Why I believe in the Loch Ness monster: Edinburgh Fringe 2017

I’ve just returned from a very enjoyable week at the Edinburgh Fringe. Unlike last year, we were fortunate enough not to encounter a bad show. However, the “star” system is clearly broken, as everyone’s literature only ever owns up to four (or occasionally, five) star reviews. For example, here’s a random sample that accompanied my gin and tonic at the Pleasance one evening.

Four stars

Everyone only admits to four stars or more – so how do you pick shows that are really worth seeing?!

So given that everything we saw almost certainly had a 4* or better review somewhere, I’m not going to play that game. Instead, everything gets a sentence or two. That seems fairer to me, as it doesn’t attempt to quantify something that is inherently subjective. In no particular order, here are my star-free reviews of everything we saw this year.

Shaken not Stirred – The Improvised James Bond Film

Coincidentally the first show we saw last year as well. Alexander Fox and Dom O’ Keefe with an hour of silliness – this year we saw A Quantum of Sausage. Good fun throughout.

Education, Education, Education

Set in a secondary school the morning after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, bringing a whole new twist to the question “did you stay up for Portillo”? Brilliantly staged and performed by an ensemble cast. The Stage presented an award for the production at the end of the show we saw – definitely deserved. Hopefully audiences elsewhere in the country will get to see this excellent production too.

Henning Wehn – Westphalia is not an option

Proof (if any were needed) that the Germans really do have a sense of humour – especially after he enthusiastically encouraged us all to clap along to an old Hitler Youth song. “That’s how it starts”, he said …

Ringo

Alexander Fox again, this time with a new solo show. It took a few minutes to get going, but the final 2/3rds was one of the funniest and most innovative shows I saw during the week.

Finding Nana

Jane Upton’s bitter-sweet play about how memories of our grandparents formed in childhood affect us as we grow older, and what happens when we eventually lose them. Cleverly staged, with Phoebe Frances Brown providing an emotionally charged solo performance.

Showstopper! – The Improvised Musical

This is the third time I’ve seen this (twice at Fringe) and I’m still in awe of the sheer amount of hard work that clearly goes into making the concept work. It’s really, really funny too! This time the audience came up with a country pub setting for The Pint Before Christmas. Improvised musical numbers in the style of Rent and My Fair Lady were the highlights.

Rhapsodes

Adam Meggido and Sean McCann (both of Showstopper) hold a Shakespearean (and sundry other theatre styles) improvisation duel. Like Showstopper, it clearly takes a huge amount of effort to make it work as well as it does. A particularly creepy ‘poltergeist’ anecdote from an audience member helped make this year memorable.

Great British Mysteries?

Probably the strangest show I saw this year. Memorable because it was so unusual and funny, as well as being brilliantly performed by Will Close (Dr. Teddddy Tyrell) and Rose Robinson (Olive Bacon). If you’ve ever had to suffer in silence through pseudo-science tv shows, you’ll love this. “Evidence schmevidence”, as Olive Bacon would say. A great handout (and badge) at the end to remember the show by. I’m glad that the car park at Loch Ness will still allow an hour’s free parking, even though the monster has now been found.

Loch Ness

Remember, fool is proof spelt backwards.

Whose Line is It Anyway?

Clive Anderson, with Mike McShane, Colin Mochrie, Steve Frost, Tony Slattery and Kirsty Newton. Still as fresh as it was when it first appeared on Radio 4 back in the 80s. Improvised comedy at its best.

Matt Forde

The only overtly political standup we saw. Matt happily took apart May, Corbyn, Farron, Sturgeon and Nuttall (remember him?) with equal vigour and humour. Naturally, his evisceration of Donald Trump was the highlight of the show. Happy!

Sara Pascoe – Lads Lads Lads

I’ve enjoyed her performances on television ever since her role in the ill-fated “Campus”. Her stand up material is delivered with great pace and timing. Sadly, I’m clearly a bad person as I really don’t like dogs.

