Edinburgh Fringe 2017: Highlights

Before returning to Newcastle after a brilliant week and a half visiting family and friends and touring round Ulster, we hit up the Fringe. Last year we went to the closing weekend, leaving behind a tired, littered, dishevelled Edinburgh. This year we tried the opening weekend as the buzz was building and the acts still fresh. We learnt from last year’s rookie mistakes that we made despite warnings from hardened Fringers that venues can take longer to reach than maps indicate due to steeper-than-expected hills and the swelled volume of people occupying the streets. We had a relatively relaxed time this year, although we got roped into more audience participation than we’d bargained for. It was an excellent three days, and listed below are what we saw and my personal highlights.

Saturday 5 Aug
An intimate showcase of informative and thought-provoking international documentary and fiction shorts.

The Guilty Feminist
Our timing worked out beautifully to see the live recording of what is fast becoming my favourite podcast. Co-hosted by Deborah Frances-White and Desiree Burch with guest Dana Alexander, the episode’s theme was ‘emotional labour’. This theme recurred throughout my Fringe experience and I have not stopped thinking it over since.

An example of the unspoken labour we give to others often without desire to (e.g. to keep us safe, to avoid conflict, to benefit others at the expense of ourselves, etc.) occurred on the train home. My partner and I were sitting at a table with a delightful young woman who happened to be the director of the musical live drama The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash (I only mention gender because it remains imperative to highlight women in the creative industries). We were joined by an older whisky-drinking woman who insisted on telling us about her life as a fortune-teller to the world’s rich and famous, often shutting down our existing conversation about the Fringe, higher education and the arts to do so.

We were all polite, thinking that perhaps she was lonely, but knowing that she was playing on this to get attention. For example, she feigned not being able to open the cap on the first miniature whisky bottle to get talking to my partner, even though she managed perfectly well with the second same flimsy little cap. We didn’t particularly react when she insisted on confidently relaying 'facts' to each of us about our lives without asking. Although these 'facts' were vague as fuck, not one reached the ballpark. She forcibly imparted what she thought was wisdom inspired by vaguely Christian values while insisting you could believe in God (Yahweh?) without being religious, which, again, none of us asked for.

When she alighted at Berwick we wondered if politeness and grinning and bearing such situations is good for everyone, even if it would be awkward to continue the journey having potentially upset someone. The woman knew what she was up to, though, as she apologized for talking at us for an hour. People saying sorry for something they’ve knowingly done is a bugbear of mine. It is disingenuous, and makes me resent the waste of my time and energy. Volunteering or consenting to giving company and conversation to an older, perhaps lonely, person is one thing, but having it forced on you in an environment from which you cannot escape is another. One of the podcast panellists suggested an 'emotional labour' chequebook. Where do accommodating people like me with one of those unintentionally meek and welcoming faces sign up for one?

When I first moved to Newcastle, I lived quite close to Byker where I, Daniel Blake (dir. Ken Loach, 2016) was filmed. Having myself come from a working-class background and now leading a different life through circumstance, I was curious to hear Johns’s comedic retelling of his story of going from being a non-professional actor in a social realist British film to becoming an internationally-recognized star. Johns’s observation that working-class folk exude less natural confidence than those of the middle or upper classes struck a chord with me – then add being a woman – as we tend to be more apologetic for our existence, possess inbuilt guilt and feel like we’re not supposed to access knowledge or culture. His observations on suddenly finding himself amidst the excesses of Cannes and the glitz of prize culture are as informative as they are funny.

This cheeky Irishman never fails to make me laugh, although it’s about time he laid off the Titanic jokes. This show was more heart-warming than I expected, framed around his antics helping his elderly father make Meals-on-Wheels deliveries in time to hear a horse race they’d betted on. My partner was pretty game, and by sitting in the front row we knocked over the first domino of audience participation. It turned out that much of the front row hailed from Northern Ireland, where Delamere is popular as a regular panellist on The Blame Game. Consulting with the whole audience, a fair whack were from the Republic or Northern Ireland, there were a good few Scots and Welsh, a few meek voices from England, and not one person from beyond UK/Ireland at, Delamere pointed out, one of the world’s most internationally representative festivals. And boy did the localized jokes roll then.

Having told him I was from Belfast, he never came back to me directly again (I did get a personalized smile and thumbs up at the end, though), but he did talk to my partner for a while. Asked what his favourite film was after telling Neil he is a film historian, Andrew replied with Les Debuts de Max au cinéma (dir. Max Linder, 1910), which I tweeted to Neil after and hopefully he’s having some fun with. Delamere is a comedian who is highly adept at building tangential threads based on the contingency of audience responses that enhance his prepared material, and the show is great craic.
Sunday 6 August

A fantastic collection of mostly black and white contemporary photography in areas of Edinburgh near the Téte-a-Téte Foto Studio in Blackfriars Street. There is some great experimentation with focus and point of view, but I was mostly drawn to the distinctive ways that the architecture negotiating with Edinburgh's the steep hills are represented. If the mounts had been smaller, I’d have been tempted to part with thirty of my much-needed pounds for a print.

