Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
If it's August, I must be in Edinburgh, or planning to go there, or wishing I was still there. For the moment at least, I'm there. What follows is an inevitably haphazard set of jottings about what I will do and see – not really a set of proper reviews, more whatever themes happen to crop up. Expect it to read a little like something you get in the broadsheets when arts correspondents are dispatched for one weekend to report on 'the state of the Fringe' - except that I won't be trying to sum up a three-week arts festival as a whole, and I'll try to base my opinions on more than seeing a single stand-up, a single piece of physical theatre from Poland, and the Cambridge Footlights. Can I exceed the shoddy standards of British/Irish journalism? A tall order, but that's the challenge I've set myself.
The first thing that strikes the recidivist Fringe visitor is how little changes, at least from year to year (no doubt, the Fringe is rather different now than it was, say, in 1992 – but it's very similar to how I remember it eight years ago). The same patterns of activity across the city; the same multitudes of impossibly fresh-faced students bursting into choruses from musicals and ordering preposterous juices in Black Medicine; the same mixture of desparation, naivete, cynicism, and out-and-out insanity on the Royal Mile. Stepping off the train from Durham into this maelstrom actually makes me feel thankful I'm not hawking a show here. It's hard enough just trying to take it in, without scrabbling for a foothold in the overloaded consciousness of every passerby.
Two shows this evening, offering contrasting takes on musical comedy, and illustrating contrasting dangers that the form faces. Christian Reilly played to a packed audience who generally enjoyed his smuttier efforts and were a little more reserved about his political fare. Project Adorno (my obligitary wild-card Fringe choice) played to an audience that peaked at four, though the four of us were still there at the end.
Reilly offered a much more recognisable take on musical comedy, featuring such classic tropes as sincere-sounding songs with smutty lyrics, a song from one artist in the style of another artist, and songs with lyrics changed to reflect recent events. There was nothing much the matter with his execution of individual numbers, but the cumulative effect is slightly deadening; when the same trick is repeated too often, it becomes hard to appreciate it as anything other than a trick. (Stand-ups who rely on one-liners face a similar problem: if the quality of the lines dips, what was delightfully subtle and smooth becomes forced and clumsy). One way to avoid this might be to explore unusual themes, but Reilly rarely stretched himself on this score.
On the face of it, this isn't a criticism you could level at Project Adorno; their electro-pop odes covered such varied subject-matter as Rene Magritte, manhole covers and the National Trust. But in it's own way, their treatment of musical comedy was as conservative as Reilly's (although I should add that they were in the Cabaret section of the Fringe Programme, and clearly weren't primarily interested in getting laughs). While it's good to see an act so determinately niche, they relied very heavily on mentioning names (famous and obscure) and on the occasional pastiche. Once you've gotten over the thrill of hearing a song about the Test Match Special or catching a reference to Carl Andre, there seemed little left to get your teeth into. The writing wasn't witty enough to work as a celebration of their geeky love of pop culture and art history, and for the most part they didn't appear interested in subverting it either. You couldn't say that they were giving the audience what they wanted, but they never moved beyond a set of boundaries which ultimatey proved as resticting as those faced by Reilly.