Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The weird life on the train

I'm taking a little break from the festivals and not a moment too soon. I am knackered. Right down to the bone -- shattered. Too many shows, too many late nights. I'm beginning to look forward to going back to work. Yikes! I'm slacking on the reviews I promised myself that I would write(and no-one else, cos, really, no-one else knows anything of the review writing, the review tweets, etc.). I do this when life gets too overwhelming: I become the ostrich. So even though I had to wake up at 5.30 am, I am pleased to have this break.

So yes, I am on a train. Writing this blog, listening to a podcast of Fresh Air I downloaded half an hour ago, riding to London. I know! LIfe these days -- it's absolutely amazing. I feel like hot shit -- for no reason, at all.

I don't know how they get this internet connection on a moving train, but I don't think it is linked within the UK. As it was when I was in Amsterdam, the peripheral text surrounding the window in which I currently type is written in a different language. And I don't know the language. I thought it was Polish, but after having a second look, I think it might be a Scandinavian language of some sort. I'm leaning toward Finnish.

I'm starving. I haven't been able to stop anywhere cos 1) I started on this journey in Edinburgh so early that I wasn't hungry and 2) I'm too scared to be late for the train because if I did something wrong, Boy, with his amazing talent of ubiquity when it comes to the dogs, would call me and scold me. So hunger is better.

The manager of the train (Edinburgh to York) got on the tannoy (intercom) to announce to us:
    If you are using the toilets, the flush button is located behind the lid. If you push the panic button, I will speak to you in the toilet. And if I speak to you, please answer back.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

FRINGE: So crap, you're bad

Two bad shows in one day? It ain't right.

Yesterday saw the first (of many, it seems) of my "double days" -- a day that I would take in more than one Fringe show. At 20 to five, I saw Bouncy Castle Macbeth (BCM); later, at 10.30 pm, I took in Simon Amstell. The good thing about these shows is that it gave me plenty of time to take in dinner at a fantastic eastern African place called Magda. And that was the only thing. Both shows -- how can I put this nicely -- were crap. Honestly, I tried to find some nice phraseology, but nothing, nothing worked other than a good ol' Scottish crrrrrap.

And I feel back for saying this about BCM, for the average age of the performers was no more than 8. This might have been the thinking behind its staging: "This bouncy castle is really cool! How can we keep using it for the whole of the summer? I know, let's put on a performance of that bloody awful story our middle class Mummy's reading us -- Macbeth!" Okay, that's crap cos everyone knows that the reason why there are six different performances of Macbeth happening is that we are in Edinburgh. Which is in Scotland. And the play is about a Scottish dude -- people do I have to lay everything out for you? You know, because of all these performances, there will be a drought of tartan in material shops for months to come. A black market of Estonian tartan will be created, resulting in inferior material flooding the country. Oh, the horror.

Back to BCM: of all the Macbeth stagings I booked in on, and without seeing any, this was the one I was most fond of, the one I was most proud to go to see. I knew the acting wouldn't be up to scratch, set not very good -- I had lowered expectations. But it would make up for its shortcomings by being full of irreverence, irony and silliness, the Fringe ethos. Which is why I was so disappointed. There wasn't enough of the triumverate (irreverence, irony and silliness, in case you didn't follow). One problem: I think they should have given the original dialogue a rest. It's nearly impossible to enunciate, project or emote anywhere near appropriate on a bouncy -- who thought this up? It is completely in conflict to what theatre is supposed to be, innit? The precise Shakespearean language, its use should have been ironic, ironically dragged this show down. And if you are a Macbeth virgin, let me tell you, then BCM is not where to start. Only because I perused the play's synopsis in the Macbeth entry in Wikipedia that I even stood a chance of understanding the plot -- what? I tried to read the play, but couldn't make it out of the introduction.

I feel, again like BCM, a strange sense of disloyalty for saying this. It won't stop, though: Simon Amstell is an awful stand-up comedian. He's just so gosh-darn funny in the other things I've seen him in, but the stage and the mic is no place for him. He had no command of the audience and looked perpetually surprised to see himself faced with a group of people expecting him to be funny. Continually he moaned about how well he did at previews, only to crash in flames like a plane in a dogfight (that was my simile, not his) last night. What? He was killing with those jokes? About clown rape? About how he was embracing Buddhist teachings? Yes, because Richard Gere is the most hilarious person ever. The gig was so boring that the guy next to me fell asleep for twenty minutes and I entertained myself by pushing him over on to the next guy (who was, no doubt, doing the same).

The thing that amazed me was that Simon Amstell was never heckled! Not really, that is. Never once challenged. Do not misunderstand -- there were loads of times he could have been jeered. So why was he never, in his self-admittedly "worst show ever" (I would have probably despaired for him more though if it hadn't been his third show, ever), ever heckled? I thought it was because he was famous, on the telly, well-liked. But I think it went past that. I think it was out of pity. And people, he was pitiable, up there in his skinny jeans so inappropriate for a man his age, talking about the loneliness one feels after a break up. He learned from Buddhism that there is individual, but only a collective and that we are one together. And we were that night, one, in our joint boredom of Simon Amstell.

Friday, August 03, 2007

FRINGE: How to keep your show tight

Is it actually possible for a comedian to sustain a comedy gig with no lags?