This affecting play took us by surprise. The flyer distributer who approached us as we tried to figure out where best to avoid the rain sold it to us by insisting that it was quite funny as well as serious, and that tickets were 2-for-1. They were not, and while the play had some humorous moments, it was harder-going than we expected. I must stress, though, that it is superbly written and performed by Nicola Wren. Replay is deserving of deeper analysis, but while it is still on at the festival all I will say is that it deals effectively with the ramifications in adulthood of the trauma of loss experienced in childhood – a topic very close to my heart that is not discussed enough.

When we saw this in the programme and realized we’d both been nerdy young fans of the UK children’s show Knightmare which aired from 1987 to 1994, we had to go. We looked up trailers of Knightmare Live, a nostalgic comedy pastiche of the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’-inspired show aimed at its now adult fanbase, and simply had to enter the castle of confusion. We shouldn’t have been surprised at how many hardcore fans were there, now evidently into Game of Thrones, given the amount of references going over our heads (as nerds we’re more into space and paranormal-themed sci-fi). It was a great atmosphere. The set-up involved the regular crew who were filled out by guest comedians performing elsewhere at the Fringe. A Dungeoneer was selected from the audience – someone who had emailed in beforehand. This first guy lasted only a few minutes before being fatally wounded by a goblin in the first ‘room’. 

The next name called was a woman who said she was on her hen-do. There was no response. The third name was also a woman who disappointingly was also not there. My partner’s name was called, and he was the dungeoneer until the end of the show as his was the last name they had. The organizers must have planned to give all four a go, but found themselves having to drop the easy deaths and keep Andrew alive until the show’s end, when he was mercilessly cut in half by a big cardboard circular saw that had the agency to change direction and run right at him. Knowing that with the heavy, blinding helmet on, he was missing the show he paid to see, so I recorded what I could for him. 

This version of the live show was striving hard to attain gender parity in its participants (the comedian playing evil Lilith made many Bechdel Test jokes) even though, judging by the audience present, most of its fans are male. I regretted not emailing, and didn’t because Andrew was up for it and I thought about a hundred people would have been begging to. Andrew was at times getting bigger laughs than the guest comedians who were directing him. He sang, danced the YMCA, and improvised beautifully. It was super fun. 

We saw Rachel Parris last year and loved her. We wanted to support her again this year, and her new solo show is excellent. Centring on being invited to give a keynote speech at her former secondary school, Parris’s new musical/sketch comedy examines ideas around what goes into such speeches, constructs of being inspirational and aspirational, and how to convey a feminist message in an anti-feminist world. She also gets the audience to write short words of advice for her, which she incorporates into the show at random and tweets afterwards. 

Monday 7 August

A fun morning-time revue of Irish stand-up at the Fringe. Names are escaping me, but I particularly liked Áine Gallagher’s persona-based stand-up.

A fascinating exhibition telling the story of tragedy and survival during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to the Antarctic in 1914-17. The story is mostly shown through the still and moving-image work of the expedition’s official photographer, Frank Hurley. It includes many other artefacts, such as clothing, notebooks, paintings, newspaper clippings, subsequent publications and letters Shackleton sent to prospective benefactors. Honestly, I struggled to feel sorry for Shackleton as his dream literally crumbled away amongst the substantial ice packs. The expedition left Britain as intended, even though a war was breaking out in Europe that would inevitably involve the UK. I did feel for the crew struggling to survive the elements for almost a year while Shackleton searched for help. I imagine they might have been better off in the Antarctic than in the trenches. I admired Hurley’s stamina for capturing the incredible documentary images he did under fearsome conditions, only a fraction of which were salvaged. It was fascinating reading about the many flashes he had to arrange and time with the camera shutter to capture the ghostly Endurance during the many months of night. The National Library of Scotland where the exhibition is housed is worth a visit too.

This was a fun, light-hearted hour with young, mostly student, comedians giving it a good go. The compere, Callum, was great, and the four acts performed well. I took some issue with the Welsh guy who decided slagging Northern Ireland off in earnest was a good idea. He needs to learn from the likes of Neil Delamere to laugh with much of the audience, and not make enemies of his allies. I always try to be supportive as stand-up is such a difficult craft, but there was no way I was going to let a Welsh politics student get away with nasty and ignorant comments rather than satirical observations. Otherwise, it was fun times. The audience was sparse, but Callum generated a great atmosphere. We were singled out again, largely as there were so few people there, and by saying that we are both film scholars got ourselves called the ‘Fringiest’ couple Callum had met, I guess because we’re professional culture vultures or something.

A very funny narrative sketch show with music, mime, and fearless young performers. It was an enjoyable way to round off our Fringe weekend.
We also went to Air A Lair, the retrospective of Alastair MacLennan's performance and drawing work on at Summerhall until 30 September and listed as part of the Edinburgh Festival. His 30-minute performance on Saturday was deeply moving, and drew on variations of past performance installations. I'm heading back again on Saturday 12 August to see his collaborative performance with Sandra Johnston.


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