I’ve spent this week at the Edinburgh Festival. Last year virtually everything I saw was a comedy or had some political tinge to it. Several of my friends said I should spread my wings this year and go to some plays too. So I booked to see the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’! Oh dear. A truly dreadful experience.
Rather better was a one-off performance by David Benson reprising his Kenneth Williams one man play, which he first performed twenty years ago. Close your eyes and you could truly believe you were in the company of Kenneth Williams. Apart from the occasions when he lapsed into Frankie Howerd. Nay, nay and thrice nay!
I then went to see Guardian columnist Viv Groskop do a stand-up routine in a very bijou little venue. Her show was called ‘How to be more Margo’ , ostensibly a celebration of the middle classes. My enjoyment was somewhat hindered by the middle-aged couple in front of me who spent the entire hour shaking their heads and tutting. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but what they got was clearly not it. The constant sneering at anyone who voted for Brexit got a bit wearisome and not really very funny, but I suppose it proved you can take the Girl to Edinburgh, but you can’t take the girl out of The Guardian. Viv had some good lines, though, my favourite being a Waitrose supermarket tannoy announcement: “Would the owner of the Red Astra in the car park, please remove it and take it to Asda where it belongs.” A genuine Lol moment.
Show of the week so far has been ‘Margaret Thatcher: Queen of the Game Shows’. Starring Matt Tedford as the Magster, this followed on from his hugely successful ‘Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho’. His great ability in writing that was to enable to it appeal to people who idolise Lady T and to people who loathe her. Quite a feat. In this new musical extravaganza Maggie becomes a Saturday night game show host, having grown exasperated at the state of Saturday night TV. It’s rather more pointedly anti Thatcher than its previous incarnation. But still very enjoyable. Tedford is joined by two other cast members who play a variety of characters from Bruce Forsyth and Cilla Black to Owen Jones and Angela Merkel. It really is a laugh a minute performance, some of it improvised, and at the end there was a deserved standing ovation, something that doesn’t happen very often in Edinburgh.
Thursday began with a double dose of Matt Forde. First off it was an hour of fast paced political standup. It was very good and very funny stuff. Even when he has slightly weak material he escapes from it through his brilliant mimicry. His David Cameron impression is the best I have ever heard and he even has Boris off to a tee. A lot of the act concerned Brexit, and like Viv Groskop yesterday, and Ayesha Hazirika later, his entire act consisted of barbed comments about racist Leave voters. They. Just. Don’t. Get. It. And probably never will. They all look at life through their soft, liberal lens without ever really venturing beyond the limits of the M25. That’s fine, it’s good for a comedy act, but all three of them demonstrate a total lack of comprehension as to what is happening in the country.
Matt Forde’s second hour was an In Conversation with Tory MP Tim Loughton. I did wonder (sorry Tim) if he was a big enough name to fill the venue but I needn’t have feared. It was sold out. Tim was brilliant and extremely funny. He has just become the second most popular Tory in Scotland. Matt Forde does monthly interviews on stage with London and he adopts the very conversational approach, with humour, which tends to get the best out of interviewees. Tim was hilariously indiscreet on occasion. OK, on lots of occasions.
Next up was comedian Andrew Doyle. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one. I’d been recommended to go and see him by a friend of his who is one of my authors. He was incredibly funny and had the audience in stitches with his mix of morose musings about his failures in life and also picking on various members of the audience. I escaped his wrath as I sat at the back. I always admire comedians like him who are brilliant at improvising. He too had a pop at Leave voters. He asked how many of the audience had voted Leave. Out of around 150 people only two of us put our hands up. It’s bizarre that comedians think that only right on lefties attend their events. OK, insulting an audience can sometimes work, but you have to be very clever to get away with it. I suspect there were more than a smattering of people who didn’t like it – not just from Andrew but all the other myriad of right on Guardianistas who headline the Edinburgh scene. I had hoped to get along to see Geoff Norcott, one of the very few right wing comedians in the UK, but my schedule wouldn’t allow.
