Don't get excited: the Scudder Road Circus & Literary Journal isn't performing at the Edinburgh Festival this year. Transporting all the animals and printing presses on the train from Glasgow would be complicated, and Edinburgh is very crowded in August, with little room for us to unfold the Big Top. It's hard enough for TMiddy and me to wrangle ourselves, anyway, especially with the weather this changeable. But a visit to the Fringe Festival seemed like an essential office outing, so off we ventured yesterday morning to the Far East.
It's less than an hour on the train to Edinburgh, but over there it's a different world, really. The train station is crammed with tourists. The streets are lined with cashmere-and-kilt shops. The bagpipe buskers play 'Scotland the Brave', not 'We Will Rock You' as they do in Glasgow. "Now I feel like we're in Scotland," TM observes. He foolishly draws my attention to a commemmorative Princess Diana tartan, and then manhandles me down the street before I have time to distract myself with royalist tat. We don't have time for Scotland right now: we need to collect our booked tickets - for five shows - and find the first venue. As it takes us fifteen minutes just to find the right way out of Waverley Station, we're already running late. (I've slipped into present tense, I know. It makes the whole day seem more dramatic.)
Picking up the tickets at the Fringe Festival Office is also complicated, because much of the Royal Mile is thronged with desperate people brandishing flyers, trying to drum up audiences for their shows. This is necessary, because there are too many shows. Evidence:
Many of these show-hawkers are in costume and/or aged 18. If they're not shoving flyers at you or shouting FREE SHOW! or TWO-FOR-ONE! or FOUR STARS!, they're dancing around on makeshift stages, waiting to dance around on makeshift stages, attempting to out-bill-sticker everyone else, or handing out paper masks (that may or may not be ironic) to a dubious TMiddy.
We pick up our tickets (tip: book online in advance, so you don't have to stand in the endless queue) and try to make sense of the venue map. It's hard to do this when you're being accosted by people wanting to know if you would like to see a great/free/four-star show that day, or if you would like to buy a copy of the Scotsman and get a free I Heart Edinburgh bag.
We only have four different locations to deal with today for the five shows, so it's not as bad as it could be. The tightest change-over time is 15 minutes. I've picked our shows based on various strict criteria. Anything we see today must be: a) recommended by my friend Deborah Keyser, who comes here every year for ten days, seeing six shows a day, so she can book acts for theatres and arts centres in Wales; OR b) randomly selected because it sounds sort of interesting.
Ever since I spent an evening at the Osmond Family Theater in Branson, Missouri (in 1998, while travelling to every place Laura Ingalls Wilder ever lived), I have appreciated the power and time-saving efficiency of the medley. So the first show of the day is a medley, of sorts - Mervyn Stutter's Pick of the Fringe. This show runs every day for ninety minutes, and seven or eight acts get a chance to do a few songs/dances/jokes and promote their own gig. Every day the show is different. As we're not British, we haven't heard of Mervyn Stutter, but apparently he is the Comedy Voice of the Baby Boom Generation. He wears a pink suit with a yellow trim. ('Sounds awful,' as my mother would say.) This get-up reminds me of a black pencil skirt festooned with pink, turquoise and yellow polka dots, owned and loved by me c 1980/81. I wore it (with a black leotard) to see Cheap Trick at the Auckland Town Hall.
(I can't say any of this to TMiddy, because he grows enraged at the fashion/musical taste of my formative years. In 1981 while I was skulking around West Auckland trying to look New Wave, he was living in New York, allegedly dancing with Bianca Jagger at Studio 54, dropping by Elaine's for cocktails with Woody Allen, and listening to Beethoven and the Clash.)
Mervyn Stutter, who been doing this show for 20 years, hands out 'I Saw Merv in 92' to anyone claiming to have been there back in the day. He tells us that he and his team of researchers have seen loads of shows and carefully selected acts "so you don't pay tenners for turkeys." He also tells us that today is the first time ever, in 20 years, that he's sold out this venue. (We're in Beyond in the Pleasance Courtyard, which I think seats around 400 people.) Courtesy of Mervyn, we see some numbers from the musical APPLY WITHIN ("the first time I've ever heard the word 'fart' in a musical!" snorts Merv); comedian Mark Olver selling his show OLVER: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, which promises, he says, "actual violence"; an amazing and sinister dance excerpt from PINOCCHIO: A FANTASY OF PLEASURES by Company XIV from New York; the first seven minutes of the play SOLD - seven minutes which run through the entire history of slavery; some amiable nonsense from the FITZROVIA RADIO HOUR; comedian Steve Hall with tales of man-hair from his show VERY STILL LIFE; and a crowd-pleasing, wide-smiling a capella group from South Africa, SOWETO ENTSHA.
On the way out of the theatre, all the performers are waiting, in a reception line from which there is no escape, to smile in sweaty exhaustion and hand us flyers. (This is especially impressive in the case of the APPLY WITHIN cast: they left Mervyn's stage to perform their entire show at another venue, racing back just in time for the flyer-shove.)
The other shows we see are TOM BELL BEGINS at the Tron; CHRISTMAS FOR TWO: FRIENDS WITH YOU at the Caves; NEW ART CLUB: QUIET ACT OF DESTRUCTION at the Bosco Theater @ Assembly George Square; and MATT GREEN: TOO MUCH INFORMATION back at Pleasance.
Matt Green is funny, and gets a good reception from the audience (a full-house, albeit a small venue). He is probably the most slick and conventional of the comedians we see. Christmas for Two is a double-act, Sarah Campbell and Amy Hoggart, and there isn't a whole lot of atmosphere at their show - not really their fault. Sketch comedy in the afternoon, in front of an audience of 20 or so ... No wonder the performers are clapping themselves at the end of each sketch, just to give us all the idea. The sketches are well-acted, I think, but not funny enough, and not as weird as advertised.
More rollicking fun is to be had at New Art Club's show at the Bosco Theatre. This is a Deborah Keyser recommendation, and an excellent one. There's shouting, dancing, a tug of war. Even TMiddy joins in the spirit of audience participation. It's easy when audience participation = a massive bread-throwing fight,us making animal noises (mainly owls and stags), and someone made to dress up as a wizard/badger. There's also a re-enactment of one of my favourite Morecombe and Wise sketches. We've already booked tickets for TM to go again later in the month when his brother visits from the US.
All comedy's an acquired taste, of course. Two people march out of New Art Club after ten minutes, looking grim-faced with disapproval. As we're leaving at the end, I overhear two sulky youths with Arctic Monkey haircuts.
Monkey 1: So, did you like it?
Monkey 2: No, not really.
They exchange pained looks. Maybe we Scudder Road Circus-ites enjoy the show because the Bosco Theater makes us nostalgic for a big-top tent of our own.
Nobody walks out of Tom Bell's show, but some of the c. 15 people there look very unhappy. I glance over a few times at a stony-faced older couple, for whom the act apparently is torture. On the way out, another couple apologises to the man they brought along. 'So sorry!' they groan, as though we've all just endured a nightmare.
I, however, spend much of the show crying with laughter. Tom Bell is hilarious. He looks like the weird nephew of Keats and Rick from The Young Ones. Although before the show, while arranging the chairs, he tells us "this is a friendly show," there's an anxious edge to it, the feeling that it might all implode and have to be abandoned at any minute. His humour is very, very silly, which is the highest possible accolade from the Scudder Road Circus. Highlights: kitten falling asleep on bookcase; Kegworth; other fish in the sea; cat with ruff; deodorant. (The story that involves the cat with the ruff is over-elaborate and stupid, but very funny.)
The show is a bit of a mess: there's a lot stuffed into an hour, including a couple of sort-of songs, and it isn't clear if the Neptune wardrobe malfunction is planned or not. (Tom's laptop running out of power is clearly not planned, but much funnier.) But weird, silly, edgy, surreal messiness is exactly what we're hoping to see at the Fringe. The show is at 3:40 PM every day at bar downstairs at the Tron - entrance on Blair Street. Don't get confused as we did and wander around upstairs, clutching your tickets and looking pathetic.
Tom Bell's show is also highly educational. I am now a convert to the delights of LOVE IT! magazine. Today I handed over 68 pence at W.H. Smith on Sauchiehall Street, and brought my own copy home. At the moment, when not out and about on important Scudder Road Circus business, I am working on the sequel to RUINED (referred to by TMiddy as either EVEN MORE RUINED or RUINED 2: RETURN TO NEW ORLEANS. It is called neither of those things.) But occasionally I need a break from artistic endeavour. Evidence:
And yes, that is a coyote on top of the record player.
Meanwhile, I'm sad to say, London is burning. Spending a day at the Edinburgh Festival, or escaping into the dreamworld of LOVE IT, it's easy to forget about the bad things happening down there and in other English cities. When we got back from Edinburgh last night, and caught a taxi home, the streets of Glasgow seemed eerily quiet compared with the violence going on elsewhere. I hope all our friends in London are safe from harm. We live in strange times.