Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Edward has the last word ... for now ...

Image by Dora Petherbridge

So that’s it for another year. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe comes to a close. As always it’s been emotional and I’m officially festival fatigued. I had high hopes to blog more during this year’s run but alas the daily grind of reviewing and the rush of seeing many shows left me with not enough hours in the day. I will endeavour to post a few belated festival posts, as I have seen some fantastic and fabulously cultural stuff that I really want to write about. I’ve said this before but the festival really is a wonderful opportunity to remind oneself that culture is alive and well in the 21st century. Indeed it has been humbling to have had the opportunity to take part in a festival that at its core celebrates art and performance on a level playing field – from the street level up (with street performers and the like) to the theatres of the top venues. The variety of the programme itself is a reminder that talent comes in many forms.

Amnesty International art exhibition in C Venues. Image by Dora Petherbridge

In the meantime, in something which is becoming somewhat of a tradition around here, Edward Petherbridge shares these words. Given he’s something of a ‘fringe veteran’ perhaps it is fitting that he should have the last word on the festival. For now at least ...

'I very much liked the ‘Festival Food’ post. It felt like an evocative elegy for the Edinburgh Festival and I wish I could have chatted (no more) to the lady with the Chanel bag.

I remember one Festival wind up - in both senses of the phrase - it was on the last night of the 1978 Festival Fringe when my wife and I had been playing in Trevor Nunn's production of Three Sisters. We were having a drink after the fireworks in the Festival Club on George Street. Most of the cast were there, Trevor was with us and Ian (McKellen, who played Andre) - when two rain coated men came up to the table and one said, “It's midnight. The Festival's over. Finish your drinks.”

I recall an Edinburgh actress telling me she remembered a woman on a bus the day after one Festival saying complacently to her shopping companion, “Oh it's nice to have the city to ourselves again!”

Being a veteran of four Festivals, I certainly remember being on the Royal Mile and thinking - if I see one more juggler or stilt walker ... but there was the extraordinary day about 12 years ago when there was a band from Russia playing. Suddenly they struck up a Russian march I had only ever heard in the last act of our Three Sisters in that poignant off stage music as the soldiers leave the town at the end of the play.

Thank you for stirring the sediment – that is partly what blogs are for, that and topping up the drinks - not finishing them because 'the Festival is over.’

Here's a small selection of Dora's snapshots from the Fringe.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Image by Dora Petherbridge

And finally ...

The E4 Udderbelly - a venue literally in the shape of a giant purple cow! Image by Dora Petherbridge

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Festival Food

The life of a festival reviewer can take many forms - a regular routine goes out of the window as days can start at 2.00pm and not end until 10 or 11 in the evening. Suffice to say a balanced diet can also suffer. Still, I tell myself that all the exercise I’m doing running from one venue to another is burning off the unprecedented amount of carbohydrates I’m probably consuming this month. Indeed random eating in venue bars and quintessential Edinburgh establishments are all part and parcel of being at the festival. It sits happily alongside using your fringe programme as protection from the rain and consuming all your drinks (including wine) in plastic cups.

The other night we had legendary Negociants’ nachos for dinner after a splendid evening of vintage Edinburgh festival comedy. A while ago I wrote a somewhat literary post about this place and I thought while I’m in the midst of writing a few longer festival related blog posts I’d recycle it so to speak, here. In some ways it is a bit of a continuation of the many Edinburgh insights I’ve come to write on this blog.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Negociants’ Nachos

Flanking Bristo Square, Negociants gently nurses the art students' quarter, and by day the faint hum of the skater boys in the square are its musical accompaniment. By night the tables and chairs outside are surrounded by artsy student revellers swaddled in paisley print scarves as they usher themselves into its basement nightclub Medina, the throb of the sound system under their feet.

Although overshadowed by McEwan Hall's austerity, its faint bohemian quality still sits well with the burgh's darker Calvinistic history. At the weekend Negociants is open into the witching hour, historically the time when Auld Reekie's less savoury grave digging characters got all their best work done. Tonight, although its cold and faintly wet there's not so much as a shovel in sight. But this bar's interesting mix of clientele surely come with their own stories.

