Auld Reekie and the fringe of the Fringe

Our theatre blogger offers her verdict on this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

If all the Fringe is a play, then Edinburgh is a stage set par excellence. Robert Louis Stevenson's "dream of masonry and rock" is as beguiling and romantic a backdrop you could hope to find, and the fact that theatre is seemingly blooming out of every crevice in that masonry only adds to the appeal of what is arguably the greatest show on earth. And if the scenography is courtesy of Auld Reekie itself, the metteur en scène must be the rain: a pluvial Prime Mover, which changes the scene from the sublime to the soggy, and directs and controls the flow of people in the city - we coalesce, we disperse. The fug and steam of the cooling cagoule fill the auditoria. And just as well something is, because the average audience size on the Fringe is just nine.

At two and a half thousand, the number of shows this year is nearly a fifth up on 2009. But unless punters multiply by the same logarithm, your average audience size is only going one way. Not helped by a theatrical Darwinism, where the super-venues get bigger and fatter at the expense of the one-woman-and-her-overdraft sound of one hand clapping majority.

Then there's the vexed issue of the household names, the so-called "parachutists", one of whom even parachuted into an improvised musical I was rather enjoying. Nicholas Parsons is urbanity itself, but his presence at Showstopper! was just that. (That said, the company created some delectable moments out of his chat - the Rocky Horror Show version of his two marriages rather sticks in the mind). The crump of celebs jumping on the bandwagon could be heard right across the city: Alan Cumming, who has conveniently come over all Caledonian, seemed to be on the cover of every local rag. " I have never felt more Scottish!" he whinnies. This, despite living in America, and taking US citizenship.

However, the deep-keeled Fringe is something of a self-righting machine: as soon as the organism senses it's too mainstream, it germinates Fringe fringes: Forest Fringe, Free Fringe, and this year, The Living Room. And there are a huge number of performers for whom a stage is a bourgeois luxury: a loo, or the back of a van will do. If you want the up and coming, and not the been and gone and got the TV show, these are your hunting grounds.

But the pursuit of this ignis fatuus can be wearying. Where to start? Iranian poetry or Russian clowns? On one production-laden afternoon, the very names of shows and companies seemed to forge a queasy objective correlative: Ad Infinitum, then The Dreadfuls, rounded off by Beautiful Burnout. It can seem like the craic is just elsewhere: it's in the nature of Edinburgh's pop-up venues that you can often hear what's going on around you, and during the Emma Thompson-endorsed Fair Trade I could hear Flawless, Chasing The Dream and their West End transfer. Other people, I fretted, were having more fun.

Every year a political anxiety flares and spreads, like a chant in a football stadium, across Edinburgh's productions. A few years ago it was Blair, but now sex trafficking is the issue that has sparked several shows and crossed into stand-up with Keith Farnam's How Much is that Woman in the Window? (How Tony might feel about being bracketed with sex trafficking as a societal ill can only be imagined). Fair Trade may have felt like dressed up agitprop, but there were other shows, lacking the imprimatur of an A-lister, which packed a greater punch: Roadkill, for example, bussed spectators to a tenement flat, and immersed them in the truly horrifying "business" of slave-rape.

2010 also saw the rise of the viral star: the performer who has achieved their rep and their access to the platforms of Edinburgh on the net. The brightest of these has to be scabrous teen joker Bo Burnham (60 million hits), but I followed my own star in the form of "You Tube Sensation" The Unexpected Items, on the strength of Gap Yah (2 million hits) who have a posh totty charm all their own. And the buzz about shows spreads like a contagion, too: blogs, tweets on the Fringe ("twinges") and the most reliable of these viral modes, word of mouth. My street tipster was right on the pulse with his recommendation Meow Meow: never mind the politics; it was cabaret and Glee Club escapism drawing the crowds.

I left Edinburgh as some Chinese acrobats were carefully preparing their own stage on Princes Street. A man dressed as a penguin wandered by. I reached the cover of Waverley as the heavens cracked open and the rain swept these visions away: another scene change in the greatest show on earth.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt