Edinburgh: fresh from the Fringe

The good, the bad and the awful at Edinburgh 2013.

Various Authors

Topics Culture

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Here you will find the latest reviews, features and interviews filed fresh from the Edinburgh festival by spiked culture editor Tom Slater and reviewer Christian Butler.

Joke Thieves

The other night, while spiked’s intrepid culture editor was back at the hostel agonising over his grammar, I was wandering around Edinburgh looking for a drink to bide the time. Luckily, a kindly chap soon handed me a flyer advertising a free stand-up show beginning in 10 minutes at the building we were standing next to. Excited by the chance of having something to look at whilst I drank alone, I went in.

The show, Joke Thieves, is an innovative stand-up show with a different line-up every night, but always hosted by its creator Will Mars.

The first half of the show, in which the four comedians – a diverse bunch who have appeared on the likes of Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Live at the Electric – simply perform their sets, was excellent. However, the great gimmick of the show is the second half, where each comedian is paired off with another to re-perform the other’s set.

Seeing a laid back, anecdotal comedian like Matt Rees taking on Darren Walsh’s one-liners was incredible. So, too, was seeing the super-trendy Joey Page donning a cravat and performing in the camp mannerisms of Milos McCabe. Each making amazingly specific references to each other’s sets, they incorporated their own style while taking the piss out of the genres the others worked in.

Hats off to Will Mars: Joke Thieves is an excellent show, and a fantastic ambassador for Free Fringe.

Christian Butler

Joke Thieves is at Laughing Horse @ Espionage until 25 August.

Chalk Farm

In the two years since the London Riots, there has been a lot of shrill blather about what the flames and the looting revealed about ‘Broken Britain’. But there has been a distinct lack of thought-out, informed or even vaguely useful statements made. Chalk Farm, a much-hyped, one-act, two-man play about a good kid from Chalcot Estate in north London getting caught up in the nihilistic flurry of those shocking few days, and his mother’s attempts to save him from his penance, suggests that even with 24 months of perspective that trend is not turning.

In fact, at first the play side-steps the politics altogether. The effusive looter, ‘Jamie’ (Thomas Dennis), lists the well-worn positions in his opening monologue – from poor parenting to austerity – before copping-out and declaring it ‘all these things and none of them at the same time’. What then unfurls is an incredibly sentimental story, jazzed up by 12 mounted screens used to set the scene and, presumably, distract from the sorrowful lack of substance.

Eventually it settles into some crowd-pleasing posh-bashing with Jamie’s noble single mother (Julie Taudevin) ending up suggesting that the toff shop-owners of Primrose Hill essentially deserved what they got – ignoring the fact that businesses of all stripes were mercilessly targeted. Yet this class war undertone really hits a sour note considering the fact we’re presented with these two cartoonish, inarticulate working-class stereotypes – the mother punctuating each sentence with ‘or summink’; the son, ‘and shit’.

Feeling like Little Britain attempting social commentary, this show is barely worth me spilling ink over, much less you buying a ticket for.

Tom Slater

Chalk Farm is at the Underbelly Cowgate until 25 August.

Knightmare Live

Strange as it may sound, the show that seems, as far I can tell, to have created the most excitement at this year’s Fringe is Knightmare Live. A perfect slice of childhood nostalgia, it’s been the talk around the bars since I arrived, and I too found myself getting giddy at the prospect of seeing a live staging of the late-80s cult TV show.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it was a CITV kid’s gameshow where a contestant was tasked with making their way through a dungeon while wearing a helmet that covered their eyes. They’d rely on the help of their friends to shout out what to do, all in a quest to win a naff piece of Knightmare merchandise. (The poverty of the prize didn’t really matter; practically no one won in the show’s eight-year run.)

Sending up the show as much as faithfully recreating it, dungeon master Treguard is portrayed with great relish by Paul Flannery. He gives an audience member the honour of wearing the Helmet of Justice and taking on the challenge. The contestant is then guided by two comedians, doing their best to riff on the show’s absurd premise while plugging their own shows at the Fringe. It has everything you fondly remember from the show from the word puzzles to the eeeeevil Lord Fear stuffing food in a knapsack.

Tickets are selling out fast for this brilliantly produced show, and I can see why. It’s the most I’ve laughed at anything at the Fringe so far: head down to the Gilded Balloon, and you too can become a ‘watcher of illusion at the castle of confusion’.

Christian Butler

Knightmare Live is at the Gilded Balloon until 25 August.

Concrete Duvet

Concrete Duvet is essentially Mark Leeson (the play’s writer and star) leading the audience through a reminiscence of his inane sexual exploits, with dollops of indulgence, clichés, and outright dullness thrown into the mix. After a break up, he attempts to reflect on his romantic life by talking to his conscience (played by Rachael Hilton) in the style of what the publicity calls ‘Christmas Carol without the Christmas’.

Let me ruin the story for you: after some 40 minutes of him babbling on without any hint of a turning point, he remembers when he was 15 and his girlfriend cheated on him, and he concludes that is the reason he’s such an arsehole, and then has a further epiphany in which he realises he has to love himself before he loves anyone else. It was a minute of banal maturity to end the play after nearly an hour devoid of character development.

Directed by Tim O’Hara and Sarah Henley in the style of a GCSE drama piece, featuring sex comedy as edgy as a spoon, Concrete Duvet listlessly offends me in its very existence.

Christian Butler

Concrete Duvet is at The Space @ Surgeons Hall until 24 August.


The towering Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett was notorious for heaping scorn and even trying to shut down theatre companies who he felt were over-adapting, diluting or wantonly meddling with with his masterpieces (even from beyond the grave, by means of his equally merciless estate).

Indeed, his entire oeuvre is aimed at impoverishing the form while mournfully mocking the vanity of artistic expression itself. His was a stark, methodical project, which he felt a novel setting or an arbitrary all-female cast would only ruin.

Like many devotees, I too have been slowly turned into a Beckett zealot. As such, I naturally winced when this performance of two of his one-act dramatic sketches, ‘Rough I’ and ‘Rough II’, were bridged by a balletic dance-number to the tune of REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’. It was a fittingly absurd spectacle with the disabled, post-apocalyptic tramps of ‘I’, striking poses as they ripped off their grubby clothes and revealed the slick suits of callous bureaucrats of ‘II’, but Michael Stipe was still an unwelcome interloper into the self-contained Beckettian world.

Still, I must say my ire was quelled by what were two stonking, if unfaithful, takes on these all-but forgotten gems.

These are two wildly different pieces. The first depicts two lonely characters trying, unsuccessfully, to make a human connection with one another after (presumably) years of solitude. Meanwhile, the second is a surreal satire of the detached inhumanity of bureaucracy, as two auditors judge whether their suicidal ‘client’, stood frozen behind them on the fifth-floor balcony, should indeed jump to his death. Still, they are both permeated by Beckett’s characteristically maudlin sense of the ultimate impotence of humanity, and his sparky dialogue – at once comic and devastating.

Heavy stuff, yes, but performers Michael Rivers and Adam El Hagar take to the material with a youthful vitality and impressive polish that makes for a lively and enjoyable show. Shifting from the gruff wretches of the first to the imperious, verbose jobsworths of the second, they take relish in the gaping disparity, and flaunt an impressive range. But there’s a certain hubris here that comes with their youthful talent and polish. They break Beckett’s cardinal sin by actually acting the roles, rather than just parroting the roles like diffident marionettes – as the man himself, when directing, would insist. Nevertheless, I was so enthralled even my inner Beckett zealot couldn’t help but sit down, shut up and enjoy the show. Stipe aside, this is a real corker.

Roughs is at Zoo Southside until 26 August.

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning

Yesterday, news broke that the disgraced US solider, whistleblower and patron saint of the Church of Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, had apologised for the leaking of over 250,000 classified files to Julian Assange’s site – for which Manning now faces up to 90 years in prison. While originally embraced by leftist commentators as a bona fide political prisoner, championing open information as a means of toppling America’s neo-imperialist tyranny, this seemed to confirm that Manning was really nothing of the sort.

With this in mind, the title of this production from the National Theatre Wales feels a tad grandiose, and it goes on to demonstrate this with unintentional gusto.

A mix of the facts and tenuous riffs on Manning’s school days in Wales, Tim Price’s script centres on his homosexuality, his gift for hacking and his diminutive stature as the roots of his transformation into a drag-and-drop revolutionary. Skipping back and forth in time and place – facilitated by blistering set changes from the cast, trading turns wearing his iconic specs as they go – it paints a portrait of a marginalised young man, bullied at school and in the service, finding brief empowerment in loosing America’s dirty secrets. Aside from the odd reference to his burning desire to ‘help people’ and his passionate, if unconventional, patriotism, there’s nothing here which suggests his historic leaks were anything more than the angsty outburst of a beaten-down outsider.

You could say this is all a case of bad titling. His story is certainly one worth telling in spite of his lack of any real political cause, not least for the day-to-day penury he was reported to have suffered while on 23-hour lock-down for the past three years. But there’s little whiff of any real, tangible character here. Price, hesitant to really get under his subject’s skin, ends up focusing on some of the more quirky chapters to his story to laughable effect. Manning famously burnt some of the files he later leaked onto a CD marked ‘Lady Gaga’, and the pop diva becomes a veritable motif throughout, building to a surreal, if spirited, ‘Born This Way’ dance number.

