Another year, another fringe

Our theatre blogger reports from Edinburgh.

Armaggedapocalypse: not Fox Newspeak for England's riots, but one of the 2,542 shows on the Edinburgh Fringe this year (and one of the 2,532 I missed). For a different take on Britain's yoof, turn that telly off and head north! Here they do theatre, music and comedy, not Curry's.

While London burned, Edinburgh drowned: the Fringe was both bigger and wetter than ever before. This time round I was in the company of reluctant bipeds, or "teenagers", and duly found that you do not propose shows that are a half-hour wade away, in the rain. This pointed up sharply the sagging concentration of venues in the dripping crypts and cellars of the Old Town, leaving the New Town (new, that is, to George III) relatively beleaguered. The sodden punters are sticking to the shows in the super-venues rather than chancing the diaspora across town. Having hacked up heart-attack hill, you stay where you are. Even the Assembly Rooms, grand old dowager of the empty Hanoverian boulevards, are closed for some sort of retail-based refurb.

Doubtless one of the themes to be picked out of the fractal Fringe chaos is the rise of cabaret (though this is perhaps down to a new taxonomy in the Fringe programme). In truth one always experiences the "fringe" in the lower case, as a highly personal experience. It's perfectly possible to remain entirely ignorant of the existence of any cabaret at all.

Last year my "fringe" was theatre-rich, but this time the inbetweeners nixed the Malkovich Pinter, and the Oedipal Berkoff. By and large, we also avoided all celebs, and spawn of celebs (the Brandreth, Rosenthal and Stourton scions were all trying their luck). It goes without saying that the travelling circus that is Neil and Christine Hamilton, who are now a freaky Fringe staple, were also verboten.

Instead we headed for teen-friendly Sheeps ("imagine Morecambe and Wise meet Sheeps. Then Morecambe and Wise go away"), an archly surreal young sketch troupe that really whack the comedy piñata with characters like their stage-frightened singer (obscene rap at excruciating odds with shaking hands). The sick lyrics of Amateur Transplants: Adam Kay's Smutty Songs also found favour. This former med student wreaks marvellously pointless, punning havoc on pop songs - Katy Perry's well-known chorus, for example, is twisted to "I kissed de Gaulle, and I liked it."

Then there was Shlomo Mouthtronica: World Loop Station champion. (You know, loop station! The recording device cum mixing desk?) The rangy, rabbinical-looking beatboxer appears to conjure an entire band out of his mouth. Shlomo, whose genealogical roots are Iraqi-Jewish, mixes his wizardry with chat about his family, as though we're guests in his front room; when we saw him, the sweetly soulful Randolph Matthews was guesting.

And Free Run, to my knowledge the first time that "parkour" (you know, parkour!), or the urban art of jumping over stuff, has been staged. Imagine a gymnastics display of simian grace, which is literally off the rails, in that the runners spring off a bar encircling the auditorium, above our heads. Sadly, pantomime choreography involving masked villains was apparently necessary to jolly up all this jumping about. One runner's trousers ingeniously start out as boxers at the waistband and turn into jeans: just like the show, it's an over-designed simulacrum of the real, grungy thing.

In Edinburgh, just as in London, youngsters are using technology to mobilise, but to entirely different ends. Show tips are exchanged via Fringe tweets, or "twinges", and there's a hit parade of shows that generate the most noise. It was through such a tweet that we caught the Fringe's only deaf comedian Steve Day ("if there's another one he hasn't heard of them") in fine raconteur form in Run, Deaf Boy, Run! This year new apps were launched to assist with gold-panning the slew of shows, which helped unearth a morning performance from zany clown-musicians Varieté Velociped. Their Czardas finale, played on a found object down their trousers, certainly brightened the day.

Theatre-wise I didn't see too much to inspire: Curious Directive's Your Last Breath left some of us sanguinely anticipating theirs, and One Million Tiny Plays About Britain seemed a little spindly after the robust verbatim theatre of Alecky Blythe in London Road. Fittingly, it was left to Glaswegian youth theatre Junction 25 to restore faith in both theatre and youth in I Hope My Heart Goes First.

Never mind the comics, frantically scribbling emendations to include the shopper-riots in their sets, here was the real riposte to the events in London: kids producing thoughtful, funny and, at times, beautiful work. Creativity pure and simple, as Cameron might have put it.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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