Edinburgh 2018: Entertaining, Enterprising & Educating

Hello there reader. Welcome. Take a seat. At some point I will start the formal part of this article but first I want to make you feel relaxed & have a chat. A sort of soft transition between the outside world & the world this article creates…

The famed soft start. Each year Edinburgh Fringe has its stylistic trends and this year it saw multiple actors or comedians already on stage as the audience filed in. These openings blur the line between fiction and reality, between stories made up for laughs or reflection and the reality of the world within which we live in.

But this wasn’t the only trend I spotted during a week at the Edinburgh Festivals. It sounds obvious but the performing arts can take on numerous roles and purposes: from educating to entertaining, from provoking emotions & empathy to being simply being enterprising enough for the artists to make money.

And the comedy and theatre I saw at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe took on many of these roles, showing the diversity of the festivals and the whole UK arts scene.

Educating Edinburgh

Each year at the Edinburgh Fringe there are hot topics which feature in multiple shows which try to add insight or campaign for change in particular fields.

Following several years where mental health has been a prominent topic, in its 70th anniversary year it was no surprise to see the NHS and health care provision scattered throughout the programme. After the cuts created a dystopic world without petrol, chocolate or free health care.  Using the former medical demonstration room at Summerhall to its best, the characters are left to treat themselves leading to inevitable tragedy.  The piece engagingly makes a case for keeping health care free.

But there were less positive examples capitalising on the trend: In Addition also looks at private health insurance & the stresses it puts on a relationship but then tried to bring in too many issues (mental health, millenial malaise, online wellbeing).  However, the slightly odd movement led to a lack of empathy or shock, showing how careful a piece needs to be to engage if it is to also educate.

2017 was the 50th anniversary of decriminalising homosexuality and some hit LGBT shows returned to this year’s festival in order to continue the debate. Among them, Love Song to Lavendar Menace brought to life the story of an 80s Edinburgh LGBT bookshop as its owners, clients and the world generally changes.  Charmingly told with words and music from the time, this felt like the sort of piece younger viewers need to see in order to remind them of the past.    What people are less keen on, though, is a lecture on LGBT having children, as was the case with No Kids which tried to explore the issue from either side but never got far beyond the cliches (e.g. the Madonna soundtrack) despite some engaging choreography.  Picking your issue with an educated, liberal Edinburgh audience is tricky: people no longer need educating in the same way about LGBT issues.

Nearly every comedian and much theatre had something to say about women, their rights and their treatment, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo campaign over the last year.  The first comedian I saw was Lou Sanders who looked at shame, (internalised) misogyny and the fact “there’s nothing more feminine as a vagina.” Not for everyone but she made us laugh – sometimes as much in shock as in humour.

In my next show, Jen Brister (about whom more later) warned of white men trying to appropriate #MeToo.  She was right, on occasion, with the likes of Gareth Richards including unfunny jokes about consent.  But Finn Taylor tried to do something a little more intelligent.  He took me on a journey through feminism, consent & nuance but then twisted at the end to make me think about my behaviour. It divided the audience: some found it increasingly uncomfortable but I enjoyed his attempt to make us challenge our own opinions.

Empathetic Edinburgh

In an increasingly divided world, though, learning to reflect on one’s own behaviour and go on to understand someone else’s is often in short supply.

And several comedians tackled the need head on.  Mark Watson had built last year’s work in progress in to a full show with pleasing anecdotes which showed both our individual quirks and common ground.  Andrew White took a similar tack, with added comedy mime, asking his audience at the end to be kind and tolerant.  White is one to watch but the YouTube star James Veitch already has a mass following and his work in progress gently pokes fun at the absurdities and unnecessary unkindness in modern life.  The social anxities of 21st century life also featured in the comedy from Jimmy McGhee : stories finding a home, work & dating were all relatable to and empathetically told.   One of the biggest names I saw was Phill Jupitus who gently made fun of his audience, his adopted home in Scotland and himself, showing the best comedy does not have to be shouty but engaged, imaginative and sensitive.

In the Theatre, the staging of The Greatest Play In the History of the World, Julie Hesmondhalgh took audience member’s shoes to represent some of the characters in her monologue as she  tells the story of neighbours on Preston Road as they handle love, loss & our mark on this universe.  We are all part of the story and can relate to it.

