My baptism of fire with the famous on the Fringe
Gina Allum recalls David Baddiel and Bettany Hughes in Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 August 2012
It's 25 years since I exited the Edinburgh Fringe pursued by a playwright. Pedal to the metal, an irate writer shaking his fists in the rear-view mirror; an ignominious end to happy Scottish summers performing, leafleting, eating chips à la mode (salt '*' sauce).
I still remember the first gothic shock of that city: theatre blooming from every crevice in its blackened masonry. One part passion to three parts crazy, we rookies had adapted a Lorca play into what we fondly imagined was quirky street theatre. We learned quickly that Lorca is so not "street". The ambulant public want fire, jeopardy. Unicycles, minimum. They really don't want Spanish whimsy. Not at all.
One flatmate sensibly eschewed the student Lorca. Katie Mitchell – now director at the National Theatre – cut a poised, classical figure at her Smith Corona, when the rest of us were sticking bits of fabric on our heads (aiming for Lene Lovich; getting Hilda Ogden) and were beset by multiple 80s frills and furbelows. She wasn't the only rising star to leave me for dust. I shared a venue with David Baddiel, who would happily chew over Gödel, Escher, Bach when offstage and with Patrick Marber, who would do very scatological things with Guy Browning when onstage.
In our children's panto, while I was slathered in Ugly Sister fright make-up (just a few adjustments to the Lene Lovich rig), the comely Fairy Godmother was Bettany Hughes. There was awed talk of her becoming a Blue Peter presenter; she's settled for being the UK's go-to historian.
But countless other bright Fringeurs now hide modestly behind the bushels of insurance broking or industrial purchasing. Next time you pass Dull Dave in Accounts, consider that he too may have a couple of Fringes in him. Maybe Dave rather kicked ass with his bunraku Tamburlaine. Give Dave a break.
The buzz in '85 was all about new kids Theatre de Complicité. Callow pups that we were, we assumed they were Poles, there being loads of them about, finding their Clown, forging a new visual grammar from Grotowsky and so on.
But it was a Scottish company, Communicado, that showed me just how good theatre could be; cleansed my doors of perception.
Everything I was doing, I realised, was smug; studenty; awful.
Especially that fateful 1987 show: a botched adaptation of an Alasdair Gray novel. Alasdair clearly thought so too, and the night he saw it suffered his textual violation for only a minute or two, before beetling to the lawyers and injuncting against further performances. The Fringe community was aghast at such overweening authorial power. A benefit gala was arranged; the stage manager knew a promising young comic called Harry Enfield who would headline. We were a cause célèbre.
This was mortifying. My doors had been cleansed, after all: the show was boilerplate turkey. We made a break for the Borders and left the furore behind us.
Fast forward to 2012. Our venue, 32A Broughton Street, is now "executive" flats. Just A Bite opposite, source of indigenous treats like the bean and tattie pie, is a cappuccino bar. The super-venues grow fat at the expense of the one woman and her overdraft majority – a theatrical Darwinism. The crash of celebrities landing on the Fringe bandwagon can be heard right across the city.
But if I don't find Edinburgh quite so romantic; so rock and roll any more, that's surely because I am now a punter, not a performer. Angry playwrights notwithstanding, to really enjoy the Fringe, you must join the Fringe.
Go on – call Dave, let's take Lorca to the streets.
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