EDINBURGH FRINGE THEATRE 1:
Corpus Christi/Mr Dickens-Mr Shakespeare/
On The Whole It's Been Jolly Good/The Curse Of Iain Banks/
It's Not The End Of The World By Richard Herring/
Ken Campbell/Cooking With Elvis
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 1999

On Monday evening, scant hours before composer James MacMillan denounced what he sees as continuing Scottish bigotry in a speech in the Edinburgh International Festival, Pastor Jack Glass and his "Wee Frees" were doing their bit to stoke the fires of this year's mandatory Fringe scandal by loudly picketing Bedlam Theatre (venue 49), home for these three weeks to the European première of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi. The Presbyterian protesters had evidently not read the reviews of the play's New York run, or they would have realised that they were simply giving extra publicity to a play which happens not to be very good. McNally's gay Christ-figure grows up in a netherworld, part-Biblical Judaea, part 1950s/1960s Texas (hence the title); references chop and change with what is either deliberate vagueness or just plain sloppy writing. Director Stephen Henry and his (of course) thirteen-strong ensemble give a warm, human rendering of this modern morality play, but McNally has done the same thing to much greater effect in, for instance, Love! Valour! Compassion!, which the same company staged here last year. Most damagingly for his argument, he even compromises the Christian message once or twice when dramatically convenient. But it remains a more profoundly Christian event than the erstwhile goings-on outside the theatre.

Elsewhere, a clutch of other, near-legendary figures appear onstage either as characters or performers. Edward Petherbridge, in his solo show Mr Dickens/Mr Shakespeare (Pleasance; venue 33), recounts how a friend advised him that his chats with the audience were in danger of being more interesting than his recitations from the authors in question; well spotted, that friend the occasional outbreak of actorliness in performance sits ill with Petherbridge's naturally amiable personality. Leslie Phillips, on the other hand, in Peter Tinniswood's On The Whole It's Been Jolly Good, knows that the audience is entirely on his side even when he visibly gropes for the next line. It is typical Tinniswood fare, in which a retired MP shows the engaging but dreadfully incompetent side of the England which John Major once hymned, but the punters primarily want to see Phillips snigger lasciviously, and he duly obliges several times over.

The most popular living Scottish novelist appears on audio in The Curse Of Iain Banks (Gilded Balloon II; venue 36), in which protagonist Ian Banks "without the I" (and no relation or is he?) tries to solve the series of deaths which afflict his family every time his near-namesake publishes a novel. It is a solid Banks-style yarn, but the cast of three perhaps due to the claustrophobic confines of the Wee Room stage largely limit their acting to vocal and facial work. Nostradamus likewise offers up a few taped prophecies in It's Not The End Of The World By Richard Herring (Pleasance). Herring grows ever more skilled at depicting thirtysomething lad culture with occasional pretensions to sensitivity and intellectual depth, but his writing still leaves this particular member of his principal constituency quite cold. And Ken Campbell (Komedia @ Southside; venue 82) is, of course, Ken Campbell. On nights with sparse houses, "while there isn't any pressure of popularity", he ditches his scripted show and tries out new material ranging from the ventriloquially rendered eloquence of a turn-of-the-century American lawyer to David Icke's bizarre allegations regarding the Royal Family's "true", shape-shifting, reptilian nature. As much of a treasure as ever for seekers after the weirdly enlightening.

As weirdness goes, however, playwright Lee Hall's Cooking With Elvis (Assembly Rooms; venue 3) takes the Black Forest gâteau so far. Beginning in Richard Cameronesque dysfunctional-northern-family territory, it grows both darker and more surreal as the paralysed, wheelchair-bound father leaps to his feet to sing Presley numbers and newcomer Stuart manages to "collect" the entire family, sexually speaking, as a sort of innocent, comedic cousin of Dennis Potter's demonic character Martin in Brimstone And Treacle. Hall's approach is on the scattergun side, but the show is a jaw-dropping theatrical pleasure.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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