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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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times