'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Gates and Jobs

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope

Philosophy. The very term strikes fear into the hearts of business types and marketeers everywhere. It suggests unwelcome froth or meaningless snobby asides on an otherwise adequate page of 'top line' bullet points. "If only", think the business types, "we could walk around wearing clothing that indicated a good education, and then there'd be no need for such intellectual posturing. By the way, who's this Hegel? Doesn't he work in sales?"



But, in our frazzled CEO's defence, where to find the time? "I don't have time to even eat lunch; how can I be expected to read these nuanced arguments?" they rightly point out. "Is a top line of the Wealth of Nations possible?" Alas, no. Top line information is good for simple tasks - "closing a door" - or ridiculous sweeping stratagems - "invade Russia and stop at Moscow". Such forms of communication are harder for everything in between. This is not - note - a sign of intellectual deficiency, muddled ideas or a failure to be 'on the ball'. It is merely the acceptance that not everything is clear cut.



The School of Athens - Plato points up urging 'blue sky' thinking; Aristotle tells him to calm down and 'check the figures'.
But do not despair! An article in today's Times by Danny Finkelstein brilliantly touched upon an almost biblical spectacle of two great modern - but opposed - philosophies: that of Jobs and Gates.

T
he Jobs philosophy, wrought from his time at Apple and subsequent exile and resurrection, is Platonic in character. It is one of complete integration; command and control and a striving for the ‘insanely good’ (Plato meekly stuck to 'the Good'). It is the sort of philosophy which is easily understood – and marketed – and idealistic. (The followers of this sort of philosophy can be fanatical in their devotion.) The universe, according to this vision fits neatly together and can be explained through Divine forms and geometry. Gates’ Aristotelian philosophy is a bit messier and complex and more concerned with economic sustainability and common sense. It's not as elegant or pretty, but hell, it's a lot cheaper. 

Which leads me to Alexander Pope. What is worse than avoiding these fresh waters of tempting knowledge all together? The answer is merely dipping one's toe in, recoiling and withdrawing. This trend of 'short-cut learning' for the man on the move is both cringe worthy and  potentially damaging. A manger who has consumed and proceeds to regurgitate the latest business text is a dangerous thing. Indeed, a
fter 200 pages of the latest managerial educational bile we suddenly realise, amidst the 'case studies' and 'stats' proving poorly made points, that the book is, in fact, vacuous nonsense. At best these authors sit slumped, pathetically, on the shoulders of some greater thinker, slightly dizzy at the heights they've somehow managed to land on. 

The books consumed, then, by many in business, present us with simplistic and deceptively elegant - let's say 'Jobseian' - ideas, which translate poorly into the nuances and problems day-to-day business. And nuances, unfortunately, must be displayed in more than a few lines.



Sunday, 13 November 2011

John Martin Apocalypse Review







On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood 
Robed in the sable garb of woe
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And with a Master's hand, and Prophet's fire
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.

The Bard ~
Thomas Gray





  
As with the other great event of 1789, there are many overlapping possibilities and routes for interpretation with the figure of John Martin. With him, a horizon of potential explanations opens before us – from Madness to Mammon. The opening image of the Tate Britain's exhibition is Martin's 'The Bard' and it can provide us with several possibilities for understanding his oeuvre. 

The Bard is an arresting and stunning display of man and nature; an image brought about in a cultural milieu of Scott and Wordsworth. The Bard’s mad gesture blends with the jutting landscape; the English army’s progress is defined by the river it trundles past.

Despite the drama of the scene, there is a clear link between Martin's early works and eighteenth-century painters such as Claude. Here – as with 'Pan and Syrinx' – Martin follows the French example, drawing on lush greens and soft blues to provide a pleasant and harmonious landscape for classical games to be played out on. This was familiar and inoffensive. Yet there is a visually striking difference between pieces like this and his other work. Martin’s 1812 piece ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ displays a pulsating and despairing scene of a landscape consuming and ruining the individual. The themes, however, collapse into one: Martin is saying that there is essentially man and nature; and despite your modern factories, steam engines and mills, this remains the case. Touching on the sublime is intimately connected with this duality. 


In another sense the Bard represents a deeper idea. The old prophet – the last crumbling bastion of an antediluvian way of thinking – madly attempting to stem the current of an England representing order and progress at the expense of older values. In vain does he challenge the monotonous and inevitable advance of the English army. 

With images like Belshazzar's Feast (1820) Martin takes this critique of the material a step further, thundering a message of Old Testament retribution to a rapt audience. And what better way to remind the masses of His wrath than the vision of hell and the apocalypse? Martin’s apocalyptic scenes of crumbling towers, cities engulfed by torrents of fire and frenzied armies baying wildly into decadent cities became hugely popular for many.

In this sense, Martin is doing more than merely painting images on canvas; he is not simply presenting intellectual ideas or narratives. The overly refined messages, references and puns that defined much of eighteenth-century art in England was already giving way to a love of more emotion and feeling. Martin, like the later Turner, is speaking to the viewers souls; searing lasting impressions. We do not, despite the explanations provided by the Tate, need to delve too deeply to see the messages behind visual testaments like 'The Fall of Babylon'. 

Indeed the exhibition represents a broader sense of spiritual unease felt in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. It is in this sense that reviews – such as that of Jonathan Jones in the Guardian – pathetically miss the point with Martin. Nineteenth-century Britain after the fall of Napoleon was neither spiritually nor materially stable. It's a sense of unease that for many heralded the black satanic smoke of mechanised Britain blotting out any idea of religion or community; stability succumbing to Peterloo Massacres and negligent Laissez-Faire giving way to Revolutions. 

