November 21, 2017

A Day at the Edinburgh Fringe – Comedy, poetry and a persnickety beggar #Edfringe

There was an unexpectedly energetic start to my day at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I was walking up the Royal Mile amongst the hundreds of people flyering and promoting their shows. I had intended to see what was on today, maybe get a bagel and then follow the #Deathship666 hashtags chalked on the pavement to the Three Sisters. But as I was collecting flyers I was overtaken by artist Vicki Weitz running uphill towards the castle.

When people ask me why I haven’t run a marathon I reply that it is too far, it can’t be healthy, it would take weeks to recover. Weitz is making a mockery of this reasoning by running one marathon every day for 26 straight days. Over the same course, up and down the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace to the castle. It was 10:00am and I thought she would have done about three miles that day. Actually she had already completed16 miles, having started at 7.00am. She was able to talk normally as I ran beside her for a few metres, indeed, I’m not sure that I didn’t slow her down. She is performing in the place where sport and art meet (conceptually – that’s not a description of the Royal Mile), asking what helps a human to complete a difficult task, how crowds affect performance, how best human energy can be used. She’d already completed five marathons and looked to be on song. Only 21 to go.

Death Ship 666 was on at the Three Sisters. A fast-moving Titanic spoof with fur-wearing baddies, a Girl Scout detective and a nice line in absurd humour. A cast of six performed several characters each and gave the audience a great start to the day. It was part of the Free Fringe, which means the capital costs are much lower for performers, though the costs of accommodation remain, and for a full festival run that mounts up to thousands of pounds. Like all Free Fringe events, donations are collected at the end of the show to help finance the production.

Then I went up to Bristo Bar and Kitchen to see the Worst Show on the Fringe. That’s not a callous judgement, that’s the show’s name. The premise is that everyone featured in the show has had one star reviews. I assumed that these reviews were at this year’s festival and admired the performers’ courage in turning up. It turned out that the qualifying one-star review could have been at any time in their career, so the premise is no more than a conceit, allowing established comedians to perform short excerpts of their acts in an attempt to get people into their full length shows. The performers are different everyday. When I visited Peter Buckley Hill, the Svengali behind the Free Fringe, was performing songs and observational comedy from the view of one who is no longer young whilst ex-policeman Alfie Moore somehow made the audience laugh with memories of the time he found a body.

Back to the Three Sisters to catch Hill and Weedon’s Fan Club. Songs, silliness and a racist owl from the winners of the Musical Comedy Awards 2013. I had to race to Guthrie Street to be on time to see Raph ‘n’ Simon Solve a Murda. I found the Dram House, in which it was being performed, but discovered I had arrived earlier than I have ever arrived at a theatre for a play. It’s good to give yourself plenty of time to get your seat, but I was four days early. In the Free Fringe catalogue the performances are laid out in time order, which is useful, but make sure you check the dates carefully before legging it across Edinburgh.

After that debacle for which I lay the blame solely at my own feet, I set off for a spoken word event. Along the pedestrianised section of the Royal Mile I paused to watch some musicians on one of the three free stages. It’s all very professional with performers allocated times and the timetable written up nearby. You could easily spend the day watching the snapshots of acts on display. I stayed too long and missed the start of the show I had intended to see.

Annoyed, I made my way down the rest of the Royal Mile which was packed with flyerers and performers belting out extracts from their musicals.

‘Can I interest you in a flyer for a poignant drama?’ a girl in yellow sunglasses asked me, offering a flyer. It looked black and a bit dull.

‘How poignant is it?’ I asked. I’m not sure why, I don’t have a drama poignancy level below which I refuse to drop.

‘About 75%.’

‘75%?’ I considered. ‘I’ll take one.’

I’d never heard poignancy calculated in percentage points before, so I put her play on the go-and-see-if-there-is-time list. You’ll find that you will have a similar list if you visit the fringe, and it will get longer and longer as time gets shorter and shorter.

Hunter Square had a big crowd and an atmosphere closer to panic than is usual for a group of people around a street-performer. They were watching a tattooed gent holding a whirring chainsaw. He was doing a good job of appearing not to be the sort of chap who puts health and safety top of his list when planning a new act. The chainsaw sounded dangerous. Presumably it had the cutty bits taken off, but he threatened to juggle with it, scaring the crowd with his apparent  foolhardiness and making a little girl cry, right up until he turned it off.

At last I got the timing right and arrived somewhere when a show was about to start. I was at the Cabaret Voltaire – not the Cabaret Voltaire, that’s in Zurich to see a very Fringe sounding show, Quiz in my pants. As I write that I find it too ridiculous and feel I ought to check the name, but that is what it was called. There were five chairs on the stage. Was it the true heir to the Dadaists who performed on Spiegelgasse?

No, it wasn’t. Only the MC had a mike, one of the comedians had a hangover and was very grumpy, another hadn’t turned up and a member of the audience was cajoled into taking his place for the whole show. That’s audience participation taken too far. Not being able to hear was probably the worst part of the experience as I was right at the back of the cellar and the noise from the next room’s standup drowned much of what the comedians were saying. The bits I did catch made me think I wasn’t missing too much, though there was a funny song. Little did I know I’d be hearing much more of those later. It is a show with different performers everyday, so the quality no doubt veers wildly depending on who is on the panel. And how hungover they are.

On to Shaggy Doggerel, a spoken word and music performance by Mellor and Steele at the Fingers piano bar. They’re like the Pet Shop Boys of poetry, one plays the instruments and doesn’t say a word, the other works the microphone. A mix of comedy, music, story-telling and hip hop, the first half gave no indication that the second would involve them wearing full size dog costumes. They performed part of a work in progress, Shaggy Doggerel, a dark story about a talking dog with wailing instrumentals, that was much more entertaining than that description makes it sound. They finished with an anthropomorphic parody of Radiohead’s Creep. I’m a sheep…

That was a good segue into the next act. Stephen ‘Friz’ Frizzle announced that he was next in the same bar with a musical parody called Songs in the Wrong Key. Outside it looked like raining so I stayed, although now I can report I’d go even if wasn’t about to rain.  Like many acts he asked the audience how we were, although as the turnout was low he asked us all individually, then complained when we didn’t reciprocate. All the way through his pianoforte-based humour he sipped what looked like an Aperol Spritz, which really seems to be having its moment this summer. Too sweet though, much too sweet. Try a Campari Spritz for the real Italiano experience.

Frizzle worked his way backwards through the years, playing well known tunes with his own pithy lyrics whilst keeping up a self-deprecating patter that painted him as an unemployed Countdown addict . He also tried to make Les Miserables less miserable. For the second time in the day I heard a Les Mis song, but this time he had kept the lyrics and sang them to more upbeat tunes. Top tip for Edinburgh fringe performers: audiences love Les Mis. Whether you’re doing spoken word, comedy or expressive dance try and shoehorn a Les Mis song into your act.

In the evening I went to C Aquila to see The Cherry Orchard. That was always going to be a change of pace from slam poetry and parody songs and so it proved. A new translation from Kronos productions that set the play in 80s Britain to give the play contemporary relevance. I almost did that British thing of just joining the queue that snaked out of C Aquila. I thought that The Cherry Orchard was surprisingly popular and checked that it was the right queue. It wasn’t.

Afterwards I walked to the main C Venue. On the way I was accosted and asked for 60p by a fellow in white jumper.

’60p?’ I questioned.

’60p,’ he agreed.

It was such a precise amount that I agreed to give it to him. I pulled a handful of coins out of my pocket. He watched me sort through them.

‘You’ve got a quid there,’ he pointed out as I attempted to find 60p. ‘A quid would let me…’ and he launched into a tall tale about goblins and elves. OK, not really, it was something to do with phone calls, but it made as much sense as if he had told me he was generating eco-electricity by harnessing the power of flapping fairies’ wings.

