five or six a day. That’s because it isn’t. There will be a something that you give three stars to that, at a later date you think should have been four, or vice versa. You will try and get names and facts correct, but invariably you will undermine yourself by saying “Smith” instead of “Smyth” and announcing that “life was tough in ancient Rome 3000 years ago”. There will always be times where someone else (who I like to think has less reviews to write in more time) manages to say what you wanted better. And it will be annoying when you read it and you’ll wish you’d written what they’d written, and WHY DIDN’T YOU WRITE WHAT THEY’D WRITTEN, IDIOT…
But there are also times when you rattle off 300 words in 20 minutes and think: wow, that was better than anything I’ve ever done in two hours. Covering the Edinburgh Festival like I (and many others) do is an intense but inspiring experience where, every day, you push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. The downside is you have to re-read all of your reviews at the end to remind yourself of what you’ve actually seen. So, having done that, here are my observations on the 3.1% of 3,193 shows I was lucky enough to go to:
Just because a show seems feminist doesn’t mean that it is
Lots of people I spoke to at this year’s festival seemed to think: women on stage + dialogue about sexism = feminist play. But by focussing purely on women as the victims of men, the media and the make-up industry, plays such as Freak (by Anna Jordan) and Sirens (by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed) – as well-written and performed as they are – are in danger of making it look as if victims are all half the population are.
I have heard more sexist jokes in plays highlighting the problem of sexist jokes than I ever have in real life. And if I want to spend £15 on a lipstick, I’ll do it. In fact, Ontroerend Goed, even if I don’t want to spend £15 on a lipstick I’ll do it, just to show you that I can. Oh, and aren’t you the company whose show a few years ago, Audience, involved bullying a female audience member the rest of us were supposed to step in and ‘save’? Go feminism.
But there were also lots of shows that had more interesting female characters and perspectives on sexism too: Travesti put real women’s words into the mouths of male performers in a way that highlighted how farcical it is that men and women are still treated or viewed differently. Clara Brennan’s Spine is about two working-class women who certainly don’t need saving – least of all by a middle-class theatre goers who might think they know best. Pondling, written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, is one of the best depictions of a teenage girl I have ever seen on stage. And in The Capone Trilogy – three plays from some of the company formerly known as Belt Up, written by James Wilkes – the archetypical screen goddesses of the 20s, 30s and 40s are given their say within the traditionally male-driven gangster genre.
Some plays can change the way you watch all subsequent ones
I’ll never look at stand-up comedy or political theatre in the same way again. This is because two excellent shows – Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-Up Comedian and Confirmation – have, in my mind, pulled both of the genres to bits. And I’m very grateful to them for that. The first, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a stand-up performance within a play within a stand-up performance and dissects how making people laugh is often at the expense of others, who may or may not deserve it. The second, written and performed by Chris Thorpe, is a one-man exploration of how we use our experiences to enforce, rather than inform or change, our deep-held political beliefs, whether these are as a left-wing theatre maker or right-wing member of the BNP.
Many of the plays and comedy shows I saw after these two were made far more interesting as a result. Thanks to Gary, when I hear a comedian at Late ‘n’ Live telling an audience member from Pontefract “I spent half of my childhood there”, I automatically assume this is a load of rubbish. And much as I enjoyed another show, Cuckooed, in which comedian and activist Mark Thomas gives a compelling account of being spied on by the BAE Systems, having seen Confirmation I can’t help thinking it’s still only one side of the story. “I’m a very good liar, but everything I’m telling you today is true,” says Mark. But because I don’t like BAE Systems, I’m happy to ignore the first part of that sentence.
There are not enough good roles for female audience members
If you’re a woman, watching a play, and you’re picked out by a male performer, it normally means only one thing: you’re going to be serenaded, presented with flowers and, basically, turned into a generic female love interest. Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson, a smart multi-award winning look at our attachment to things from the past, spends a lot of time doing this. Don’t perform or try and be funny, female audience members are told just in case we want to, god forbid, do our own thing.
