13 shows in 3 days - it must be the Edinburgh Fringe.
Like every theatre nut, I’ve done my time in Edinburgh and hadn’t been back for a decade, so it was nice to get a fix again. It might be bigger and brasher, but the central fact remains: stuff gets over-praised in the heady carnival atmosphere and when many of these shows hit the cold light of London, they sink without trace.
It’s got a lot more corporate. The four big Festival venues - Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, Underbelly - have all morphed into large brands and have set up great multi-venue sites around George Square, and which have a great party vibe about them. They’re slick, well-marketed, and seem to have broken off and called themselves Edinburgh Comedy Festival (the subtext being we’re better and more professional). Sadly the reality didn’t match the hype. All the weakest shows I saw, including one I walked out of, were in the big venues, and the more interesting stuff was often found in the free Alternative Fringe. There the venues might lack air and stink of chlorine, but you pay by throwing money in a bucket after, and they were the only shows that were full.
The famous Assembly Rooms in George Street have been tarted up with a ‘Jamie’s’ Italian’ restaurant as its centrepiece. Not exactly edgy, and the bar there now has all the allure of a Novotel in Gdansk.
It was there I saw Dave Florez play The Intervention staged by Phil Nichols’ Comedians Theatre Company with Nichols himself in the lead. Unsuitably staged in the Assembly Room’s newly gilded ballroom with its crystal chandeliers, it looked lost.
“Intervention” is an Alcoholics Anonymous term for a family and friends lockdown in the home of the heavy drinker, when the addict is forced to confront his problem and hopefully begin the path to rehabilitation. Zac (Nichols) is challenged by various family members and as skeletons burst from the closet, it is revealed that violent abuse from his father was at the bottom of his troubles. The curse of Edinburgh, condensing plays to fit one hour slots, means that characters or motivations were not properly developed and it all comes across as rather trite. Hindered by a clumpy set (why bother with those turn-around times?), the cast flail about, the only saving grace being James Carroll Jordan, who lends some badly needed dramatic weight to the difficult role of the father.
American Girlfriend is American comic Laura Levites’ engaging tale of her love affair with Britain and her struggles to get her English boyfriend a visa so he could come join her in LA. It failed, he failed her, and she lives to fight another day. Like Ruby Wax’s glam young sister, she combines Jewish chutzpah with a sharp eye for British foibles.
Edinburgh was overflowing with American talent and one of the brightest is David Mills, whose show Smart Casual was also at the Alternative Fringe at the Hive. Already quite established in London, and a winner of the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year, his delivery is as sharp as his suits, and his material is fresh and challenging. He is going places.
Re-Animator: The Musical is a sleeper hit. Direct from LA and starring George Wendt (Norm from Cheers), it is a gloriously unique creation – a splatter horror musical. The front rows get rainwear to protect them from the floods of blood and gore and some lucky punters even get to handle the organs at a post mortem. Oklahoma it ain’t. Based on the cult splatter movie, it centres on a dedicated student at a medical college and his girlfriend who become involved in bizarre experiments on re-animating dead tissue, when an odd new student arrives on campus. All the horror clichés are present and correct: the mad scientist thwarted by authority, his nerdy med school usurper, the fresh faced all-American kids, and an experiment gone horribly wrong. Mark Nutter’s score is wonderfully cheesy and was perfectly played on just a synthesizer but its vocal lines are actually sophisticated and its lyrics are wonderfully sharp. It knows what it’s doing and it delivers with great energy. A full blooded evening!
The highlight though was New York cabaret sensation Lady Rizo. Think the explosive talent of a Streisand, the wit of a Midler, the wackiness of Lady Gaga and the raw yearning of Amy Winehouse and you might come close.
An elegant and sassy glamour puss her command of an audience is total. Her musical choices are inspired (Jimmy Hendrix, Piaf, Blondie and Dolly Parton) and she adds to the mix some great original songs of her own, which are expertly played by her five piece combo. Her saving grace is that she eschews irony and leaves the banter for between the songs. Her rapport with her audience is bold and she devises devilishly clever ways to beguile her admirers. She is startling and fresh and just what you need after a dozen shows.