For me, leaving my home in Wales still hurts sometimes and I still feel a link there.  A theme which Blackthorn draws on as it tells the story of 2 Yorkshire villagers as they grow up & their worlds & village changes. Strong performances that made me cry. Twice. At the same time, Summerhall showed the story of an Island Town – a northern city which has lost its industry where 3 young residents tell the story of how they try to escape and it goes shockingly wrong.  Both of these linked in to a sense of place, identity and belonging.

Perhaps the most unexpected moment of empathy was when I learnt the story of Maggie Thatcher, Queen of Soho is a kitch cabaret-style reimagining of Clause 28 & the fall of our first female PM. It’s loud, fun & a timely reminder of how far we’ve come.  But also reminds us of the human aspect of Thatcher and how she, too, was trapped by circumstances.

Enterprising Edinburgh

Despite all the artistic and political aspirations of the artists, it is clear that performers need to make a living out of their time in Edinburgh.  In what felt like quite a white, middle class fringe, it was clear that big names fill seats and the most lucrative artists understand their audience.

Take The Pin – well reviewed in many of the newspapers and the audience was filled with the sort of people that still actually buy newspapers.  The sketches and capers linked loosely together about a warm-up act accidentally taking over from the professionals in something that felt like a youthful Two Ronnies episode.

Elsewhere, Choir of Man attract a mass audience for their Irish inspired, slightly stereotypical, acapella singing based in a pub.  Entertaining, at times well sung, and making good use of youtube, DVDs and social media to make sure the huge venue is full.

Simon Evans is an increasingly big name with his slots on Radio 4 and his show clearly knew his middle class, middle aged market with his sharp (if sometimes uncomfortable) analysis of Britain today. But for me his “blue blur” (his phrase) never quite delivered clear insights.

And this is not to be rude or snobbish about these shows which are of good quality and with a sharp eye for their marketing and branding; look at the growth of big venues & big drinking venues (e.g. Bistro Square) just to look at the growing audiences at the festival.

it just felt that at times the 2018 festival was a little white, middle class and “safe” and the festival I enjoy is creative, edgy and surprising.

Entertaining Edinburgh

In the end, though, we ask that we are also entertained during our time in the theatre or comedy venue, however many people it packs in.  Some plays over promise in their advertising but #Dave Literally the Best Magician delivered: great banter, structure & magic. I was engrossed, amazed and wanted to go again the next day.  The twins in The Stevenson Experience have capitalised on YouTube fame and I feared they would have one joke (already shared online).  Far from it and they combined fast gags & fun songs about being twins, travel & identity theft for an hour.  And Miss Behave involved a fun, fast, camp competitions which, in a drive to win points, may have led to your author baring flesh (pictures, thankfully, unavailable).

The quiz & entertainment show format also featured in Fallen Fruit, a surprising play which weaved together stories from 1989 Bulgaria & the fall of communism. Powerful, emotional & physical storytelling nearly 30 years on and engrossed me for an hour.

Competition of a different sort was at the heart of Square Go: you are transported to a Scottish playground, doubling as a wrestling ring as you watch the fights (physical & mental) that 2 kids have as they grow up. It’s fun use of language & the in-the-round setting made this entertaining but also revealing of masculinity, identity and the pains of growing up.

Tackling gender issues from a different but innovative aspect was Jen Brister – who really is one to watch out for now.  She presented an angry & challenging hour of comedy about mothers & sons, the patriarchy & menopause.  Throughout funny and making big issues human, accessible & funny.

But in the end the “entertainment” award – and indeed my best show at Edinburgh – was Garry Starr Performs Everything. I laughed, cheered and shed a tear.  You’re taken on a rapid tour of theatre styles, fondly pointing out the absurdity & beauty of the art forms we see in Edinburgh.

2018, for me, wasn’t a great Edinburgh but as you can see from the above the festival gave me time to laugh, cry and reflect about who I am, the role of culture in our society and what it means to be entertained.  In many ways, you can’t ask for me.

But before you go, I just need to draw on one more Edinburgh tradition: whether you’ve endured or been entertained by my piece, consider the artist.  I’ll be at the door with a bucket and smile in the hope that you make this process worth my while.

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