So, from Andrew Doyle I moved on to a show called ‘The Gayest Show You’ve Ever Seen’. Well, in some ways I suppose seeing as it was hosted by a 26 year old wearing a pink T shirt and high heels, it was. The audience, shall we say, was not very numerous. Rather bizarrely the men sat on one side and the sat on the other side of the aisle. Apart from me. The show consisted of a ramble through our host’s coming out and series of sexual disasters. I’m sure he had a script, but judging from the number of ‘ers’ and ‘ums’ it was difficult to discern how rigid it was. As opposed to stiff. Nay, nay and thrice nay! If I was giving this show stars, it would struggle for a three. I didn’t not enjoy it, it was just a tad disappointing.
The evening finished with former Labour SPAD and stand-up comedian Ayesha Hazirika with her show ‘Tales From the Pink Bus’. She was genuinely laugh out loud funny, regaling her audience (which included Kezia Dugdale and Ian Murray MP) with a torrent of anecdotes from her time working for Gordon Brown (who she outed as a complete sexist), Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband. We learned a lot about Harriet Harman’s sense of humour and Ed Miliband’s moments of the Black Dog. We also learned that he was worried he was a badger. You had to be there, I guess.
Thursday was a little less hectic, mainly because I cancelled watching a Simon & Garfunkel tribute act in the evening in favour of catching West Ham’s Europa League match with Astra Giurgiu. And what a terrible decision that turned out to be. Anyway, the whole day was bookended with West Ham because I started the day at the unearthly hour of 11.30 by watching a play called ‘Irons’. It’s about three West Ham fans and is set at three away matches. It explores the kind of friendships that working class men form through football, the bonds and emotional ties that ensue. The whole set is made up of three chairs, the seats that Dean, Jason and Ash sit in. The dialogue is littered with football chants and the kind of humour that you hear at games every week. It shows the macho side of football friendships and the aggression that can be experienced at away games, and I imagine virtually every football fan, whether you’re a Hammer or not, would relate to the interplay between the three characters. At one point Ash announces he’s going into hospital for ten days, but doesn’t reveal why, prompting a lot of speculation including from Dean, who jokes that he’s going in for a ‘dick enlargement’, and given that Ash never uses it, Dean can’t understand why. It’s difficult to write a review of this play and not reveal the plot twist, but seeing as it’s in the publicity for the play I think I can reveal it here. Ash becomes Ashleigh, a transgender woman. The other two, when Ashleigh attends her first match as a woman, are horrified when they eventually realise who she is. They launch into all the stereotypes and reckon that she can no longer be a friend. The interplay between the three of them is at times horrifying, at times poignant and at times funny. I’ll admit to the odd tear running down my cheek. The play ends with the three being reconciled after West Ham fail to win the Premier League by a single point from Manchester City. Just like their dreams, they face and die. I have no hesitation in naming this play as my ‘show of the week’. You don’t have to be a West Ham fan to enjoy it, you don’t even need to be a football fan. The other interesting thing was that I had assumed that all three actors must be West Ham supporters, given the way they did all he chants and West Ham banter. I spoke to the cast afterwards and in fact only one of them is a West Ham supporter. One of the others supports, horror of horrors, Spurs, while the other is a QPR season ticket holder and has a QPR tattoo on his arm! If you’re in Edinburgh next week, go and see it. It’s on that the Greenside on Infirmary Street every day at 11.25. Five starts from me.
The other two shows on Thursday were a tad of a disappointment. Arthur Smith’s one man show on mindlessness was, well, a bit tired. I’ve always liked Smith and his lugubrious manner, but somehow the material in this show wasn’t quite right. Yes, we laughed, yes there were indeed quite a few funny jokes, but you just got the feeling he was going through the motions. Later on Alistair McGowan was better, but again I felt some of his material was a bit weak. He lost his rag with an audience member at one point when the light from their mobile phone irritated him. There’s no doubt many of his impressions were excellent, one of the best being Andy Murray. He steered away from politics and Brexit, which was a blessed relief given what I’ve written above about some of the other shows that was a bit of a blessing. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the hour, but at various points the eyelids were shutting and he didn’t hold my attention in the way that Andrew Doyle or Matt Forde did.
So that was it. All in all I don’t think I enjoyed the fringe as much as I did last year, but that may be because last year was my first proper visit. Perhaps every two years is the way to do Edinburgh, which is what many of the artists do.