Gimmicks, gimmicks, gimmicks. Everyone needs gimmicks to get their show noticed among the 1100 here on the Fringe... and just about everyone has one. It might just be a good review blurb on their leaflet... "Nominated for the Independent award," said a bloke thrusting a leaflet into my hand; odd that – I'm on the panel, it had just met and we had never heard of it. Other enticements are more grandiose: free sachets of Angel Delight, or a complimentary tab at the bar. In fact, a number of shows are now serving wine from the stage as part of the show. (What do they take us reviewers for, eh?)
But by far the biggest scam of this year's Fringe has been perpetrated by press agent Mark Borkowski. (Never trust a man who calls his company Improperganda Ltd.) Taboo, allegedly presented by Pink & Squeezy, is presented in a private house; admission is free, but the audience is vetted by phone before being told the location. At least, so the story goes. At the press performance, we had to sign waivers certifying that we had "disabled our critical faculties" by consuming at least two free beers before being let indoors. We were also given £10 bribes; well, critics have got to pay less than the public, and if it's free to the public... The performance itself consisted of an escalating domestic dispute, culminating in a game of Taboo (the "get your team to guess word A, without using words B, C or D" game) played by the audience as teams. (Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph proved particularly adept.) Then off we reeled, clutching even more free beers. A great way to pass an afternoon, but it bears as much relation to theatre as some pigs in a field. Borkowski knows it, and (without Archaos to play with this year) is just getting his Edinburgh jollies. If I meet a genuine punter who's seen it, I'll eat my spiral-bound notebook.
To be frank though, the fringe needs livening up this year. There's good stuff around, but not as much as before (at least, not in the first week). Dominic Dromgoole of the Bush Theatre, up to hunt talent, left in low spirits after a few days. (As for the International Festival, its mainspring is a major retrospective of the work of Harley Granville Barker... enough said.)
Most of the early highlights have been on show at the Assembly Rooms - a venue which has the prestige to attract prime material in the first place. Studs is a rumbustious, earthy comedy about a no-hope Dublin football team taken to the very brink of success by a no-nonsense manager; Below The Belt moves from comedy to terror in a tale of domestic violence amongst young media types; Sex III, a marvellous physical, acrobatic solo show in which Emily Woof portrays a range of characters from a Geordie waiter to a telephone.
Elsewhere, The Dig is a psychological excavation of child sexual abuse with satanic overtones; there's a horrific moment halfway through when you realise that the hauntinp 4AD-ish score is actually composed of bits of Catholic liturgy sung backwards. Serpent Kills recounts the history of 1970s Far Eastern master-criminal Charles Sobraj – its backwards score uses bits of "Bohemian Rhapsody".
There's still more than enough to keep you going from morning till night, though. Last year I met two little old ladies who'd jointly won the Most Dedicated Fringegoer award. This year, they told me, they're taking it easier; they're not seeing shows on Sundays, and are steering clear of late-night comedy because all you hear is foul language... so they're just seeing 95 shows over the three weeks. Knocking themselves out, 14 hours and more a day, is the "holiday" they look forward to and plan for all year. Well, me too.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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