EDINBURGH FRINGE 2:
Gargantua/Autocrat/Fascinations From The Crowd/
Love Upon The Throne/Rob Newman
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 1998

The Grid Iron company appears to be almost literally hewing a reputation for itself as a trusted purveyor of site-specific Fringe shows. Last year its adaptation of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber regularly sold out its performances in the vaults beneath the City Chambers; this year Gargantua is doing similar business in the bowels of the Central Library (The Underbelly, venue 61; tickets from Fringe box office only). This is a less rigid adaptation, in which a quartet of bank employees (wearing, in a beautiful touch, grey clowns' noses as they work) cut loose for the weekend, recounting both chunks of Rabelais and anecdotes from their own pasts. The long-unused rooms beneath the library are converted into a Kafkaesque office, a restaurant complete with kitchen and a sumptuous, candlelit chamber from the ceiling of which a 6ft watermelon descends.

The same, alas, cannot be said of Te Pooka's Autocrat. Edinburgh University's Old Quad (venue 192) is a godsend of a space for outdoor shows. Some most notably 1996's Carmen Funebre have been marvels combining visual spectacle with deep emotional impact; others, such as last year's Seizer, are simply full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Autocrat, with its fire-twirling, flesh-baring and feral shrieks, tends towards the latter a post-student, post-Archaos, post-Mad Max hotchpotch which is in the end quite hollow.

Last year fecund theatre (sic) finally seemed to deliver its full potential with 27; this year's show, Fascinations From The Crowd (Theatre Workshop; venue 20), confirms that its semi-confrontational multimedia style of presentation works best when fecund's moving spirit John Keates chooses a broad canvas rather than dissecting a particular event. Fascinations... is simply a day in the life of a city: brief, discrete scenes on stage and video portray an overworked nurse, a fiendish estate agent, various superficial "meeja" brats and a host of nobodies-in-particular. Characters and storylines build up gradually, and are mostly subverted in the closing phase. Fecund always knew what its voice was; now it has found how to use it as well.

The National Theatre of Brent's Love Upon The Throne (Observer Assembly; venue 3) was due to be staged last autumn, but events in Paris supervened. Patrick Barlow and John Ramm remain faithful to the Brent ethos of "doing it crappily", but never remotely threaten to cross over into tastelessness. The royal family is portrayed not impersonated in the players' standard estuarial twang as folk no more and no less given to quibbles of personality than the rest of us. There is, of course, a trademark audience-participation sequence for the wedding of Charles and Diana, and the final scene, in which the pair meet by chance on a London street after their separation, is oddly touching. The outrage voiced by some that Diana's alleged sanctity is tainted by such shows as this (or David Benson's at the same venue) is more ludicrous than anything on offer onstage.

Also at Assembly, comedian Rob Newman has returned after a few years in post-Baddiel, post-first novel exile. He feels no obligation to Gatling-gun gags at us, often delivering quite disarming confessional digressions about his wilderness years. When the jokes come, they are not only marvellous, but sharper than ever, with most of his bile reserved for the corporatisation of culture and big-business dictatorship of society at large. Political comedy, all but dead on the Fringe, has been resurrected in a most unexpected quarter although Newman would rightly hate the label. A warm welcome back to both it and him.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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