Gleeful farces, world-class puppetry and the death of the ampersand

Day 3 of Nicky Woolf's Edinburgh diary.

 

August 10. Day three.

 

My first show this morning is the other half of Greenlight Theatre's Seeing Double. While yesterday's show (Visions) followed the production crew of a doomed production of Macbeth, today, in Figures, we join the cast and director in their rehearsal room. When you see both of the shows, the first serves as the set-up, then the second reveals just how clever the production is. Knowing what the other participants are doing and saying in the other room, and knowing where they're going as they rush on and off-stage makes the second show a real pay-off, and the effect is both a gleeful farce and a deeply impressive piece of synchronisation.

After that, deciding to stick with Pleasance, I dive straight in to Les Enfents Terribles' The Trench. Enfents Terribles are fringe veterans, and their latest offering, about a World War 1 sapper trapped underground, is slick and brimming with gorgeous stagecraft; the puppetry especially is world-class, and the ethereal atmosphere is underscored by the soundtrack by singer-songwriter Alexander Wolfe.

Today is to be a quieter day than yesterday. I need to settle down, get my bearings, and plan my schedule, so I spend the afternoon hot-desking with the staff of Twitter-based review site Fringebiscuit, who themselves spend much of the afternoon debating the death of the ampersand in the 21st century (the Twitter API can't handle this useful piece of punctuation. Why not?), before heading to C Nova to see Loves I Haven't Known, a small and utterly perfect musical comedy piece by Bush and McCluskey, the team behind Tony! The Blair Musical. Optimistic and bittersweet, it is truly a five-star show.

Speaking to the two of them in the C Nova bar after the show, they tell me that tonight's was their biggest audience yet. The fringe is beginning to gain momentum; this is the point at which shows like theirs begin to see their labours finally, thankfully, beginning to bear fruit.

Catch up with Day 1 here and Day 2 here.

Kufasse Boana and Danielle Hollreiser, who are playing the witches in a production of Macbeth on Inchcolm Island. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser