I was working two journalism-ish jobs at the Festival this year, one as a Volunteer Media Intern for the Festival of Spirituality and Peace and the other as a reviewer for The Flaneur. So what I was mostly attending was a mixture of music, poetry and politics events on one side and free theatre (The Flaneur doesn’t provide tickets except very occasionally) on the other.
Edinburgh is always a strange place to be in August. The tourist area seems to creep further and further every year – I currently live down the road from not one but two venues and I swear both of them have expanded. But then on the positive side of things: I found Wally. He was using a cash machine on North Bridge and was accompanied by a man in a sombrero who I presume he met 0n his travels. I saw a man dressed as a giraffe – not performing, best I could tell, just… sitting. Beside the street. I thought it was over but then today I ran into a whole crowd of people dressed as Mario.
I did not, unfortunately, see the Satyr Piper this year – I’ve not idea what this guy actually calls himself, but the last couple of summers he’s been up on the Royal Mile playing the bagpipes while dressed as a Satyr. On stilts. Sadly he seems to have moved on now. I did, though, come across a Rock Pipe Band called the Spinning Blowfish.
I went around the West End Craft Fair something like three times and discovered some pretty awesome jewellery makers and artists: Designed with Pleasure does jewellery made from sea glass; Louise Pringle of Eclectic Shock makes ‘upcycled’ jewellery and her stall was best described as ‘like Etsy in physical form, but good‘.
The very last time I went down there, I met an artist called Peter Standen who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have a website any more – he gave me a card with an address where I could find some of his stuff but I seem to have mislaid it. You can see some of it here – lots of paintings and lithographs of a post-apocalyptic Edinburgh! He also does cats and mermaids. Unfortunately the postcards he was selling were mostly cats but I did manage to get a postcard of ‘Dawn of a New Age’ (the first one on the page I linked to) in lithograph.
After we came away from the stall, the friend who I was with commented that she would love to read a graphic novel illustrated by him. So Mr Standen, if you ever read this: there’s at least two people interested in a graphic novel set in post-apocalyptic, over-grown Edinburgh. Or about mermaids. Or mermaids in post-apocalyptic, over-grown Edinburgh.
So let’s talk about what I saw!
The biggest events that FoSP runs are the conversations. Most of them are political and the range of topics is huge. I only managed to go to a few – and sadly missed out on some I really wanted to check out due to scheduling conflicts.
Early in the month, I was asked to go to the three conversations on Scottish identity and Sectarianism to make some notes: What makes a person Scottish?, Scotland’s Apartheid and The power of youth and football to heal a Divided City, on the musical adaptation of Theresa Breslin’s book Divided City. The last one was probably the most interesting for me, as you can (hopefully) see from my report – it was also the only one where I wasn’t the youngest person in the room, as two of the teenage actors were there!
The other two conversations I reported on were Listening to women in Afghanistan and Bosnia Twenty Years On, both of which got to be quite, ah, opinionated discussions. Of the two I think the latter was probably the more productive (and educational) conversation, though also the most impassioned.
Most of the theatre I saw was for reviewing purposes, though FoSP did put on a couple of one-person plays.
I saw a snippet of An Evening with Dementia at the preview night and was, in a strange sort of way, enchanted. It’s often an uncomfortable play to watch – I’ve seen a couple of reviewers note that Trevor T. Smith’s performance is actually a little too convincing, especially his physicality, but that’s hardly a complaint. It’s also surprisingly meta-theatrical. If you ever get a chance to see it, you’ll find that there’s one section with veers into the surreal and mindscrew-y. The link goes to my report on the discussion panel after the play.
The other play I saw at FoSP was Dirty Paki Lingerie – yes, that’s really the title. The playwright and lead actress is American and said afterwards that she didn’t know just how offensive that word is in Britain until she came here – actually, I’m not sure she completely understood until she heard an audience member call it ‘the p-word’.
Not all of my reviews for the Free Fringe shows I saw are up yet, but I’ll do my best anyway.
Monkey Poet’s Murder Mystery I don’t much to say about that I didn’t say in my review, except that I really wish I’d managed to see his other show, Monkey Poet’s Potty Mouth, because Monkey Poet is brilliant and one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.
My Sister was the only play I didn’t go to alone, so I had someone with me to talk it over with afterwards. We both pretty much agreed about it – except I saw the twist coming and he didn’t.
Paul Dabek Presents Thurston might just be the best bit of theatre I saw all month. I really did love this one, but for some reason no-one I recommended it to seemed very enthused. I also saw his magic show, Nothing Up My Sleeve, which wasn’t nearly as interesting and unusual (obviously), but still – he has a great stage manner, particularly when it comes to misdirection. He also does great shadow puppets.
