[2007008] Best of The Edinburgh Fest

Best of The Edinburgh Fest (FringeTIX)

Asher Treleaven, Maeve Higgins, Stephen K Amos @ The Governor Hindmarsh Hotel

8:00pm, Wed 7 Mar 2007

Once again, the mysterious Mary Tobin has again assembled an international collection of comedians for a “Best of” production. Melbournite Asher Treleaven emcees for the evening and, after a very low-key entrance, allows the audience to vote on the “actual” entrance musical accompaniment – using selections from the Top Gun soundtrack (which I, sadly, know all too well… I voted for Kenny Loggins’ “Playing With The Boys,” not out of some oiled-man-volleyball fetish, but because I actually like the song… so sue me. It’s better than that fucking Teena Marie track, anyway). Sadly, “Top Gun Anthem” won, and a far more elaborate entrance ensued.

Now, I’ve not heard of Mr Treleaven before, but I like the cut of his gib. Great style, no sense of shame, a hint of absurdity, and wonderful timing. Not just a blockhead, but a bookhead – he runs us through a collection of his favourite books (“Yoga for Men”, and the Guinness World Records’ most erotic book) before introducing us to Maeve Higgins.

Maeve… hmmmm. I want to love Maeve, with her gorgeous Irish accent and all, but she’s just not… enough. Don’t get me wrong, she’s got a decent ear for a joke, her presentation – whilst a little dry – is still appealling, it’s just that she’s just… too… nice. Gentle. Friendly giggles, not guilty guffaws. Still considering whether to catch her solo show.

Asher returns onstage and hammers two forks up his nose (you missed that “blockhead” reference above, didn’t you?), then jiggles them out again – cracking stuff. We scoot off for a drink, then Asher returns to introduce The Prince – Stephen K Amos, in garish robes, accompanied by an interpreter. I’ve never seen Amos do this bit before, but his faux African prince was brilliantly realised – Amos’ rubbery face wonderfully expressive. After the expected risque Amos material (relayed – or not – by the perfectly straight interpreter), Amos banishes his straight-man from the stage and stays in character, reverting to English for a little crowd abuse. Eventually The Prince leaves, and Amos returns sans robes.

And – as ever – he’s brilliant. In fact, if anyone were to ever ask for a single recommendation for a straight-up comedian, he’d be my go-to guy. But, tonight, something was special… Those who have seen Amos before know that he plunders events from previous shows for his humor. Heckles in times gone by, people talking to him after gigs. Tonight, we were privy to one of those moments.

In 2006, Amos expressed his dislike of the “Doors Plus” ad – “DOORS! DOORS! DOORS!”. This time, he mentioned the “EVERYTHING! EVERYTHING! EVERYTHING!” ad for some rug place.

And the chap responsible for those ads – both of them – was in the crowd.

His mate dobbed him in.

Right in front of the stage. Centre.

Jesus – I don’t know who laughed more, Amos or the audience. And, considering I was weeping with laughter, gasping for breath, that’s saying something.

And that only makes me want to see Amos again – to hear the story that comes out of that chance occurrence, because I was there.

Priceless :)

[2007007] Animal Farm

Animal Farm (FringeTIX)

Gary Shelford @ Holden Street Theatres (The Arch)

2:30pm, Wed 7 Mar 2007

Don’t let the somewhat zany photo on the ads for this production fool you – this is pretty much a straight up narration of Orwell’s work, with Shelford occasionally dropping into character: an effeminate Squealer hides a fantastically nasty streak, Snowball is portrayed with a wide-eyed and innocent enthusiasm, and Napoleon was utterly terrifying during his moments of rage, with Shelford appearing to loom large on stage to accommodate the boar’s enormous presence.

Boxer, in particular, was so well developed that his death (oh no! a spoiler!) brought a tear to my eye. In general, Shelford brings the farm to life with nowt onstage but a small box; it’s a great performance, full of enthusiasm and wit – the sheep provide beautiful – if ironic – comic relief. There’s also the odd aside to give the text a contemporary feel – snippets of speeches by Tony Blair accompany the announcements of Napoleon, and there’s a witty flourish with some of the attack dogs being called “Howard” and “Costello”. Yes, it’s contrived, and yes, it’s cheap, but it’s also a throwaway departure which doesn’t detract overall.

In fact, there’s little negative to report from this show, with the exception of the air-conditioning which occasionally drip-drip-dripped onto the wooden floors and a rather annoying aural distraction. But that aside, this performance of Guy Masterson’s adaptation of Orwell’s corruption tome is… just bloody good theatre.

[2007006] What I Heard About Iraq

What I Heard About Iraq (FringeTIX)

(ooooh – dunno; five local peeps, all very good) @ Holden Street Theatres (The Studio)

12:30pm, Wed 7 Mar 2007

Right. Well. Hmmmm.

