It's a truism that everywhere in Edinburgh that can be turned into a Fringe performance space, is. The major venue stables – Assembly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly, C – now have years of experience of converting their various regular civic- and university-owned premises, which range from the city's major suite of function rooms to a series of vaults off long-built-over Old Town streets that have in effect become caves. (Edinburgh is the world's most haunted major city; on occasion, eerie flickers of stage lights in the Caves have been cured simply by saying in a commanding voice, "STOP IT!") As the years pass, formerly neglected potential comes to be exploited: the Pleasance's former basement press office is now a performance space known as the Cellar, a comedy venue seating an audience of 50 or so, and the Drawing Room in Assembly's George Street complex used to be the venue's members' club bar.
An Italian delicatessen. A Mongolian restaurant. Several churches and Masonic lodges. All have been pressed into service in their time. But why stop at conventional spaces? A few years ago, a mock-elevator was erected in front of the Aurora Nova venue, in which shows played to single-figure audiences. This year, in the Pleasance courtyard, a tiny shack accommodates two people at a time to see Jamie Douglas' Spitfire Electronique, a 15-minute computer animation sequence set in the Battle of Britain with live streamed narration by protagonist Flt-Lt "Ginger" Douglas. If you can't get into the shack, don't worry – each performance is also streamed to the venue's web site, www.pleasance.co.uk/bunker.
More unusual shows are inspired by the venues themselves. Peter Reder's Guided Tour begins as a ramble through the basement of the huge Victorian edifice that is McEwan Hall, with an account of the building and its brewing-baron benefactor. Gradually Reder inserts material which is implausible or downright bogus, and recollections of his own family and upbringing, until the hour becomes a musing upon the nature of history and memory. It's divertingly smart, but too low-key to ever really catch fire. Darren Johnston's Ren-Sa is about mystery and disorientation: the audience are transported in total darkness in blacked-out minibuses to an unknown industrial venue where, behind gauzes and to accompanying video projections and a suitably grinding/shrieking soundscape, a quartet of white-clad figures dance. The aim is to evoke the fevered, powerless atmosphere of Japanese horror films, but in the end it just looks like the ghost from Ringu, her Mini-Me and the scary sisters from The Shining cavorting on some white sand. The most entertaining part of the event for me was the humorously apprehensive banter on the way to the performance proper.
Comedian Arthur Smith is a past master of the wacky site-specific show. (He once staged an Edinburgh show on a putting green.) This year's Swan Lake climaxed with a ballet chorus appearing in the distance on the escarpment of Salisbury Crags in the city's Holyrood Park. Smith's most legendary event, the nocturnal Alternative Walking Tours Of The Royal Mile, came to an end in 2000 after over-enthusiastic police action led to the arrest of comic Simon Munnery. (His subsequent trial was almost a comedy event in itself, but that's another story.) These began as drunken parodies of the many standard flavours of walking tours on offer day and night in the city. This year, The Edinburgh Love Tour ably takes the mickey out of such enterprises, and also out of other peripatetic theatre pieces. Whilst traipsing us around a number of often tenuously romantic locations in the Old Town, our supposedly married guides begin to bicker and then to row outright to the point of separation, as past and future infidelities are uncovered. A wealth of detail has gone into the 75-minute piece: it's a mischievous joy to eavesdrop on the strained, muttered exchanges as we walk from site to site.
The doyens of Scottish site-specific theatre are the Grid Iron company. Several years ago, their version of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber in the disused bowels of Edinburgh City Library reopened the vaults which now house the Underbelly complex. This year, their Jim Crace adaptation The Devil's Larder threads its way through Debenhams department store on Princes Street after hours (except on Thursdays, when it's late opening). Office and admin spaces, the homewares and bedding departments, and even the adjoining Gladstone Memorial Library play host to a number of superbly evocative, atmospheric meditations on the relationship between the human body and food, from an ordinary dinner party to a man with a Jerusalem artichoke growing in his innards.
As regards unusual venues, though, nothing can beat a show that comes to you and makes your own home surprise you. A while back, Chris Goode's Signal To Noise company offered The Tempest at your place. This year their three-hander, Homemade, is a glorious experience. The play itself – about a first date which begins with the awkwardness of a burden of grief but progresses to the cusp of skybound joy – is clever, thoughtful and big-hearted. But the true delight is watching Lucy Ellinson, Jamie Wood and Sébastien Lawson improvise on the details of an environment they have first seen only some ten minutes before the show begins. In the FT flat, the living-room carpet reminded Jamie's character of his grandparents' house, the high kitchen window-sill provided a refuge from which the nervous Lucy began her preparations for the date, and the twin beds in the arts editor's room made for a poignant reminder of Lucy's childhood with her now-dead brother. The most familiar of spaces are shown to us afresh, and with newly coined back-stories... not unlike those of Reder's Guided Tour, but far more vibrant because apparently living and lived-in. At the end of the 80-minute piece, the company silently melt away before the domestic audience can even notice, leaving a personal snapshot as a keepsake to weld their story to our home. Nothing else remains but to untangle the labyrinth of thread strung around the living-room furniture, and to clear away the shards of the popcorn they cooked in our kitchen and then tried to eat with knives and forks. Homemade, you see: bizarre but yummy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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