Across from our table there is a tall lady huddled over her laptop. She sips from a perspiring glass of white wine. On her knee rests a Chanel handbag curled over like a resting, gentle lap dog. The scene is almost achingly Parisian if we discount the less subtle nods Negociants' decor makes to its more southern European sisters. The wicker chairs and potted plants, the terracotta hues and chalk boards give off a Latin Tapas feel, while the eclectic mix of magazine covers, black and white photographs of models and movie stars pasted to the ceiling give the look of a funky late night New York haunt.

And it's in this mode that Negociants really comes into its own, for it lends itself well to the shabby funkiness of the last place open in town. A place where the clubbers can come down from their highs over curly fries, powdered with cayenne pepper and washed down with coffee. This is where, safe from the metropolis, the late night writers, insomniacs, the people with nowhere to go and the outsiders can congregate. They can even have fish finger sandwiches if they like.

And if you are a regular you know there's only one thing really worth ordering on the menu. Piled high, greasy and carbohydrate laden, the Nachos fly out the kitchen's hatch to the tune of the bell being tapped to summon the waitress. They are an un-showy creation, but not unlike the establishment they have a charm; the comforting finger food shared between a couple of friends over bottled beer or glasses of totally drinkable, always crisp, white wine.

Dora's fringe snapshot for the day. The colourful lampshades are so pretty.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Edward on the Critics

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Star ratings mean an awful lot in Edinburgh this month. It seems every performer is holding out for that elusive number of twinkly stars that will catapult them into the big time. Indeed they play on the mind of critics too. Probably for different reasons in so far as the critic only has their own opinion to go on, whereas a production has to take into consideration the writers, the performers and the crew when they open the paper and discover their labour of love has been given a pitiful write up and horror of horrors a one star rating.

At times likes like these we could all succumb to an existential crisis.

But I prefer to turn to the wisdom of Edward Petherbridge.

Here in this email he turns into something of a philosopher on the whole business ...

‘Your vivid evocation of Camille’s cabaret performance set me thinking about high praise - Time Out having thrown convention to the wind and awarded her six stars. I opened the Sunday Times Culture this last weekend and there was Steven Fry advertised as doing a one man show at The Albert Hall no less, with a quotation from a review calling him "a towering genius" (The Melbourne Age). The Albert Hall is used to towering genius: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart - but it is not often it is used as a venue for one night solo stand up comedians - or, as he is billed "The UK's consummate raconteur." I was called a genius recently, not towering I admit, but a 'genius turn' which was rather nice, almost believable, then again it was only in the West End column of a local Islington paper (but then I know what talented writers even ThreeWeeks has amongst its critics). How does The Islington Gazette compare with The Melbourne Age I wonder? I know what the critic meant by calling me a genius, but nonsense of course - I didn't change the way mankind and womankind thinks about the world, which is surely what a genius does?

But I was struck that you talked about Camille's candour and that struck me as a very rare and powerful attribute in a performer...’

And now for a few examples of the creative ways in which performers use their star ratings to their advantage when promoting their shows.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

We particularly liked this one for handing the job of 'critic' over to an audience member:

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Tales from the Fringe: Camille O'Sullivan

The poster for Camille O'Sullivan's 'Chameleon', Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010. Image by Dora Petherbridge.

Camille O’Sullivan is always one of the more polished acts on the fringe. Often defying publications’ rigid five star ratings with special six star status reviews she’s an alluring prospect too. She’s the Irish-French cabaret singer with the gravelly voice, who seemingly explores the multi-facets of femininity or rather womanhood, as she emotionally unravels on stage with orchestrated costume changes and cheeky banter with the crowd. However she’s no flake. Never once do you get the impression that she’s losing her audience to introspective hysteria, rather one, especially as a woman is partly mesmerised by her candour and certainly swept along for the ride.

Last year’s performance ‘The Dark Angel’ encapsulated this sense of emotional exploration particularly well with its deceptively feminine backdrop of crochet rugs and sparkly frocks adorning the stage. It is as interesting then as it is ironic that Camille favours the songs of male singers: Nick Cave and David Bowie to name a couple. And all this perhaps sets her apart from other cabaret singers, for she refuses to sing quietly and simply look beautiful and the more feminine songs she sings neither pander to romantic notions nor lost loves. Indeed her version of ‘Look Mummy No Hands’ seemed to engage with the complex relationship between mothers and daughters in a spooky pool of light amongst a crowd, many of whom were tearful women.

This year’s show ‘Chameleon’ marked a change in setting (this time there was a fairy light lit swing, mini piano and neon bunny rabbit light). Perhaps the electric pull of blue light was a tell tale sign that Camille was taking a different approach to proceedings – the songs had changed, she’d added a rocky element to her set and she, adorned in cape and sparkly black trousers banged drums under flashing lights. Indeed this was Camille engaging with the music, darting around the stage giving gutsy whistles. Given last year’s emotionally charged fare all this was somewhat of a diversion. Still she’s not the ‘Chameleon’ for nothing.

In many respects this new show appears to engage with the more masculine aspects of the music she chooses to sing. There’s a new sense of danger as recordings of dialogue from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are piped from a stereo over the live band. And under the glow of green light, Camille’s delicate facial expressions transformed her from something of an Absinthe fairy to the Wicked Witch. Camille the cabaret singer is evolving. Yet there were still hints of the dark angel - the on stage persona that rests on a volatile trajectory spanning sultry all woman singer to clowning around geek. At one point in her set as she makes her way over to the swing she accidentally trips over her bunny rabbit light, jokily uttering ‘Oh dear cruelty to animals!’ The Celtic humour and Gallic charm seem to both fuel and allow her to get away with the randomness.

Camille O’Sullivan shows are always a hot ticket at the fringe and well worth a look if you are heading to Edinburgh. I hear that no two nights are ever the same so each new audience is in for a unique experience every night. Indeed it is fascinating to watch a multi-layered performance by a woman who is not going through the motions with her material, for one senses she feels it deeply.

Camille on stage. Image by Dora Petherbridge

The set with the bunny rabbit light. Image by Dora Petherbridge

Random Chandelier. Image by Dora Petherbridge

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

An insight into the festival

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Programme 2010, with Edward Petherbridge's flyer for his 2005 fringe one-man show 'Pillar Talk/Slapdash'. Image by Dora Petherbridge

The first time I saw Edward Petherbridge perform on stage was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2005 when he brought his one man show ‘Pillar Talk/Slapdash’ to the Pleasance Dome. To say it was an experience would be an understatement. This was my first proper insight into the world of fringe theatre, the stripped back nature of which allows the actor to perform freed of the trappings of distracting props and other such trickery. Luckily we were in the capable hands of Mr Petherbridge, who is nothing if not a consummate professional. However in lesser company I’ve seen this style of theatre go horribly wrong. And this always puts you in an unfortunate position as a critic at the festival, for many companies rely on a good review to attract people to their shows. A little known fact, but apparently ThreeWeeks (the festival reviewing publication) and the Scotsman are the only reviews that really translate into tickets sold off the back of what the critics have to say.

So when Edward emailed me this: ‘I know it is a testing discipline to review sometimes 2 or 3 shows a day, each of them in 120 words: it seems everyone is in it together in Edinburgh - August is a cruel but exciting month’, he’s not kidding. There’s an art to this business whether you are a writer, reviewer or performer. Most of the time it seems like the fringe is one of the most culturally invigorating places to be, at others mainly when you are traversing a city made of hills, alleyways and secret stairways on foot, just as the heavens open a torrential down pour, you are on the verge of an existential crisis. I suppose what I am trying to say is that you can’t come here and have an authentic experience if you don’t at least live a little bit by your emotions. It is after all impossible to be indifferent to the world’s largest arts festival.

In response to my previous post ‘Scotland Has Talent!’ Edward took the time to write these words about his experience of the festival as an actor. As you will read there is more to the fringe than turning up on stage and performing your piece. Indeed one becomes their own PR and promoter, as well as fitting in the time to watch other performers embarking on their own fringe experience.

Edward Petherbridge as Pierrot. Image by Arthur Petherbridge.

‘Your vivid Fringe piece takes me back; you and another critic made up the entire audience of a one woman show! Last time I performed on the fringe a journalist from the Guardian who was going to interview me came to see my one man play about Saint Simeon Stylites. I was up my pillar and he was in his seat on the front row - end seat on the left. Nichola McCauliffe, a fan of the play, had come to see it a second time and sat on the back row near the exit, but had to leave early for her own performance, so for the last three quarters of an hour it was just the journalist and me - worse - in the last 15 minutes I did a separate piece, a stand up comedy routine. He did not laugh. I remember stapling the good review from ThreeWeeks to my attractive flyers and trying to tout for trade with charisma and dignity - and still finding time to see 22 shows on the Fringe or in the main festival between times.

I finished my run with a sudden heady rush of punters coming to see me - at least twenty for the last performance! But I remember their laughs still and pin drop silences, their cheers and whoops at the end, and felt vindicated. I know it is a testing discipline to review sometimes 2 or 3 shows a day, each of them in 120 words: it seems everyone is in it together in Edinburgh - August is a cruel but exciting month.
Edward P’

Monday, 2 August 2010

Scotland Has Talent!

Image by Dora Petherbridge

So we’re gearing up for the largest arts festival in the world this week, with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe officially opening on August 6th. During this month long festival the hoards will descend upon the historic capital, happenings will abound, colourful street theatre will make traversing the city at a steady pace impossible and bright young (and old) things will thrust flyers into your hands enthusiastically promoting their shows. The fringe is a competitive business with over 2400 shows going on in the one relatively small city.

Over the years the festival has grown hugely and has become as much commercial as it is creative, artistic and a showcase for up and coming talent. Major players in the world of entertainment, comedy and theatre will perform alongside lesser known names and tomorrow’s big stars. I do believe I once read that Emily Blunt was discovered here. And many of our most celebrated actors have graced the boards of the fringe venues at one time or another. And as much as the locals might grumble about the city often coming to a standstill, the price of beer in their favourite pubs increasing and snap-happy tourists taking up space on the pavement, one has to marvel at how the capital of Scotland becomes something of a cultural epicentre for a few weeks. For all its frenetic pace and the overwhelming choice of shows on offer, one must yield to the buzz of the fringe. Go with the flow and you’ll discover the gems in the rough.

As a seasoned fringe reviewer I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have stories that abound with tales of nauseating comedy (Mr Methane was a low point), to wonderful comedic discoveries such as Jon Richardson – one to watch out for and a hot ticket if you’re heading up north in August. At times it is even emotional, for as a reviewer you experience both the highs and the lows, the shocking four seasons in one day and the harsh realities that many young performers face as they begin their careers in entertainment.

I remember reviewing a one-woman show in my rookie year where there were only two of us in the audience - one look at each other and we knew we were both reviewers as we stuffed our fringe passes inside our coats. In a venue that could be effectively described as a vault, under pounding rain and the throb of the feet from the revellers above this woman delivered a powerful performance, which included the story of a woman with a crush on David Tennant. I couldn’t help but be moved by her brave determination to carry on under difficult circumstances, to lay bare a part of her soul few of us could contemplate, for there is surely something very exposing about performing in a one person-show.

I bumped into her a few days later in another fringe venue and felt obliged to talk to her about her performance. She said she’d remembered me and recounted her disappointment upon realising we were both reviewers. She admitted that my fellow reviewer (unfairly in my opinion) had given her a woeful review – such is often the cut-throat nature of the business. Still I do wonder if we’ve forgotten the art of fringe theatre, its rawness being part of its potential. I told her I’d given her a good review and we laughed about the crushes we’d had on celebrities over the years.

That’s another thing about the fringe, the crowd is good, particularly those who go out mid-week, for these are the old timers, the ones who barely miss a year and schedule their summer holidays around August. Indeed the festival is a hugely friendly, celebratory and positive experience, an open show case where for a month the fourth wall is literally torn down and performers, artists, writers and ordinary folk come together.

