I’m just back from a few days at the Edinburgh festival. What an amazing event it is – a huge and diverse celebration of the arts. In the five days I was there I could only scratch the surface of what was on offer; but as ever it was funny, inspiring, moving, thought-provoking – and occasionally excruciating. We picked a few of our shows in advance from the mind-bogglingly large Fringe events programme, but just as much we relied on spur-of-the-moment decisions, aided by the excellent Fringe app and the multitude of flyers being handed out in the street and in the bars by enthusiastic young folk and, quite often, by the artists themselves.
We were four this year: my wife, Kath, and friends Jon and Maggie. We stayed in a flat in Rose Street, which runs parallel to Princes Street and must have a pub every 20-30 metres. And some good ones too. If you are heading up to Edinburgh and enjoy trying a few craft beers, then I would recommend Fierce Beers, which is on the western end of Rose Street, not far from Charlotte Street. Excellent IPAs and a nice, relaxed vibe in the place.
As ever, we saw more comedy than anything else, but it was a good year for music too. Kath and I also enjoyed a trip to the City Art Centre, near Waverley Station, which always has interesting exhibitions with a Scottish theme. I’ll describe some of the shows I enjoyed most in the review below.
First mention has to go to Luke Rollason who we saw in two shows this year, after enjoying his bizarre David Attenborough tribute “Planet Earth III” last year. Luke’s genre is described in the blurb as “clowning”. There is certainly plenty of that, but there is some method in the madness. Last year’s show had an environmental theme; this year in “Infinite Content” I guess it was about the impact of the internet and social media. Sort of. What it is really is an absurd hour where anything might happen, with the only consistent feature being Luke’s hilarious facial expressions. He is one of those comics who has the ability to make you laugh simply by walking onto the stage and staring. He must have been inspired by Mr Bean as a kid, but his own performance is more anarchic. The appeal is a bit hard to put into words, but it’s just so daft you have to laugh. His second show was “Privates: A Sperm Odyssey” with Christian Brighty and Tom Curzon, both of whom played supporting roles in “Infinite Content.” The title is self-explanatory. If “Infinite Content” was daft, “Privates” was just bonkers – pure slapstick of the drunken student kind. A bit odd watching it at five in the afternoon. I preferred “Infinite Content”, but if you enjoy audience participation, then “Privates” could be the one for you. And should I ever meet anyone called Darnell, I may not be able to stop myself giggling!
Kath and I really enjoyed Irish comedian Joanne McNally last year so we went along again this time. The gags were different, but the themes were the same: women, men, men and women. She was as brutally funny as before, and while men probably come out of it worst, women, including herself, don’t come far behind. She’s another comedian who can incite a laugh with a simple look – and a bit of fear as well! Jon and Maggie enjoyed it as much as we did.
A feature of the Fringe is free shows, where you pay what you want as you leave. Some of the artists who don’t charge much for tickets also have a bucket for additional contributions. One of the shows I most enjoyed was a free show by Alex Farrow called “Philosophy A-Level”. Alex was a philosophy teacher until recently and combined reflections on teaching the subject to sixth formers in an East London school with observations on life in general. A strong theme was how there is rarely one answer to anything; nor is it right to be exclusive about “high” and popular culture, philosophy generally being bracketed with the “high”. These are themes dear to my own heart, so naturally I liked it! He had a quiz where members of the audience had to guess whether various statements were the work of Friedrich Nietzsche or the lyrics of Kelly Ann Clarkson. It wasn’t that obvious. I really liked Alex’s humour and found his tales of school life engaging and thought-provoking. The venue was full, so word must be getting around.
At the other end of the comedy scale was Ed Byrne. A long time since he handed out his own flyers, I’m sure. He was playing the main theatre in the Assembly Rooms on George Street. His show was fast-paced and very funny. Reflections, mostly, on family life and all its tribulations and absurdities. It was one of those shows where the comedian piles up more and more daft reflections on ordinary life until you crack at some tiny thing and cry with laughter. Ed Byrne did that for me on Friday night. A great show.
Last year Ahir Shah was playing an un-ticketed show, and the queues were very long, so we didn’t get to see him. This year you could book and he played to a packed venue at Monkey Barrel. We’d seen him at the Soho Theatre in October 2018 and I was very impressed. He combines biting reflections on society today – and the attitudes he faces as a British Asian – with some powerful stories about his family and his own personal struggles. It’s funny and passionate and certainly makes you angry about the way the Home Office treats people. The show at the Soho theatre focused on the life of his grandmother, who was deported from Britain when he was five years old. This time there were more personal reflections and stories about his relationship with his father. There are a lot of laughs – he was good on being mistaken for Mexican when he spent some time there – but a lot of darkness too. It’s an intense hour and a moving one. More than comedy.
We saw a couple of shows which combined music with comedy – in rather different ways. Arthur Smith’s “Syd” was a warm and funny tribute to his late father, who fought and was captured at the battle of El Alamein and spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war, which included periods of near starvation in Italy and working in mines in Poland before he ended up serving the officers from his own side in Colditz. After the war he spent time in Yugoslavia before was demobbed. He became a policeman, based in Kennington, for much of the rest of his life. He wrote a journal of his experiences, which formed the basis of the show. It was interspersed with music and song, performed mostly by Kirsty Newton, who also played a few characters as Arthur wove the tales of his father’s and his own life. Arthur sang too – not brilliantly, but touchingly, especially on “Waterloo Sunset” and a few other tunes from that era.
We saw the other music/comedy show by chance, after a rather disappointing Oxford Revue stand up show at the Liquid Rooms (tucked away down an alley off Victoria Street). Sheltering from Sunday’s incessant rain, we were intrigued by a flyer advertising “Jollyboat: Bards Against Humanity”. Jollyboat are a duo – brothers Ed and Tommy Croft – who have been playing the Fringe for ten years and have a bit of a following. “Bards” was a Best-of, which I guess was a good place for us to start. They have another show called “Pun Loving Criminals”. They were very entertaining: a whole load of amusing songs about contemporary subjects, including Dungeons and Dragons, Game of Thrones, computer keyboards (a love song) and God (or was it Jesus – the memory is already fading…). They came on with a song about pirates which rolled together about twenty pop tunes from across the eras. They have a real sense of fun, and it transmits to the crowd. Well worth the visit – it will put you in a bright mood.
Other honourable mentions on the comedy front: Eshaan Akbar’s “Infidel-ity” gave a sharp-witted account of life as a British Muslim; Erich McElroy’s “Radical Centre” wasn’t as political as I expected, but was an affectionate discourse on British ways from an American who has lived in the UK for 19 years and still likes it (!); Rachel Creeger in “Hinayni!” described her life as an Orthodox Jewish woman from Essex and now north London who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype; the Leeds Tealights, a university troupe, had some very amusing (and silly) sketches in their revue “It’s Not That Serious”; and the Impromptu Shakespeare collective had the formula of the Bard down to a tee as they mangled the themes of tyranny, twins and autumn, with a bit of Alexa and Siri thrown in.
One last point about the comedy. In all the shows we saw the lack of comment about Brexit (and Trump) was very noticeable. I know some comedians were tackling them -I’d like to have seen Fern Brady for example, but she was sold out – but it felt as if people are moving on. Brexit and our current government are beyond parody. And maybe we are all just accepting the inevitable and preparing in our minds for the worst. But then they’ve won, haven’t they?
I saw three performances during our stay, two as part of the Fringe and one in the series of “Summer Sessions” in Princes Gardens, underneath the castle – a spectacular setting. I’ll start with the Fringe.
One of the highlights of five days was seeing Camille O’Sullivan perform the songs of Nick Cave at the Pleasance Courtyard. I’m not that familiar with Nick Cave’s music – not sure why really; some things just pass you by. But I knew we’d be getting some dark ballads and a few rock-outs too. And so we did! Sung with an intense passion by Camille – she really was quite extraordinary. She came on looking every inch the Goth, with her black cape and jacket and the mass of black hair. The snakeskin boots provided a contrast. They, and the cape and jacket came off pretty quickly – after a few songs she was doing a few Irish dance steps in her bare feet. The ballads were captivating, and the rockers – “Jubilee Street” (I think) and “Stagger Lee” to the fore – were visceral, as the guitar raged and Camille howled. If Nick Cave is this good (and yes, I know he is said to be amazing live), then I think I’d better try to see him! A tremendous, affecting performance.