This is a tricky one.

I really didn’t like this. It felt cheap and sensationalist and lazy – but, reading those words back, they all seem to paint the wrong picture. It’s certainly a noble piece, and maybe my opinion is tainted by the reactions of the audience, and its heart is in the right place. But still…

It’s very simply performed – five orators, five TV sets all displaying the same footage as is projected onto the stage backing. “I heard,” they all begin, before reciting quotes acquired from the press – occasionally dropping into character (one chaps’ John Howard & Tony Blair impersonations, in particular, were sublime), using a variety of accent, volume. Snippets of comments that were either immediately ludicrous (utilising the audience’s hindsight) or later contradictory.

That’s it. Given that description, you can probably figure out how it went. Imagine Rumsfeld quotes about “immediate danger” contrasting with denials of same, and you get the idea. There’s probably a thousand webpages and YouTube videos that do the same thing.

And that, I feel, is symptomatic of this productions’ folly. It clutches at the low hanging fruit, the obvious jokes that even the I-watch-the-news-once-a-week crowd should be able to assimilate. And, let’s face it, these things aren’t jokes – they’re terrifying. It’s not funny that people in power say these things, it’s abominable. Yet the audience reaction was often that of titillation, of mirth – exclamations of disbelief were rare.

To be fair, the video aspect of the performance was occasionally impressive – but plagued by technical difficulties; to their credit, the performers didn’t let this bother them. There was some genuinely shocking footage of a lone Iraqi being shot dead in the street – double-tapped, as soldiers are wont to say. The lack of September 11 footage at the beginning of the performance, though, was odd – they used a simple black screen with the soundtrack that normally accompanies that footage. That proves an interesting counterpoint to Michael Moore’s footage in Fahrenheit 9/11, where the footage was presented accompanied by silence; I know which one had a greater emotional impact on me.

Maybe I’m just being too critical. But it annoys me no end that these snippets of speech are being taken out of wider context and juxtaposed to create (perhaps incidental) humour. Or maybe the humour was simply inferred by the audience, and the cast were as horrified as I at the reception. But the lack of context of these sound-bites – and, more worryingly, the inclusion of impactful statements from obscure sources – just demonstrates the power that the sound-bite can have. I have no idea whether some of those Things I Heard About Iraq are true or not; their inclusion alongside widely reported quotes implies that they are, but I suspect I’ll never know.

Gah. Knots in my head.

Didn’t like it. Agree with the premise, it just felt like they were reaching for the low-hanging fruit. I’m sure thousands of others will love this show for the shock-and-awe that it wants to deliver.

(Great moment before the show started, though. A Holden Street Theatres official swanned through the waiting throng of TAFE students… “Any Media? Are you with The Media?” Once gathered, The Media were all ushered past the bubbling queue towards the theatre; approaching the door, however, the bulk of The Media dropped back to allow the precession of Samela Harris and Peter Goers, like the Belle and Beau of the Ball, Reviewing Royalty. After the performance, they were bid to remain in The Studio for lunch; “everyone else, the lunch van is outside.”

Jealous? Hell no. Resentful? Now we’re getting somewhere.)

[2007005] Fern Hill

Fern Hill (FringeTIX)

Guy Masterton @ Holden Street Theatres (The Studio)

11:00am, Wed 7 Mar 2007

After seeing Under Milk Wood in 2006, I felt compelled to see more of Guy Masterson’s work. So this presentation of Dylan Thomas’ lesser-known works – or, as Masterson put it, “the not-Milk Wood Thomas” – afforded me the opportunity to see the man/men at work again.

As per previous efforts, Masterson recites Thomas’ works with boundless energy, roaming the stage with swoops and sweeps, his face alive with obvious gleeful appreciation. He covers around ten pieces, each displaying Thomas’ evocative style – but the words are just an outline for the performance; Masterson adds gobs of colour with his oration, texture with gesticulation. Genuinely remorseful for Thomas’ death, Masterson makes the poems his own.

But what really made this performance for me was the casual nature of the performance. Dressed in dark board-shorts and a t-shirt, Masterson intersperses witty asides to the audience with the poems; a true gem was his comparison of various renditions of Under Milk Wood, successfully aping Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and even Dylan Thomas himself.

In short: brilliant. See it. Go on, there’s a FringeTIX link up there; click it!

(A super-duper added bonus for me, of course, was listening to a bunch of first-year TAFE students pontificate about the performance afterwards. “He was oooooooookay – not as good as I thought he’d be, though. I mean, what’s with the one-man-show?”)

(It’s also worth noting that this is a much better venue for Under Milk Wood – much more intimate than the cavernous Union Hall. If you didn’t catch UMW last year, give that a go as well.)