Lucy Porter – Choose Your Battles

Another standup who deliberately avoided political topics this year and instead made me laugh at her “benign neglect” approach to parenting, wince at the thought of the extortionate cost of losing your electronic car keys and made me determined never to watch Coronation Street ever again.

Reduced Shakespeare Company – William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)

Great fun. The Tempest meets Richard III meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream and many others. Sitting in the first few rows is dangerous – as water pistols *may* be involved …

Murder, she didn’t write: The improvised murder mystery

Similar format to Showstopper! but without the music. An entertaining hour of improvised comedy.

 

Phew!

The fringe also helps to get you fit – I took 82,534 steps, climbed 267 floors and logged 714 active minutes over the course of the week. Even the weather was good. Food was generally found on the hoof, with two of the best meals of the week had at The Cellar Door and 56 North.

56 North Gin Menu

The extensive gin menu at 56 North – hic!

I’m looking forward to 2018.

10,000 steps a day – day 10 – King Lear

The weather wasn’t particularly pleasant yesterday, so going to see the RSC’s King Lear in Stratford was excellent scheduling. Spoiler – everyone dies by the end of the play. There were some good performances from David Troughton as Gloucester, Paapa Essiedu as Edmund and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, but otherwise the production was somewhat disappointing. We also went for an after-show meal in the rooftop restaurant, which was very tasty.

King Lear ProgrammeBy the time we arrived home, I was a little short of my target, so I took a walk to the shop to buy chocolate. I expect I won’t be losing any weight during September after all. The blue line is the direct route; the red line is the journey I made. 10,244 steps for the day – phew!

Chocolate expeditionToday’s goal (other than the 10,000 steps) is to put the finishing touches to my dissertation.

 

If you’d like to sponsor me to walk all over cancer during September, my donations page is here. Thank you!

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016: The good, the bad and the ugly

… or rather, the excellent, good, meh, bad and ugly. I’ve just had a very enjoyable week at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As most of what I saw is on until around the 29th August, it seemed sensible to write a few words about the experience. Most of the shows we went to were pre-booked and definitely met expectations. Unfortunately a couple of the ones we went to after being handed a flyer in the street were firmly in the bad and ugly category.

The excellent

Samurai Drum IKKI – The Power of Japanese Drums. This was a performance that we booked the day before we went and was definitely one of the highlights of the week. The drummers were incredibly enthusiastic and must have been exhausted by the end – I certainly was. Don’t go if you have a headache however!

Rhapsodes. Improvised Shakespeare and more. Absolutely brilliant from the moment the doors opened, with one of the performers showing us to our seats while talking to us in iambic pentameter about Star Trek (he’d noticed Jane’s com badge).

Edinburgh – A Tale of Two Towns. A walking tour from the Greyfriars Bobby Bar, taking in the old and new towns, ending at Waverley Station. Peter was a great guide with an obvious passion for Edinburgh, past and present.

EdinburghThe good

Much that we did that fell into this category, including three things that are there all the time, namely the Cafe at the Hub (friendly service and good food), Camera Obscura (worth the £14.50 admission charge) and Holyrood Palace (even better value at £12).

Many of the fringe shows we saw were good or very good, especially Showstoppers. We were treated to “Boris Blows his Top” – an improvised musical set in a post-apocalypse London. I don’t fancy drinking frothy bilge to be honest (you had to be there), so let’s hope that Trump doesn’t win in November.

Paul Merton’s Improv Chums, Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour, Radio Active, The Improvised James Bond (“From Brexit with Love”) and Katherine Ryan’s stand up comedy were all great value too.