Finally, An Imaginary Circus, which… well, it wasn’t the best thing I saw this year, but my main criticism of it is actually a compliment, and one that I almost never pay: this show should take itself more seriously. Ben Maier is a great storyteller, one of the best character actors I saw – I saw a lot of one-person plays that were let down by weak character acting – and he really does manage to transport his audience out of the pub cellar venue. Unfortunately, as I said in my review, the constant jokey touches undermined the illusion. Pity.
And now onto the reviews that are still languishing in The Flaneur’s ‘pending’ heap!
Crab House – A Bloody Cabaret. This was a musical somewhere in the same vein as Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors abotu a couple who buy a struggling sea food restaurant in depression-era New York and resort to desperate measures to keep it afloat. Unfortunately, despite the promising premise, it was a bit choppy – I got the impression it might possibly have been trimmed down to fit into a one-hour Free Fringe slot – and also: too much cabaret, not enough blood.
Down and Out in Nottingham and Edinburgh. I’m not sure if this should go with theatre or poetry, since it had elements of both, but it was mostly prose, so I’ll put it here. Inspired by Down and Out in Paris and London, two students from Nottingham couch-surfed in Edinburgh for a month, then wrote a play about it. There’s really not much else to say – I found it quite difficult to judge. Was I reviewing the show itself or its premise? The latter isn’t really something you can review, but the former they openly admitted had been written in a matter of days, so it didn’t seem that fair. Also, they offered me chocolate as a bribe because they noticed I was reviewing – not sure how serious they were, but the chocolate was a crunchy, and I don’t like crunchies anyway.
Life in a Film. This one describes itself as ’embarrassingly honest’. I met the actor/playwright just after seeing Down and Out and she asked me to come and review her show too, which made me feel very classy – oh yes, I was personally invited to a review a show – so I went along. It turned out to be the obligatory ‘what did I just watch’ show of the month. I’m honestly, sincerely not sure if I liked it or not. It definitely wasn’t a really good show but it occupied a strange space that made it impossible to call bad, and this is giving me a headache.
Finally, Words and Women, a series of women’s monologues that promised to be entirely fresh, new and engaging – and really was. This show was exactly as good as advertised. Also, feminist street cred!
Highlight: Either An Evening with Dementia, Words and Women or Paul Dabek does Thurston. The latter was probably my favourite.
Lowlight: This is a tough one. It’s hard to judge free shows that harshly but it’d be a choice between Life in a Film and My Sister. My Sister was probably objectively the better show, but I have to say, Life in a Film was far more original and interesting, and the parts of it that were good were very good, so I’m going with My Sister.
There was a surprising amount of poetry on at FoSP – you can read my run-down here – and I actually got to see most of it.
The first one I went to was Two Wings to Fly with Mark Pratt and Jock Stein, which unfortunately, with a few exceptions – one of them performed a ‘hum’ inspired by Winnie the Pooh – was not really my kind of poetry. But still, it was good stuff, and they’ve also published a book by the same title.
The Craic where the light gets in was a definite highlight. Elspeth Murray and Richard Medrington are both brilliant – my only complaint was that they didn’t perform that much stuff together, because they have a wonderful chemistry.
I went to two of Duncan Mackintosh’s Rumi events, Voice of the Heart and Scattering Stars Like Dust. Rumi was a twelfth century Afghan poet, and I think it says a lot about how west-centric my education was that I hadn’t come across him before. Duncan Mackintosh performs Rumi excellently, and the Scattering Stars Like Dust evening session was certainly an intensive introduction, but unfortunately when you’ve had a long day and you’re already a bit sleepy, sitting in a darkened room listening to a softly-spoken man recite poetry and play gentle music… well, that doesn’t help much with the sleepy.
StAnza, Scotland’s St Andrews-based poetry festival, also did an event, which was… disappointing. I came away thoroughly convinced that no matter how good your poetry is, just reading it aloud does not entertainment make. Especially when you are reading it aloud at the lecturn in a church. It felt kind of like a sermon, and much to my shame, I only remember one poem from the whole afternoon. Sorry, StAnza!
Finally, Poetry in the Persian Tent, a series of poetry readings over five days: Introduction with Liz Lochead, Second Reading with Jackie Kay, All-Women’s Poetry, Gaelic Poetry and the Finale. I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to go to all five for free as a FoSP volunteer – though I did sometimes have the same problem as at the StAnza Showcase, for the most part this was really great poetry, and Liz Lochead and Jackie Kay both performed. Very exciting!