Princes Street Gardens bandstand 'Scotland Has Talent' , Image by Dora Petherbridge

First snapshot of the Fringe

One of the main venues at the fringe, Assembly has taken over the old bandstand in Princes Square Gardens in the heart of the city centre this year. On Saturday we stumbled across this fringe oasis where they were warming up with a showcase of Scottish performers on the stage, under the rather amusing and not entirely misleading ‘Scotland Has Talent!’. That afternoon there was a young chap playing guitar and singing songs about his fiancĂ©, who was in the crowd nursing a Yorkshire terrier puppy. With songs such ‘I fall in love with you over and over’, this guy had something of the Paolo Nutini about him. And such is the beauty of the festival, you might never know, he could be the next big thing ...

In which Edward responds ...

Please forgive another foray into Edward Petherbridge’s colourful world. In response to Saturday’s post Edward emailed me this amazing insight into his weekend – a story of dogs, iPhones, toilet seats and nature. I couldn’t possibly allow such a story to languish in my inbox. And so with his permission I’m posting it here. If I have inspired this then it must be encouraged with a grand acknowledgement. Here we go:

‘Well! I see my iPhone features prominently – I was offered it as an upgrade to replace a lost, much humbler mobile, and now I notice 'everybody' seems to have one. I was being chaperoned by Bean yesterday on our local green and got talking to an iPhone owner, a young woman on a park bench; I was lamenting that I didn't know how to send a text. There and then she offered to demonstrate! I must send a text before I forget how – if it's not already too late. I believe I could make a short film on my iPhone to enter into the Sundance Film Festival if I could find out how to use the camera facility – I haven't even managed to take a snap with it yet – pathetic when you consider how cumbersome my lap top web-cam is...perhaps I should take Bean for another walk on the green...

Meanwhile I have created an image in pastel on paper in just two sessions over two days and I am daring to feature it on my weekly posting this week end (forgive me if this sounds like advertising) – yesterday I had had a particularly laboriously mundane day spent schlepping in Cricklewood and Kilburn, buying a new lavatory seat amongst other things, but God I am so lucky to be able to go from the Kilburn High Road (one of man's less happy creations) to sunlit woods on Hampstead Heath – where God does most of the creating. I am convinced that the sylvan interlude gave me the energy to finish the drawing... Felicitations, Edward.’

In case you are wondering who Bean is, she’s Edward’s dog, a rescue orphan terrier mix.

Ambassador Bean by Dora Petherbridge

Sunday, 1 August 2010

A day at the Farmers' Market

Round these parts we have a weekly Farmers' Market that takes place on Saturdays. While it can’t quite yet rival the markets of say France, the flatmate and I were impressed by the wide range of ethically and locally sourced produce on display. Produce that ranged from organic and free range meats, including venison and ostrich, eggs, vegetables, fruit, Isle of Arran cheeses and preserves.

Navigating the market is easy as it takes place on one long strip, allowing for an eclectic mix of locals, tourists and foodies alike to enjoy the various producers’ wares. As well as food there are stalls selling organic and natural bath and body products for the conscious beauty enthusiast. We were thrilled to discover that the vegetables we bought were significantly cheaper than if we’d got them at the supermarket. And frankly, you’re not likely to see the wonderful characters at the market down your local Tesco Metro. So everyone’s a winner.

This lady was already being photographed by her husband, so Dora felt it was a gift of a picture.

The rather trendy ladies selling strawberries, raspberries and jams.

The vegetable stall.

Judging by the numbers of people having spiritual experiences over the burgers, I gathered that they are something of a draw, so I headed for the nearest Aberdeen Angus stall - the rather suggestive ‘Well Hung and Tender’ where I purchased one such burger with cheese and onions. I can only report good things. The flatmate, a lifelong vegetarian even had a bite.

At home we decided to put our farmer's market produce to good use by turning it all into a spicy Thai red curry with prawns.

And the result. We both agreed that given the origins of most of the ingredients, that this was possibly the freshest and most herby curry I've made. To use Dora's phrase it was indeed, 'an ethical success!'

All images are by Dora Petherbridge.