The meh

The Edinburgh weather 🙁

The bad and the ugly

Edinburgh traffic. With thousands of pedestrians and only a half-hearted attempt at temporary pedestrianisation outside St Giles Cathedral you had to have your wits about you constantly. The wait on most of the pedestrian lights also favours buses, taxis, cars and trams over people. Not a particularly good experience. It seems genuinely impossible to recycle glass bottles, at least in the part of Edinburgh we stayed in. A couple of the spur of the moment shows fell into the bad and ugly category. I won’t name either as I’m sure that the performers realise it too.

And while we’re talking ugly, here’s a caricature of me from one of the many fun exhibits at the Camera Obscura.

Caricature of meThis was my first experience of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – and I’m looking forward to returning again soon.

Made Up

Last Saturday evening I went to the first preview performance of Made Up at Birmingham Rep. I admit to having been more than a little nervous as I walked into the venue as I’ve seen, I think for the first time, a glimpse of the huge effort that goes into putting something of this scale on. The run at the Rep finishes with a performance on Saturday evening and from 24th May – 11th June, Stan’s Cafe are taking the production on a tour of venues in the North East (details here).

The reason I’ve witnessed so much of the process is that Emily has been commuting from our home in Derby to Birmingham during the development and rehearsal process. As I like to be surprised by the theatre I do go to see (that’s the same excuse I use for never having read any Shakespeare by the way), I’ve tried not to listen too much to the stories that have made their way back along the A38 to us, but it was hard not to get caught up a little.

Made Up ProgrammeThe play is a truly enjoyable 75 minutes that allows us to get to know more about the two characters and their back stories. Kate (played by Emily Holyoake) is a young film star and Sue (played by Alexis Tuttle) is her make-up artist. The contrasts between Kate and Sue’s professional personas and the people they are in their personal lives are played out, bracketed by some amazing transformations in Kate’s appearance through the real-time application of make-up. The staging is simple and so allows you to focus on the characters and the transformations, but it does make very effective use of live and pre-recorded video. Without wanting to give away too much, the ‘alien’ transformation is great comedy, with the ‘punk’ transformation being used to make some of the play’s strongest and most poignant statements.

Afterwards I really enjoyed meeting Emily’s fellow cast member, Alexis, as well as some of the production crew in the bar (but of course!). In particular, I felt completely ‘Made Up’ when an audience member approached Emily for an autograph – definitely a “proud father” moment.

The Damned United at Derby Theatre

Last Saturday night I saw Red Ladder Theatre Company’s production of The Damned United at Derby Theatre. The play has been adapted from David Peace’s 2006 novel by Anders Lustgarten. You know that you’re probably going to be impressed by a play when the attention to detail starts before you enter the auditorium. The Match Day Magazine and Programme echoes the style of the publications sold at football grounds in the 70s, even down to the lettered list of matches to write the half-time scores against. As a Derby native, I particularly enjoyed that the programme listed the honours won by the Rams between 1968 and 1972, the era of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, even if this reverie was slightly spoiled by the programme also listing the later achievements of Clough at another East Midlands team.

The Damned United Programme, Script and TicketsProbably the first thing to note about the play is that it is a lot closer in spirit to (and the “industrial” language of) the novel than the film that starred Michael Sheen in 2009. This makes the play a darker and more intense experience – and a more interesting one, too. Brian Clough’s character, inner thoughts and relationship with Peter Taylor are centre stage, with the brooding presence of Don Revie passing judgement on him from the surrounding screens.

Andrew Lancel gives a well-paced and believable performance as Clough. His efforts are particularly impressive as he’s on stage for most of the 90 minutes without a break. Tony Bell is equally impressive as Taylor and the chemistry between them works well. Like the book, the action switches between the triumphs the pair shared together at Derby and the agonies suffered by Clough at Leeds, where Taylor had refused to join him after the pair had resigned from Derby. The supporting cast of John Graham Davies (Longson, Owen & Bolton), Tom Lorcan (McKenzie), Tony Turner (Kirkland & Cussins) and the ensemble players all help to keep the story moving along at a cracking pace.