[2007004] Urban Shadows

Urban Shadows (FringeTIX)

Jean-Paul Bell @ Bosco Theater

11:00pm, Tue 6 Mar 2007

“A unique one person mimeo drama,” quoth the Guide, “…follows the wonderings of an outcast on the fringe of society, who is a resilient survivor conjuring up his own world of ritual, joy and romance.”

That’s quite a mouthful. And quite intriguing – assuming “mimeo” infers “mime” (which Google and Wikipedia suggests it should not), this would place great weight on the performer’s ability to communicate effectively sans voice.

And Jean-Paul Bell manages very well.

The house lights drop, a spotlight hits the centre of the stage. Accompanied by a simple double-bass backing, a disheveled man drags a cart onstage; his every movement painful and constrained by weariness and weight. His face is disfigured by the string that is wrapped around and around his head – he is grotesque, pitifully wheezing as he marks out territory around the cart by sprinkling a ring of powder. Slowly, he begins to unpack the contents of the cart; removing his scruffy coat, revealing a much more dignified jacket beneath, seems to lighten his mood. He plays with a wooden fish, he unwraps the string from his head (leaving taut marks on his face), he sets up a folding table.

Unpacking his cutlery from the cart, he sets places at the table for two; initially, the correct orientation of the knife and fork at the settings causes confusion – is this the reaction against societal norms? He unpacks his love, the head-and-torso statue of a woman, dines with her, watches a movie, his love for her ever more apparent. Eventually, they retire to bed in the cart, the performance punctuated with a cheeky flourish as he leaves the milk-bottle out.

Now – I’ve just read that back, and it sounds dull as dishwater. And, essentially, it would be, were it not for the stunning performance by Bell. Mute throughout, save a couple of painful snufflings as he initially appears onstage, he still manages to cajole the character – believably – from complete demoralisation to blissful contentment. The audience are initially oppressed by the hopelessness of this downtrodden man, but we leave utterly joyous.

Two short notes: when doing a little research, I discovered that Jean-Paul Bell has a loooooong history of TV and clowning, with a background in mime – I even remembered him from The Big Gig all those years ago. By all means, read JP’s bio that I linked above – it’s inspiring stuff.

The other snippet: this show was the second in a row for me in the Bosco. And the seating in the Bosco is, let’s face it, fucking shit. A completely numb arse is not what I look for in an evening out Fringing.

[2007003] Sam Simmons and The Sex & Science of Boredom

Sam Simmons and The Sex & Science of Boredom (FringeTIX)

Sam Simmons @ Bosco Theater

9:30pm, Tue 6 Mar 2007

Sam Simmons really surprised me with one of the comedic gems of last year’s Fringe, so I was really looking forward to having my brain warped by his surrealism again this year.

What I got, though, felt like a terribly unprepared show.

Sure, Simmons admitted as much at the beginning of the performance – stating that the DVD containing final edits from his interstate cohort had mysteriously been replaced by “two pirated copies of Batman Begins” and, thus, we’d be partaking in a less developed – or “technically problematic” – version of the show. This is especially problematic, given the crucial nature of the DVDs in Simmons’ performances, providing the audio and video spine of the show.

As a result, Simmons was far less sure of himself and his material – constantly laughing at himself, head in hands, apologising ahead of DVD-based segments. But, through all these problems, he proved himself an accomplished actor, a great singer, and the AV support for the show was, again, fantastic – it just didn’t gel into a whole. There were some wonderful bits of absurdity – feeding seagulls to bread, the running navel-lint jokes – but in the end, that wasn’t enough to revive the bliss I felt leaving Simmons in 2006.

I reckon that gorgeously surreal moments, like the best lovers and parties, appear at the most unexpected moments – they can never be planned. So I fear my enjoyment of this show may have been tainted with the expectation conjured up by the previous performance; and, whilst there was some genuinely stunning content to this show, it didn’t really feel cohesive enough – especially when compared to the sublime assuredness of last year’s performance.

[2007002] Andrew McClelland’s Mix Tape

Andrew McClelland’s Mix Tape (FringeTIX)

Andrew McClelland @ The Garden Shed

7:45pm, Tue 6 Mar 2007

I like Andrew McClelland – despite the fact that his name is silly to type (what with two Cs and three Ls in the space of six letters), he’s an honest and upfront comedian, earnest in his work and lovably scruffy in his presentation and style. Your grandmother would love him just as much as you, I think, although I have no knowledge whatsoever of your grandmother’s comedic leanings. Nor yours, for that matter. It’s a moot point, really, because I write these snippets for me and I am, at this point in time, Grandmotherless. I’m pretty sure I’ll remain Grandmotherless for all future points in time, too. Obviously, at some stage, I had not one, but two Grandmothers, but they’re currently both dead. Hence, I am currently Grandmotherless.

