It's high time for my annual post about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Unlike last year, I've so far been going with other people, which is a good thing because it means I've been to shows I might not otherwise have bothered with, one of which was an absolute revelation.
Anyway, here is my quick run-through of the six shows I've seen, with a rough score out of ten. Bear in mind that I saw some of these at the start of the month, so they probably won't all still be running.
TRANSLUNAR PARADISE : I'm not sure I have the vocabulary to adequately describe physical theatre, and I must admit I winced at the start when it dawned on me that there wasn't going to be any dialogue at all. The first few minutes are taken up with a young male actor, holding a mask to his face to make him look elderly, going through a series of intricate but mundane movements, such as opening and shutting cupboards. I thought to myself "I'm not sure I can take an hour and a quarter of this", but fortunately it gets much livelier. In fact, it's extraordinary how much can be evocatively conveyed through physical movement - longing for a lost spouse, courtship, marriage, pregnancy, the death of a child, war, marital rows, etc, etc. The movements are so precise that I can't even begin to imagine how much rehearsing must be required. The action is accompanied throughout by a woman with an accordion who hums to herself rather a lot, which is an odd effect at first, but of course lyrics would have broken the spell of wordlessness.
So having been dubious at first, I was well and truly won over. Quote from the lead actor/performer/whatever the correct term is : "if you liked the show, please tell your friends, and if you didn't like it, please tell your enemies it was fantastic". On the basis of which I can only say - I liked it, but how do you know I'm not just saying that because I hate you? RATING : 8/10
TIM FITZHIGHAM - STOP THE PIGEON : This was the first time I'd ever seen comedy at the Fringe, and after an ill-fated trip a few years ago to a comedy club in Glasgow with a group of people I'd never met before, I was a tad nervous about it. But to my relief, it turned out to be very much mainstream comedy (even if the subject-matter was distinctly offbeat), and although there was audience participation, it wasn't of the 'enforced' variety.
In many ways, it was more like a painless history and physics lesson wrapped up as a comedy show. FitzHigham is obviously fascinated by the imaginative possibilities of gambling, and recounts in a surprisingly pleasurable degree of detail how he recreated a bet entered into by the 4th Duke of Queensberry in the 18th Century to send a letter over a distance of 50 miles in less than an hour, using only the technology available in the period. As the name of the show implies, FitzHigham eventually achieved the feat by using carrier pigeons, although intriguingly it appears that the Duke of Queensberry originally did it by inserting the letter in a cricket ball, and using a relay team of cricketers.
The performance was a bit rough and ready when I saw it, but to be fair that was the first preview show, so the gremlins were probably ironed out later. Having said that, I'm not sure the seating arrangements in the stifling 'igloo' venue are likely to have improved much since then. RATING : 7/10
THE LETTERS OF JANE AUSTEN : A bit like Translunar Paradise, my first thought was "am I really going to be able to stand 45 minutes of two women in period costume sitting and reading out letters?" But the answer to that question was a firm 'yes', because Austen's prose and wicked humour is such a treat for the ear. I'm not sure The Emails of Ian Davidson would be quite such a winner, though, before anyone gets any bright ideas.
Every single letter is from Austen to her sister Cassandra - except for the last, which appears to be Austen writing to someone else about her devastation at the death of Cassandra. It's only when the letter is signed off with the name "Cassandra" that you realise it was in fact Cassandra writing about Austen's death. A very moving end to an otherwise lightly comic show.
There are a few songs as well, which I didn't think were much to write home about (if you'll forgive the pun), but I suppose it's necessary to have something to break up the wall-to-wall reading out of letters. RATING : 7/10
POE'S LAST NIGHT : I think you'd have to be a true Poe aficionado to really 'get' this free one-man show. I was so baffled by it that my concentration kept slipping, a problem which wasn't helped when pop music started blaring out from somewhere! However, the performer David Crawford is a class act, and didn't bat an eyelid. I have the distinct feeling I'd have thought it was fantastic if I had fully understood what was going on. As it is, the most helpful thing I can say is that Crawford is clearly a superb actor, with a melodious voice. If only all American accents were like that, it would be the most disarming accent in the whole world. He also very modestly asked for suggestions about how the show could be improved, and invited donations in a civilised manner that put to shame the American street-performer I saw a couple of years ago who essentially bullied people into giving him money. RATING : 6/10
THE GIRL WITH NO HEART : One of those shows which you know within about five seconds is going to be amazing. It just radiates quality from the off. A girl from a world where wishes are always granted asks to be transported to the world where wishes do not always come true but where "every day is an adventure". She is warned that she can never return, but stands firm in her resolve. The world she arrives in is a world of ash, intended to represent Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings, and the story that unfolds is a metaphor for how children experience war. A nuclear explosion is explained as something that happens when a child's heart, worn on his or her sleeve, is ripped in two by the 'Adult Army'. The decision to use nuclear weapons is justified as "one big terrible thing to stop smaller terrible things from happening", a line of reasoning which is challenged with the question "wouldn't it be better if nobody did any terrible things at all?"
Although the girl referred to in the title is played in conventional fashion by the actress Nicole Anderson, most of the other characters are represented by puppets. That takes a bit of getting used to, because you can see the puppet operators at all times, and at first you think you're supposed to be looking at a two-headed or three-headed being. But you quickly adjust to that and learn to suspend disbelief. I also initially thought it was a bit strange that the 'girl' in a fable about children is played by someone who is very obviously a woman, but Anderson's performance is so heartfelt that it doesn't really matter (in fact it may even work better that way).
Given the un-self-conscious way in which the show is presented, I assumed I was watching an interpretation of a well-known fable that had been written decades ago, perhaps by a Japanese author. So I was very surprised to learn afterwards that it was an entirely original play. As with the Poe show, the audience were asked for suggestions at the end, but in all honesty apart from the type of improvements that greater resources would be required for, it's hard to see how it could be made much better. I think the venue (the Bedlam Theatre) helped enormously - it's difficult to imagine it coming across quite as well in one of the more cramped venues. Simply spellbinding, and I can't recommend highly enough. RATING : 10/10
THE MOST DANGEROUS TOY : Jamie Laird is a very Scottish Nietzsche in this play which explores how the philosopher's relationship (or non-relationship) with Lou Salomé led him to despair. The ambiguity at the heart of the play is whether Salomé once allowed Nietzsche to kiss her under the moonlight, an incident which fuelled his false hopes. In a monologue, she insists that "she honestly can't remember" whether it happened, but then a flashback sequence suggests that she did allow the kiss, before slapping Nietzsche on the face twice.
Maria Alexe steals the show as Salomé. I was amazed to discover afterwards that she's Romanian - her accent sounds 100% middle-class English. RATING : 8/10