That revolutionary apocalypse did not engulf Britain says more for the ability of an establishment to listen, adapt and integrate ideas – such as those of Martin or Carlyle – than it does for any inherent British stability post-1815. While Martin's painting lack subtlety and delicacy, they had a profound impact. Attacking the overly complex paintings, the wildly animated figures and pyrotechnic madness of Martin as crass, negates the strong practical reasoning behind them. The Bard then, who is on the cusp of a dramatic leap into the thundering current, does not simply represent the failure to cling to ancient ideas in the face of progress or a glorious romantic outburst culminating in self-immolation. Instead it represents the practical success artists like Martin had in appealing beyond the material and to the very souls of the huddled masses of the nineteenth-century, untouched or unaware of ideas of progress, economics and democracy.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Melancholia



Like a juror about to pass judgement on a famous celebrity, it seems impossible for a discussion of Melancholia not to drag into their analysis pre-existing prejudices. In this case, the director, Lars von Trier. This is a shame as we are often in danger of getting into such an excited frenzy over the controversial artist that we overlook the work he has produced.

Von Trier! Von Trier! Who is this Von Trier? I would argue that it does not matter. Artists, however self obsessed, are very rarely – Beethoven like – putting themselves fully and consciously at the centre of their works. In truth, most are simply vocal or visual symptoms of a wider zeitgeist; unwittingly amplifying the white noise around them. Others simply present a part of themselves – often in graphic detail – for us all to wince at, never knowing – or daring – to fully immerse themselves in their project.

Occasionally, as I believe with Melancholia, the artist reaches a half-way house – not quite immersing, they nevertheless produce a whole-work of art; a work wrought from a mind aware and suddenly conscious of the spirit of the age it inhabits.

So what then does Melancholia say of the spirit of the age now? The film is not, despite superficial observations, an idyllic one. There is wealth and comfort, but underlying spiritual unease. Throughout, the film is beautiful but it is an uneasy, often unbearable beauty that pervades; the sight of a naked Justine lying by the river side and bathed in cool blue moonlight seems to consume the showy superficiality of the wedding dress, cake and flowers. The consuming beauty is stark and ravishing. It is threatening to onlookers; stunning in its delivery. It is not an easy beauty.

It’s from scenes like this – which reference Ophelia – that our gleefully hacks have jumped on the theme of Germanic culture. The clues are everywhere. The Kandinsky’s are unceremoniously dumped in this film, replaced by Brueghel the Elder and Millias. The strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde reoccur throughout, and the striking Dunst is seen riding horses through misty pine forests. 

Yet this is simplistic at best, and fails to look beneath the sparkling surface of the Germanic aesthetic. What lurks beneath? Misty pine trees, sparkling blue eyes and castles on remote outcrops: we know what the Germanic ideal looks like, but what does it mean?

As with the ‘Northern’ Renaissance and the later outpouring of Teutonic creativity in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, Von Trier is reacting against an overly scientific, organised and analytical view of reality which pervades modern culture. The film is an intellectual invasion of a slumbering paradigm of progress, science and reason. Here, perhaps, is the significance of the film.

The key here is not the more obvious Wagner, but Dürer’s woodcut Melancholia. Like the film, Dürer shows a distraught and depressed figure, surrounded by the clutter of science and progress. The apparent triumph of progress and reason is no triumph at all. In the distance hangs a hazy hopeful semi-reality of horizon merging with sea and beyond that a bright light in the sky. As with the film, the bean counting, scientific instruments and refrain of ‘trusting the scientists’ counts for nought here. The world is a creation of the self; external reasoning and logic have little influence on it. It attacks the view – espoused by eighteenth-century French philosophers – that ‘a work of politics, of morality, of criticism, perhaps even of literature, will be fine, all things considered, if made by the hands of a geometer.’  
It’s this obsession with mathematical models, numbering and categorising that the film stands against. The sort of philosophy that, for Isaiah Berlin, ‘operates on lines which are conditioned by the idea that there are certain axiomatic truths, adamantine, unbreakable, from which it is possible by severe logic to deduce certain absolutely infallible conclusion; that it is possible to attain to this kind of absolute wisdom by a special method which he recommends; that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge to be obtained in the world....’ 


What Dürer recognised, as with Wagner, Goethe and later Carlyle in Britain, is the fundamental failure of progress and mechanistic thought to address the problem of the spiritual vacuum they create. Where to turn to for inspiration or wonder? For Carlyle, who reacted strongly against the emotional desert progress had created, the consequences were clear to see and in need of remedy:


We Boasted ourselves a Rational University; in the highest degree hostile to Mysticism; thus was the young vacant mind furnished with much talk about Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like; so that all were quickly enough blown out into a state of windy argumentativeness; whereby the better sort had soon to end in sick, impotent Scepticism; the worser sort explode in finished Self-conceit, and to all spiritual intents become dead. But this too is portion of mankind's lot. If our era is the Era of Unbelief, why murmur under it; is there not a better coming, nay come? As in long-drawn systole and long-drawn diastole, must the period of Faith alternate with the period of Denial; must the vernal growth, the summer luxuriance of all Opinions, Spiritual Representations and Creations, be followed by, and again follow, the autumnal decay, the winter dissolution.


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

White Review

White

White engrosses us in the charming and imaginative world of Wrinkle and Cotton. How they got here, and why they are here is not explained; it’s one of those innocent states of unknowing unique to childhood. 

Adults tend to call these ideas ‘dystopian’, and like any good dystopia, something is amiss: Colour. If found, any trace of it is consigned to the Rubbish Bin. "Good," says Wrinkle each time a shade is eradicated. 

This regime becomes increasingly awkward for Cotton, however, as he discovers something not as easily thrown away, which has the potential to sully the white sparkle of their pleasant existence. 

The set is very well done, and the attention the production pays to detail is commendable: expect hidden bells and whistles. The initial scene, especially, where Cotton and Wrinkle wake up, evokes the mechanical chaos and efficiency of the Wallace and Gromit breakfast routine.

Finally, it’s important we steer well clear of the inevitable discomfort some over-clever parents or reviewers may get from a world in which White is (initially, at least) supreme at the expense of Colour. This is not a political comment: children under five do not see anything inherently strange about the fact that Tinky Winky has a handbag, Burt and Ernie share a bed or that White contains large amounts of white. 

Charming, original and an excellent stimulus for young imaginations.

Stick Man Live on Stage! Review

Stick Man Live on Stage!

This show is a stage adaption of Julia Donaldson’s popular book about the healthy, handsome and happy stickman who lives in the forest with his stick lady love (it’s unclear whether sticks can get married) and stick children three. 

The performance uses live music and has plenty of action and games for the kids to join in with. Alex Scheffler’s interpretation of deep winter is kept, with the steely blue sky and Bruegel-esq trees jutting out of the snow.

As the original illustrations highlight, children love simple, clear visuals. They lack the ability of artistic directors to interpret; show a child a Monet and they will ask why the woman doesn’t have a face, or the trees are all squiggly. Unfortunately, Stickman is not represented by an actor in a costume – the best plan, as any child who has been to a theme park will tell you. Instead he is represented by the cop-out of an actor bounding around the stage with a model of the character in hand. This, along with the abstract representations of nature, doesn’t sit well with the under 5s and comes across as rather wooden. 

Patrick Monahan - Stories and Tales for Kids, Who Can Run Faster Than Snails Review


Patrick Monahan - Stories and Tales for Kids, Who Can Run Faster Than Snails


How does Patrick Monahan do it? As with last year, he has taken on the burden of two shows each day, one for children and one for older children. 
Far from reducing the man to tears of exhaustion, this has some impressive results for his act. It is a rare sight, for example, to see a comedian so successfully encourage the audience to join in with him. Harder still to do this with kids, while miraculously keeping their parents laughing at the same time. Effortlessly weaving in suggestions and random outbursts from the crowd, Monahan evidently revels in the excitement, surreal humour and silliness of a younger audience. 

As ever, his home made props are pathetic and flimsy, his pantomime clothing ridiculous, and his script derails on more than one occasion. Yet the fact he can still hold a crowd while lacking these familiar crutches speaks volumes for his natural talent.

Monahan shuns the familiar path of children’s shows – the rigid scripts, excessive props and faintly condescending tones – and may have stumbled on a job that doesn’t really exist yet: stand-up comedy for the under-10s

Charlie and Lola’s Best Bestest Play Review

Charlie and Lola’s Best Bestest Play


This is a show about meddling younger sisters, adept at creating mess and breaking their older sibling’s toys. Performed using puppets, Lola, the main centre of our attention, passes the time with ‘super cat’, magic performances and her imaginary friend, Soren. The show is split between Lola being told to tidy her room and Lola being told to go to bed.   

All this – especially the demanding younger sibling – initially resonates, although only to an extent. It is perhaps unfair to criticise the themes of this play as clichéd (surely this isn’t the sort of thing that matters for a children’s performance?) but it would not be unreasonable to ask for more. 

Childhood consists, after all, of fear and excitement; the purposeful pushing of boundaries and breaking of rules. Children learn to manipulate siblings (both mentally and physically), rather than simply to rationally converse with them. They construct elaborate lies and concoct weird potions: think about the generations of children who have lapped up the surreal themes, blood, mud and chaos of Roald Dahl. 

Entertaining children with butterflies, puppets and the spectacle (for spectacle it is) of amicable and polite sibling relationships under the age of ten is fine to an extent, but you owe it to them to dare for something better.

Swing 2010 and Fapy Lafertin Review


Resembling a group of old mafia dons taking time out from their usual routine of playing dominos under olive trees and planning family business, Swing 2010 brings ‘Gypsy Jazz’ to the Edinburgh Festival.

Despite the initially sleepy appearance of the group, there is some astonishingly accomplished guitar playing here. The genre has its roots with the Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, who developed a unique blend of traditional gypsy music with American jazz music in the 1930s and 40s. It’s an undeniably catchy and uplifting style.
One piece offered by Swing 2010 was reputably played by that legendary tale of Edwardian stoicism and lunacy: the string quartet on board the Titanic. Had Frapy and company been playing in place of the quartet, an otherwise polite and orderly evacuation may have slid into a happily nonchalant soiree on the deck, where despite increasingly icy feeling making its way up the passengers legs, the dancing and revelry would have continued. 

This, of course, is one of the problems with sitting down to watch Django-inspired music; not that it’s on dry land instead of a sinking ship, but rather it is better suited to provide atmosphere and depth to social occasions. Indeed, despite the fantastic spectacle of Fapy effortlessly bounding across his guitar fret, this is music not best suited to careful study or sit-down-analysis. 

