Thursday, August 09, 2007

Of Cows and Cathedrals

There was a time when I would attempt to take an entire week off work to take in as much of the Edinburgh Festival fringe as possible. It was hard: comedy stops being so funny when you're panicking about being too drunk, not drunk enough, whether you'll need the loo before the end of the show. So, aside from a few evening comedy shows on school nights, we attempted to pack in as much as possible into a sunny Wednesday, yesterday. We had a pre-booked rendezvous with king of the fringe Stewart Lee that evening, and an empty canvas beforehand. A bit of perusing, browsing and booking filled in the day with four other appointments, and we were off.

First, to the Edinburgh University's Bedlam Theatre to see Shakespeare Bingo: A Comedy of Errors. It was an abridged version of reputedly the Bard's worst play, with tea, cake and bingo cards handed out to the audience. You crossed off each square as a staple of Shakespearean comedy came up, the first to shout "Bingo!" receiving an unspecified prize. It was full of witty, anachronistic asides, and very enjoyable. Oh, yes, and the genders were reversed, so the predominantly male dramatis personae, were portrayed by lovely young women. Bingo, indeed.
As if that weren't enough, we were adjacent to a hugely fat man on the front row. We were in velvet-covered tip-up seating, and just after the play finished, his seat could support his mass no more, and he noisily fell to the floor as it collapsed. He wasn't the most entertaining audience member though: they were a family of three from the midlands, Mum, Dad and pre-teen son, all proudly bedecked in Spamalot T-shirts and baseball caps, and boasting Adrian Chiles accents. I have never seen a less affected or cool group of people, and salute their ability to enjoy themselves, which they did, noisily, thanking the front of house staff. Bostin.

A gorgeous walk through the sunshine past the back of the castle took us to St Mary's Cathedral for a free lunchtime concert by Guy Newbury (Piano) and Danae Eleni Pallikaropoulos (Soprano). Out of the sun, in the stone cool of the cathedral, their mixed programme of classical and romantic pieces, plus an ambitious modern suite by the pianist was a fantastic contrast to the bustle of the streets. Terrific.

Time for a quick lunch at another fringe venue, and on to the Assembly Rooms, for some theatre, a one-man adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's book Private Peaceful, a first person account of being an under-age volunteer in the Great War. Alexander Campbell gave I think the very best stage acting performance I have ever seen, delivering his intense addresses straight into my eyes. It was an unsentimental but moving picture of the injustice of war, and is, as Morpurgo's pedigree hints, actually suitable for children.

A quick stroll up the mound, now, for some street theatre, specifically a New Zealand circus performer called James, who held a big crowd with all the usual stunts you would expect from a man who can juggle burning clubs atop a 20 foot unicycle. Great stuff. This is where all the day-trippers from Glasgow seemed to congregate. It would enforce the worst kind of social prejudices were I to observe that many watching appeared to be wearing white sportswear, Burberry headgear, ostentatious sovereign signet rings, and facial scars, while consuming off-license alcohol and smoking. Street theatre is now the only part of the fringe where smoking is legal, booze is cheap, and entertainment is free. Long may it reign.

Back to the Assembly for another one-man play, American Mark Soper in his own play, An Age of Angels, which concerns an incident at a high school in LA, depicted through the independent testimony of ten different participants. I thought it was great, despite the first two personae being extreme and challenging (a tall man in his fifties playing a prepubescent schoolgirl is all a bit Anthony Perkins), so I was disappointed at the handful of walkouts. He deserved to be heard.

Next stop, the Udderbelly (a vast purple inflatable cow). We chose (stupidly) to take the bus and were accosted at the stop by an elderly gent who looked like he may have been a retired Lance Corporal, and had seen better days. He had certainly seen the bottom of a few tumblers of whisky, and since quite early in the day, I surmised from his bearing. His bearing down upon me, as it happened. He was very chatty, and with Hackney Carriage diplomacy swung his barely coherent conversation to the sticky topic of immigration in under a minute. Our intense relief as our bus hove into view was tempered by the discovery that it was Lance Corporal Johnny Walker's bus as well. Guessing the stairs would prove a bridge too far, we took the upper deck, and passed the journey listening to him lambaste all and sundry. Terrifyingly, he disembarked at our stop, yelling a few final insults at the driver, and we scuttled to the venue.

It was now seven in the evening, and the comedy crowd here was a completely different beast to the meek theatregoers we had shared the day with. Beer monsters, London Types, pretty girls, and a smattering of people, whom I assumed were dressed in deliberate tribute to Nick Frost in Spaced, Nick Burns in Nathan Barley, or Noel Fielding in real life, with their DJ headphones, unnecessary shades, and retro sports bags slung diagonally over their lanky frames. Or maybe they were just all phenomenal twats. A quick drink, and into the cow for an hour of Stewart Lee, who has refined his act to perfection. There is no waste or slack in this most confident of performers, who is deservedly loved.

Outside afterwards, who should I see, but the Lance-Corporal, inquiring of a Pretty Girl whether she had been to see anything. "Stewart Lee", she mumbled back, and I would have died on the spot a happy man if he'd responded "That Heathen!" but he just staggered off leaving her to relate the encounter to her boyfriend.

An annoying fake Italian meal later (table in a draught, tiny portions, Madonna playing, framed 10X8s of Sinatra, De Niro, and Pacino, and untippable service) we were on our way home. I'd hoped that the Lance Corporal or the beaming brummies might be on the bus, but they weren't. I cuddled up next to Helen with a promising read (Mother Tongue by Jon Helmer), looking forward to yoga the following morning.

Another day as close to perfect as I can imagine.

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