It’s certainly a slick production. Housed in St Thomas of Aquin’s High School, the audience are led on a path through the dimly lit corridors passing open classrooms in which gun-toting soldiers stand in tableau. What’s more, the cast should be commended for their athletic execution of the frenetic choreography, and show remarkable versatility as they shift roles and accents. But somehow, managing to be neither personal nor political, this play is little more than diverting, Gaga-enthused fluff.

Tom Slater

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning is at St Thomas of Aquin’s High School until 25 August.

Party Piece

‘Four good friends. One last party. One last chance to get more fucked than the time before!’ So reads the logline of Party Piece, a comedy playing at the Bedlam Theatre. My eyes rolled, as I imagined some kind of putrid Skins rip-off. What I actually got were four characters more likeable than any idiotic Skins character (and better acted), a more intelligent story than any Skins episode (even though Party Piece has no plot), and a staged experience which expertly juggled the simultaneous angst and exhilaration of being an early-twentysomething.

The obvious structure for a show such as this would be to start off with everyone having a jolly good time, and then having the obligatory ‘but it’s still not easy being young’ shtick increase towards its climax. Instead, Party Piece has the two constantly battling for attention, and never lets up in its hour-long duration. This adds considerable realism to the show, and ensured the rich details of the characters weren’t dragged-down by soap-story melodrama.

Still, the best thing about the show is the dancing. One character vomiting sparks a virulent, violent routine set to a beat of pounding electronica. In an instant, the stage becomes a highly co-ordinated mosh pit: the cast slamming into each other with balletic precision. Meanwhile, the quieter moments, where the actors perform stand-up-style monologues, bring things back to a more reflective and incisive place.

All in all, this is a finely observed and hilarious take on Generation Y, and all without an Effy or a Sid in sight.

Christian Butler

Party Piece is at the Bedlam Theatre until 24 August.

Catriona Knox: Player

If there’s one thing which ties a lot of the one-man shows together at the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s titles made up of irrelevant (and only mildly irreverent) puns. Sitting in the Pleasance Courtyard, I was handed not one, but two fliers displaying their show’s star in front of a chess board. One of which, Catriona Knox: Player, was starting soon, and with some time on my hands I decided to duck in.

While bemused by the fact this, too, had nothing to do with the age-old board game which was used to advertise it (I can’t speak for the other), I was pleased to find that Knox was a gifted writer and performer.

A veteran of Radio 4 sketch shows, Knox had a diverse cast of ridiculous characters at her disposal, who freely welcomed audience participation. Early in the show, she declared one of the audience members her ‘bitch’, and proceeded to drag him out of his seat throughout. From teaching him French to a Strictly Come Dancing routine, ‘the bitch’ added an excellent through-line to the show, while adding some exciting unpredictability.

The show is great fun and markedly unpretentious. Upon entering the venue, it was refreshing to see a highly-spirited Knox usher the audience to their seats – refusing the usual indulgent build-up.

My pet peeves aside, Catriona Knox: Player is a fabulous slice of character comedy, well worth the punt.

Christian Butler

Catriona Knox: Player is at the Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August.

Greg Proops

As a die-hard Whose Line Is It Anyway? fan, I jumped at the chance of seeing Greg Proops perform. With little experience of his work outside the show, I was curious to see what the improv star could do with a stand-up set.

Call me prudish, but I was struck by how much the one-time voice of the stateside Bob the Builder swore, randomly adding ‘and shit’ to the end of sentences for no apparent reason. Clearly, Proops feels free to hit the audience harder without an ensemble to support or a temperate Clive Anderson to reign him in.

Afraid of no topic, he tackled everything from race relations to the quirks of Fringe-venue air conditioning. His meandering trains of thought, bolstered by a palpable rock-star swagger, made for a surprisingly breath-taking show that proves Proops is a laugh-a-minute riot, with or without a script.

Christian Butler

Greg Proops is playing at the Gilded Balloon Teviot until 14 August.


For a monologue that unfurls entirely inside a clear, 10-by-10-foot box, Grounded is a surprisingly explosive show.

Performed with jockish patter by Lucy Ellinson, it is told from the perspective of a fighter pilot who, after leaving the US air force to start a family, returns to find her beloved F-16 outmoded and the keys to a drone control console awaiting her.

Writer George Brant explores the detached, desk-job inhumanity of America’s new favourite means of offing their enemies, with chilling effect: Orwellian analysts pronouncing the blips on her computer screen ‘guilty’ in her headset, before the pilot dispatches them with a soft, almost inaudible, boom.

Then it’s shift over, and back to the familial comforts that a stateside nine-to-five provides. But unable to reconcile the two sides of her life and wracked with a new sense of guilt, she descends into madness.

