Wednesday 16 August 2006

My final day in Edinburgh this year....

After the malfunctioning wall (in Troilus and Cressida) and the mysterious microphone buzz (during the opening concert performance of Elektra)... the exploding stage lamp! Just as the gorgeous Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski reached the agitated climax of a Benjamin Britten song in her Queen's Hall recital at the International Festival, there was a huge report, like a pistol shot. The lamp had blown. Amazingly, both Isokoski and her equally poised and gracious piano accompanist, Marita Viitasalo, were utterly unfazed, and continued to the end of the song.

James Walters, the associate Festival director, hurried backstage to console the artistes at the end of the Britten "set" and they returned, more refulgent than ever, to complete their stunning programme of works by Mozart, Berg, Schoenberg and Sibelius. My friend, the playwright Michael Willcox, remarked that some singers would have walked off the stage the minute the bang sounded; Isokoski's vast stage experience probably enabled her to survive the shock and ride through it.

Over lunch, Willcox updated me on an exciting film project he’s working on, the story of a fictional 19th-century opera singer based on a variety of true stories. Willcox, a fine club cricketer whose father used to captain the Essex County Championship side, is a gratifying fund, too, of sporting anecdotes, which offer temporary respite in the festival cocoon.

Back to grim business, alas, with a Brazilian hip-hop dance show, part of the International programme, that is as tedious as it is old-fashioned. Didn't we get all this 1980s street-dancing stuff out of our system with Starlight Express? It’s an odd experience, what’s more, to see the sullen Brazilian dancers in the Grupo de Rua Niteroi, turning their vicious tricks in front of an elderly festival audience. Many white-hairs head for the exit well before the end.

If Roy Hattersley, the Labour peer, had been among them, he might well have exploded on the spot, like a concert hall stage lamp. The rubicund Lord has savaged the Anthony Neilson play Realism in a newspaper interview, claiming it is pretentious nonsense, contrived and a waste of taxpayers' money. Dear old Roy, always grabbing hold of the wrong end of any available stick with which to bang his own drum, was similarly off-beam several years ago, harrumphing that Brian McMaster failed to include anything in his programme that pandered to popular taste. I think that was the year when the festival included a riotous Cuban carnival and a play about Scottish variety with two or three of Scotland's most popular actors.

Which reminds me: McMaster rushed towards me at the morning concert (before the lamp went off), not to complain about a review or congratulate me on this daily blog, but to enquire if I had yet been to the end-of-the-pier show in Cromer this year. I haven't, but when I did go several years ago, I found Brian, of all people, licking an ice-cream in shirt-sleeves - this is as far as "letting one's hair down" goes with the wily maestro - in excited anticipation of that night's variety show. Anyway, I can now confirm Sir Brian's plans after this year's festival, his last hurrah: a full schedule of summer variety shows and cabaret turns around the British seaside resorts. Perhaps he'll take Roy Hattersley with him.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Tuesday 15 August 2006

The matinee of Peter Stein’s production Troilus and Cressida at the King's Theatre went off without a hitch, though one sensed a mixed reaction in the audience. The troublesome steel wall that caused the opening night postponement at the interval behaved itself, and critics slunk back into the theatre at the first show interval to catch the second half.

Stand-out performances from Paul Jesson as Pandarus, David Yelland as Ulysses and a grumpy John Kane as the cuckolded Menelaus. His errant wife Helen, cause of the Trojan War, is given a tremendous erotic charge by Rachel Pickup, canoodling on a huge red velvet sofa with Adam Levy's Paris. Newcomers Henry Pettigrew and Annabel Scholey have a way to go in the title roles, but they are both attractive young performers.

The other big International Festival opening, Anthony Neilson's Realism at the Lyceum, ticks all sorts of controversial boxes - foul language, graphic sexual simulations, surreal design, an hilarious evocation of the Black and White (racist?) Minstrel Show, no interval, standard cry of "rubbish" at the end - but is a really rather beautiful production. It’s a fantasy of an ordinary day in the ordinary life of ordinary Stu, played by Stuart McQuarrie and, in my opinion, another success for the new National Theatre of Scotland - a show with obvious appeal to a younger audience, as they say.

Back on the Fringe, I caught up in the morning with Rough Magic's Improbable Frequency at the Traverse, a completely delightful musical play about Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War, espionage and crosswords at cross purposes. There’s a brilliant scenic coup when the bar of the Palace in Dublin is transformed into a mad scientist's "probability adjustment tank", and a duet for rival wordsmiths Flann O'Brien and John Betjeman. The show also contains the funniest copulation song ever.

No festival is ever officially launched, as far as I’m concerned, until a chance meeting with Jim Haynes, founding father of the British fringe, and the Traverse itself. My encounter was late this year but happened in the café at the Film House, where I'd managed to squeeze in an (excellent) Iranian documentary about the earthquake at Bam in 2003. Jim was holding court but broke off to greet and update, issue the usual invitation to his Paris atelier and reminisce about past Edinburghs with Kenneth Tynan, John Calder, and other old friends. Jim was a hippie - and co-editor of International Times with Germaine Greer - but is now the nicest possible avuncular fellow, with the most open mind (and deceptive intelligence) of anyone I know.

The Film House café is a fine fuelling stop as well, with good bagels and coffee. This kept me and my television producer son going until we have a "proper" meal with Liz Smith - former queen bee of the Assembly Rooms - after the Neilson play. The night was still young-ish, however, and there was time to catch an ordinary Australian comedian at the Pleasance: Steve Hughes looks like Frank Zappa but sounds like most other fairly ordinary Australian comedians. He has attracted media flak for making allegedly anti-Semitic remarks, but these had all been deleted by the time we got there.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Monday 14 August 2006

A difficult choice between two international festival events: Peter Stein's Troilus and Cressida, co-produced with the RSC, or the Opera de Lyon's Brecht/Weill double bill of The Lindbergh Flight and The Seven Deadly Sins. I chose the latter and chose well, as all over town later on I met people who had left Troilus at the interval.

Everyone left Troilus at the interval. The set got stuck and the performance was cancelled. This jogged memories of Stein's production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape at the National when the set got stuck there, too. That interval lasted about two hours but at least the show continued. Fingers crossed for the rest of the Troilus performances.

The Lyon Opera show was beautiful and superbly sung. Lindbergh flew to Europe in 1927 (the cantata was written for radio) while back home in the American cities, the Anna sisters are setting out to make money to build a little house on the Mississippi, finding themselves caught up in the deadly sins. Dance, music and theatre should all meld at a festival, and they sure do here.

The audience was rich in movers and shakers: Graham Sheffield of the Barbican, Ruth Mackenzie who is embarking on plans for the entirely "new commissions" festival in Manchester, and Peter Brook's friend and biographer Michael Kustow, who told me he hopes to produce the National Theatre of Scotland's The Black Watch in a garage near King's Cross. Nica Burns tells me that this is her 25th anniversary year in the theatre; her romance with the Edinburgh festival started when she appeared on the Fringe in HE Bates' Dulcimer at the Celtic Lodge. Her show was in the slot before the one marking the debut of comedian Harry Enfield.

The Fringe buzz venue for performance, or physical, theatre is the Aurora Nova, where the Moscow company Derevo have a sensational show involving nudity, shamanistic rituals and lots of water; and the Irish dance company Coisceim offer a remarkable version of RD Laing's Knots set in six shower units, directed by Liam Steel, formerly of DV8. Audiences have not questioned the literal meaning or narrative logic of these shows; they have simply surrendered in a corporate mood of festival festivity. How refreshing this is. So I thought I too would save my cynicism for London. No room for that here.

My day had started at the first of the EIF’s Queen's Hall recitals, Scottish pianist Steven Osborne knocking seven bells out of two sets of Preludes by Debussy and Rachmaninov. I heard him play the Debussy at the Orkney Festival a couple of years ago; this performance was even more magical. We were moved and purified, ready for anything "physical" theatre could now throw at us.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Sunday 13 August 2006

Returning to Edinburgh after a few days respite is like jumping back on board a moving train. The party has carried on without me and yesterday I had to force my way back past the bouncers and the other guests who have carried on whooping it up in my absence. Just as I was wondering whether or not to ring my friends Jane Maud the actress and Nick Hern the publisher, I found them right under my nose in the Traverse bar, ready to enjoy (for the second time) Rough Magic's Improbable Frequency, one of the hits of the first week. I told them, and Neil Cooper of the Glasgow Herald, that I'm heading for the concert. Which concert, they cry.

The Fringe part of the festival has been in full swing for so long that people forget that last night was the opening of the International programme, and Brian McMaster has prepared a humdinger to kick things off in the Usher Hall: Richard Strauss' electrifying Electra conducted by the ENO's new young musical director, Edward Gardner. The performance exceeded my expectations and those of most of the audience, I bet, which included such grandees as the Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell and former Tory Foreign Minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Strauss' "psychological knuckle-duster" (the phrase is Scotsman critic Kenneth Walton's) had a stunning lead in the American soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet and an extraordinary, viperish Klytemnestra from the mountainous Leandra Overmann. The huge Royal Scottish National Orchestra played their socks off for Gardner. This was as much a dramatic highlight as a musical one.

There has been a surge in ticket sales for the International Festival, with over £2 million already taken. One casualty of the terrorism alert has been the cancellation of the St Luke's Orchestra from New York, and other problems have been caused by the reluctance of travelling musicians to consign their instruments to the aircraft hold. But McMaster, launching his final programme after 15 years in the hot seat, is on ebullient form. Even he is surprised that sales are 17 percent up on last year.

