Edinburgh International Festival and The Fringe, 2018

Posted on: 24 Aug 2018 by Philip Wyn Jones

Greetings from Edinburgh. At the International Festival I’ve attended five events. The Usher Hall was the venue for Haydn’s The Creation, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Mahler’s Symphonies 8 and 9. At the King’s Theatre I saw John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. And so to The Fringe.

Dietrich, Natural Duty (Performer and joint-author, Peter Groom; Joint-author and director, Oliver Gully). Marlene Dietrich felt it was her duty to defeat Hitler – from outside Germany. She travelled to the USA and was made a captain in the American army. She returned to Europe and entertained the troops by singing and chatting with them while experiencing their primitive living conditions. In private, she was constantly worried about her mother who was still in Berlin. Peter Groom, an accomplished drag artist is an elegant Dietrich with a fine line in innuendo. Imaginative use of sound and lighting add a further dimension to this impressive show.

Finding Fassbender (Author and performer, Lydia Larson; Director, Blythe Stewart). Eve, not too thrilled with her life in Wolverhampton, decides to try her luck in London. There, in her dingy digs, she finds an envelope addressed to actor Michael Fassbender. Finding him and handing over the letter becomes her major ambition. Which areas of London does he frequent? Does he have specific interests and hobbies? Extensive research follows. Lydia Larson takes us, skilfully, on countless hilarious but fruitless journeys. Eve is about to succeed when disaster strikes and the next train to Wolverhampton seems to be the only option. Great fun, then, but also sadness as we witness a lonely person’s obsession with elusive celebrity.

Warhol: Bullet Karma (Author and performer, Garry Roost; Director, Paul Garnault). The word ‘bullet’ is a clue here. It concerns the episode in Andy Warhol’s life when he was shot by Valerie Solanas, an unbalanced and man-hating woman who resented the fact that Warhol would not film her screenplay. Warhol was injured but survived. Psychologically he was never the same again. As he says in this impressive drama, “I was never nervous before but I’m nervous now”. Garry Roost is a totally convincing Warhol and also portrays several key figures in Warhol’s life. We learn a lot about his personal life and his career as a film-maker and –his own words- as a “non-artist”.

Benny (Author, Owen Thomas; Performer, Liam Tobin; Director, Gareth Bale). This is a very detailed and sometimes emotionally charged portrait of Benny Hill. We learn of his early years on the music halls and there’s a skilful use of sound as we hear the often cruel barracking from hostile audiences. Then came the black and white days on the BBC, followed by colour and more technical resources on ITV. After many successful years he was suddenly cast aside and a lifetime of loneliness followed.  A very moving scene occurs when we witness his experience during a visit to Charlie Chaplin’s study. Congratulations to the three artists listed above. This is a superb show.  

Bottom (Author and performer, Will Hudson). The advance publicity for this show said it was about “bums, Beyonce and burnt fish fingers”. Yes, but there’s more to it than that – dancing, for example. Will Hudson is a personable young man who knows how to charm an audience. He speaks frankly about being a ‘bottom’ in his gay sexual encounters. He’d quite like to be a ‘top’, not only in bed but also in life in general. He also dislikes the way people categorise everything and everyone. Why, he pleads, can’t he be described simply as a young gay man looking for love? This is a charming and worthwhile show but it contains far too much dancing.

Roald Dahl’s The Twits (Adaptation, David Woods; Performers, ETC). I took two of my young friends, Brigid and Mohira, to see this jolly show. Their Dad came too. It’s basically a kids’ show but it was also great fun for all the adults present. It was great to see Mr and Mrs Twit being outwitted by the birds, the monkeys and by us, the audience. The performers were excellent singers, dancers and narrators and Mr and Mrs Twit were delightfully disgusting.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room (Authors, Ades Singh, Cameron Gill; Performers, Reading University Dramatic Society; Director, Cameron Gill). Following the great success of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock has assembled a team of writers to come up with ideas for his next film. At the same time there’s been a gruesome murder nearby. This is a good idea for a short comedy thriller and the young cast were enthusiastic and energetic. Sadly, this flatly written show was neither thrilling nor amusing.

Old Movies Saved My Life (Author and performer, Mel Byron; Director, Chris Head). This entertaining show comprised Mel Byron’s amusing reminiscences, a slide-show and a quiz – with prizes. Brought up in a nondescript little town in the 1970s, she felt out of touch with the outside world and depended on old black and white films on TV for her education. She tried to speak with the cut-glass accents of English actresses and yearned for the fashions and hairstyles of the Hollywood stars. The man of her dreams was Ronald Colman, for his looks and his voice.  At the end her performance Mel Byron handed us a long short-list of films she recommended. One of them was The Wicked Lady with Margaret Lockwood.  It’s on my shelf. I’ll give it a go one day soon.

James Dean is Dead! (Long Live James Dean) (Author, Jackie Skarvellis; Performer, Kit Edwards; Director, Peter Darney; Production, Em-Lou). A wrecked car and a dead body lying beside it; that’s how this effective drama begins. The body comes alive and there’s James Dean talking to us about his brief life and career. We hear about his poetry-loving mother, his disastrous job interviews and his training as an actor. Clearly, the author thinks that the image we have of James Dean was the real thing, not something concocted in the Actors’ Studio. Kit Edwards is probably better looking than Dean ever was but we believe that he is Dean as he recounts his casting couch experiences and his many relationships with both sexes. A melancholy note is struck when Dean talks sadly about actress Pier Angeli, probably his only true love, and her marriage to 1950s crooner, Vic Damone.

Roll on next year and Festival and Fringe 2019!

Philip Wyn Jones

Image: Liam Tobin as Benny at Chapter in 2017

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