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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
Show Hide image

The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.