The Body Tights Man Show / The School For Scandal / Simon Amstell: Do Nothing
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2009

And so once again the August festival season draws to a close which is at once frenetic and exhausted. By the time the Fringe ends on Monday, I expect to have seen just over 100 shows… amounting, I calculate with horror and embarrassment, to over £1200 worth of tickets. Even discounting the slightly higher tariffs of the International Festival and the status-straddling Traverse, that’s a hefty average price. How can casual Festivalgoers expect to be able simply to take punts on shows that may or may not turn out to be worth it, the way I did when I first came here as a student 25 years ago? The increasing appeal of the pay-what-you-can Forest Fringe, comedian Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe and now the new Five Pound Fringe is understandable.

It makes sense, also, to look to reviews for some kind of guidance. But in recent years, national print and broadcast media coverage of Edinburgh has continued to diminish; when I began as a fringe reviewer in 1989, most UK newspapers seemed to have full-season teams of half a dozen or more, whereas last year, I was the only London critic to remain up here for the duration. Conversely, a number of freesheets and latterly web sites have sprung up, often relying on eager students or “civilians” to provide copy but lacking any real sense of identity or weight. The effect has been to buck the overall trend in online arts coverage: just as the sector in general begins to shake down with an increasing awareness of which sites are more reliable and authoritative, Edinburgh review coverage is not so much a labyrinth as a great big tangle. Any show that can’t extract a five-star review, or at least a couple of fours, from this plethora of competing voices (because it’s just the star ratings that get plastered on posters, not – heavens forfend – actual words), really isn’t trying.

Consequently, in the spirit of who-knows, I offer these end-of-term verdicts based not on quality per se but a number of more oblique factors:

Most bizarre production on the fringe: I was enticed to The Body Tights Man Show (Just The Tonic @ The Caves) by a Fringe programme blurb written in delicious Japanglish, ending with the exhortation “Feel modern Tokyo!” At first it seemed as if I was simply in line for an hour of mime by a trio in fetish clothing, but as the hour progressed, the “3 gagaheads” troupe engaged in increasingly off-the-wall activities: traditional Japanese archery with drinking-straws, using their zentai full-body suits to impersonate extraterrestrials extruding trunks of foam from their “snouts”, playing Rossini with inflated surgical gloves worn on their heads etc. Altogether inexplicable, but somehow compelling.

Wildest miscalculation: The Comedians Theatre Company has built up a reputation over the past few years for high-quality, committed productions of plays ranging from Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio to Twelve Angry Men. They have hitherto always put themselves firmly in the service of their dramatic material. This year, however, they have been deluded by the frills and furbelows, both linguistic and sartorial, of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (Pleasance Courtyard) into believing that they can let the script fend for itself while they just fanny around onstage. Some of the players – Phil Nichol, Marcus Brigstocke, Huw Thomas - find an honourable middle path, but Lionel Blair as Sir Peter Teazle is even more befuddled than his character, and Paul Foot’s performance as Crabtree had me considering arson as a critical response. It is as if they cannot allow Sheridan to be comical on his own terms; the laughs have to be their own. Bad show, in every sense.

Running joke with most belated payoff: I take responsibility for this one myself. When I first saw comedian Simon Amstell perform here four years ago, I couldn’t find space to write about him. Every year since then, he has twitted me about getting a review on this page. At last, I’m happy to say that the former host of TV comedy/music panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks is a surprisingly dark delight onstage. His willowy boy-totty looks are nicely contradicted by the clever strain of existential pessimism that runs through the material of his show Do Nothing (Bongo Club), a world away from his inconsequential telly banter.

Most dishearteningly reactionary theatrical trend: I have seen a number of physical theatre/dance shows this year focusing on women, their identities, roles required that they play, potential to be recognised and so on. In every one of these pieces without exception, every male character (whether presented directly onstage or represented through report) has been portrayed as both a) a monster and b) implicitly typical of his sex. I know that some ground has been lost of late in terms of cultural representations of women, but outright misandry was not a useful counter-strategy in the 20th century and nor is it in the 21st.

Biggest tearjerker: The triumphant appearance of Edwyn Collins (Assembly Hall). Having struggled back, with the sterling support of his wife Grace Maxwell, from two near-fatal strokes and a raft of medical complications, Collins is now gigging again. Continuing paralysis means that he cannot play guitar, but was on this occasion accompanied by a trio of acoustic guitarists, a percussionist and occasionally by his former Orange Juice cohort Malcolm Ross. Even his old sardonic between-songs banter is slowly returning. There were only a couple of numbers in the 90-minute midnight set during which my eyes did not fill with tears of joy. He got me simply thrilled, honey.

So many Edinburgh experiences each year are simply uncategorisable: from seeing the Showstopper! improvised musical team perform a bizarre dance mass in Old St Paul’s Church as part of an improvised stage bio-musical of modern-day “turbulent priest” Donald Reeves while their subject looked on in uncanny fascination, to the taxi I took the other day whose engine did an uncanny impression of Chewbacca the wookiee on every corner… from being enlisted as a kind of secondary narrator in Melanie Wilson’s show Iris Brunette (Medical School) to the historically improbable but undeniably impressive sight of Charles Darwin juggling spiders… it’s a month-ful of moments. Roll on next August.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2009

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage