Time was when August in Edinburgh offered at least a partial respite from the silly season of media-fabricated controversies. There would usually be a scandal about some show or other, but it would at least have some basis in the actual content of the piece. But this year's crop of shock-horrors have so far been transparent press concoctions.
Anthony Neilson's Stitching at the Traverse Theatre (reviewed here on Wednesday) has drawn flak from the mother of a Moors Murder victim. Why? Is this a rerun of the affair of Myra And Me in 1998 – a play not about Myra Hindley, but about responses to and perceptions of her? What has Neilson done to glorify the Moors Murderers? Answer: he mentions them. Once. Enough, it seems, for a national newspaper – a broadsheet, indeed – to manufacture some offence about it. Neilson's play also fleetingly mentions concentration camps in an erotic context, barely a quarter of a century after Trevor Griffiths did the same in Comedians. Cue expressions of distaste. Is this the best we can do by way of brouhaha?
It seems so. The venerable Edinburgh councillor Moira Knox realised after several years that her puritanical pronouncements were in fact being sought as publicity material for shows, but Cllr James Gilchrist has yet to learn the same lesson. His target is Stephen Fry's Latin, first seen on the Fringe in 1980 and now revived at the Gilded Balloon Teviot (venue 14). The truth about Fry's juvenilia is not that it is, in Gilchrist's word, "smut", or otherwise shocking for suggesting that many public-school masters are sexual deviants of various kinds, but that it is now an antique piece given a smirking, self-satisfied staging by a subsequent generation of Cambridge students.
One of the significant sources of material this year is, inevitably, September 11. Tina C's Twin Towers Tribute (Pleasance, venue 33) a Country & Western-singing drag act, has apparently been subjected to similar outrage-hunting by a paper, according to Ms C, alias Chris Green. It seems the poster image, of a gigantic Tina astride the NYC skyline, her legs where the twin towers stood and a jet plane flying towards her, was sent to parties bereaved in 9/11, with predictable results. It does rather look as if Green/Tina is asking for it, but the surprise of the show is that his/her material is so gentle. Tina's persona is so self-obsessed that she even manages to turn the September atrocities into an instance of her own imagined suffering in the aftermath of cosmetic surgery. The patter and songs are in the smile and chuckle rather than belly-laugh categories, and certainly nowhere near drawing scandalised gasps. I have not yet seen the other 9/11 shows; word is, though, that some young performers are surprised and a little affronted that their accounts of dealing with the tragedy are not being accorded a privileged reverence over and above that which their theatrical effectiveness merits.
Its title and midnight slot may suggest that Deep Throat Live On Stage (Scotsman Assembly, venue 3) is a feast for the prurient. It is in fact the latest from the team of writer Simon Garfield and actor Alex Lowe, whose previous shows about the world of professional wrestling and the Radio 1 "revolution" of the 1990s were rightly acclaimed. Deep Throat may not quite be up to the same standard, but Lowe and Katherine Parkinson do much more than hint at the dark side of the porn industry. The piece is a world away from the seedy and contemptuous exploitation it has been accused from some quarters of being.
Shock of a different kind is alluded to by young actress-turned-comedian Francesca Martinez in her show I'mperfect (also at the Pleasance). Martinez has cerebral palsy, and is naturally spot on target (if sometimes overly didactic) when ridiculing people's misconceptions of her condition and of "disability" in general. But there's also an element of having her cake and eating it. Obviously her life informs her material, but I suspect it also makes us readier to overlook the clunkiness of her set's structure and the unevenness of tone... in short, to make the kind of allowances she ostensibly spurns. She's a promising comic, to be sure, but the adulatory attention she's been getting seems to be at least in part an example of the kind of patronisation she rails against.
The greatest genuine scandal I have seen so far this year is relatively discreet, entirely factual and rock-solid righteous. Dr Phil Hammond's show 59 Minutes To Save the NHS (Pleasance again) marks a return to Edinburgh stand-up after seven years for an erstwhile half of the double act Struck Off And Die and the author of Private Eye magazine's "Doing The Rounds" column. He skilfully uses comedy to make the serious point that the Health Service is riddled with dubious practices of all kinds, blending grim anecdotes and statistics with gags like "Is there a doctor in the house? How about a nurse? Anyone from the Philippines?" An hour with Hammond generates not only several dozen laughs but more, and more substantial, ire than any amount of tentative taboo-breaching uncovered elsewhere.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 2002
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage