The Edinburgh Festival DAY 20; Who was hot, who was not

Peering over sweaty shoulders, Mark Wareham and Ian Shuttleworth sort the sweet-smelling from the stinkers in Auld Reekie this year
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What kind of weather was that for an Edinburgh Fringe? Hot, dry, sunny... old hands accustomed to less balmy conditions spent the first few days in shock before acquiring a variety of pairs of Bermuda shorts long since proscribed in the real world. But the unlikely summer, while perfect for schmoozing in the Pleasance courtyard, was less conducive to the shows themselves.

It took several days for even major Fringe venues to get up to their usual cruising speed (don't be surprised if the recent phenomenon of opening a show in "Week Zero" of the Fringe tails off in 1996), and those who did willingly incarcerate themselves in the plethora of un-air-conditioned venues proved, let's say, a little more laid-back in their reactions. Said Erica Whyman, director of The Gambler in the Pleasance Attic (capacity 60, one electric fan in a corner), "I wouldn't have believed the weather would have such an effect on audiences, but once it broke at the end of Week Two, we felt a real improvement in response."

Although this year's Fringe boasted more venues than ever, a number of long-time Fringe bastions were conspicuous by their absence - no St Columba's by the Castle, Rifle Lodge, venue 123 or Theatre West End.

Folie de grandeur of the year goes to Richard Demarco for his attempt to establish Dundee Rep Theatre as an Edinburgh Fringe venue, a notion reminiscent of the presence of Shannon Airport as a Dublin building on Irish "Monopoly" boards. Not only were the houses at Dundee poor to derisory, but the time and effort expended by Demarco on the out-of-town end of operations left his main Albany Street redoubt in some confusion. True, his venue garnered its all-but-mandatory Fringe First for the stunning Carmen Funebre by Poland's Teatr Biuro Podrozy, but by and large there has been a Demarco-shaped hole on this year's Fringe.

Among the most impressive theatrical productions were Communicado, as usual, with their magnificent version of Athol Fugard's A Place with the Pigs; Starving Artists' return to form with Road Movie; a quartet of traditionally strong shows from the National Student Theatre Company, netting them their second successive Guardian International Student Drama Award (for the fine The North Pole); and Lookout Theatre Company's Easy, a sensitive, undogmatic play about date rape.

Lynn Ferguson's Heart and Sole was a perfect Edinburgh show, perhaps that bit too bizarre to succeed elsewhere but beautifully tailored for the Fringe. Ray Davies's evening of songs, anecdotes and memoirs drew adulatory throngs to sit at the feet of the Sun-Kink. On the international front, the delightful clowning of the Embarquez-Les company was an unalloyed joy.

The theatre menu of the International Festival itself has largely been admirable rather than revelatory; productions such as Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme and Don Carlos have been well worth seeing, but nobody's life has been immeasurably impoverished by missing them. The trade-fair aspect of Fringe comedy continues unabated, as the Julian Clarys and Sean Hugheses restrict themselves to handfuls of hot- ticket performances and the likes of Scott Capurro, John Shuttleworth and Graham Norton hit the premier league.

Most notable is the complete eclipse of Cambridge Footlights as a seed- bed of comic talent by the late-Eighties generation of Oxford Revue-ites; Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Ben Moor, Dan O'Brien, Al Murray and Sally Phillips are not yet all recognisable names, but are solid Fringe fixtures. And, of course, 1995 will go down in history as the year the Perrier award panel realised you don't need a willy to get laughs, as Jenny Eclair deservedly walked off with the little silver bottle.

Wherever you looked, it seemed traditional stand-up was beating a retreat: Eclair, Kevin Day and Rhona Cameron were the only homegrown comics of note content simply to stand and deliver. Of the five Perrier nominees, only Eclair and American queen bitch Scott Capurro could be described as one man / woman and their mike;Boothby Graffoe and Simon Bligh favoured gadgetry and monologue respectively. The Umbilical Brothers were this year's triumphant male Australian physical double-act in the wake of 1994 winners - the male Australian physical double-act Lano and Woodley.

Elsewhere, surrealism reigned. Mark Little had them queueing round the block for an inspired Prozac-fuelled hour in the company of Damien Hirst and Mr Blobby; Simon Munnery's Cluub Zarathustra illuminated the midnight hour at the Pleasance with the sort of absurdist cabaret you might find in the pages of a Hermann Hesse novel. The Fringe's very own raconteur, Sir Bernard Chumley, thespy gaylord creation of Matt Lucas, became the best purveyor of comic hairpieces since the great Frankie Howerd.

Comedians found themselves agreeing on one thing and one thing only - that the Herald's David Belcher was runaway winner of both Comedian's Critic and Critic's Comedian at this year's Festival. Witness just a few of his award-winning gems: "Harry Hill is short for Harry Hilarious"; Sean Hughes - "hot-boy laff-totty"; Umbilical Brothers - "I clapped until my hands exploded in a cascade of blood and bone-shards. Almost"; the Cheese Shop - "There's a musty old aroma down the Cheese Shop: Essence de Student Japery"; and The Wow Show - "Wow... Ha-ha... Eeek!" What was that about the Edinburgh bends?

Finally, the one golden Fringe rule - avoid one-woman biographical shows performed by actresses of a certain age, especially if they're American - has been joined by a second. Whatever the show, regardless of genre, quality or other consideration, it's time to leave the moment they start playing the Pulp Fiction theme. Thank you and goodnight.

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