Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

© 2020

Fringed

Its the day after our return back to London and I am still in a state of being ‘fringed': the heady mix of cultural nourishment and physical exhaustion that is the aftermath of trying to cram in as many shows as possible into far too little time. The Edinburgh Fringe has been a showcase of the performing arts every August since 1947 but it was the first time I had gone. There’s a carnival spirit across the old town in those weeks. Seekers of the novel and those seeking an audience struggle in a matchmaking exercise facilitated by small flyers and on-street performances. Hectic and jubilant, not even the endless stairs and heavy downpours can dampen the spirit with so much creativity on tap.

Our far more organised travelling companions had made a great game of analysis and planning of their itineraries with an ambitious schedule that exhausted me just looking at their shared google sheet. Instead, I had insisted that we would take a more relaxed approach and allow room for serendipitous encounters. I was prepared to be wooed by the most earnest artists and play the role of patron of the arts like an emperor at the coliseum. Besides, given the sheer numbers of shows and my desire to experience a mixture of art forms, I couldn’t decide our three days in advance. So we picked a couple of shows each day from our friends' careful analysis and made plans each morning for the rest. If our intent had been for a lighter schedule, we failed miserably in the end as excitement at the various opportunities had us marching quickly from show to show. I’m certain it wasn’t as efficient a way to go about things as possible. Yet, it led to the most memorable experiences we had in our time at the festival.

Its hard not to come away from sampling such a smorgasbord of culture and not be inspired to be creative in your own way. Isn't it every festival goers right to be a critic and booster? I’ll make no exception in offering some short thoughts on each of the acts we saw although time and order are less important to me. There’s no set path through the experience. There are no ratings either and only a standard warning that your mileage will vary.

On the low polish but welcoming side of comedy, there was the New Zealand duo that hosted FanFiction Comedy which used the form of shared storytelling using appropriated characters to amuse the audience. It was fun and forgettable in a chilled-out environment. It didn’t try to say anything important nor did they take themselves too seriously. It wasn’t angry, there was no exorcising of demons and it wasn’t pushing a political agenda. It was a bit like spending time with your funny mates and for that I’m grateful.

Their guest storyteller led us to perhaps the most fun and imaginative act we saw: Calypso Nights: Juan, Two? The Venezuelan mash-up artist was a surreal performance of music, comedy and exploration of the culture and history of the Caribbean. The audience were shaken out of their stuffiness over the hour and in the end were helping the crowd-surfing host celebrate with a shot of rum. In the inevitable comparison that comes with trying to relate a unique act, I would have to describe it as Mighty Boosh without the darkness and with more of a conscience. The passion for Caribbean music was infectious and I walked away with a new appreciation of chutney.

Much like Irish comedians and Tory-bashing, musical comedy is available readily at the Fringe and in Christian Reilly: Songs of Insolence we got a high-quality dose of at least two of those things. The country/rock parodies were skilfully performed and it was a laugh-out-loud riot to a packed house. It was one of the definite highlights of the free (or more accurately pay-what-you-feel) fringe but I would struggle to remember any of the songs from the performance. There was a political message but it was nothing particularly original and easy targets make forgettable effigies. The short song-sketch of Oasis was more amusing than the entirety of the songs against predictable targets.

The other show that seemed to be a fan-favourite of older Lefties was Phill Jupitus is Porky the Poet in Apologist Now! Another free show that was worth a bit of a chip-in with one memorable poem about Phil’s first gig to see Blondie. I realised after the fact, that of course my only experience with his comedy was on the now-cancelled Never Mind the Buzzcocks so it was probably not surprising I was most entertained when he was talking about music. Angry shouting against Tories and in praise of Jeremy Corbyn must be be solid crowd-pleasers amongst the greying Labourites that murmured approvingly around us. Like shooting ducks in a barrel.

The stand up comedy of Ashley Storrie, a Glaswegian lass who endured a hot house venue brought many chuckles with her playful self-deprecation and mocking of stereotypes to a packed sweaty room. Her readings from her teenage diary were particularly amusing.

The intelligent Corey White had one of those hard life stories that can make uncomfortable listening if told without the charm and wit that he clearly exhibited. He gave an honest account of the broken life of a sweet man in search of meaning and love. It was hard not to feel that his journey was far from concluding the neat lessons he wanted to impart. The emptiness that ached throughout the act didn’t make him any less funny. Even in the relatively meaningful art of storytelling, as compared to meth addiction, he might still be searching in the wrong places. It was thought-provoking dark comedy.

It was a real contrast to Phil Mann’s Hydrophobia which explored depression and anxiety in ways, that besides momentarily enjoyable audience participation, fell flat in the humour needed to rise beyond self-pity. The not-far-from-the-surface anger and tonally awkward performance made for uncomfortable viewing at times. It was the only show I came out of wishing I had not gone in (sorry).

Perhaps the best comedy we saw was performed by Kieran Hodgson whose optimistic, autobiographical account of his fandom of Lance Armstrong was rich in character and exceptionally well-paced. A coming of age narrative that explored the loss of role models and the distance between friends as they grow older never drifted into the maudlin or overly sentimental. It was gripping from start to finish and the (only) musical number about the attractions of moving south was particularly hilarious.

The most uniquely Fringe experience we had was when we turned up to see Omid Singh and it transpired we were the only audience he had managed to bring to his well-hidden little venue. The initial awkwardness was replaced by some wisecracking conversation, that only occasionally strayed into his very funny routine, as we had a really fun hour together drinking beers and chatting.

Chaos Theory had the dubious distinction of being the only sketch comedy show we watched. The concept of randomly arranged sketches led to a varied quality of performance that never really tied together. It was funny if forgettable. I’m not a fan of this type of art as it tends to be overly reliant on puns and visual or auditory gags. This wasn’t the worst I’d seen but neither did it change my mind about the form.

The Festival of the Spoken Nerd put on a sell-out performance of their _Just for Graphs_ cabaret comedy science show with plots, fire and magic numbers. It was nerdy only on the fashionable pop science spectrum but quite entertaining. The songs were a bit vanilla but the adaptation of something from the Wicked musical was a clear hit with the folks behind us, if few of the rest of the audience. It made a change compared to everything else we watched.

In retrospect, I wish we had seen more theatrical performances as some of the best shows we saw were dramas. The two-man adaptation of Of Mice and Men was brilliantly acted and captured most of the essence of the John Steinbeck novel. I felt some key scenes from the novel were missing and the emotional draw of Lenny as a character could have been better conveyed if we were allowed more time to dwell on his tender side. The portrayal of George and his complex dependency on Lenny came across clearly but the final scene in the book which had me crying when I was younger, left me a little cold in the play. Where it did much better was in its portrayal of the isolation of migratory workers during the Depression period in the dustbowl of America.

I have a lot of respect for the energy and talent of the young actors of Eat Me! Drink Me! Buy Me! who put on a reimagining of the Alice in Wonderland story as a critique of modern consumerism. Even if the message was earnestly obvious it was well worth watching for the skilful delivery.

Meanwhile, the presentation of Terry Pratchett’s Eric] sadly suffered from the awful location, which between pillars and the actors deciding to perform a good number of bits lying on the ground, was difficult to see. Its a good choice of a Pratchett book to adapt and the actor who played Rincewind captured the essence of the character very nicely. I do look forward, however, to the first adaptation of a Discworld novel that moves beyond the cheap fan-pleasing gags (“Its Death!”, “Its the Luggage!”) and gets something of the nuance and wit of Pratchett’s social commentary that made the novels so much more than a series of long running puns. Of course, I speak as a die-hard and perhaps hard-to-please fan with a poor seat. It was overall a good adaptation.

The adaptation of Gogol’s Marriage was a great satire of tradition in a clever comedy of manners. It was performed by an experienced cast who made it easy to connect with the caricatures of society types they portrayed. It reminded me somewhat of the _Importance of Being Earnest_ and whilst it felt like it was talking about a bygone age, it managed to feel contemporary and sharp.

The best play we saw was without a doubt Dead Man’s Cell Phone] which explored the unknowable nature of other people in a tightly scripted performance that was accompanied by haunting thematic music. The protagonist Jean was sympathetically portrayed but it was Mrs. Gottlieb who I felt stole the show with her excellent characterisation of the emotionally distant, titular dead man's mother. Whilst the central romantic plot came across as more creepy than tender, at least until the end, the redemptive arc of the main character posthumously was uplifting if unexpected. Excellent production values and believable acting made this the one I would recommend whole heartily to see if you get a chance.

The Fringe was overall an incredible experience and there was too little time, and yet too much more and I would probably have been broken in body and mind.

I will close with the opening words of Juan, who summed it up well:

Eden-burg. Wow. Bootiful.