Unfortunately, it is here that the piece really veers of course. The development of her mania, illustrated by blasts of music and a flickering, underfoot light rig, only serve to distract from those quieter moments in which Brant really lays the mundane barbarity of drone strikes bare.

Tom Slater

Grounded is playing at the Traverse Theatre until 25 August.

The Fanny Hill Project

Even a few years ago, the prospect of a show like The Fanny Hill Project sincerely suggesting mass media is complicit in rape would seem downright mental. Alas, at a time in which new feminists are given reels of airtime to explain how the threats of a handful of sado Twitter trolls underscores a deep-seated culture of male sexual domination, it feels worryingly on-message.

The play takes the form of a surreal chat-cum-game show in which an aspiring actress is brought on to ‘tell her story’, but is repeatedly thwarted by the interjections of her blokey, lascivious hosts. They invite an audience member to squirt her feet with penis-shaped water-pistols, give her a makeover and teach her how to shake her rear-end for the lads. That’s all before they jostle her side-stage and take turns at the mic-stand telling nasty jokes even the UniLad set would balk at: ‘What’s the difference between rape and football… women don’t like football!’ Eugh.

Its creepy final scenes feature the sole male cast-member reading aloud from John Cleland’s smut-filled eighteenth-century novel Fanny Hill, while the rest either pose coquettishly or gyrate in the manner of an R&B diva. It’s a fairly blatant stab at unearthing our culture’s putrid treatment of women, past and present, but considering that recent scandals have sent an already rather PC-media machine into overdrive – with plans to straitjacket lads’ mags as well as dob in internet attention-seekers – it feels even more unenlightened.

In truth, it’s an afterthought. Rather than truly engage with ongoing issues concerning female representation, which should be duly debated, this troupe would rather revel in a cartoonish depiction of the tinny-swilling throng of macho would-be rapists.

Gentlemen, be sure to check your privilege at the door.

Tom Slater

The Fanny Hill Project is playing at Zoo until the 26 August.

Reginald D Hunter: In the Midst of Crackers

On the surface, Georgia-born comedian Reginald D Hunter seems little different to the hoard of ubiquitous panel-show stars that hog the limelight, and the fly-poster space, at the Fringe each year.

In The Midst of Crackers, one of the top sell-outs at the Pleasance Grand, sees Hunter take on topical issues with all the foul-mouthed snarkiness you’d expect from a Have I Got News For You veteran. And yet there is a rare willingness to go one further and get under the skin of his subjects that truly sets him apart.

With an easy-going southern gentility, Hunter sets about puncturing some of polite society’s most puffed-up crusades. Hunter recently felt the brunt of the football thought-police when the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) demanded their money back after he used the ‘n-word’ while performing at their Player of the Year awards ceremony. But even as he settles his scores, he keeps things punchy rather than preachy. He takes apart the boneheaded campaign group Kick It Out, insisting they only stir-up racial tension with their censorious hysterical fits, before going on to a more playful, if risqué, riff about their strangely abrasive name: ‘Why not call it “Lynch It Out”?’, he jibes, deftly sugaring the pill.

Elsewhere, the focus becomes more personal and self-reflective, charting his love and sex life, from his dad’s very much technique-based take on sex education to his struggles to stay faithful. Still, an impromptu survey about the audience’s relationship with their anus soon lightens the mood once again.

The show, which Hunter tells us is being revised with each performance, is still a little rough around the edges. Some jokes hit, others miss the mark, but by and large this is a raucous set worthy of its ‘him off the telly’ draw.

Tom Slater

Reginald D Hunter: In the Midst of Crackers is playing at the Pleasance Grand until 24 August.

Play for September

Play for September, a new piece of writing from the Lost Watch Theatre Company, follows two 14-year-old school girls named Elle and Kay, the latter of whom is groomed by their teacher. The plot follows the expected pattern of innocent beginnings, escalating intensity and the catastrophic fallout – all from a unique perspective: that of Elle, the best friend of the abused child.

Through both quick-paced dialogue scenes and confessional monologues, Elle’s thoughts are explored courageously by writer Olivia Hirst – not least because she still makes space for moments of teen banality amid the more horrific scenes. Seeing a glint of the character’s jealousy at not having a man of her own and later her crippling guilt for not putting a stop to the abuse makes for a nuanced take on the subject matter.

At the story’s climax, the spectacle of Elle simply writing something on a whiteboard left the woman sitting next to me weeping hysterically. Having sat with her through this uniquely disquieting and emotionally devastating play, I certainly don’t blame her.

Christian Butler

Play for September is at the Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August.

Tom Slater is culture editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_ and read his blog:

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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