Friday, 23 August 2013

Small, perfectly-formed and cheap

Here I am once again in Edinburgh, partly visiting family and partly exploring the Fringe. I've been wary of the Fringe for at least a decade, partly because it seemed that the standard of acting in drama productions was declining rapidly - I would leave a production disappointed more often than impressed or entertained - and partly because of the spreading virus of stand-up comedy. While I'm a big fan of comic writing in fiction and on stage and some radio and television sit-coms approach genius status, I find most stand-up drearily monotonous, only generating laughs with a predictable combination of large egos, weak jokes, unnecessary swearing and a drunken audience.

But my ego is as big as the next self-deluded comedian's and so I'm spending a couple of days in the Scottish capital checking venues for productions that I am planning to put on at the Fringe in 2014. At the moment three one-man productions are in the air - revivals of Tadzio Speaks . . . and Angel and a new one-man play based on the life of Frederick Rolfe - but there are other ideas mulling around and a year in which the best-laid plans can go agley.

So I'm looking for venues which are small, perfectly-formed and cheap. Not to mention in the centre of the city. This is, I know, a thankless task, similar to hunting for unicorns on London's Regent Street, but it has to be done. And part of the task is not only looking at venues but watching shows that take place in them. Which brings me back to my first point - that the standard of Fringe productions has fallen considerably in the last decade or two (or, perhaps more likely, I have aged and become more discriminatory).

On Wednesday I found myself watching shows in three temporary theatres. First up was The Improv of Being Earnest at The Space on North Bridge (venue 36) from the Bristol-based UWE Drama Society. A nice idea - marrying Whose Line Is It, Anyway, with Oscar Wilde, that was weakly executed. Whose Line relied on rapid changes and actor-comedians who took an idea and ran with it; The Improv let long sections of the play run before instigating changes and the performers would often get bored with the suggestions they were given (eg performing underwater) and let them drop rather than explore them. Which meant that I was more often left laughing at the original Wilde rather than the modern interpretation.

Last up was Ian Watt in Cut! at the Hill Street Solo Theatre. Although others have praised this comedy, this satire of a German film director in 1920s Hollywood passed me by. Part of the problem was Watt's impenetrable accent (I had trouble understanding half of what was being said and my Russian companion gave up after about 10 minutes), but most of the fault lay in the direction, which emphasised mania over dramatic curve. We began at high pitch and we continued at high pitch and ended at high pitch. The audience was small and while two women in front of us laughed hysterically, the laughter from the rest of the audience was definitely low-key and suggested people who were laughing because it seemed to be the right moment to laugh rather than because they were genuinely amused by what was happening on stage.

The highlight came in the middle of the day - Bobby Bulloch in Big Boys Don't Cry. The one-man play, by Elizabeth Davidson, telling a simple story about a young man's relationship with his baby son, was well-written and acted and both author and actor should go far. Yes, my Russian friend had some problems with the accent and dialect, despite living in Scotland for several years, but that did not prevent her from recognising the quality of the drama throughout. The only thing that I really disliked about the production was the pop-art poster.

As for the venues (the principal reason why I was there) . . .  well, the North Bridge Space was anonymous, the Hill Street Theatre was professional and The Vault (the setting for Big Boys) was atmospheric but the seating awkward. No decision as yet, but today I have another afternoon in which to check out more temporary theatres and maybe I'll find my dream venue half-way up Victoria Street.

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