Day 1: Thoughts on Shows 1-7

Hal Cruttenden in George Orwell’s Coming up for AirTerri Paddock is the Editorial Director of Whatsonstage.com. She saw 22 shows – and counting – in three-and-a-half days during her trip to Edinburgh at the start of the Fringe festival.

Thanks to a host of IT problems, my online access was crankily intermittent at best and wholly non-existent at worst in Edinburgh. As a result, I’m horribly behind on the blogging front. But I’ll catch up this week with some day-by-day thoughts on the shows I managed to see (and a few I didn’t).

Day 1

After my sneak-peek preview of Stewart Lee’s late-night Elizabeth and Raleigh minutes after disembarking my train from London the night before, my theatregoing schedule gets properly underway on Friday 1 August.

First up, it’s George Orwell’s Coming up for Air at the Assembly Rooms, George Street (1-24 August, 11.00am). I opt out of the press performance of Sherman Cymru’s Deep Cut at the Traverse for this one, intrigued on reading the press release to learn that Orwell’s lesser-known 1939 novel – with passages that anticipate his signature work, 1984 – has been adapted and produced by my media colleague Dominic Cavendish. Dominic is the second stringer on the Daily Telegraph and founder of the critics’ podcasting website TheatreVoice. He’s been coming to the Fringe in a reporting capacity since 1995, but this year he crosses over to make his playwriting debut, which he talks about in a feature for the Telegraph.

The monologue is brilliantly performed by comedian Hal Cruttenden (who’s also performing his stand-up show Climb Every Molehill at the Assembly in the evenings) as the Willy Loman-like George Bowling, a middle-aged, middle-England insurance salesman living a life of quiet desperation. “Well, he certainly knows how to tell a story,” the old gent sitting next to me comments at the end and I have to agree. Best line: “We’re all bought … and worse, we’re bought with our own money.”

I then head to the Traverse for back-to-back premieres, the first being the National Theatre of Scotland co-production of Architecting, the mesmerising new piece by two-time Fringe First-winning US ensemble The TEAM, which I’ve reviewed here already.

The second is Finished With Engines, a play I’m attracted to because it’s performed by two members of The Riot Group, Stephanie Viola and Drew Friedman. I’ve been a fan of previous plays by the New York-based Group, most notably Victory at the Dirt Palace and Pugilist Specialist, which previously had their UK premieres at the Fringe before London transfers. While this isn’t a Riot Group offering per se (it’s been commissioned by The Arches in Glasgow), writer-director Alan McKendrick has taken more than a few leaves out of the razor-sharp book originally belonging to Riot Group artistic director-author-performer Adriano Shaplin, now a writer-in-residence with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Best line: “My nipples look like chewed gum on the streets.”

Speeding out of the Traverse, I jump in a cab to Zoo Southside for Death by Chocolate, an “interactive murder mystery installation” that’s been a hit in Australia and, even before the festival began, had nearly sold out of its extended schedule thanks no doubt to a nifty concept and the promise of free chocolates. But despite the yummy handmade chocolates provided by James of Arran, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

The audience are given booklets and pens then led into a room where, we’re told, a murder has been committed at a singles’, chocolate-tasting event. But there’s no performance preamble to provide any context. The actor-suspects march in and wait for us “detectives” to interview them, but most of us – me included – are too embarrassed and confused to do much but poke through the “evidence trays” set up around the room. After an hour, the actors exit and we’re led in a half-hour crime-solving discussion, with various outlandish theories aired. I couldn’t help but think that, as a real-life singles’ event, it might be an amusing way to pass an evening, but as theatrical offering, it’s a gimmicky disappointment. To add insult to injury, at the end of the 90-minute ordeal, we’re not even told who-done-it, only given a card with a web address and told to check back at the end of the festival. Ridiculous.

Another swift taxi ride and a hike to the top of Calton Hill – with its breathtaking views over Edinburgh Castle and the rest of the city – and I make it just in time for a much more rewarding experience, Footsbarn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in a specially erected big top. This is the company’s first-ever visit to Edinburgh and their first performance of this acclaimed production in nearly 15 years. It’s great fun and – with its masks, jaunty music and general carnival atmosphere – it holds the audience, including several under-fives, totally rapt for two hours.

After a dinner break, I roll up to the Pleasance’s Baby Grand for my last show of the day, comedian Phil Nichol’s late-night line-up Old Rope. Each night, a string of stand-ups turf up to try out new material. If it fails and they lapse into existing material, they have to grab the rope hanging from the ceiling. I get to hear new gags from co-host Tiffany Stevenson, Shazia Mirza, Steven Grant and Holly Walsh, all of whom have me and the rest of the audience in stitches. The final headline act tonight, who’s allowed to do nothing but “old rope”, is Australian Jim Jeffries who recounts his recent bust-up with Kelly and Sharon Osbourne. With a different line-up for every show, I could happily see Old Rope every night. Best line (care of Mirza): “The only way Heather Mills can redeem herself now is to find Madeleine McCann.”

- Terri Paddock, Editorial Director, Whatsonstage.com

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