Whenever I’ve seen the brilliant comedian Adam Riches (whose shows are built around audience participation) pick out a woman they are turned into someone whatever cartoon-like eccentric he’s playing fancies. In contrast, male audience members, who are chosen far more often, get to do things like ride ‘lizard men’ on skateboards, seduce Ryan Gosling’s mother (played by Riches) and be covered in the contents of pots of Yakult. Even in Every in Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan Macmillan’s lovely, upbeat show about finding things to be happy about, an embarrassed-looking woman in the front row is turned in a familiar girlfriend-type. Cue everyone waiting for inevitable awkward snog.
Kiss-him-or-spoil-the-show is often the implied message for women who find themselves chosen to join performers on stage. Sometimes the audience are even chanting some such thing, or cheering their approval increasingly loudly. And so, behaviour that in real life might be classified as, at best, mass bullying or, at worst, sexual assault is turned into light entertainment.
If you want to make me cry in a play, this is how you do it:
Be funny. Be sad. Be funny. Be sad. Keep alternating. Be more funny. Be more sad. End with a character either facing death or dying. Zap the house lights up. Tell me to get out because there’s a five minute turnaround time.
OK, maybe don’t do the last one. But basically this formula of shifting from something funny to something sad and back again is one that I and the many other anonymous figures sobbing in dark venues find very effective. Daniel Kitson probably does it best and summed it up in his 2012 show As of 1.52 GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title as “’I’m thinking, I’m crying, I’m laughing,’” before adding, “You’ve been Kitsonned.”
Unfortunately, Daniel Kitson didn’t have a theatre piece at this year’s festival (although he was dong comedy, with friends, at The Stand), but keeping someone in the mini-tissue packet business going was Irish writer Pat Moylan’s Beowulf: the Blockbuster, a nevertheless uplifting story about the power of storytelling in which a father uses the ancient poem and all of its magic to tell his young son he’s dying. There was also So it Goes, Hannah Moss’s moving but playful autobiographical play about dealing with her own dad’s death told almost entirely without words (because there are some things words can’t say). Which leads me to…
There were a lot of plays about dead or dying fathers
As well as Beowulf: The Blockbuster and So It Goes, there was Banjo Man, Quina Chapman’s upbeat but touching play celebrating the life or her father, the creator of the 90s cult song Swamp Thing, and her childhood with him. And the semi-autobiographical Jim, by David O’Connor, which follows two sons brought together through dealing with the death of their cantankerous dad.
So, if you’re one of those people looking for ‘Festival Themes’, there you go.
Sometimes the best plays make you feel the worst
To be honest, I spent the majority of The Christeene Machine thinking “My god, when is this going to end?” It’s a confrontational show, particularly if you’re standing, like I was, right at the front of the stage. And that’s the point – or part of it. Basically, it’s the kind of explicit New York underground LGBT cabaret show designed to make you feel at times very uncomfortable. But it was also the most invigorating thing I saw this year, juxtaposing understated monologues with genuine menace as Christeene and her dancers shouted and stamped their way through explicit yet expertly choreographed rap numbers.
This combination of down-to-earth friendly banter with images and behaviour that make you recoil in horror is something that Kim Noble also uses in his epic show You’re Not Alone in which real-life and fiction, as well as comedy and theatre, are blurred together to form a piece that veers from being bleakly funny to heartfelt to horrific approximately every four seconds. It can’t really be confined to a single theatre performance, drawing on the lives of real people who, we are told, have been secretly filmed or recorded. While this makes it ethically dubious, Noble’s disregard for social norms is also part of what makes it so fascinating and simultaneously uneasy to watch.
Vanity Bites Back also plays with audience emotions, asking us to laugh and then throwing this back in our faces, morphing from a seemingly innocuous one-woman character show, by Helen Duff, to a bold and thrillingly fresh exploration of a troubled relationship with food. The lesser-known venue, in the dark and damp South Bridge Vaults, brilliantly lowers expectations, as does the smiling, chirpy woman who greets us there, before all of this is sharply and painfully undermined.
None of the above three plays are comfortable to watch and all of them are all the better for it.
