The Edinburgh Report

That’s right! I managed to escape the dark and the dank for a two-day trip to Edinburgh! Admittedly, part of that trip involved my first ever visit to The Edinburgh Dungeon (easily the most terrifying of the Dungeons – that bloody cannibal boat ride – but let down by some negligent acting). However, Edinburgh’s greater joy was in seeing lots of different shows! Special thanks must go to Jeff Carpenter for braving Eddie Dungers with me (poor Jeff); Andy Brock for lighting the way to the world’s greatest ice cream parlour (reckless indulgence); and, most particularly, Giulia Galastro for letting me spend the night at her palatial Edinburgh mansion (as well as the coffee and toast that she so kindly prepared in the morning).

I saw six shows in all, which isn’t bad going for thirty-two hours of compulsive hill-walking, haggis-dodging and bagpipes. I won’t attempt to weave them into a cohesive narrative. Instead, I’ll distill my thoughts on each in turn. I don’t have enough opinions to review in the traditional sense (or even a basic comprehension of star systems), so I’ll be waffling about that which interested me.

Adolf: My primary reason for going to Edinburgh. At last year’s Fringe, I saw Pip Utton play The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was fascinated by the production, asked Pip if I could have a go, and wound up as Quasimodo in March. Which was just wonderful. Adolf was Pip’s breakthrough monodrama, and nobody’s ever really questioned that it’s his best work; even a review of the Cambridge Hunchback wasn’t slow to point this out. I would fight off the accusation that the Hunchback script is unduly repetitious and rambling. If these element exist, it’s because they’re entirely appropriate to Quasimodo’s warped mental state. Utton wisely suggests that an ugly exterior will almost always determine the interior. Ugliness is jagged, irregular, distressing to behold. The relentless quality of Utton’s Hunchback builds into a near-transcendent vision of suffering with Quasimodo’s climactic suicide; the piece’s key deviation from the novel. Having absorbed ninety minute’s worth of Utton’s fascinating words, I wanted to hear more of them. Adolf was an excellent experience, even though the cleverness of its central twist has been spoiled by fifteen years of reviewers. Simply coming face-to-face with the swastika is utterly terrifying. Once Hitler himself arrives, you realise that you’re dealing in such high-intensity images that your heart is in your throat before the drama’s begun. Because the piece is a live performance, it rediscovers the terror in that which is so easily taken for granted, a caricature made ridiculous by Brecht and Chaplin and Donald Duck. Utton’s Hitler is a brilliant creation, quite surprising on a few fronts. No German accent, for one. I’m glad of this; it doesn’t make sense when the character addresses the audience in English throughout. Utton does the sensible thing by finding an accommodating vocal equivalent: a high-pitched, metallic bleat. His repeated rants against ‘the Jew, and the gypsy, and the Slav, and the negro, and the communist, and the homosexual’ were both distressing and thrilling: as with the real Hitler, you must condemn his evil, absolutely – but, in the midst of the tempest, you can’t look anywhere else. Damn it all, the man had style. Most frightening was a moment late in the production when Utton abandoned the script to challenge those self-righteous audience members leaving the auditorium. Although Utton used the ‘this is a theatre!’ line common to Patti Lupone’s celebrated diva fit, this was no blaze of thespian ego. This fury came from the best possible place: that everyone understand that the bigotry within the show IS. NOT. REAL. It’s illustrative; it’s educational. My most disturbing memory of Adolf is that some really did believe it was an undercover EDL rally. Discord always arises from bigotry – but it can also comes from that parading, knee-jerk piety that caused those audience walk-outs. Because they’re polarised examples of the same thing: shallow thinking that quickly turns destructive. For me, that really does underline the point of Utton’s theatre: not so much to preach good or bad, but to challenge his audiences to think. In my experience, the absolute hardest thing.