Swinging for Basie with Brian Kellock and Dennis Rowland Review

Swinging for Basie with Brian Kellock and Dennis Rowland

Few mediums are as good at evoking the spirit of the times as contemporary music. While this says very little about our current deficit of attention and obsession for youth, Swinging for Basie teases out the spirit, seduction and glamour of a musical genre formed from the melting pot the US in the 1930s. 

Marshalling the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, Joe Temperley guided us through a performance of numbers like Shiny Stocking, 1 o’Clock Jump and April in Paris. The show was not lacking in vocal talent, as Denis Rowland slid on in the second half with his smooth baritone. Spanning a period of twenty years from the 1930s to the 1950s, Joe highlights the show with some personal anecdotes in his distinctive accent, which sways between New Jersey and Edinburgh. 

The music sparkles in this performance, and there was ample opportunity for the orchestra to show of their skills of improvisation. It’s a shame this music is so frequently condemned to old folk’s homes or gangster films; it would make a fantastic night out and welcome change from the modern take on dance music. 

Melting Pot Review

Melting Pot

I always feel a pang of guilty pleasure entering the Voodoo Rooms at certain hours of the day. Through the drizzle and across the shiny wet cobble stones, past the stray cats lurking, drunks slumped and waitresses smoking fly fags; beyond the industrial sized bins and second hand smells wafting from restaurant kitchens: the scene has more than a whiff of the golden age of gangsters and jazz music. 
Alas, the Moscow Mule drained before the show was blandly legal, and served by a bored T-shirt clad member of the iTunes generation. Nevertheless, the moody interior of the Voodoo Rooms is well chosen for an act like Melting Pot. 
The seven piece ‘Soul-Jazz-Funk’ band provides an adrenaline fuelled and raucous performance. Steele’s shrill and often hyperactive trumpet nicely balances out Subie Coleman’s smoky alto. Peppered with some impressive solos, especially from Steele’s animated trumpet, the group evidently take a great deal of joy in their improvisations. The show also remains accessible, with Jefferson Airplane and Shirley Bassey covers interspersed.
As with any artists who love their craft, it was impossible for the enthusiasm emanating from the stage not to infect the sweaty scrum of an audience, who by the end of the performance were baying for more. A solid and energetic performance.

Melba Joyce, with special guest Duke Heitger Review

Melba Joyce, with special guest Duke Heitger

Melba Joyce continues to fall in and out of love. She probably shouldn’t be telling us stuff like this, but hey-ho. She continually intersperses her songs with some commendably frank personal feelings. How very honest; how very American. Unfortunately something of a communication barrier exists between North East Scotland and the north side of Manhattan, and her tales fail to resonate with the audience. Surely a bit cold and taciturn? No, wait, this is just Edinburgh.

Musically Melba’s ‘good time jazz’ is the audio equivalent of a good mellow bourbon; audibly sliding around our senses, releasing warm, relaxing flavours. Shimmying around in a gorgeous gold dress against a deep blue curtain, Joyce has a genuineness and ease about her. Occasionally she is joined by trumpeter and assassin impersonator, Duke Heitger, who slips on stage in his tux, before screwing in a mute like a silencer on a pistol.    This is good old-fashioned jazz, without the excessive wrestling with instruments and tearing up of musical notation that I am fast growing accustomed to at the Jazz Festival. 

Nevertheless the Festival, once again, while getting the music right, constrain the fluid and emotive sounds of jazz to the straightjacket of a very rigid sit-down performance. Rows and rows of seats face forward, in the Nuremberg-esque cabaret. Don’t even think about chatting to the person next to you. This is serious you know! 

As a result it would be unfair to say the music was without ‘edge’ because of its affinity to more traditional jazz. Instead, much of the problem is down to formatting, and an audience of buttoned up Morningside Calvinists attempting to relax. Surely the Festival could have provided some space for dancing? 

Lizard Lounge Review

Lizard Lounge

The Lizard Lounge was the place to be in the 90s for anyone in Edinburgh with a penchant for hip-hop, jazz or salsa. Rarely operating at anything less than full capacity, the event attracted talent from across the globe.

Despite its history, the one-off celebration proved to be accessible, with Joe Malik, the Edinburgh based artist, providing the initial performance. This never ventured too far into the realms of musical obscurity or pretension. Indeed there is always a danger with jazz – and especially acts like ‘The Rhumba Caliente Afro Latin Soul Orchestra’ – that those less acquainted with the complex genealogy of the genre will be warded off by semantics.
This initially inoffensive pace quickened when hip-hop star Ty appeared, and he wasted no time in diving into the front row to whip up some mayhem. 

It’s hard to fault the artists, but the general impression at the venue was hardly intimate. The show also lost momentum from the painfully slow changeover times between acts. How long does it take to set up a pair of bongos and test a microphone?

Not surprisingly there was also a certain amount of nostalgia from the Lizard veterans, complete with the familiar scene of a hip-hop artist firing off a string of dedications to the deceased. There was, however, a respectable sized crowd of fans too young to have caught the first incarnation of Lizard Lounge. A diverse bunch, they swaggered and traipsed in short skirts, suspenders, and heavy eye liner; sports jackets and Star Wars T-shirts. 

Safely ‘alternative’, like the music on offer this only occasionally went beyond the mildly entertaining, and failed to prove as arrestingly frank and interesting as some jazz music can. 

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Review

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Strutting in from the South Side of Chicago, the self-made and refreshingly entrepreneurial brothers of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble will challenge the way you think of brass bands, fusing rap, funk and ska. 