Boy and I have always been big fans of comedy. So the Edinburgh Fringe is right up our alley, as it features many top, UK comedians for nearly the entire month of August, right in my back garden. I have practically memorised the programme. VBP was impressed with my system of circling favourites (the old systems are the best systems), as well as highlighting. She was also amazed at my know-how, in terms of getting round the venues and finding the hidden Fringe Box Office. As they say on the softball diamond, I ain't playin'!

I choose to see Fringe shows of performers we have seen before. They might have been on telly -- such as Simon Amstell and Frankie Boyle, of Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week, respectively. Or in a comedy club -- like Reginald D Hunter. Or might have caught them in a comedy revue of sorts, been blown away by their part in an otherwise bad group of comedians -- like Henning Wehn and Glenn Wool. For whatever reason chosen, there is one similarity: whenever we have seen these people in the past, they have only been performing for a short time, say half an hour, but for some as little as five minutes.

Now if you have your own Fringe comedy show, your show will run an hour, unless you're at one of those behemoth venues (like any of the thousands of Under/Udder/Babybelly places that spring like the plague in August) that like to make people queue for ages because you know you can under the claim of clearing the room betwen gigs. Then your show will be 55 minutes. Or, if you're particularly unlucky and the venue/performer is particularly cheeky (Janey Godley, could I be talking about your chat show?), then it can be 50 minutes.

So this performer -- whom we might have caught initially on telly, there buoyed by fellow performers; or in a club, though headlining, no doubt, only had a 30-minute set, innit?; or in a revue, where the expectations of having to carry the whole of the set is very limited -- has to entertain for the better part of an hour. Is it really possible? I know comedians continue to come to the Fringe, performing at that length of time, one even going as far as to have a 24-hour show, but is 60 minutes realistic? Can anyone hold an hour's worth of material in their head -- keep it straight, with perfect delivery, while holding off fiendish and dreaded hecklers? In my mind, I don't know if it is achieveable to keep a gig going for that long.

Let's take last night, for example. We first saw Glenn Wool in an one-off comedy revue at last year's Fringe. He was the best comedian of the bunch, hands down. His political humour and observations about culture, religion and society held us. Yesterday, the beginning was good, the end was alright, but there was a definite lag of at least 20 minutes in the middle when he went on about his drug and alcohol abuse. I'm no prude, and I think the audience will back me up on the fact that it wasn't engaging material. So what was the different between the shows? There will have been loads of variables, which can not make my theory by any means able to be scientifically proven. So this will just a guesstimation. (Luckily, that's nearly as scientific.) The first time we saw him, he was on for no more than 10 minutes. The revue also had important ramifications: the person who did the best would be considered for a slot on the US chat show hosted by David Letterman. Obviously, he practised. A lot. In essence, the first set was tight, which made it so very good.

Those of you who aren't familiar with seeing comedians in comedy clubs won't have an idea of what I mean about being tight -- and seeing comedy on tube don't count. They edit the hell out of that shit. Don't you know you can't trust anything you see on TV? I mean, nothing. (What, Shark Week is faked? People, is nothing sacred!) If you happen to see a comedian in a particularly long set at a comedy club (or trying out new material, or unprepared), you'll see what I mean. The comedian has got a big laugh and, perhaps distracted by that, tries to ride that laugh a little too long in order to get their thoughts together. S/he hmmms a bit, and, if you look carefully, they are rolling through their mental roladex, trying to find the next joke, all the while trying not to let on. The transition from one joke to another will be poorly made, the flow lost. This process can be unfortunately transparent, as with Glenn Wool last night going back to his A4 size sheets of jokes on his stool to have a little looky-lu. Reginald D Hunter was similiar when we saw his Fringe show last year, save the exclusions of handwritten jokes, letting the audience know how unsettled he was. You in the audience can also feel when a set isn't tight. You might be a bit bored, suddenly notice how hard the seat it and your eyes won't be on the performer as much.

Both of the above examples (of Wool and Hunter) were based on preview shows -- in fact, they were the first gigs those performers did in the Fringe. Of course they would be ironing out the show, testing out material, looking the joke or story that would make the kill. But other shows I saw last year had this so-called lag, shows that were not previews: Karen Dunbar (fo' so') and Rich Hall, to name two I can remember. I don't think the hour set does any of our comedians any justice because it can never be tight. But there's no way anyone would leave their flats for anything less than (near-ish) an hour of entertainment. No punters, no money. And as long as we let the paper drive things, we continue to be given comedy that does not quite meet the potential of many of these talented performers.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Festival fun

What was wrong with me? I looked back all of my posts from last summer and never did I blog about the festivals. What the hell? August is the absolute best time to come to Edinburgh because we are inundated with festivals. We have an art festival, film festival, book festival, jazz festival, military tattoo, the Fringe (the irreverent stuff) and the International Festival (the high brow stuff). The toon is heaving with people looking for great stuff to do and they are never disappointed in August.

We are booked into see just as many, if not more, shows as last year; all gigs are from the Fringe. We prefer comedy shows and the Fringe is where to go for something like that. The Fringe programme came out the first Friday in June and when the box office opened on the Monday, I was probably the first person online, booking tickets. As a result, I pulled a coup d'etat on some of the bookings, as they are top-name UK performers and their shows have been sold out.
I also have a personal goal. The Fringe programme listed six different performances of Macbeth -- and I'm going to see all of them, all being well. Some have cool angles: Macbeth on stilts, Macbeth set in the Caribbean. Tomorrow, I see Macbeth set in a bouncy castle. Problem is, I've never even read Macbeth.