Love and Understanding: Regrettably, the only new work by Cambridge students that I could squeeze into my timetable. Happily, a good time investment. The play was directed by Max Upton, who I know better as a very, very fine actor in a triad of Corpus Playroom shows centered on child abuse: FrozenBash and Doubt. I admire his achievement here, because I haven’t the faintest idea how you direct a piece like this. Before visiting Edinburgh last year, I had never thought about how the impossible limitations of get-in and get-out timings made minimalism an absolute necessity. (I recall watching the Troupe lot pick apart Babushka‘s arcane heapings of set-dressing and feeling desperately sorry for them.) Love and Understanding, like Bereavement, belongs to the black-box-furniture-shortage subgenre. Each scene becomes a new round of theatrical Tetris, with chairs and table endlessly arranged to suggest bedroom, restaurant and hospital. More than that, though, I don’t know how you act in such a piece. Ingenuous naturalism is still a quality that eludes me, so I can’t help but admire it in others. Personally, I’d feel deeply uncomfortable acting in a piece that deals with marital strife. It’s something I know nothing about. I think I’m happy to play things beyond my experience – but only so long as they’re so far beyond it that nobody can pop up and challenge me. Naturalism doesn’t carry the get-out clause of the blatantly fantastic. It’s probably a hangover from GCSE Drama; the dread of that happy-g0-lucky ‘issue’ theatre, in which the participants gleefully discourse on a cocktail of terrorism, rape, alcoholism and spousal abuse without a shred of first-hand understanding. (I hated it then because I found it incredibly boring, which says a lot for my engagement.) As I said earlier, this isn’t a review, and I’m aware this digression sounds like negative criticism. Far from it; the play was much funnier than I expected, and definitely worth an hour of your time. It may be the text, or it may simply be personal preference, but for me the stand-out performance was that of Ben Kavanagh – positively channelling the manic spirit of Rik Mayall, the drama’s anarchic, naturalism-stretching demon.

The Table: I originally planned to see Dracula late on Monday. However, I instead decided to watch Pierre Novellie in the Chortle Student Comedy final, on the basis that I’d much rather see Pierre doing comedy well than some students doing Dracula badly. In any case, Chortle was sold out by the time I got to the box office. (Lucky for me it’s since appeared online: hurrah for organ trouble!) Andy Brock nudged me in the direction of The Table as an alternative, and I’m very pleased that I went. A few months ago, I took part in a mask workshop with Roddy Maude-Roxby – the voice of Edgar in The Aristocats! – and soon realised what a damnsomely tricky undertaking it is to create an artificial life. As intellectual considerations, many of the issues occur to you: adjusting your sight-line for a new pair of eyes, adjusting your arms to the position of the head, fashioning a consistent body language, coining a style that is at once presentational and believable. To pull them all off, though – simultaneously – is the stuff of magic. All of these issues are addressed in The Table, which I suppose aspires to the realm of meta-puppetry. It’s at once a contained drama and an informative discourse on creating life; if I missed a Dracula, I at least gained a Frankenstein. That said, I didn’t find it as riotously funny as most of the people surrounding me. There’s only so many times that the declaration ‘just a puppet… a puppet on a table’ will make me laugh before sinking to the debilitating nihilism of Family Guy at its worst. Although I think that was the point. As with Frankenstein, there’s a primal sadness in creating a life, only to . In this case, that bloody table. Thankfully, the virtuoso fireworks of the puppetry never allow the show to sag. Another one worth seeing.

Churchill: Pip Utton’s second offering of the Fringe; the UK premiere of Adolf‘s biographical alter ego. In many ways, I enjoyed this even more than Adolf (‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word for Adolf). There’s a contagious warmth and charisma about its subject matter. The somewhat apologetic blurb on Utton’s website provides several clues to his approach to his ‘meet a dead celebrity’ format (which has also taken in Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, Francis Bacon and Roy Orbison). Yes, in one sense, Churchill does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a best-of compilation from a dream/nightmare dinner party guest. But that underestimates the immersive thrill of a live encounter. I felt much the same about performing the Hunchback. You’ll find much better Quasimodos on film; Laughton’s Hunchback is one of the divinely inspired miracles of cinema performance. And nothing can compare with the imagined grotesque of the novel. But that’s not the same as sitting in the shadow of the character’s hump; as feasting on the smells and bells subsidiary to his person; as seeing the white of his gleaming, three-dimensional eye. Churchill capitalises on its live dimension in a relaxed and breezy fashion. There was a healthy degree of audience interaction, energising rather than embarrassing: an audience member called to help the Prime Minister off his plinth; an inflatable globe presented for the audience to blow up; a gentle wheedling of latecomers as they took their seats. I wasn’t prepared for quite how funny Pip would be, based on my experiences with the Hunchback; it’s a rough-around-the-edges performance style that’s remarkably charismatic. But Churchill is deeply emotional too – I found myself welling up at a few moments, although that piece by Elgar might have had something to do with it. Combined with the close of the Olympics only two days before (featuring Timothy Spall… as Churchill), it’s not surprising the play carried that quivery, last-night-of-the-proms atmosphere, evoking a great country that great men may occasionally steward. In the words of Churchill himself, ‘makes you proud to be British!’ (And I don’t often feel the thrill of inherited pride.) I had the pleasure of meeting Pip after both Adolf and Churchill. A very affable gent. I was really impressed that he remembered my name, unprompted, after nearly a year. Hell, I struggle to remember the names of people I see on a daily basis. It’s nice to be able to shake a performer’s hand after a show. With the one-man form as Pip Utton practices it, you find yourself wanting to shake his hand. Better than a bow.