The word ‘unique’ is often bandied about willy-nilly by PR people and reviewers, but the dissonant chords produced by the group do instantly resonate as distinctive. Despite the usual frothy spiel about artistic influence and musical journeys, the music is indeed evocative of inner cities and Chicago; often slightly sinister, grimy or threatening, but also able to paint optimistic scenes of aspiration and excitement in urban America. 

Hypnotic, never missing an opportunity to present their street credentials, are born show men. Naturally and confidently they are able to rouse an initially reluctant audience to fervour, while theatrically mopping their brows and (oh my) peeling their tank tops off in the process. 

As you would expect there is something of a culture shock when Hypnotic set about busting some audiovisual cherries of the Edinburgh crowd. When the front man verbally assaulted the audience: ‘How you doin’ Edinburg!?’ he hollered. Quite unruffled, one native, glancing up from his pint, mumbled ‘fine’. Other communication breakdowns involved translating ‘Yeah yeah’ and ‘Aye’ from Chicago street lingo to broad Scots. 

This brass band is about as far from lederhosen or the Salvation Army as you can get, and much more entertaining. A testosterone charged and original performance.

Frisky and Mannish: School of Pop Review

Frisky and Mannish: School of Pop

Be careful what you call these two hyper-confident cabaret performers. Frisky has been branded a dominatrix (not unreasonably) and Mannish a gay pornographic elf (again, there is a grain of truth here). Nevertheless, we should welcome the two into a modern music scene severely lacking in the excessive glamour and glitter of the Bowie epoch.
  Yet, being a show about modern music, you could be forgiven for expecting a dumbed down, flaky pile of moaning syllables, sex noises and excruciating bass lines. Thankfully Frisky and Mannish are the ones wincing at our lack of musicality, as they prance around the stage of 90s pop culture. Initially they set their sights low – covering ‘Summer of 69’, ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ and That Proclaimers Song. The irony and wit seemed to get a bit lost in translation, however, between the stage and the booze-soaked, neon blonde banshees in the back row.

The deconstruction of the pop music we passively consume by two accomplished musicians is great entertainment. It’s not just the grammatical problems inherent in so many lyrics, it’s also about the speed and style of the tunes. The hollow lyrics of ‘Saturday Night’ suddenly become meaningful when slowed down. Yet Frisky and Mannish are often in danger of indulging their own tastes at the expense of the less musically aware. Who, realistically over the age of 40, has heard of ‘Florence and the Machine’? And considering this is the Fringe, what about over 50? There is absolutely no doubt the Noel Coward and Lilly Allen skit worked so well because most people could actually recognise the artists.

Of course, as anyone who has ever been in a pub without music will know, music is good filler for failing chat up lines and limp conversation. The same point could be levelled at Frisky and Mannish, yet this overlooks the high level of musical ability and genuine talent on display. Extra points for a good pianist and a strong tenor. All good fun, and a responsive audience to top it off. 

Circus Burlesque Review

Circus Burlesque

You would be forgiven for thinking we have lost the art of proper seduction, in an epoch where instant satisfaction is just a click away or at the end of Ann Summers' latest rabbit-shaped device. A sad state of affairs, perhaps. How did our grandparents manage? Actually, don’t think about that. Sorry, too late. 

Circus Burlesque emerges out of a dark cloud, stretching and seducing the audience in an impressive display of feathers. Then to the Circus, where ring mistress (possibly an innuendo), Tempest Rose (ditto), pouts, titillates and squeezes for us, ushering us up a garden path littered with stockings, bras and silk gloves. Through this dimly lit Eden the audience are teased on, encountering seven sinful displays of lace, tassels and flesh.

Tempest Rose is often in danger of running off into the long grass with the acutely receptive cohort of sweaty beer soaked blokes in the front row. Indeed, part of the fun of ‘Circus Burlesque’ is watching this give-and-take relationship with the girls on stage and perky members of the audience.

There is, however, an odd divergence of style in Circus Burlesque, between the crowd-pleasing humour of the Bawdy Burlesque circus acts, and the extravagance of Ms Lola LaBelle’s Baroque Burlesque which opens and closes the show. After being tickled and stroked by the winking Circus performers, few were ready for the ground-shaking, cloud-parting ‘Pride’ performance that finished off the night of sins. 

From an initial dying swan act to the showgirl’s final bow, this show is great fun, and thankfully doesn’t confuse the sophistication, style and sensualist nature of burlesque with too many pretentious or overly dramatic airs.

Be-Dom Review

2012? Apocalypse! Then what? Little would remain in the smouldering landscape, to be sure, beside the odd cockroach, pile of nuclear waste and stray fringe flier. In this Post-Apocalyptic fantasy, civilization itself would have vanished; no more Magic Flute, no more Ninth Symphony. Instead out of the smoke we could expect to see a gallant clutch of Portuguese musicians emerging: ‘Be-Dom’. Looking like they’ve emerged from homeless shelter, the group would take up worn out oil drums, cans and buckets for instruments and start to rebuild music.

Make no mistake, all this is loud, percussive and pretty primitive – we even get a smattering of Neanderthal like grunts from the tribe. ‘Harmony’ has not yet been invented. Yet this obscures a very well-rehearsed group who work brilliantly as a team, running the show like a well-oiled machine. 

Despite the impending decay from nuclear apocalypse, humour is not totally lost. The laughs come from equally primitive slapstick, and ‘Be-Dom’ wouldn’t look out of place in a silent movie were it not for the music. The fact that barely one coherent syllable is uttered by the group also serves to accentuate the humour.

A great Mad Max vision of music after universal disaster: bring on the Apocalypse. 

Simon Callow in Shakespeare, the Man from Stratford Review

Simon Callow in Shakespeare, the Man from Stratford

David Hume, the Edinburgh based polymath, was not a big Shakespeare fan. Sure, for his time Shakespeare was impressive, but in the great scheme of things and compared to eighteenth-century masters like Moliere or Swift, he was nothing special. This is not the Shakespeare we have grown accustomed to; that is, Shakespeare the timeless master, able to transcend class, cultural and even linguistic barriers.

It’s under the latter standard that Simon Callow springs gamely into the breach, leading us through an easily digestible history of England’s most famous writer. The show is sprinkled with recognisable reference points – Shakespeare was a product of a wider Tudor middle class; he lived in middle England and his father was subject to the tribulations of the first Elizabethan credit crunch. This is the sort of causal comparisons that would make an historian wince, but it proves an engaging way of delivering the life of Shakespeare in an entertaining manner.

The historical side is also fascinating, from Shakespeare’s early days in the vast, secret and primitive place of Stratford-upon-Avon, to the multi-cultural throng of London and his political relations with the regime of Elizabeth I. 

When the spotlight descends on Callow, we find an excellent guide to early modern England. Beneath the appropriate wooden arches of the New College on the Mound, Callow fills the stage, bringing the tale to life. With gusto he dives into various Shakespearean roles, each helping to illustrate the Bard’s life; from the mewling, puking first moments of life, to the weakened and wandering hours of old age.

Like any icon of Shakespeare’s stature, the man is a difficult to pin down. Accordingly, he is never fully brought to life by the performance. Nevertheless, Callow’s entertaining, enthusiastic and educational narrative is great theatre. 

My Romantic History Review

My Romantic History

Despite the justifiable aversion many of us hold to anything which contains the two words ‘Romantic’ and ‘Comedy’, ‘My Romantic History’ is a great piece of theatre with pace, intelligence and more humour in it than most stand-up comedies. 

Both Iain Robertson as Tom and Alison O’Donnell as Amy are completely believable as the two young professionals from Glasgow. Jackson’s script also includes plenty of references to the culture of west coast Scotland; this may not be to everyone’s taste, but the show makes full use of the ability of Glaswegians (think of Billy Connolly or the ‘Thick of It’) to swear and make it almost sound poetic. 

Both characters remain nostalgic about their childhood loves, and cynical about more recent romantic encounters. It’s in this sense of despair and emotional tumult that Amy and Tom stumble into a relationship with each other. This has all the communication issues, petty dilemmas and casual indifference of the modern love story. Jackson’s script also contains the essence of the mundane details, tensions and quirks of the modern work space; the grating chirpiness, passive aggressive slights and bubbling tensions.    

Safely one of the best bits of theatre available at the Fringe, and a good competitor for one of the funniest shows. 

It's Always Right Now Until It's Later Review

It's Always Right Now Until It's Later

Daniel Kitson’s performance plucks out those fragments of life which stand out in the torrential flood of time. The story begins with the death of an old man, and decades earlier, the birth of daughter. 

Like some latter day Stoic, Kitson ambles around the stage recounting the two lives: their learning, loving and living. And in all this apparent chaos, he highlights the importance of action and choice. He is an excellent storyteller, occasionally stopping to scratch his head, pull his suspenders up or adjust his spectacles.  

His script contains some wonderful word play and turns of phrase, narrated in a pleasant Yorkshire brogue. Consider, for example, clever little ideas like the ‘liberation of solidity’ that long term relationships give to the socially awkward. Kitson also laces the performance with some sharp (and also blunt Northern) humour: ‘who among does not enjoy the word toboggan?’ he asks, not unreasonably. 

Despite the normality of the tales, the very familiarity cannot fail to appeal directly to the audience. Indeed it’s no stretch to imagine the characters of William and Caroline as actual acquaintances. Anyone recognise the family phone calls on Sunday; walking with grandparents in the park; children falling off new bikes? 

Yet mundane happy memories rarely equate to truly accurate or interesting narratives of lives, which are sprinkled with as much conflict, argument and tragedy as pleasure. Nevertheless, as with every play (thus far) at the Traverse this year, It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later is a work of quality; it is thoughtful, often moving and leaves you wanting to phone your mum and give your dad a big hug. 

Hot Mess Review

Hot Mess

Not another reunion. The very name implies some sort of severance of communication, which in our wired age this is actually harder to do than staying connected. So by definition, almost, something is bound to go wrong: the fat one is going to get drunk and start crying; the siblings are going to fall out and the new boyfriend is going to feel totally out of place.

Hot Mess, written by Ella Hickson, follows the reunion of unidentical twins Polo and Twitch who, after a brief divergence in life, have collided once again on their tiny little home island. Polo, the boy, has taken the high road to London; Twitch, the girl, has opted to stay behind. 

Imagine this reunion then, but imagine you know no one there. The bar is inaccessible from your seat. You are now forced to listen to the loud and overconfident banter which can only come from the Alphas of a public school. They shout away, seemingly wearing their ability to endure the abuse of others as a badge of honour. 

The performance explores the increasing divergence in modern society between sex and love. Or at least so the press release tells me. In fact it could be about a whole number of things washed up on the theatrical beach: the folly of a reunions; the age old dilemma of provincials running of to the metropolis; sibling relations. Despite the various themes and ideas, one can’t help wonder if anyone really goes through life thinking about sex, love and relationships in such pent up and pretentiously philosophical terms. It comes across as self-absorbed and devalues the point as a result. 

