Magazine article The Spectator

From Festival to Fringe

Magazine article The Spectator

From Festival to Fringe

Article excerpt

The big play at Edinburgh this year the one with Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in it - was The Guys, a heartfelt tribute to the 'ordinary' heroes of 11 September. Written by a journalist called Ann Nelson, it tells the story of her encounter with a New York fire captain who asked for her help when he was landed with the task of composing eulogies to the eight men who died under his watch. I didn't manage to get a ticket to The Guys so I've no idea how Nelson handled this assignment, but it sounds like a walk in the park compared to covering the Edinburgh Festival. Perhaps next year Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon can perform a tribute to the 'ordinary' heroes of 11-31 August, the theatre critics who bravely entered the Assembly Rooms when everyone else was fleeing in the opposite direction. I saw 15 plays in just five days and there were times when death would have been preferable to having to sit through the second half.

Take Variety, the play that the Festival's director, Brian McMaster, chose to open the official drama programme with. Set in 1929, Variety revolves around a group of Scottish vaudevillians who are threatened with redundancy when the local music hall is bought out by a cinema chain. Clearly, Variety is intended to be an allegory about the corrosive effects of globalisation on indigenous Scottish culture, but the writer, Douglas Maxwell, could have done a modicum of research about the period he was trying to evoke. I was expecting these oldtimers to perform a few of their favourite routines before the curtain went down on their act forever - there must be a wealth of material for Maxwell to draw on. As it is, there isn't a single scene that makes you regret the passing of this supposedly glorious era. If this bunch of no-hopers really are representative of Scottish variety theatre in the 1920s, then we should drop to our knees and thank God for Stuart Little 2.

The only other play I sat through in the official programme was The Girl on the Sofa, a nod to the Continental avantgarde. As you might expect from a play written by a Norwegian and directed by a German, this isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. A middle-aged woman stands before a canvas, struggling to overcome her painter's block, while various spectral figures from her past float back and forth across the stage. The only laugh comes when the woman's uncle whips off his trousers to reveal the smallest pair of Y-- fronts you've ever seen, but on the night I saw it I was the only person laughing. Everyone else in the audience was concentrating with feverish intensity, convinced that The Girl on the Sofa is the real thing. After 90 minutes of this, I began to fear for my sanity. This play confirmed my suspicion that `avant-garde' is French for `absolutely no story whatsoever'.

As a general rule, you're much more likely to find commercial theatre on the Fringe than in the official Festival and this year was no exception. The play that everyone thought was destined for the West End was Jerry Springer: The Opera, an all-- singing, all-dancing tribute to the popular American talk show. I wasn't convinced. The first half is very promising, with a series of freaks being wheeled out to deliver arias about their nappy fetishism and secret affairs with transvestites, but the air completely goes out of this production in the second half. …

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