Saturday, August 16, 2008

Phantomysteria **

It is a common misconception that the Edinburgh Festival is filled with experimental and impenetrable Eastern European theatre. However, if you only went to one show this year and chose Phantomysteria, then that conception would probably be pretty accurate...

Performed outdoors in Edinburgh's Old College quad, this is a daring and brave attempt to bring avant-garde performance mime to an audience more used to seeing big name comedians. Unfortunately, the attempt, whilst brave, is misguided, as the pacing and left-field style of Phantomysteria is a bit wide of the mark, even for those of us that had an idea what to expect.

There are moments of style and visual impact, such as a performer barking out lines through a walkie-talkie whilst images of war and conflict are projected behind him; or fire and flames surrounding the performance area whilst bodies writhe and dance. Sadly, these moments are two few and there are two many long-drawn out parts where one character seemingly takes an age to crawl towards another. Only to crawl away again, equally slowly.

That said, this is another aspect of what the festival is all about, and if it was all stand-up comedy and the like, I wouldn't be here at all...

Gamarjobat *****

Gamarjobat are a pair of distinctive and expressive Japanese comedy mime artists, specialising in humourous magic routines and mime theatre. 

After the first twenty minutes of hilarious mime and magic, the audience is left in no doubt as to how to pronounce their name, as they have divided us into three sections ('Ga', 'Mar' and 'Jobat' respectively) and then use us to conduct a gigantic remix by getting us to shout out our allocated parts. Very funny, especially as they berate and scold us throughout for getting timing wrong or not being loud enough.

Then we're into the second half of the show, and definitely my favourite. This is The Western, during which the duo use expressive and clever mime to act out a typical tale from the Wild West, featuring gun showdowns, lynchings and romance. 

Yep, romance. By two Japanese blokes with mohicans. Although the tale is shot through with some excellent comedic moments, the story centres on one man's struggle for revenge, aided by a beautiful Spanish senorita...they pull this off excellently, and there's some true emotion and pathos in there that is actually very moving in parts.

Gamarjobat are firm festival favourites, and seem to appear all over Edinburgh during the Festival (at their shows, doing their magic routine on the High Street, Fringe Sunday etc). They have an appeal to young and old alike (although some of the younger kids were a bit lost by some of the nuances in The Western) and, although I've seen a lot of their act before, I never get tired of them.

Graffiti Classics *****

Now a Festival favourite in their fourth year, Graffiti Classics are a young string quartet with a twist. Featuring an English guy with a Nigel Kennedy style barnet, two attractive blondes (one English, one Scottish) and an Irish double bassist with beetling brows and an expressive face, Graffiti Classics play classical favourites with great talent and aplomb, but also inject each number with humour and comedy.

This ranges from a version of Air on a G-String, where the quartet start playing standing up and finish lying flat on their backs (the comedy coming from the double bassist's struggling attempts to emulate his comrades); or to a fantastically energetic version of the can-can, where by the end, all four are managing to play their instruments in perfect time and tune whilst can-can'ing around the stage.

They look good as well (particularly the blondes in their red evening dresses) and the double-bassist's expressions are a delight to see. A hilarious encore caps the whole thing off, where they get the whole audience standing and waving Scottish flags, singing Donald Where's Your Troosers to the tune of Jerusalem.  Trust me, it works, and it'll ensure I never hear either tune again in the same light...

Great fun from start to finish, Graffiti Classics deserve to be the festival favourites they by now are.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Beating of the Russian Heart *****

Beating of the Russian Heart is a show performed by Kolenso, a seven-strong group of female Russian singers who perform traditional folk music and dance.

Dressed in traditional costume, they look beautifully colourful, but when they sing, there are times when their harmonies and vocal range cause shivers to run up your spine. 

They manage to evoke the feelings and sounds of Russian peasant celebration and lament perfectly, and never miss a note nor step in the proceedings. When singing unaccompanied by the sometimes-used backing tapes, their unified voices are a sheer delight and have enormous vocal power.

Some of the lighter-hearted numbers, usually based on traditional dances of celebration, also delight - not least when they get male audience members (myself included, in what is becoming a worrying trend for this year's festival...) up on stage to join in the fun.

It's over far too quick, but for some time afterwards, that Russian heartbeat can still be felt. 

Day four / five / whatever

One of the things I love about hanging around the 'hub' of the Festival (which for me is the area around Bristo Square and the Spiegel Garden) is that you can find yourself drinking at a table next to a Caesar Twin; shaking hands with Patti Plinko after the Camille gig; walking past the aforementioned Camille in the street, dressed in fishnets and a leopardskin fur coat (her, not me) without anyone batting an eyelid; having the door held open for you by Britt Ekland, etc, etc, etc

I've probably been to the toilet next to countless stand-up comedians as well, but then I wouldn't know them from Adam...

La Clique *****

One of the stars of La Clique, a bawdy, burlesque late night circus show is the venue it's held in. The Famous Spiegel Tent is an Edinburgh Festival institution, and the city is a brighter place for the month every year it pitches up its mirrored doors and wooden & stained-glass interior.

The human stars of the show are no less impressive though, and feature such acts as the English Gentlemen, two acrobats who perform incredible feats of strength and agility whilst wearing bowler hats and Union Jack underpants. And Captain Frodo, a rubber-limbed contortionist whose signature act is pushing his whole body through a pair of tennis rackets. And that's all before we get to the stripping magician, who pulls handkerchiefs from ever-more risque places...

The audience are encouraged to clap, cheer, whoop and holler whenever they feel like it, and that just adds to the whole vaudeville atmosphere of proceedings. Indeed, with the world-class acts, the noise and smells of the circus, the sounds of the crowd, the magical music and the venue itself, there are times when it feels like you're back in some early 2oth century entertainment.

Some circuses of this kind have filler material between the main acts. It's to La Clique's credit that it has none - just an ongoing procession of amazing feats and acts that you definitely should roll up for.

Britt on Britt ***

Britt on Britt is a one-woman monologue relating the life, loves and fortunes of Britt Ekland, iconic Swedish movie star of the 60s and 70s. Fortunately, the one-woman show is performed by Ms Ekland herself, still looking great at 65.

Standing onstage in front of a projector screen displaying photos from her life and career, Ekland takes us on a personal journey, describing how she was discovered, her relationships with Peter Sellers, Rod Stewart and others, and her feelings and emotions at the times. As well as setting the record straight once and for all as to whether it's her bare backside in The Wicker Man...

She has ample charisma and obvious charm to carry the show, although at times it does feel a little self-congratulatory (like when she reads a list of all the movies she's starred in over the years). On the whole, though, it is an interesting and intimate experience, especially when you remember this is a woman that has met nearly every famous person in the last few decades.

War of the Worlds *

War of the Worlds is a one-man adaptation of Jeff Wayne's classic prog-rock concept album from the 70s. Hence most of the small audience were people like me and my friend who look back on it with fondness (and probably a possessive desire to see the source material done justice).

Pip Utton makes a brave attempt to perform the tale, though three things (one not his fault) let this down.

Firstly, and here Mr Utton is blameless, is the source material itself. Try as he might, there is no way anyone could rival Richard Burton's authoritative tones as the narrator, or the likes of David Essex of Justin Hayward.

Which leads into the second issue...yes, we knew it was an adaptation of the album, but maybe didn't quite expect the actor to actually sing some of the vocal pieces himself. He just about pulled this off, but due to a vocal range that was fairly limited, there was always the potential for this to be toe-curling, which affected the whole performance.

Thirdly, although the technical achievement of performing this as a one-man show was impressive, there was a suspicion that Pip had consumed a few shandies prior to the performance, as he stumbled over more words than would have been within the threshold of expectation. 

The chances of anyone bettering the source material are a million to one. But still they try...

Mr Gong's Hair Salon ***

A family show from South Korea, Mr Gong's Hair Salon is performed by four actors, each changing costume many times throughout the show to portray a wide number of characters.

What makes this show a little unusual is that each character sports a large, full-head mask with a fixed, comic expression and the entire tale is told via mime, music and slapstick.

The plot, such that it matters, involves an aged hairdresser reminiscing about past glories and the scrapes and japes that his fellow employees, customers and pet dog get into. It's all good fun (mostly clean - there's not many family shows out there that feature Viagra and excerpts from porn movies, I suppose...) and performed with a great deal of energy and good timing. There's also some truly funny audience participation, which I know only too well from first-hand experience...

The hour whizzes by and I defy anyone to leave this without a big grin on their face.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Camille - The Dark Angel *****(*)

I'd give this 6 stars if I could. 

Wait a minute, this is my own blog, I can do what the hell I like.

6 stars then for Camille, a show I've been looking forward to since booking it several weeks ago. Camille O'Sullivan is a stunningly emotional and vivacious Irish/French singer, in the style of 1920s cabaret artistes but with a modern and at times humourous twist all her own. This show, the last of her Festival run at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh, was one of the most powerful and emotional things I've experienced in a long time.

She takes songs by Brel, Nick Cave, David Bowie and others, and shoots them through with power, passion and pathos - at times even moving herself to tears with the emotion of each performance. Backed by a 5-piece band of talented musicians, she struts and stomps through the loud numbers and stands transfixed and transfixing throughout the slower, pared-back ones.

For the first half of the show, things are fairly light-hearted and fun - Camille has a great style of interaction with the audience and an arrestingly charming line in banter. Then, midway, she sits, lit by a single spotlight, and applies white stage makeup to her face. She then brings us into darker territory, with songs of bare emotions and angst delivered in an amazingly bewitching and compelling style. A thousand hairs on the backs of a thousand necks stand up during numbers such as Brel's Marieke, where she sings, unaccompanied, tearing swathes of soul and passion out of a movingly doomed lament.

It's over too quickly, even with an encore and her being presented with flowers by the staff of the Queen's Hall at the end. A definite stand-out show from this year's lineup, and it will be hard to surpass the power and emotional impact of this one.

And she spat a cork in my face at the beginning. 

I still have the cork...

Joan Rivers - A Life in Progress ****

US comedy legend Joan Rivers has two shows at this year's festival. One is a stand-up routine, and this, the other is a comedy play based on her life and experiences.

I'm definitely glad I chose this one (stand-up is not my bag anyway). For 90 minutes, we are treated to Rivers in fine form, impressing equally with her (at times foul-mouthed - I've never heard a 75 year old grandmother use the 'c' word before...) humour and her acting.

Set in a dressing room prior to a red carpet show in the States, Rivers interacts with her fellow performers (a Russian make-up artist, a gay Jewish assistant producer and an acerbic TV network manager) and with the audience. Both angles work well, and there are some viciously hilarious moments in the play, mostly at the other actors expense. When speaking across the fourth wall, Rivers truly comes alive and this allows her to vent her infamous spleen and also to reflect on some of the more intimate and moving episodes from her own life.

At several moments throughout the show, she makes the point that theatre and the entertainment industry is her life: she knows no other way and she's not finished yet. On the strength of this show, I can believe that and hope that she's right.

Osaka 1837 **

Osaka 1837 is performed entirely in Japanese by the Akagumi theatre company. I knew that before I went, and have seen many shows in the past that haven't been in English: where the performance itself is evocative and descriptive enough to convey the story without having to understand the words.

Sadly, this is not the case with this play, and although the cast are all excellent and look wonderful in kimonos and period dress, the story is simply not powerful enough and is too dialogue-heavy to translate. A small synopsis in the programme helps a little, and from that you can glean that the plot concerns deep-rooted passion, betrayal and revenge, but sadly all nuance and detail is lost.

Again, I stress this is not a criticism of the company themselves, as their energy and passion were vividly displayed on stage. Though maybe next time they should choose a play which is grander in its visual telling.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Day Three

Was very wet.

Dada Noir *****

The flyer compares Patti Plinko to Piaf, Bjork and Tom Waits and - unusually for Edinburgh Festival flyers - it's spot on.

Patti (and her Boy) perform Dada Noir, a bewitching set of dark cabaret numbers. A petite creature with 50s hair and clothes playing a ukelele, when Plinko opens her mouth to sing something amazing happens.

Here is voice that performs tonal tricks - from deep seductive purring and caressed vowels to guttural moans and grunts, with the odd yelp and laugh chucked in for good measure. Musically, things are also spot-on - Plinko's ukelele playing battling against the acoustic guitar of the Boy - an anonymous figure in a boiler suit and gas mask, looking like a member of Slipknot on a quiet day.

Influences are as the flyer stated, plus a healthy dose of Dresden Dolls / Amanda Palmer, but Plinko has a style all her own, and one which, in the course of 50 minutes, I've become a definite fan of.

And maybe one day she'll beat the Boy in the ukelele / guitar strum-off...

The Caesar Twins *****

Two identical twins from Poland, the Caesar Twins are a pair of world-class gymnasts and acrobats, who over the years have perfected their circus skills to the extent that they can hold a sell-out crowd spellbound for over an hour. They could have doubled the length of the show, and no-one would have complained (apart from themselves, perhaps - this did look quite an exhausting affair).

Unmistakable with their long blond hair and muscled bodies, the twins perform a series of ever more impressive stunts and feats of physical wonder. The hour speeds past quickly, and in that time, you have witnessed some marvellous examples of what the human body is capable of, shot through with some moments of comedy and pathos. Any dead time is filled with some great live guitar and saxophone music and with projections of silent movie stars of the past on the backdrop.

But it is to the twins' credit that there is hardly a moment where one or both of them is not on stage, doing something you're not quite sure you actually saw or not. And the finale, featuring their signature water-based act is breathtaking and, thanks to some excellent stage direction & lighting, quite beautiful.

It is testament to the fame and popularity of the Edinburgh Festival that it attracts acts of this calibre, and I feel fortunate to be here for it. World-class stuff.

Pericles Redux **

There are moments of sheer brilliance and beauty during Pericles Redux, which, as the name implies, takes a remix approach to Shakespeare's original.

Those moments are when the youthful, energetic and talented cast play it straight, emphasising the pathos and emotion of the original whilst offering striking visual and physical theatric interpretations of a storm-wracked ship, a burial at sea or visions of the goddess Diana.

If only the director had stuck to this vision, rather than schizophrenically jumping between that and embarrassingly cringeworthy pantomime. Yes, the majority of Shakespeare's work contains moments of light relief and clowning. But to undermine an impeccably-choreographed scene with a throwaway line in the name of humour doesn't work. Nor do the sixth-form revue shenanigans that begin to appear with depressing regularity throughout.

Other reviewers, and most of the audience, seem to disagree and have lapped this up, and I can agree to a point - the cast are excellent throughout and the stage direction is tight and visually striking. However, the misplaced and laboured comedy effectively ruined what could have been one of the stand-out shows of this year's festival.

A frustratingly missed opportunity.

Rich Hall - Fifty-Cent Words ***

This intimate and enjoyable show sees US comedian Rich Hall reading excerpts from his own writing - both from one published and from another in manuscript form.

Like his stand-up, his writing benefits from impeccably timed, caustic delivery. Here though, in a show that would be equally suited to the Edinburgh Book Festival, Hall's observations and characterisations are given much more room to maneuver than the space normally allowed by spoken-word routines.

Vitriolic then apologetic attacks on Aberdeen; musings on trying to teach a London-based advertising company the finer points of baseball; slices of David Lynch-style Americana - all work, and all are shot through with a vein of dark humour.

