Beyond the Fringe

The 50th Edinburgh Festival wasn't exactly a vintage year. By Adrian Turpin
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The Independent Culture
At the end of the Olympics it is customary for the Olympic chairman to describe the games as "the best ever": something which, in Atlanta this year, Juan Antonio Samaranch singularly failed to do. Well, I know how he feels. Many of us feel as if we've run an Olympic marathon, but there are few who would call this a good year on the Fringe, still less "the best ever". So what went wrong? Nothing, says Hilary Strong, the Fringe's director. It's all a question of perception. Ticket sales, she points out, have risen by 14 per cent. "What has been peculiar, though, is that there hasn't been a success like Tap Dogs in 1995. When you get a hit like that, there's more of a buzz."

Surprisingly, Strong blames the International Festival for some of the negative publicity the Fringe has had. "I didn't realise it at the time, but I think we suffered from George Steiner's opening lecture. What was damaging about it was that it associated us very strongly with the International Festival. I think that's not to our benefit. Everyone got wind of the fact that someone was saying something very negative about the festival. Although the bulk of his lecture was actually an academic analysis of the nature of festivals, the damage was done." The International Festival's cancellation of Robert Lepage's one-man Hamlet only minutes before opening didn't help. "The disaster over Elsinore permeates, too."

If one production did create a buzz, it was Slava Polunin's Snowshow. The great Russian clown set out to prove that clowning is a serious business and had them queuing down George Street. But the multimedia Kaddish ("A Dream History of Europe in the Wake of the Holocaust"), the largest show ever at the Assembly Rooms, failed to catch people's imaginations: a triumph of experience over hype.

Elsewhere it was a case of the odd jewel amid the mud. Red Shift returned to form with their version of Melville's Bartleby, Peepolykus fulfilled their promise with the barking secret agent caper, Let the Donkey Go, and the one centre of theatrical excellence was the Traverse. A splendid four weeks was supported by the twin pillars of two home-grown shows: David Greig's The Architect, a sombre tale of an ageing architect and his dysfunctional family; and Chris Hannan's Shining Souls, both a romantic crowd-pleaser and a complex tale of spiritual confusion. A special mention, too, for Wallace Shawn's The Fever, a mesmerising broadside against liberal complacency, brilliantly performed by the Canadian Clare Coulter. She's still looking for somebody to stage it in London. Any takers?

On the comedy front, American ventriloquist David Strassman divided critics as to whether he was a comedy original or a novelty act, all mouth and no hands. Either way, expect to see a lot more of his remote-controlled devil child, Chuck. The "cyberdance collective", the Pod, proved that rave music is funny (as some had suspected all along) - although the Pleasance's director, Christopher Richardson, was less amused when they blew up his speakers night after night.

Bill Bailey looked distinctly miffed not to win the Perrier Award, shuffling out of the celebration party like a hell's angel whose carburettor had just fallen off. And rightly so. Even the winner, lovable Irishman Dylan Moran, said Bill should have won: "because he has the best pants". Another stand-up who has some claim to feel hard done by is Ed Byrne. "Dylan Moran apart, Ireland has not produced such a promising stand-up since Sean Hughes" was our verdict.

Finally, "Honest Al Murray", diamond geezer and pub philosopher, emerged from Harry Hill's shadow blinking into the neon glow of the lounge bar. Not only was his "Late Lock-In" a triumph of boozy wit and improvisation, it offered one of the most useful pieces of advice any Fringe-goer can be privy to: "Man cannot live by beer alone. No, he needs crisps and nuts as well."

Additional research by

Mark Wareham and Liese Spencer

TOP FIVE COMEDY ACTS / TOP FIVE THEATRE SHOWS

The Pub Landlord's Late Lock-In Al Murray was born to play the genial pub philosopher in his Great British night out.

Dylan Moran Is Indisposed Perrier winner Moran rambled, godlike, through an hour of stuff and nonsense.

The Pod The amorphous cyber-dance collective saw the future of techno- comedy... and the future was genital-free.

David Strassman The dark side of ventriloquism in the American's bizarre man-triceratops no-hander.

Bill Bailey Desperately unlucky not to win the Perrier with his effortlessly funny musical extravaganza.

Snowshow The world's greatest clown spirits up an arctic blizzard before your very eyes.

Fantastic Voyage An epic two-man tribute to the special effects of movie- maker Ray Harryhausen, from the team who gave us Thunderbirds FAB.

Peepolykus Three Rajmanistani cops re-enact their greatest case. Slapstick gets no better.

Shining Souls On her wedding day, Ann wakes up to two lovers called Billy. Which one will she wed? A thoughtful new tragicomedy from Chris Hannan.

The Fever A febrile female tells of the numbness that overwhelms her as she faces the inequalities between rich and poor.

TOP MOMENTS AT THE FESTIVAL

Most unfortunate title: Hurt Me (Ideally by Punching Me in the Face). The lead actor was beaten up on Waverley Bridge.

Most offensive act of nudity: pot-bellied comedian Jerry Sadowitz's gratuitous strip.

Most erotic dancer: belly-dancing comic cum disco king, Richard Herring. Runner-up: Shakti.

Most daring stunt: Malcolm Hardee's thwarted attempt to kidnap ventriloquist David Strassman's demonic dummy.

Biggest Wuss: the death-defying Prince of Pain (right), who was unable to perform in Gerry Cottle's Circus of Horrors owing to a sore throat.

Best street act: the Ozzie who entertained the Royal Mile by solving a Rubik's Cube up his ass.

THE BEST OF THE SHOWS GOING SOUTH

COMEDY

Perrier Pick of the Fringe: Dylan Moran, this year's surprise victor, with "mad-eyed" Milton Jones, this year's best newcomer 29 Sept; Rich Hall and Dominic Holland 6 Oct; Bill Bailey, uncrowned crown-prince of Perrier, with Armstrong & Miller 13 Oct; Al Murray and AN Other 20 Oct, Her Majesty's Theatre, London (0171-494 5558)

Rich Hall Makes you feel how close good comedy is to terror. National tour 3 Oct-2 Dec

Jenny Eclair Perrier winner '95. National tour 28 Sept-24 Nov

Harry Hill Lovable surrealist. National tour 2 Oct-30 Nov

Jimeoin Inspired ramblings from an Irish comic gone walkabout. National tour 2 Oct- 8 Dec

Alan Parker - Urban Warrior Simon Munnery's radical post-punk DIY anarchist. National tour 16 Sept-25 Oct

Lee and Herring National tour 21 Oct-7 Dec

The Pod Cyberdance collective developing a series for Radio 1FM and launching a club/ installation in London soon.

THEATRE

Snowshow Slava Polunin, the world's greatest clown, takes the world by (snow) storm. National tour 30 Sept-26 Nov, then at the Peacock Theatre (New Sadler's Wells), London 9-30 Jan

Entertaining Angels Strong if overlong Liverpudlian kitchen-sink family saga. Theatre Warehouse, Croydon 4-22 Sept

Bartleby Herman Melville's tale of a workaholic's revenge Pleasance, London 3-22 Sept

Dead Hours More tears 'n' laughter from Israel's Tmu-Na. BAC, London 15-27 Oct

Judith Biblical liberation philosophy from Howard Barker's The Wrestling School. BAC, London 4-22 Sept

Kaddish Portentous post-Holocaust tosh from Towering Inferno. RFH, London 20 Oct

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