The death of Clough’s mother, “The end of anything good. The beginning of everything bad.”, signals Derby’s exit from the European Cup at the hands of Juventus and an allegedly bent referee, with Clough’s bluff being called by the Derby board when they accept his resignation. In the Leeds timeline, the death acts to foreshadow the players’ revolt and Clough being shown the exit.

The play ends with the re-creation of the infamous Yorkshire Television showdown after Clough’s sacking. This is a particularly elegant piece of staging and powerfully done, with Lancel’s Clough interacting directly with the cleverly cut archive footage of Revie.

It’s by far the best production I’ve seen on this stage since the days of the old Derby Playhouse. The run finishes on April 16th, so there’s not much time left, but if you can get a ticket, go and see it. You won’t be disappointed.

Stasis

This post is simply a shameless plug for the play that my eldest daughter has written. It’s being produced by Encompass Productions and is being performed at the White Bear Theatre in April. It promises to be a great experience as science fiction is seen rarely on stage. I’m really looking forward to seeing it. Tickets are on sale now. If you go on Sunday 19th, I will be in the audience with you.

How far are you willing to go to say you’re sorry?

Stowaway Ren is on a Union spacecraft. Mission uncertain. What is for sure, is that she shouldn’t be there. With the whole crew in stasis and only a hologram and the ship’s computer for company, Ren must cope with isolation and depleting oxygen whilst trying to find her way home.

Stasis

 

How to start a riot

At the time of the August 2011 riots I was on holiday in Cyprus. By the time I came home, they were over. As I had far better things to think about at the time (or rather, not think about), I didn’t really pay very much attention to them. I do remember hearing Tottenham MP David Lammy condemning the rioters as “mindless people”, David Cameron stating that it was “criminality pure and simple” and Ed Miliband asking him if he was being tough enough on those involved.

However, as I was a  thoughtful  student of social psychology at the time, I was also wondering about the causes of the riots. Too much of what I was hearing simply prompted more questions. How could the media and politicians really know what had happened and so quickly, before anyone had properly investigated the circumstances of the riots.? Worse, if our parliamentarians hadn’t correctly understood the causes of the riots, how could they know that they weren’t simply prescribing treatment for the symptoms, rather than the underlying disease?

Of course, I wasn’t the only person wondering these things. Sometime afterwards, I purchased Reicher and Stott’s ebook “Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots” which was the first truly satisfying explanation of the causes of the riots I’d read, as well as having the only evidence-based suggestions I’d seen for reducing the risk of future riots.

It turns out that at much the same time, members of Worklight Theatre were not only asking similar questions, but got the chance to work with Dr. Clifford Stott on a theatrical exploration of them. The result is “How to start a riot“, which played to an almost capacity studio at Derby Theatre last night.

In it, the cast start from the position of having no knowledge about the causes of the riot – “Maybe they were just all knobheads”. They then explore popular but discredited theories such as de-individuation which argues that people in crowds become “mindless”.

Through the creative use of mainly hand-held lighting effects, they eventually lead the audience to the conclusion that instead of people losing their identities and being unable to control themselves in a crowd, people shift from thinking of themselves as individuals to thinking of themselves as being members of a social group. Control is not lost, but as individual identities are redefined in group terms, control moves to become an expression of what the group values. In other words, people behave in accordance with their perceived social identity at the time.

It was refreshing that the play explored the creation of social identities not only in the context of the rioters, but also from the police’s perspective. If I went into the auditorium already convinced that I’d never want to be put into a position of feeling that I had to join a riot, I also came out of it with a much greater understanding and sympathy for individual policemen and women who are put into the terrifying position of having to temporarily adopt the social identity of a “riot policeman” when such disorder occurs.

“How to start a riot” is currently on tour with dates in Truro, Reading, Cheltenham, Barnstaple and Leeds already in the calendar for 2013.

Do go and see it. It’s only an hour long, but it is a far more convincing explanation of the causes of riots and a starting point for change than any politician or media outlet came up with at the time.

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