I also saw some poetry at the Free Fringe: A Pint of Poetry and a Dram of Drama, which I already wrote about on this blog, and a show called That’s Not how you Spell Pedantic, which was pedantry-themed poetry and a really great blend of poems and comedy.
I really wish I’d seen more, because on the last weekend I went along to the Free Fringe Spoken Word awards and got to see a selection of poets I’d missed, and – wow. Sadly I didn’t catch everyone’s names – the only ones I have down at Richard Tyrone Jones (the outgoing spoken word director), Fay Roberts (the incoming spoken word director), Keith Jarretts and Sophia Walker. They were all great.
Highlight: Either Jackie Kay at the Persian Tent or some of the poets at the Spoken Word awards. I’ll definitely be doing more Free Fringe poetry next year.
Lowlight: The StAnza Showcase, if only because I remember almost none of the poetry I’ve heard. Sorry, StAnza. The locale didn’t help. If you’re going to perform in a church, try not to make it feel quite so like a sermon!
That covers everything I reviewed, but I also saw some other things that were very exciting. I saw Robin Ince three times during his two-day run – once to see Robin Ince is in and out of his mind, which is (I think) the same show I’ve seen the last two years – best I can tell, he uses the Free Fringe to test out stand-up ideas. At one point he was going through index cards reading out his notes and trying to find one that was funny.
After that, we were planning to go to his eleven PM show in another bar, but his website and the online fringe programme disagreed about what time it was on at. After some debate, we decided that, since Robin Ince was hanging out in the pub for a while afterwards and we’d been told we could ask him questions upstairs if we wanted (mostly so we’d clear out of the venue to make room for the next show), we figured we’d go ask him, since presumably he would know what time he was performing.
As it happened – and this is an anecdote rather than a review now – the friend who volunteered to go ask him is one of the most weirdly chatty people I know. He has this amazing ability to get into conversations with celebrities. He once chatted with Prince Charles for about a quarter of an hour because the other people from his school were too nervous, so naturally he spent a good half hour talking to Mr Ince because we reminded him that we were meeting someone. So that was fun!
We did get to go to the eleven PM show – Pointless Anger, Righteous Ire – eventually, which had somehow become a kind of comedy cabaret – I’m honestly not sure how planned this was. The programme didn’t mention most of the people who turned up and I think pretty much everyone involved was drunk. Definitely the most chaotic evening all month, and also – Josie Long was there. For some reason this didn’t register with me at the time. It wasn’t till I got home and was (for some reason, I don’t do this often) checking tumblr and saw a Josie Long appreciation post that I remembered she is quite famous. Anyway, she did an impression of Elizabeth Taylor talking to her toilet and calling it Michael Gove.
Then I went to see Carl Sagan is my god, a nerdy comedy ensemble, the next day. It was a bunch of comedians talking about nerdy things. One of them solved a Rubik’s Cube onstage. Fun times!
I saw a couple of events on the very last day of FoSP that I didn’t end up covering – Sounds and Songs with Mairi Campbell, a collection of songs based on her family history with non-verbal ‘soundings’. It was all very Celtic-style – and she certainly does have an interesting family.
The same afternoon, I saw a small-scale performance by Glasgow-based dance group Indepen-Dance. Indepen-Dance is an integrated diverse abilities dance group – meaning they cater to people with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities. They did two pieces, a duet called Submerge and a quartet called When Ships Pass, the latter of which I definitely preferred, together with a short film about the history of Indepen-Dance and what they do.
Then in the evening I got around to seeing Soweto Entsha, the South African a capella group that was one of the biggest events at FoSP this year. It was their final night and these guys are always great – the word I kept using when talking about them on the blog was ‘dynamic’ – but I got the feeling they went all-out.
Finally, I also went to see Nile Rodgers at the book festival – and to my great shame, I hadn’t heard of him before. If you’re also not familiar, he’s the guy behind We are family and Like a virgin. And he is amazing. We didn’t stay for the whole evening – I think it was supposed to end at eleven but it was pretty clear once he stopped talking about his book and started taking song requests that he had no intention of getting off the stage any time soon – but what I did see turned out to be an unexpected highlight.
All in all, I had a very busy month this year – this post doesn’t even have quite everything I saw – and also probably the best August I’ve had since moving to Edinburgh. Unfortunately, now that it’s over, there’s only a week or so before term starts, so I should probably get to thinking about my dissertation…