Down among the lunatic Fringe

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The Independent Online
You may have read about Edinburgh's phantom body painter. Last week the local police were hunting a middle-aged man who lured young women back to his bedsit by promising them a role as a painted statue in a Fringe show. He then covered them with paint, which unfortunately turned out to be gloss rather than the theatrical variety. One 21-year-old German victim required hospital treatment to have it removed. She was said to be too distressed to talk about the incident, but another victim, 17-year-old Cherie Smith, told journalists, "I just want to warn people to stay away from this guy - he's obviously a bit weird."

Having spent the previous evening at a performance by The Kamikaze Freakshow, which featured a man nailing his tongue to a piece of wood, eating ground glass and lifting a heavy weight by means of a chain attached to rings in his scrotum, I have to say that when I read Cherie's words I was a bit confused. It was my first visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and it had become very clear early on that if there is anywhere in the world where weirdness is not only tolerated but actively encouraged, then this is it. And is there anything weirder, let's face it, than somebody wanting to be a painted statue in the first place?

As it happened I had a weird ambition of my own. I wanted to go to one of those shows I'd heard about that are so unpopular that when you get there you find you're the only person in the audience. The idea had a sort of devil-may-care, bungee jump appeal to it. I came closest to fulfilling my dream when I went to see a play called The Weight of Smoke performed by an American company called Firefly Productions. I'd read that on their first night only one person had turned up and he'd decided to leave rather than sit there on his own, the coward. It seemed like a pretty good bet, but when I arrived I was disappointed to discover that there where three other people dotted around in the 80-odd seats. Nevertheless, we were still outnumbered by the cast of five (if you include the woman who appeared for 30 seconds at the end to do a little dance with the guy who'd drunk himself to death).

To be fair, the play actually wasn't too bad and we gave a resounding round of applause at the end, as much out of sympathy as anything. When we'd finished, the cast applauded us in return. Now that really was weird.

Eau my God, it's mass hysteria

Journalist and TV presenter Jon Ronson on being a judge for the prestigious Perrier comedy award: "The weird thing is that you can't move for people, including people you really respect, begging you for information. Firstly because there's betting and people want inside information, secondly because promoters and managers and agents want tips if an unsigned person is being tipped for the best newcomer award, and thirdly because knowledge is power up here and the Perrier means everything.

"People in London don't realise that the suicide of a Labour MP or corruption in Paisley - all these things that have been happening in the past two weeks - mean absolutely nothing. The only thing that means anything is the Perrier, it's like a kind of mass hysteria. It's incredibly important for people and consequently it's become incredibly important to us judges too. It's all we talk about, it's like a kind of collective madness."

When I saw him, he'd seen about 30 shows. And he wasn't even getting paid for it.

That sinking feeling again

A Few years ago I went to see a play by Steven Berkoff which, if memory serves, was called Sink The Belgrano. It was complete twaddle and ever since that night I've resented the fact that Berkoff deprived me of an hour of my life which could have been better spent doing just about anything else. Nevertheless, I decided to give him another chance in his new play, Massage, and he went and did it again! I sat through an hour and a quarter of complete twaddle featuring Berkoff in drag playing a woman who works in a massage parlour. There's no doubt that Berkoff is a brilliant actor and, to be fair, the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, but a large portion of the play basically amounts to Berkoff doing an elaborate mime of masturbating his clients.

I felt it was time to tell Mr Jerkoff about my dissatisfaction, although I was aware that he is famously narked by adverse criticism. I'd toyed with an opening question of "Mr Berkoff, your latest play has a central theme of masturbation. Is this a metaphor for your entire career?" However, when the time came, I bottled it a bit and ended up just saying, "I'm not a theatre critic obviously, er, Steven, but I have to say, um, I didn't really enjoy your play." Then I waited for the explosion. "Well it seems I'll have to work on it a bit more," he replied, with great humility and not a trace of irony. How wrong we can be about people sometimes. I forgive him for Massage, but I still want my hour back for that Belgrano thing.

Keeping Colm on his toes

There was also a book festival in Edinburgh last week, and it was there that I ran into the Irish novelist Colm Toibin. He was doing a lunchtime reading, at which the man from the local bookshop introduced him interestingly as "Colm Toe Ban". He read from his last novel and from his current work- in-progress. In between, he talked engagingly about life in Ireland and answered questions from the audience. One woman said she'd been struck by the difference between him and his work. "You're much perkier than a lot of your novels," she said.

Colm told me he's recently collaborated on a novel with six other Irish writers, including Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bulger and Joseph O'Connor. It's called Finbarr's Hotel and will be published in September. The big secret is who wrote which bit. "People think they can tell who wrote what, but nobody has guessed right yet," he said.