Bugger. It’s a comedy show, and I’ve just dribbled on about DEATH. Best get back on track then, eh?

What the curiously coiffed McClelland brings to the stage is his analysis of what makes a mix-tape great. To help us out, he presents his rules for great mix-tapes, tactics to woo romantic targets, and his own personal top seven songs. Of course, this all acts as a framework for his gentle humour and live character experimentation which, whilst not always hitting the mark, at least had a smile on my face.

And, as much as his song selections were used as inspiration for segments of giggle, they were also about the genre and the accompanying social aspects – dance, attitude, impact. McClelland dives into analyses of hip-hop, metal (ooooh, that was glorious – if not worthy of death threats from any self-respecting black metal band), why pop charts are shit, and why Michael Jackson so viciously protects the copyrights to Beatles songs. His tragi-comedic explanation behind the inclusion of an Explosions In The Sky song was beautiful (yet still grinworthy), and stories of his teaching career (in an un-named – but utterly identifiable – school) was briliant.

There was a most un-McClelland-like moment, though – dropping into the character of a cockney cab driver, Andrew dropped the F-Bomb. There was a moment – a glorious glimpse of astonished realisation – before a profuse apology, explanation, apology.

As I’ve noted above, I really enjoy McClelland’s work, both in podcast and on stage (hey, there’s something spooky – he was in the second show I saw in 2006 and 2007). Nothing that he did tonight changed my mind about that; closing with a singalong Monkees ripoff, he bids a fond farewell – “I love doing this show, but I’d rather do it in front of people.” For the thirty-or-so in the crowd, this could have been considered a snub; but McClelland’s lovable style just made it feel warm. And cuddly.

[2007001] Project X

Project X (FringeTIX)

Raw Metal Dance Company @ The Umbrella Revolution

7:15pm, Mon 5 Mar 2007

So – it’s my first visit to the Garden of Unearthly Delights for 2007. It has, of course, been open since last Thursday, and early visitors have worn the water-deprived parklands down markedly. The Garden looks anything but lush; pale, trampled grass and patches of bare dirt are the order of the day now.

Surprisingly, the Garden doesn’t feel affected by the lack of Spiegeltent; if anything, the wider open space makes that area feel more accepting, more friendly. A lot of the vendors and sideshows of years gone by reinforce this familiarity.

I always feel a little apprehensive choosing shows in oddball timeslots – though it’s always out of necessity, I’m often afraid that piss-poor crowds will turn up. This being a Monday night, before the formal opening of the Fringe, The Fear struck me here, too; thankfully, there was a medium crowd of about 40 there, making the Umbrella Revolution feel sufficiently populated. Maybe Project X broke even on the performance, a toughie given that it had a troupe of ten onstage.

Ten people? Yup – five dancers, a great backing band of four, and a fantastic beatboxer all combine to produce a vibrant music-and-dance performance that’s chock-full of energy, humour, and – most importantly – enthusiasm.

The band are ace – tight, punching through rock and funk numbers with aplomb, veering into bold themes (including a Charleston-esque swing-jazz number) where appropriate, and not too overpowering. A bit of a Pablo Percusso-esque garbage drumkit, some mimed drumming to the beatbox – it’s all good.

But the front-men are, for the most part, the five dancers. Although most of their dance centres around tap, I found myself initially thinking that I was watching an old New Kids On The Block dance number – but these guys are cheeky with their stage presence, loose with their moves; and that makes the performances feel alive, immediate, gritty. As a group, they were obviously unafraid to hide their emotions on stage – looks of mild concern as the stage bows considerably during certain parts of the performance – so when they grin, which is often, you feel as if they’re really, really enjoying being up there.

There’s plenty of humour – one dancer a terrific scapegoat, another a cheeky rubber-faced loon – and some clever aspects to the performance; doffing the tap shoes, the lads return onstage and perform another piece of tap-esque dance wearing thongs (that’s feet flip-flops, not the other thongs – stupid English language). But the real surprise about Project X is that it never feels like it’s dragging on; each piece in the performance is perfectly timed, yielding maximum enjoyment.

At the end of the show, the 40-ish patrons who turned up were clapping and hooting in glee; it was a genuinely joyous (and family-friendly!) show, handsomely worth attending.

(A neat aside: one of the dancers had a rawk aspect to his character, flashing the Devil’s Horns to the crowd during his solos. A little girl (she couldn’t have been more than ten) sitting with her parents in front of me tugged her father’s shirt and asked him what the dancer was doing. Dad’s face lit up, and he spent a blissful couple of minutes teaching his daughter about the Horns, and she proudly waved them about for the rest of the show. Dad just wore a big grin.)


(A not-so-neat aside: don’t bother with Raw Metal’s MySpace page unless you’re immune to The Horror that seems to infect all MySpace pages.)