‘I’ll give you 60p,’ I said, thinking of legging it without giving him anything. But we had a verbal contract of sorts. I’m not sure it would stand up in a law court, but who knows now-a-days.  I handed four coins over. 60p.

Instead of walking away and allowing me to continue my perambulation the beggar studied the gift and didn’t look happy. He handed one coin back to me with the words, ‘That’s foreign.’ He sounded like he thought I was trying to fob him off with fake coins. I don’t generally carry counterfeit cash to give to beggars, but that’s what he seemed to be implying.

I took the coin back and looked at it. From the one side you couldn’t tell. The UK issues 10p coins with so many different faces that I couldn’t be sure until I turned it over and saw that it was 2 Swiss Francs.

I found a replacement 10p. He took it.

‘I’ll take that as well,’ he said, grabbing the Francs. ‘For good luck.’

I completed my journey to the next venue, C, on Chambers Street without further harassment. There are several performance spaces inside, so I checked at the box office where to go for the Blues Brothers Tribute.

‘Downstairs.’

I went downstairs and waited with a few other people. After a while a woman asked one of my co-waiters if she was waiting for the Blues Brothers. She said she was and was told to queue upstairs. I followed her a few moments later, but couldn’t see where she was queuing. I started my own queue at the top of the stairs.

After a while a girl asked if I was waiting for the Blues Brothers. When I replied with a breezy ‘Yes,’ she sent me to queue outside.

So outside I went and stood behind two girls who looked like they were queuing. Unfortunately they stayed a few minutes and then wandered away.

I checked the time. There were only five minutes to go until the start of the concert. I was the only person in the queue. Something didn’t seem right. I had quite clearly been told to wait out here, so I waited.

I checked the time. Four minutes to go. Still I was the only person i the queue. I went back inside.

There was a big queue starting exactly where I had been standing at the top of the stairs.

Shocked I walked to the front – where I had been standing only moments before. The girl who had sent me outside was still there at the head of the queue.

‘Is this the queue for the Blues Brothers?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘But you sent me outside!’

She nodded. ‘Yes, but the theatre manager…’ I’ve forgotten whatever the theatre manager had done or said. ‘Tisn’t important –  The Blues Brothers was a musical extravaganza, with Jake and Elwood successfully brought to life right down to the tattoos on they knuckles. Luckily I didn’t stand outside all evening and miss the show.

I thought that was the day at the Fringe completed. I’d seen shows galore that people had put time and energy into producing. Death Ship 666 had been planned all year. However as I walked past the Phoenix on the way home I was invited into a basement by a couple of lads. Normally, when it is 12.30am, I would advise not accepting invitations from lads to enter basements.

‘Can I interest you in some free comedy?’ one of them said.

‘Are you in it?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’

They looked sensible and the name of their show was Questions on Ducks. My interest was piqued. So instead of jumping into bed I sat at the back of another small Fringe venue and waited for the stand ups to decided who was going on first. Dan Watson was MC and in friendly style he asked what a few of us did. I said ‘Writer.’

He laughed. ‘Not in the journalist sense, you wouldn’t be here to write about…’

I couldn’t tell a lie. He had the added pressure that it was past midnight, the small crowd wasn’t made of teetotallers and his parents were in the audience. He announced a joke about the new Doctor Who, and one man went running from the room, his hands over his ears. Late night gigs must be the hardest of all the Edinburgh slots to perform and I stayed for James Baggott’s set which was about a well-spoken chap pretending he wasn’t. Or maybe he really wasn’t, it was hard to tell and it was too late for complete focus.

The fringe has a real mixture of quality and the best way to choose what to see is to read the programme and the reviews, and then use a pin to pick something else. Whatever you go and see, you’ll have an experience. Edinburgh has a great atmosphere in August, with music and productions echoing from all corners of the city. Visit and enjoy.

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