Miss Havisham’s Expectations: I was looking forward to this a great deal: a single-focused study of one of Dickens’s most enigmatic people. I’ve performed two one-man shows drawn from Dickens, but both were multi-character romps, taking their cue from Dickens’s own Public Readings. The other one-person Dickens shows I’ve encountered – Callow’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens and Margolyes’s Dickens’ Women – were likewise multi-charactered, with Dickens’s narrator replaced by a plummy enthusiast. So I was excited to see a Dickensian monodrama of a different streak. Like a great deal of one-person shows, what held Miss Havisham’s Expectations together was its central performer. In Linda Marlowe, the audience was blessed. A very beautiful woman, with her high cheekbones and cracked-mirror eyes. Better still, a woman who uses this beauty to fashion a chain of fantastically memorable theatrical images. I won’t soon forget her stooping over her stick; nor her strides through a supernatural blast; nor her maniacal dancings and dressings-up, gloriously reminiscent of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Comparing this show to Pip Utton’s efforts was very interesting. Utton has an earthy presence, with little sense of the controlling actor; he leaps on an inaugural image of enormous power and allows the drama to unspool from there. Marlowe, on the other hand, is unashamedly theatrical; her images come in inspired, bewitching crackles, like the frazzled synapses of her subject. A generalisation, I know, but I wonder if it’s the distinction between masculine and feminine approaches to the one-person form. Recently, I read an article on how children create haunted house experiences for their friends. Boys tend to produce a series of sketches, bound by the simplest means; this put me in mind of Utton’s unchanging characters sanctioning a free-wheeling ride through their lives and thoughts. Girls will usher you into a darkened room and tell you a story. This sums up Marlowe’s mad and merry cauldron as well as anything for me.

Bereavement the Musical: As with the Cambridge production, a soul-quenching delight. In my case, that means mild degrees of heartbreak throughout. Joey Akubeze was especially good in ‘Have You Noticed Yet?’, a number that only seems to have deepened and improved in the revival. James I impersonator Jess Peet is also electrifying in her number, which has a new arrangement. I marginally prefer the old tune – something about the slightly uncomfortable speed and pitch put me in mind of ‘Hellfire’ in the Disney Hunchback, heightening the emotion in stretching the performer’s voice. I once heard it said that Peet’s voice is the sound of pain, which I think is a quite wonderful tribute to its effectiveness. Her ‘Not a Day Goes By’ in Merrily We Roll Along was a notch above pretty much every musical performance I’ve seen on the benighted ADC stage. Even her rendition of ‘Why Does Nobody Like Me?’ in Guido! discovered a surprising pathos to the hokum. My favourite song of the lot is still ‘I Believe’, led from the top by Martha Bennett with a stirring openness and compassion. This write-up isn’t about singling people out, not intentionally at least – Bereavement works precisely because it’s an ensemble piece. There’s no sense of a dominating, starry presence – it doesn’t come across as a ‘Jeff Carpenter production’ or an ‘Andy Brock production’. It’s a collective vision of a universal experience; the right attitude to the right material. And it works, dammit. I read over that Cambridge review of Bereavement again just recently. Appalling tripe, it must be said. It seems that virtually no reviewers can write. A problem that spread throughout nearly all Cambridge theatre reviews, except for those that had ‘James Swanton’ and ‘Five Stars’ in the text… That Bereavement was a lightning-rod for audience outrage was much more than ‘the ADC mafia’ (who? what?) ganging up on one poor, unsuspecting student (or, to be accurate, their poorly considered sheaf of text). It was rather a quite timely, quite justifiable expression of rage at how disrespectful student reviews had become. People put a lot of time into doing drama when there are degrees to be getting on with. No matter what the results, they therefore deserve the proper consideration. That occasionally people will create something of real excellence only makes the injustice more apparent. Such was the case with Bereavement.

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1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Experiences

One response to “The Edinburgh Report

  1. Thank you James, I am very chuffed by your kind words.

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