Both Jon and I had been keen to see Camille O’Sullivan. The next show was much more his idea: “My Leonard Cohen”, featuring Australian singer and pianist Stewart d’Arrietta. I’m not much of a Leonard Cohen fan to be honest. In my twenties, when I was going back and catching up with the greats from the sixties and early seventies that hadn’t been on my teenage radar I took a lazy option and dismissed Leonard Cohen as too depressing. Most of what I did hear occasionally didn’t dispel the notion. So I never listened to him much and he didn’t get a mention in my book about music, “I Was There – a Musical Journey”. When he died, a couple of friends who’d read the book said, where’s Leonard Cohen? Sorry, I said, it’s only about people I like. Nonetheless, Jon was keen, so I went along. I expected it would be tasteful and classy and that would be enough. And it was, and I did recognise quite a few of the songs: “Suzanne”, “First We Take Manhattan” and of course “Hallelujah”. It was an entertaining show and well-appreciated by the audience. If anything, I’d say that quite a few of the songs were maybe a bit too dramatic, bombastic even. I’d imagine Leonard Cohen to be rather more mellow. Then again, these were Stewart’s personal interpretations, in just the same way as Camille brought her own perspective to Nick Cave’s songs. Both artists are way more than just copyists. I’m glad I went anyway, and I may even try to listen to some Leonard Cohen on Spotify. As long as it’s not too depressing…
On Sunday evening Jon and I went along to Princes Gardens to see Chvrches. We both really like the band and have done so ever since we first saw them in their early days at Latitude festival in 2013. It was only three weeks ago that we last saw them, again at Latitude, second on the bill on the main stage on the Sunday. There they played an hour of their most upbeat tunes, mainly from the most recent album, “Love is Dead”. They had more time in Edinburgh, as the headliners for that Summer Sessions session. Yes, Summer Sessions. That would involve sunshine, wouldn’t it? As opposed to rain the whole evening after rain the whole day? Well, we got unlucky. During our stay there were a couple of rather nice days. We were basking in the sun in George Square Gardens on the Friday afternoon. But not Sunday!
So there we all were, in Princes Gardens, in our rain jackets of variable effectiveness, the castle looming above in the mist, as Chvrches bounced onto the stage at 9pm. And they were great! Lauren Mayberry was as resplendent as ever and the beats pounded through the drizzly air (at least we were spared a deluge). They played much of the set from Latitude plus a few more, including, to my delight, “Tether” from the first album. Along with “Lies”, also from that album, “Tether” remains my favourite Chvrches song, with its wistful start, building up to that 80s disco crescendo. It may have rained all night, but Chvrches brought a bit of sunshine to our lives.
We couldn’t resist going to see Carol Ann Duffy, accompanied by the musician John Sampson again, after their wonderful show last year. Carol has done her time as Poet Laureate – she has passed the baton to Simon Armitage. She read some new poems and plenty from her illustrious past. As ever, they were a mixture of nostalgia, love, clever plays on old myths, biting satire, humour and a witty feminist perspective. John entertained us from time to time with his array of wind instruments, many of which date back to the 16th century. It’s an hour of pure joy, witnessing two artists at the top of their game.
Kath and I took some time out on Friday afternoon to visit the City Art Centre. There was a major exhibition of the artist Victoria Crowe, described as one of the UK’s most renowned artists. That exposes my still superficial knowledge of art, as I hadn’t come across her work before. While she was born in Kingston, Surrey and studied at art schools in Kingston and London, she is regarded as a Scottish artist, having moved to Scotland in 1968 to teach at Edinburgh College of Art at the age of 23 and settling in a village called Kitleyknowe, south of Edinburgh. The exhibition covers all of her career and is a delight. I particularly liked her wintry landscapes, the trees stark against the white background. Early on she painted a series which featured her neighbour, a shepherd called Jenny Armstrong. There is a real dignity and warmth to the portraits and interiors, while the bleakness of her work on a winter’s day is captured beautifully. In her mid-period Victoria spent time in Italy amongst other places, and her work is strongly influenced by that experience. A lot of her paintings from this time capture four or five images in the same work. I preferred the simplicity and focus of her earlier work, and her more recent efforts, which return to the earlier emphasis on landscapes. There are some truly lovely portrayals of early evening, as the light fades and the branches of the trees are tinged with red, or are already silhouettes.
I don’t think Victoria Crowe is trying to convey any big messages or change the direction of art: she just captures the beauty of life as it is around us. I was very taken; should you find yourself in Edinburgh I really would recommend a visit to the City Art Centre to see “Victoria Crowe: 50 years of Painting.” And her website has an excellent selection of her works over the years too.
Favourite places for a beer (and a snack)
Fierce Beers – Rose Street. Mentioned earlier – top quality craft beers.
The outdoor bars around Bristo Square and Teviot Row House, where Underbelly and the Gilded Balloon are based. Edinburgh University territory. Especially good when the sun is shining!
The Pleasance Courtyard, which is just up the hill from the junction of Pleasance and Cowgate. A nice atmosphere there.
Cabaret Voltaire on Blair Street (between Royal Mile and Cowgate). Laid back vibe.
My top five shows
Luke Rollaston – Infinite Content
Joanne McNally – The Prosecco Express
Alex Farrow – Philosophy A-Level
Ahir Shah – Dots
Camille O’Sullivan – Sings Cave
A few Edinburgh shots to finish with…
Still reading this
So true about Brexit having defied comedians- it’s beyond satire. Boris Johnson as PM? Longer prison sentences and HS2 cancelled? Trump buying Greenland and calling himself the Chosen One? If it weren’t all true it would be funny.
Thanks for the commentary – maybe we’ll finally return to Edinburgh next year.