Jimmy Durante was right: everybody wants to get in on the act. Especially in Edinburgh in August. Local inhabitants can turn a fast buck by renting their houses or flats out at exorbitant rates to visitors, thus financing their own luxury holidays far from the brouhaha of Festival. And every space in town that can be turned into a venue, is. Edinburgh's year-round theatres number only seven or eight; this year – at the time of writing, although it's always hard to say for certain – there are 236 accredited Fringe venues.
Increasingly, too, more and more unexpected kinds of people are leaping the footlights and taking to the stage themselves. Scarcely an eyelid is batted when crime novelist Ian Rankin teams up with musician Jackie Leven, or when playwrights Willy Russell and Tim Firth turn up to perform a selection of their songs. Rather more bizarre is Tim Fountain's offering, Sex Addict. Fountain is most recently known for writing a clutch of solo biographical plays such as Julie Burchill Is Away (also revived on this year's Fringe) and the award-winning transatlantic hit based on the life of Quentin Crisp, Resident Alien. But his own show is much more forthright. Each night towards midnight, live on stage at the Assembly Rooms, he logs on to a gay Web chat site, and asks the audience to help him select his sexual partner for the night... for real. At the end of the show, we file on to the street, waving photocopies of an impressively large penis, to wish him bon voyage on his "shag bike"; he begins the following night's show with a report of the encounter. It's an odd combination of shock and tedium (watching someone else surf the Net is seldom gripping), but what's most surprising, especially to those of us who know Fountain, is how muted his performance is. With his Yorkshire burr quieter onstage than off, he can sound like a degenerate Alan Bennett Talking Head as he speaks of "a disappointing experience with a depraved dwarf and a bag of liver in a toilet off the Portobello Road".
Fountain knows that all publicity is good publicity, and by coincidence, the Edinburgh master of that dictum is performing twelve hours earlier in the very same room. "I'm not a PR man!" screams Mark Borkowski, "I'm a publicist!" His forte is inventing wild stories and getting them into the media. When the French godfathers of alt.circus, Archaos, first came to town in 1990 or so, it was Borkowski who planted stories that their show included juggling with chainsaws; local statutes across Britain were promptly passed banning such activities, so nobody ever found out that it was all hogwash. His show Son Of Barnum is an uncharacteristically reverential tribute to hucksters down the ages – giants of the trade such as Jim Moran who, on having one of his stunts banned in the 1920s, uttered the immortal line, "It's a sad day for American capitalism when a man can't fly a midget on a kite over Central Park." The chronicle begins with the Book of Genesis and of course ends with Borkowski himself, who finally comes clean about such scams as the non-existent tap-dancing dog of Stratford East.
If Borkowski occasionally shades into lecture territory, what is one to make of How I Got My Yo!? Simon Woodroffe, founder of the Yo! Sushi restaurant chain and an expanding range of other Yo! brand outlets, blends autobiography and motivational pep-jargon with songs sung to backing tapes performed by the late Ian Dury's band The Blockheads. Offstage, he admits candidly that he wants to be the next Tony Robbins or Tom Peters. He certainly seems unfazed when performing to a house of barely 10% capacity, which does not offer the adulation he appears to expect. His unshakable confidence may stand him in good stead, as I'm not sure even the Edinburgh Fringe has a niche for this sort of thing, pointy sideburns or no.
Mind you, Edinburgh took Julian Fox to its heart almost immediately. After the first performance of his that I saw, in 2001, the nine or ten of us in the audience hung around together, asking each other why we had found him so funny and telling one another that we had no idea, but still laughing all the time. In the three years since, Fox has become a cult. It's rather like watching a cuddly puppy trying to be an avant-garde performance artist: he mixes poetry, electronic pop, anecdote, old postcards and clockwork toys as if they were all dreadfully portentous when in fact he's simply sharing with us his alleged obsession about Gatwick Airport. It's oddly compelling, inexplicably hilarious and all a far cry from his day job as stage door-keeper at the Barbican Centre in London.
Then there's Ian Saville: by day a mild-mannered children's entertainer, by... well, slightly later in the day... he becomes Ian Saville, Socialist Magician. Saville uses the old shell game to illustrate the illusory nature of the movement of capital, and finishes his transforming-an-audience-member's-banknote trick by explaining, "Now, a bourgeois magician would let you have your £10 back at the end..." As he remarked, "When I first started doing this, my friends said, 'Come on, Ian, a magic show's the last place we'd expect to hear socialist theory expounded.' And now they're right: it is the last place you'll hear it expounded."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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