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Reflections on Edinburgh Fringe 2019

A shorter list of non-reviewed shows to write about for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, as there weren’t that many shows that I wasn’t reviewing one way or another (my pithiest ones were a mere two paragraphs, a first for me). I’d have liked to have seen more stuff without a proverbial reviewer’s hat on, but as I appear to have found a repeat destination for my summer holiday (I’ve already booked for 2020) more people found out I was going back to the Fringe, and could I please consider their show? Then, as a result of Assembly (one of the Big Four venue operators, the others being Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly – all are easy to distinguish from one another by the different coloured uniforms of their staff and the overall colour schemes of their signage, red, yellow, pink and purple respectively) wanting reviewers to obtain ‘accreditation’ from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, and I obliged, PRs and producers I’d never heard of were inviting me to shows. I just might go the whole hog next year and not see anything at the Fringe unless I am specifically invited to it.

I was invited to two ‘meet the press’ gatherings, both of which I missed on account of having shows to go and see when the meetings were on. This was the first time I ventured into Surgeons Hall, where the press office for theSpaceUK – I am grateful to the press team there for booking me into shows, sometimes just by me walking in and saying, ‘Hello, I would like a ticket for such and such a production’. I thank Emily Hay at Gilded Balloon for sorting out press tickets for shows, again sometimes at short notice. And the unnamed person at Underbelly who was beavering away, sending me confirmations of press tickets as late as 11:30pm on a Sunday night – well done.

Overall, it has been a very good Fringe – there was only one dud production I saw out of 58 – Bible John at Pleasance Courtyard if you must know. As I said ‘yes’ to so many miscellaneous review requests and had gone through the Fringe brochure to see if there was anything I wanted to see anyway, there was little scope to investigate show recommendations from others – it’s necessary to time oneself appropriately, leaving time for meals, getting to and from venues and finding time to bash out reviews. I was, however, able to check out ‘In Loyal Company’, written and performed by David William Bryan, on the recommendation of Catherine Francoise, a singing teacher based in Buckinghamshire, and on the back of that astounding performance, I booked to see his other Fringe 2019 show, ‘Fragility of Man’.

I also caught the new musical ‘Cathy: A Retelling of Wuthering Heights’, because its title character was being played by Emma Torrens. I wasn’t aware of Torrens previously, but she was highly recommended by Barney Wilkinson, a young musical theatre actor, who said she had the finest singing voice he’d ever heard. This turned out to be no exaggeration, and indeed Torrens even won the Derek Award for Best Voice 2019.

​‘Fragility of Man’ is a vastly different show to ‘In Loyal Company’, telling the story of John Doe, a name given to the narrator character in this one man show on account of his notoriety (I think – as I wasn’t on reviewing duty I was as relaxed as I could be, even in an extremely hot venue, and those two things combined in such a way that I wasn’t all that attentive to minor details, sitting back and enjoying the performance for what it was). There’s a partner, Jane, and together they have a son, Michael, whose very existence proves a game changer for John. For various reasons (not all of them his own), John keeps being put in prison, breaking my cardinal rule for anyone who wants to dabble in things like drug dealing: Don’t. Get. Caught. It’s a compelling story, and told with the intensity and passion that David William Bryan is starting to gain a reputation for.

I also managed to find time to catch ‘Holy Land’, presented by a fresh upstart production company called Elegy Theatre. I reviewed it for them when it previewed at The Space Arts Centre on the Isle of Dogs, and am pleased to report it has been enhanced with the kind of video projections and images that would have made the narrative clearer in its earlier incarnation. But they had an actor in their cast at the time who was sufficiently triggered by the hard-hitting nature of the narrative: he left the show by mutual consent. Another actor (Rick Romero) came in at short notice, and did very well at the London press night. It’s about the ‘dark web’ and the consequences of indulging in such online activity.

Nick Dixon

​I also took a punt on ‘Christianity and Me’, a work in progress comedy act by Nick Dixon. I have seen enough Fringe shows to know that the title of the show is not necessarily even remotely indicative of its content. Fortunately or unfortunately here, he actually does want to talk about the Christian faith – his Fringe audiences have apparently been boosted by the membership of the evangelical Destiny Church Edinburgh. Most people in the audience on the night I attended were Christians, or at least said they were, and most of those were also evangelical, though one described her kind of religion as ‘liberal progressive’. Dixon has some traditionalist views, stating a preference for sombre and reflective services over guitars and chart-music style hymns.

His show is in a work in progress, so I’ll side with the religionists and be forgiving. His lines of argument do need fleshing out – why are songs from yesteryear superior to the ones written recently? But as Dixon says, he’s got one of the most difficult tasks at the Fringe, where the default position is to be atheist, or at least do what I’ve done and be highly critical of organised religion. My attitude towards Christianity is best summed up by Gandhi, who is quoted as having said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” Still, it was a surreal experience, if anything, listening to someone promote chastity before marriage in all seriousness: it’s a message still given out at chapel but rarely if ever at a comedy gig. Dixon does at least have a suitably pleasant manner.

Ed Byrne

Australian comedian Rhys Nicholson, who I’ve seen and loved three Fringes in a row, likes to close his set by encouraging audiences to take a punt on someone they’ve not seen before – maybe there will be someone who people really like and will follow in the future, whether at the Fringe or elsewhere. Now, the first time I saw Irish comedian Ed Byrne live, he was on about how relentless wedding planning is. When I saw his subsequent show, he got married and he was on about living together with his wife Claire and getting used to one another’s eccentricities. Fast forward to Fringe 2019 and he’s 47 years of age and his two children are growing up fast. Well, he kept saying he’s 47 now, but he still jumps around and commands the stage with the energy of someone considerably younger. And he’s as funny as ever, at least as far as I’m concerned.

What else? That walk up to the Pleasance Courtyard is probably always going to be exhausting for me (it’s a particularly steep incline) and when August rolls around again, there’s no point denying it: I’ll end up succumbing eventually to the oh so calorific but oh so tasty eateries like the City Restaurant on Nicolson Street and the various places around the main Fringe venues that do pizzas and fish and chips and what have you. Don’t bother with the coffee from the outdoor stands at places like George Square and Assembly Rooms though – bleurgh. But no summer cold to report this year, and I’ve come back not nearly as exhausted as a schedule of 58 shows in 12 days plus reviews for the vast majority of those might suggest.

Haste ye back, so the saying goes. Is 21st September soon enough? I’m seeing some people I rather like in a touring production of Mamma Mia! at the Edinburgh Playhouse.

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