Girl in the Yellow Dress Review

Girl in the Yellow Dress

We apparently do most of our communicating through body language. How we stand, sit or lie; where our eyes wander; what we do with our hands. All this reveals a great deal about us – far more than often restrictive and scripted verbal communication laced with half-truths or deceit.

Communicating presents a problem for English teacher Celia and French pupil Pierre. This is not restricted to grammar and vocabulary, however. Both characters quickly begin to explore the various tensions of racism, belonging and class – not to mention love, national identity and politics. Indeed, in some respects Higginson’s script could be criticised for trying to cram too many themes in too quickly. Yet, as the story develops, it becomes apparent that these various topics are merely elaborate constructions masking some simple, raw and primeval truths.

This feeling of physical tension is accentuated by the contrasting character portraits. On one side the upright and tightly strung porcelain figure of Celia could have stepped out of a Gainsborough portrait; she is composed, courteous and intersperses conversation with some curt smiles (or winces) and sharp glances. In apparent contrast is Pierre’s Gallic ease and relaxed air; seemingly assured and more comfortable in his own skin, at least in some respects.  

Oldham, especially, seems bred for her role and acutely captures (or is part of) the famously socially awkward English Patrician class, more used to governing colonies or leading regiments of cavalry.  

This is a dark play with many themes flowing through it. It is often intensely psychological as Celia especially fails to come to terms with or rationalise the physical realities which at root define her.

Emma Thompson presents: Fair Trade Review

Emma Thompson presents: Fair Trade

The sex slave trade taking place in Britain is a serious issue and merits a serious discussion; in this sense Fair Trade should be commended for provoking the issue, especially with the impending Olympic Games in London. At several points the anecdotes taken from two genuine accounts almost become appeals as the victims realise they could have been sitting next to you on the underground, just like any other stranger. 

Theatre is a fine medium for raising awareness amongst the wider public, although a clumsy instrument for defining future policy on problems. As demand for prostitution increases in London (from the influx of Olympic-goers), there is a sad faceless truth that the market will respond by increasing supply. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, when looked at through the cold lens of the dismal science of economics, as opposed to moving anecdotes, that several British newspapers have supported the idea of legalising prostitution. Legalise, regulate, even tax it. None of this is even suggested in the performance. (Oddly enough, it is an area the comic Jim Jeffries touches on, seeing the legalisation in Australia as indicative of the good sense of the country.)

Fair Trade is moving and left more than one member of the audience wiping away the tears. At moments the feeling of grief curdles into sickness and repulsion at the depth humanity sinks to. This is a well-acted performance with heavy subject matter, which will hopefully continue to provoke.

Bunny Review

Bunny

Jack Thorne is well versed in writing about the intense social pressures that dominate adolescence. A lead writer on Skins, Thorne continues to dissect themes of growing up in multi-cultural Britain in his latest work, Bunny.

Coming from Luton, Katie is immersed in social pressures: who did what and when, how to look good in front of boys and how to fit in. Abe is her ‘sort of’ boyfriend. Katie tells us about him: he works in the Vauxhall factory in the office, he’s also black - not that it’s important or anything. Katie stumbles; she’s worried she’s just said something racist.  

Yet despite being billed as a comment of race relations or multiculturalism, Katie highlights how decoupled sex and socialising are from skin colour. The main characters are black, Asian and white, and aside from the occasional casually racist aside, this hardly affects the story line or the social dynamic. Hormones trump skin pigments in Bunny.

Despite seemingly drowning in this social melting pot, Katie is neither stupid nor is she unaware of her often hopeless situation. Quite capable of coming up for air, she has several moments of self-realisation about her often limited prospects for the future.

Thorne primarily does a good job of recreating those wrenching moments of social unease, apprehensiveness and angst experienced in adolescence, but don’t expect any new revelations about race relations in Britain. 

Apples Review

Apples

This is a tale of Northern poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuous sex and rape. It is also, if you’re feeling clever, a half hearted metaphor about Eden, complete with Adam, Eve and the Apple.

The show is powerful and well acted. ‘Brutally honest’ is also one, perhaps slightly lazy way, of describing the first stage-adaptation of Richard Milward’s debut novel. It does, indeed, cram in everything, from domestic violence to lung cancer; rape to infanticide. 

Yet one suspects – as with many great works documenting the lives of grimy plebeians – that the script has gone slightly overboard. From Juvenile to Hogarth; Dickens and ‘Shameless’, there is always more than a hint of the literati revelling in the grotesque lives of others. It seems removed, not simply from patrician comfort, but reality itself; the poor, like the rich, surely enjoy the same basic sins and aspire to similar virtues in life? Use similar frames of reference to define their morals and have the same positive and negative experiences in life?

Nevertheless, Milward’s script does pick up on the often unnoticed failure of the baby boomer generation to translate their hollow and vague optimism about life to a younger generation. The mantras of Dad’s records about love, loving and, er, loving to love, do not translate well into this youthful world of shagging, drug abuse and hangovers. 

Tim Vine - The Joke-amotive Review

Tim Vine - The Joke-amotive

No money? Job cuts? Recession keeping you up at night? Blame Thatcher. Or go and see Tim Vine, who gives you more laughs in a minute than most comedians do in an hour. 

Vine’s train of thought can be heard rumbling in the distance: the joke-amotive. Often derailing into surreal sidings of songs about torches or running out of steam when a joke flops, he nevertheless always jumps energetically back on track, due to the frequency of the jokes. 