Hall's charisma is also evident, and he has a sell-out crowd hanging on his every word - only twice was moaning heard. Once, when he ran out of time and therefore left a half-read tale untold; the other as a result of the corniest joke in the world...but both times, he was quickly and easily forgiven, and I left wanting to read more of his work - not least to find out the ending to that unfinished tale.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Day Two

Only two days into my festival-fest, and I've already lost track of days, dates and time. 3 shows yesterday, plus Yiyun Li at the Book Festival. And I got let into the Spiegel Garden. 

Another four shows today, no doubt interspersed with manic eating and drinking at every opportunity.

I'm getting into the rhythm of it now and having a ball. 

And it's only Tuesday. Or is it Wednesday? Who cares, let's go again...

Arirang Party *****

For me, shows like this are what the Festival's all about. Arirang Party gives us a privileged glimpse at a different country's culture, music and dance - and at the same time provides uplifting and colourful entertainment.

Performed by a mixed troupe of dancers, martial artists and percussionists (the show features Choi So-Ri, apparently a drummer of international reknown), Arirang Party is the kind of show that has you smiling broadly from start to finish. Whether it is the sublime grace and beauty of the fan dancers, the impressive high-kicking feats of the balloon-busting martial artist or the amazing percussion skills of So-Ri and his cohorts, this is wonderful stuff throughout.

And, as with previous world music type shows such as this, the performers' sense of enjoyment and pride is as pervasive as the sights and sounds on stage. It seems a shame then that shows like these play to small audiences in modest venues, whilst so-called superstar comedians play to thousands every night in the grandest halls Edinburgh has to offer.

You can forget your sell-out shows - give me an Arirang Party every time.

Bombay To Beijing By Bicycle **

Bombay To Beijing By Bicycle is a one-man show performed by an Aussie physical comedian, relating anecdotes and adventures from a true tale of a cross-country cyclist's epic journey between the two cities of the title.

The performer tries hard and is difficult to dislike, throwing himself around with boundless energy and putting on some great facial expressions and accents. But whilst being entertaining, the story isn't really that interesting, and some of the episodes and comedy falls a little flat. That said, it doesn't drag, and the small venue brings an up-close-and-personal atmosphere to the whole thing (perhaps a bit too up-close, particularly during the 'aftermath of the hottest curry in India' anecdote).

And, by sitting in the front row, I did receive oral gratification from a giant mosquito, so it wasn't all bad... 

My Grandfather's Great War ****

My Grandfather's Great War is a powerful and moving one-man show by Cameron Stewart, grandson of Captain Alexander Stewart, who served as an officer in the First World War.

Based on his grandfather's journals and letters written at the time, Stewart weaves a compelling and at times harrowing account of life in the trenches, interspersed with personal family recollections and his own thoughts & opinions.

Performed in a dank, dark vault in Edinburgh's Old Town, the grim atmosphere of the front is recreated not only by the surroundings and sound effects, but by Stewart's energetic and passionate performance. The anecdotes from the war are brought to life effectively and give a glimpse into the hell that men of the time had to endure. This stoic bravery and unflappable sense of duty are what Stewart muses on when out of character and playing himself - with mixed emotions of pride and respect for his grandfather, and incomprehension at the futility and violence committed in the name of king & country.

Tales from the First World War have been told many times in the past, and it is important they keep on being told, not least to make us think how we would have reacted in a similar situation. What makes this particular story different is the personal nature of its telling - best summed up by Stewart reflecting after a particularly gruesome and detailed episode that, had things played out differently, he would not be here to tell it at all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bert Jansch ****

I didn't even know of the existence of Bert Jansch prior to the Festival, but my mate was keen to see this solo acoustic guitar show from ex-member of folk supergroup (so it says on Wikipedia) Pentangle.

A quiet, unassuming character sitting on a chair underneath a single spotlight, Jansch proceeded to hold a capacity crowd at the Acoustic Music Centre spellbound for 90 minutes with his guitar mastery. Apparently hugely influential on a generation of guitarists (Neil Young and Johnny Marr rank amongst his celebrity fans), the set of gentle folk and blues numbers was captivating. Jansch's skill with the guitar is undisputed - his left hand moving spider-like across the fretboard, with his right picking out melody and rhythm from the strings. I'm no muso, but it was mightily impressive stuff.

Equally impressivlely, he also sang vocals to each number, only once during the encore making a mistake on his instrument, which he shrugged off affably and was immediately forgiven by a captivated audience.

Witnessing talent like this live is a privilege, and one of the many reasons the Festival is so enjoyable.

Day one, week two

Was all a bit bonkers. Three great shows, Camille at Fringe Sunday, food & drink wherever we could grab it and being refused entry to the Spiegel Garden for 'having had too much to drink' (I hadn't, I think I just had a funny expression on my face...)

I've got another 14 days of this ahead (hopefully they'll let me in the Spiegel the next time) - and I can't wait.

Dream of Cat *****

It would be hard not to give Dream of Cat five stars.
  • One star for the infectious and ribcage-pounding percussion performed by a seven-strong troupe of all-female South Korean drummers
  • One for the synchronised hair-flicking.
  • Another for the matching black velvet catsuits and patent leather boots.
  • One specifically for the short-haired mistress of high-speed drumming (her skill behind a rock drumkit was a wonder to behold).
  • And one final star for the fact that Drum Cat, the troupe behind this fast-moving and spectacular show, look simply stunning.
I did consider knocking off a star for the fact they played some of the numbers to backing tracks of guitar and rock music, but their full-on percussive assault and synchronised high-speed skills more than made up for that. Plus, they all looked as though they were having as much fun as we were - which, like the Brazilian capioera a couple of nights ago - is an infectious and uplifting thing.

The charming young manageress also let me photograph the show, which was an added bonus.

Six stars then.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Paul Merton's Improv Chums ***

Paul Merton's Improv Chums is good, old-fashioned comedy entertainment, just like what they used to do on Friday night TV when we only had 4 channels.

The eponymous Merton and four 'chums' (including Whose Line Is It Anyway veteran Mike McShane) spend an entertaining hour riffing on audience suggestions for household objects, movie genres, Sherlock Holmes mystery titles and the like, creating sketches on the hoof. Luckily, most of these hit home - although it's the nature of the improv beast that some fall a little short of the funny-bone target.

For the most part, however, this was good, (mostly) clean fun and the sell-out crowd lapped it up. It would seem churlish to pick fault with something as good-natured and clever as this, so I won't. Except maybe a little (with a spatula, in the style of a silent movie, whilst pretending to be a fireman).

Capioera Knights ****

Capioera Knights is a joyful, energetic and spectacular show featuring a cast of dancers and musicians from the favelas, shanty towns in Rio De Janiero.

The 8-strong male dance troupe somersault and backflip their way through a fast-moving hour, with a loose narrative explaining the roots of capioera, the 'dance that kills', which African slaves used as a form of martial art, disguising it as fluid and graceful dance moves to avoid the watchful eyes of their oppressors. The potted history of Brazilian musical and martial culture continues and culminates in two stand-out routines: a football-inspired number featuring some amazing acrobatics and dancing; and an uplifting samba routine which had the audience up on their feet.

As well as the dancers, a full samba band plays throughout, featuring some great heart-pounding percussion and some infectious rhythms. Between the displays of acrobatics and dance, the band is fronted by a lively female vocalist who sings traditional samba numbers whilst the musicians behind get lost in their respective rhythms. Sadly, this was the one weak spot in the show. Although these numbers were obviously included to allow the dancers a well-earned rest, unfortunately her voice was not quite strong enough to carry some of the songs, meaning these slices of the show felt more like filler than perhaps they should.

That was quickly forgotten though as soon as the finale started - a carnival number featuring the entire troupe which started on stage and ended up spilling out onto the street outside. The sheer energy and enthusiasm, coupled with the performers' obvious joy and pride at showing off their culture and skill meant everyone that left had a massive smile on their face.

And that is pretty much what the festival is all about.