Days 3 & 3.5: Thoughts on Shows 14-22

The New Electric Ballroom at the TraverseTerri 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.

As I previously blogged, I’m still catching up this week with some day-by-day thoughts on the shows I managed to see (and a few I didn’t) while in Edinburgh.

Day 3

This is by far my most frustrating day at the Fringe and it leaves me worn out and depressed by the end of it.

It starts, misleadingly, on a high at the Traverse with the UK premiere of THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM, written and directed by Enda Walsh, whose previous Fringe First winners include Disco Pigs, Bedbound and The Walworth Farce. Whereas the last – also produced by Ireland’s Druid Theatre and transferring to the National Theatre next month – revolved around three Irish men trapped in a flat, this new piece finds three Irish women (all sisters, two in their sixties, one who is 40) holed away in their house in a remote fishing village.

It may not be too late for youngest sister Ada (played by Catherine Walsh), who attracts the attention of Patsy (Mikel Murfi), a fisherman with verbal diarrhoea who keeps returning with the tide and a fresh haul of fish, but the old women (Rosaleen Linehan and Val Lilley) have only memories of their single, failed chance at love, on one fateful night at the dance club of the title. A memory that they constantly retell and relive. All four actors poignantly capture the characters’ aching loneliness and frustration at missed opportunities, and in true Irish storytelling fashion, they’ve all got a gift for the gab and an appreciation of quirkily black humour. Best line: “She never did age, the Virgin Mary. You might put that down to Middle-Eastern cuisine but Mary Magdalene had a face like a saddle and the truth is, a whore ages worse than someone clean.”

Come lunchtime, I dart down to the Apex hotel on Grassmarket, where West End producer and theatre owner Nica Burns, whose Edinburgh hat is running the if.comedy awards, is holding a lunch for press, producers and promoters. I have just enough time for two swift drinks but must leave again before the food is served – or, as I later learn, the water pistol fight – to hike it back to the Traverse for another Irish play, Mark O’Rowe’s TERMINUS, at the Fringe care of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. I’d like to tell you the three-hander was great – but I can’t. It’s running late. By the time they open the doors of the auditorium, it’s nearly half-an-hour late and I realise, if I stay, my schedule for the rest of the day is buggered.

I do make it to my next appointment, THE EXPERT AT THE CARD TABLE, at the Assembly Rooms on George Street. I’ve fit this into my schedule because it’s produced by the Menier Chocolate Factory, whose artistic director David Babani kindly rescues me from the back of the queue so I can get a better seat in the sold-out Wildman Room. In the one-man show Guy Hollingworth tells the story of the anonymous author of the real book of the title, which was published in 1902 and is considered the seminal text for card conjurers. It’s a fascinating story, interspersed with adroit demonstrations of some of the tricks contained in the book. But as skilful as Hollingworth clearly is with cards, his theatrical skills aren’t anywhere up to the same standard. The result is a dry, dull hour in a hot, sticky room. Not a best line exactly but it sums things up well: “Gosh, that’s fair.”

It’s no less sticky at the Pleasance Dome, where I catch another master conjuror Philip Escoffey (who bids us “welcome to the sauna dome”), presenting his debut Edinburgh show SIX IMPOSSIBLE THINGS BEFORE DINNER. If you caught Derren Brown’s last show, many of Escoffey’s mind-reading tricks may seem familiar, but they’re no less wondrous all the same; you’re still left scratching your finger and wondering how he does those half-dozen tricks involving fortune cookies, dictionaries, picture cards and plenty of enthusiastic audience participation.

After the brief lift provided by Escoffey’s show, things quickly deteriorate. CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO at the Underbelly’s Cow Barn is billed as a “live theatrical documentary” based on the edited “black box” transcripts from crashed airplanes. It’s been a hit in the US where, according to a programme note, it’s been embraced by the aviation community and used as a training video for would-be pilots. Therein lies the problem. Excluding expletives, about 90% of the dialogue is near-impenetrable jargon. A glossary of terms and suggested resources for further reading is provided in the programme. But I was rather hoping to be entertained rather than lectured. By the end of the second of the six airplane accidents recreated, I have to bail out.

If only I could have escaped the next show on my list, Badac Theatre Company’s THE FACTORY, a site-specific promenade piece performed in the Pleasance’s highly atmospheric underground space, the Under Grand. Here, the audience is meant to experience what it was like in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It starts with a full ten minutes of the actors banging sheets of metal and proceeds with 40 more minutes of them ordering us about and repeating a handful of other banal lines – “must survive, must survive, must survive” – at eardrum-shattering levels. The only truly terrifying moment comes when we, the “prisoners”, are ordered to strip. A portly, middle-aged man across from me actually begins unbuttoning his shirt until he realises only the three actor-prisoners are meant to comply. I’m so bored – and hemmed in at such close quarters – by the time we reach the so-called gas chamber that I can’t help but examine two of the doomed men’s penises. Surely they should have been circumcised? I challenge anyone to leave this experience without a piercing headache. Most repeated line: “You. You. Here. Here. Move it. Move it. Now. Now.”

My director friend Sarah Chew invites me to the Gilded Balloon to see her late-night show, THE RIOT SHOWGRRRLS CLUB, an electro-pop cabaret performed by fishnet-wearing feminist divas, but I’m feeling too worn out and disappointed to attempt another show by this point.

The depression and show fatigue – coupled with general fatigue due to lack of sleep – continues the next day, my last in Edinburgh. In the morning, I’m due at the Assembly Rooms for the children’s show THE MOZART QUESTION, the latest adaptation of a novel by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, care of Scamp Theatre, who’s already had a hit with Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. My ongoing IT problems – and a final attempt to fix them – give me an excuse not to go. (Sorry, Michael!)

I do make it to the final, 22nd show of my Edinburgh 2008 experience, Deborah Frances-White’s amusing comedy tutorial HOW TO GET ALMOST ANYONE TO WANT TO SLEEP WITH YOU – THE ADVANCED CLASS at the Pleasance Courtyard, which finishes with just 20 minutes to spare before I catch my train back to London. Frankly, I reckon I need the beginners’ class, but more on that aspect of the festival later …

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