Dressed in nineteenth-century British military regalia, Vine is rightly named the man with the golden pun; able to spit out jokes like a comedic Gatling gun. His humour might fly over your head a few times, but he’s bound to hit you eventually. Pile of Hay in a Church? Christian Bale; Being mocked by someone for your pay as you go phone? Take out a contract. And have them killed. One wonders how Vine will ever manage another performance, as he generously gives away so much material.

There is no proper thread to Vine’s show and his gags are often a bit woolly, but his continual stream of punchy stand-up provides a ripping yarn and one of the best performances at the Fringe. 

Piff the Magic Dragon: Piff-tacular 2 Review

Piff the Magic Dragon: Piff-tacular 2

Piff nonchalantly strolls on stage to some crooner music, before calmly lighting a cigarette and getting into a quick fire magic routine: a few agile hand movements here, and a flick of the wrist there, and the fag disappears – only to reappear again on the other hand before finally ending up at the back of Piff’s throat. 

Piff is also a dragon. Here we should carefully consider Bilbo Baggins advice in ‘The Hobbit’: ‘never laugh at live dragons.’ Indeed Piff, with a face like a bucket of broken spanners, sees little to laugh about and resembles a younger Jack Dee in a bad circus costume. His humour is in a similar vein, and the flat cynicism and world weariness works well, at least initially.

All this is no bad thing; dragons doing card tricks are actually a rare sight these days. Yet while some of Piff’s magic is quite impressive, he has forgotten that, like comedy, magic is as much about delivery, anticipation and cleverly drawing out the bits before the punch line or puff of smoke. There are plenty of big magic acts at the Fringe who are no more technically skilled than Piff, but they tend to be better as entertainers. 

There are also several embarrassing moments, which are so bad they seem to leave the audience feeling worse than the performer. Indeed, this dragon needs to return to his lair and practice teasing his subjects before unleashing magic – not to mention trying to conjure up some sharper jokes. 

Pete Firman: Jokes and Tricks Review

Pete Firman: Jokes and Tricks

The post-performance verdict, from one audience member fresh out of Firman’s show was ‘rubbish – but in a good way’. Indeed Firman’s humour, his magic and props all suggest the man doesn’t read signals about taste and style quite as well as the rest of us. There is certainly more than a suggestion of the 80s in the show, and Firman is more likely to be found reading tomes about magic history than GQ magazine.  

Like a street performer who has just made it past the bouncers at the Pleasance Dome, Firman has a rapid fire approach to jokes, and teases the crowd by drawing out his routines. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, and the cocktail of self-deprecating humour and polished magic is a good one.

Firman also has two very impressive stunts, one which could come straight out of a Derren Brown mind trick performance, the other involving a gun. Unlike Brown or David Blaine, however, Firman, has no need for scary lighting, dramatic music and is incapable (such is his face) of looking even slightly serious. Instead, he takes a refreshingly blasé approach to his stunts, and conducts them in a polished and off the cuff manner. 

Firman is as quick with his jokes as he is with his hands. Good solid entertainment.

Miles Jupp: Fibber in the Heat (A Cricket Tale) Review

Miles Jupp: Fibber in the Heat (A Cricket Tale)

It is often said of Edinburgh that it is essentially an English colony, cleverly disguised beneath the panoply of tartan regalia, saltires and fake ginger hair. Unlike most territories within the cultural influence of London, however, the city's Scots have remained defiant in one very important respect: sport. 

Miles Jupp, then, does a brave thing by dedicating a whole show to the thoroughly English pastime of cricket. He recounts his adventures in India pursuing the crumpled linen of the cricketing elite in a bid to become a sports journalist. Desperately attempting to become part of the gang, he recounts a witty tale of his pursuit of his cricketing heroes. It’s a warm and entertaining show; Mr Jupp is mild mannered and wouldn’t look out of place drinking Pimms, reading a Telegraph and lazily watching a game of cricket. 

Beneath the chinos and shirt, however, Jupp is something of a cricket fanatic, able to effortlessly recount batting scores. He compares English cricketing victories to VE day as the crowds began singing Jerusalem and waving miniature Union Jacks -  presumably before nipping home in their clapped out Rovers to listen to ‘The Archers’.

Yes, this will make many of you retch, and many more look on bemused and confused at the cricketing references. (How, for example, can a game of cricket drag on for 3 days and result in a draw?) Nonetheless, a well-written and entertaining hour of cricket comedy.

Jim Jeffries: Alcoholocaust Review

Jim Jeffries: Alcoholocaust

Jim Jefferies is the Big Game act charging through the jungle of comedians who aggressively provoke, poke, and prod. Except he doesn’t charge, he ambles in with a pint in his hand. Nevertheless he doesn’t disappoint, and wastes little time in laying out his personal spectrum of anger inducing subjects. His timing and delivery are masterful and Jefferies has the audience in the palm of his hand within the first few minutes. 

Standing out sometimes involves being offensive and pissing people off, and Jefferies does this well. He could be criticised for losing (female) chunks of his audience by Instantly Getting to the F**king Point but subtlety is not beyond the Australian. At one point when a gag about God fails to raise the expected laugh he quickly highlights the hypocrisy in stifling a laugh about the Lord but lapping up the material on lesbians and the disabled. There remains an undeniable appeal in hideously tasteless humour and Jefferies does not hold back in his stories of guide dogs and their uses.

There is also a commendably frank and honest telling of a personal tale from Australia which includes prostitution, muscular dystrophy and a smattering of cocaine.