Interesting shows have interesting problems
A lot of plays I’ve enjoyed at this year’s festival have things wrong with them: their stories needs dealing with, everything finishes too abruptly, there are too many ideas crammed into too little time. While these issues could do with being sorted out, they are BORING to talk about compared to how enjoyable the shows containing them are. The Art of Falling Apart has a structure that, yes, falls apart but it also has brilliant characters – probably too many brilliant characters – and one of the best depictions of going on a night out clubbing I’ve ever seen.
One of my favourite shows this year, Looking for Paul – Wunderbaum, ends with all of the characters covered in what appears to be excrement and mayonnaise, with straw shoved into any available orifice. But it’s also a terrific satire about public arts funding, the type of people who become artists and the things that, rightly or wrongly, drive them. The ending goes on way too long and the piece risks becoming the very thing it’s sending up, but the fact it otherwise so successfully breaks down and parodies theatre itself, while still being a great piece of theatre, is (unlike, I imagine, the watery spaghetti which covers the stage) simply delicious.
There are lots of good three star shows. But many of you won’t go and see them.
“What’s got five stars? I only want to go and see four or five stars,” people are often saying to me. But if you’re interested in a play’s subjectmatter, or you like a certain genre, or are following the work of a specific writer or group, seeing a three star show could well be more enjoyable that a five star one about something you have no interest in by a company you hate. Why avoid something that sounds entertaining and just your kind of thing because it hasn’t got that magic extra, highly arbitrary, star?
Here are some of my favourite three star shows from this year’s Festival: Milk Presents: Self-Service, Burger Van, Blind, First World Problems, Something’s in the Living Room, Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve F*cked, Glue, The Height of the Eiffel Tower, Beans on Toast, How Does a Snake Shed It’s Skin, Standby for Tape Back-Up, I’m Thinking of Leaving Facebook, The Secret Wives of Andy Williams.
The star system has lots of problems
Here are some of the main ones:
• It is impossible to accurately ‘rate’ plays by giving them a number between 1 and 5. Invariably there will be shows that both have the same amount of stars and one will clearly be better than the other.
• Critics generally think a three star show means something interesting but flawed, or well put-together if not exactly earth shattering. Audience members think it means avoid at all costs.
• Choosing how many stars to give is difficult when you respond well emotionally to a play that is technically less successful. Or vice versa. You may have the “3 stars or 4 stars?” conversation with yourself. It can go on for hours.
• Normally about three weeks after you’ve written a review – when the show is over and no ones cares what you think any more – your true and lasting opinion becomes clear.
Celebrities sometimes face unfairly harsh criticism just because they’re ‘big names’ (and other times it’s completely justified).
I thought Simon Callow in Juvenalia was an interesting if somewhat meandering insight into everyday life and attitudes in Roman times. Others found it to be full of sexism and prejudice too dubious to stomach in today’s world. Meanwhile, Callow complained at the Fringe First Awards that “the London critics “don’t properly appreciate one-person shows”. Whether this is true or not, I do sometimes wonder if being a ‘big name’ at the Edinburgh Fringe means critics are likely to judge you more harshly.
Saying that, the fabulous Nancy Dell’Olio put no effort whatsoever in to her one-woman show Rainbows From Diamonds. While I gave it one star, it has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen albeit for all the wrong reasons. It was like watching someone do a completely unrehearsed speech at a wedding – one that went on for over an hour, cost thirteen quid and involved a ten minute costume change during which we stared at an empty stage accompanied by incongruous dramatic music.
I don’t often feel like I want to get directly involved in other people’s shows, but this was like stepping into A&E, discovering a patient was haemorrhaging and that all the doctors had disappeared. I might not know what I’m doing or be the best person for the job, but Nancy, if you need a script, I’ll give it a go. Failing that, call someone. Call anyone. Whatever they can come up with can only things better.
Hopefully some of the above shows will go on tour and you’ll get a chance to see them. But, like every year, there will probably some that won’t and the only record that they existed will be in a few people’s memories and any reviews, blogs and features that commemorate them online. While that’s a bit sad, it’s also one of the things that makes the Edinburgh Festival special. No amount of ‘round-ups’ like this or ‘best of’ late-night TV programmes on BBC3 can really capture what it’s like to be there.
If you still haven’t had enough of reading about the Edinburgh Festival 2014 here’s the rest of my reviews