Saturday, 27 August 2011

Ramblings: Fringe Benefits

I’ve just come back from a week in Edinburgh at the FestivalFringe, with two friends, and what a week it was. I had an amazing time but am now totally exhausted and cultured out. I need rest and recuperation and a complete lack of stimulus. I’ve got a painful lumbar spine and a cricked neck from hours on end sat in uncomfortable seats in makeshift venues in lecture theatres, warehouses, night club basements, conference centres, tents and in one case, an inflatable purple cow. The seats ranged from back breaking, to buttock numbing to sweaty. It’s a wonder I haven’t come home with something fungal in my crevices. In spite of Edinburgh having a somewhat chilly climate, the venues are generally roasting hot.
If you haven’t heard of it (where have you been?) the Edinburgh Fringe is an arts festival which runs every August, consisting of lots of comedy, dance, theatre, poetry, music and cabaret. This year there were over 2500 events running, some more bizarre than others. The smallest show I went to had 3 of us in the audience, one of whom was the comedian’s friend’s mum and the largest seated 750. There’s also a concurrent book festival and an art festival too.
I love Edinburgh with its dark granite hues and tang of ozone from its proximity to the sea. The architecture is both sinister and magical with the narrow passageways and courtyards and turreted towers poking up here and there. The old town is gothic and spooky and the new town is regal and showy. This was my third visit in three years. The people are pretty friendly there, have lovely accents and smoking and deep fried food consumption is almost mandatory which suits me. I’ve never seen so many middle aged people smoking. Oddly there are very few elderly people about. I wonder why?
The atmosphere during the Fringe is raucous and drunken at times, arty and pretentious at others. Neither is especially good for me but luckily it’s mostly pleasant. I have a built in pretention radar. The streets are filled with jobbing actors, would be celebrities and the extrovert and bizarre of all persuasions with no eagle eyes needed to spot big name comedians and actors walking around casually.
There are street performers everywhere. This isn’t necessarily a good thing as a lot of them are dire. The sight of yet another juggling unicyclist or mime artist blocking the way as a crowd of tourists swarm around them isn’t welcome. Pan pipes are never good either. There should be laws. The streets are also littered with students dressed up in bizarre costumes. Occasionally this can be entertaining but on the whole it’s a student in face paint getting in your way. Nothing to see here, move along. There are some talented and novel experiences to be seen on the streets with some great bands playing for free and some of the shows plying their trade in a bid to sell tickets.  I saw a great brass band playing Run DMC on trumpets and tubas. The people handing out flyers are a hazard too. You can play a game of trying to walk more than ten feet without someone trying to give you a leaflet for a show but you will mostly lose.
I was there for a week and managed to take in 17 hours of theatre which included a one man opera with Marc Almond about The Plague, Simon Callow in drag, a play about the Black and White Minstrels and a one woman play about a middle class dog breeder and occasional serial killer. Most of what I saw was stunning stuff but not all. I left one play after 20 minutes because it was so terrible. I learnt from this: always sit near the exit and wear a watch with fluorescent hands so you can glance at it in the dark when planning an escape. I did get trapped in the theatre during one odd one man play in which the actor broke off midway through the performance and shouted abuse at us all, before holding the door open and asking us to leave if we wanted to. He then told us he was joking, did a short PowerPoint presentation and carried on with the (weak) play. Oddness, indeed, but luckily the exception rather than the rule.
I managed 3 hours of cabaret which included a character comedienne singer, an Australian drag act and a team of “free runners” who jumped about off obstacles topless and reminded me of a gay rough trade fantasy.  I saw 9 hours of stand up comedy which was mostly brilliant and at times petrifying. I like my comedy dark and think I managed to fulfil this requirement with some grim routines about all the things you wouldn’t to discuss with your parents. I also chucked in a few modern art exhibitions and a couple of hours of contemporary dance. Like I say, I’m a little tired and over stimulated.
We stayed in an apartment. Paul couldn’t come as he was working, which was a shame. I missed him horribly. Don’t tell him that, though. I don’t like a man to know he’s not easily dispensable. I spoke to him on the phone every night and regaled him with lurid tales of what I’d seen and done and he reminded me to eat and rest. He knows me well by now.
The apartment was down below Edinburgh Castle in the Old Town, in an old tenement building. I guessed the area wasn’t too salubrious when I noticed a used needle and syringe in the garden, along with lots of burnt tin foil. There was a drug clinic and needle exchange just around the corner and we seemed to be in the heart of the red light district, with a smattering of sex shops and strip clubs. I didn’t care about this. The flat was secure, clean enough, modern and well equipped. The ceilings were airy; there were original features, the bed was comfortable enough and it had a power shower. That’s all I need.
Walking around, I saw some interesting looking ladies smoking outside the strip clubs, chatting to burly bouncers and leering old men. I’m not sure how they walked in those shoes and I don’t think it was really warm enough to wear so few clothes. They looked prime subject matter for a painting by the late Beryl Cook.
I was sleeping on a big sofa bed in the lounge whilst my friends had the bedroom at the back. We were puzzled to see a door in my room which lead to the house next door. It was a huge wooden panelled door with a key in the lock on the other side. We joked about this and my thoughts were that I would be murdered in my sleep when a psychopath let himself in during the early hours of the morning. We were amused to find that the building next door was actually a swingers club so it seemed more likely that an invasion of people in gimp masks and thongs would maybe invade my beauty sleep. Luckily they left me unmolested. I won’t deny listening at the wall but they were quiet swingers and I didn’t hear so much as a groan or the bubbling of a Jacuzzi (all swingers have hot tubs, right?).
One morning, I was standing on the street smoking a cigarette when my bleary eyes spotted a group of four leaving the swingers club. There was a larger lady, with spiral permed red hair, in a short skirt, accompanied by a pasty young woman in a gauze dress and heels. With them was a rough but not bad looking tattooed bloke with a shaved head. He was with a large lady with an 80s hairstyle, who’s mini skirt barely covered milk white cellulite wobbling thighs. They stood and spoke briefly and the man reached over, pecked the red haired lady on the cheek, popped his tongue in the mouth of the prettier younger girl and caressed her breasts, before leaving with the woman who was presumably his wife. It takes all sorts. They did look tired, though. I think they’d had a busy night.
I chatted to a lot to people in queues. There were lots of people seeing shows on their own and they seemed keen to talk and discuss what they’d been to see or were seeing. Either that or they were humouring me. I was approached in the queue to a dance performance by a French woman who thanked me profusely for my fantastic performance and dancing in a cabaret show the night before. I was tempted to play along but thought better of it, in case she expected a recap. My days of doing the splits are long over. I prefer to watch rather than perform.
I hope to go again next year. I have a lingering worry that there may be a terrible incident one year, if I keep going. In my mind I see me walking along, being jostled by students in face paints, having flyers thrust at me and eventually coming upon a group of mime artists, a unicyclist and a pan piper all performing together. I would either implode or perform a massacre. I’ll take the risk though.

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