McMaster’s successor, Jonathan Mills, a little-known Australian arts administrator and composer, has been moving discreetly around town: "He's coming to see how not to do it," joked Sir Brian. Surely the wily supremo is not lightening up at this late stage... I do hope he still wears a dark suit and sober tie for the morning concerts, but maybe shorts and a Hawaiian shirt will be the order of the day as, after a brisk few days in my absence, the sun is shining afresh on all artists and audiences.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Tuesday 8 August 2006

One quick way of gauging the festival mood, and catching up with colleagues, is to amble along the queues around the Assembly Rooms at almost any time of day. This morning’s big attractions were Allegiance, the Mel Smith play about Churchill, and Paul Merton’s new show about silent movie comedians. Smith’s queue of ticket-holders waiting for admission stretched round the block and half-way down to Princes Street, while Merton’s snaked in the other direction along George Street towards Charlotte Square. Both crowds were buzzing with lively anticipation.

My first visit to the International Festival press office in the Lyceum Theatre yielded the unsurprising information that Sir Brian McMaster, the outgoing director who has raised taciturnity in press relations to an art form, will not meet journalists on a formal footing until the last day of the month: to say thank you, and goodbye.

Les Dennis in Marlon Brando’s Corset did not prove the disaster area Kate Bassett (Independent on Sunday critic) promised, and my afternoon in the Pleasance was further enhanced by Dudley Sutton’s delightful solo show in a Portakabin hut at the back of the premises. Sutton was a stalwart of Joan Littlewood’s company at Stratford East in the mid 1950s, and the first Mr Sloane in Joe Orton’s black comedy. His potted autobiography is an account of how he sloughed off his middle-class background to become a bohemian icon of the Swinging Sixties. His father was a bigot, he says: the only man who assisted in the liberation of Belsen and remained anti-Semitic all his life.

The only real downpour of the week coincided with my meeting with Terri Paddock, editorial director of As we were sheltering in the Udderbelly bar, the new festival flashpoint, this hardly mattered and, besides, I was completely intrigued by Terri’s spreadsheet schedule which resembles an over-written manuscript from the rare document archive in the British Museum. Terri speeds off to catch three more shows before producer James Seabright’s party, and I have a pleasant glass of wine or three with both Christopher Richardson, former artistic director of the Pleasance, and his charming, good-looking successor, Anthony Alderson, whom Richardson taught as a schoolboy at Uppingham.

Richardson, now relaxed and retired, even bereft of his trademark white panama, pipe and dog, is writing a blog for the Fringe website, while Alderson is keen to point out that our splendid tipple is labelled in honour of the late Charlie Hartill, the former Cambridge Footlights president who committed suicide aged just 32, but not before installing the first fully computerised box office on the Fringe. The investment fund in his name will be boosted by a star-studded comedy gala on 24 August.

Michael Coveney returns to Edinburgh from 13 to 17 August 2006. To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Monday 7 August 2006

The Mel Smith big cigar story has gathered as much publicity as any Fringe story in recent years (See Today's Goss). At his first performance as Winston Churchill in Mary Kenny’s Allegiance at the Assembly Rooms, Mel fiddled with a cigar, appeared about to light it and then put it down. A little later Churchill says: “I’ve little love for those puritans who seek to curb us from drinking, smoking, pleasure.” And the Glasgow Herald has a cartoon of Churchill announcing that he will fight them on the beaches, he will fight them in the Assembly Rooms… he will never be defeated. Smoking is banned in all public places in Scotland, and that includes the stage. William Burdett-Coutts, the Assembly artistic director, was flatly told by a city councillor that he would be made an example of, and refused a license for any further performances, if Mel smoked the cigar. So Mel lit up a large one on the pavement outside after the show, angrily telling reporters, “Hitler didn’t have smokers around for dinner.”

A new star is born in My Name Is Rachel Corrie at the Pleasance. Her name is Josephine Taylor in the ascendant. Just 23 years old, this tall, rangy redhead only graduated from the Webber Douglas drama school last April and succeeds Award winner Megan Dodds in the role with all the charm, poise and spontaneity of a much older hand. Not even the crashing of weightlifters dropping their loads in training next door could throw her off her stride.

Bumped into Ben Caplan, so touching in Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years at the National as the son of a secular household who suddenly gets Orthodox religion big-time. He’s shed a lot of the weight he put on for the part and is in Edinburgh to play George Tesman in both Hedda Gabler and a companion comedy, The Man of the Future Is Dead, written by critic and former old Liberal Party activist John Elsom.

Judy Steel, wife of the former Liberal Party leader David Steel and production manager on Hermiston, corrected my non-Scottish pronunciation of her company’s name, Rowan Tree, on my way in to see the play at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a spanking new venue in the High Street formerly known as the Netherbow. Hermiston is a bit of a collector’s item, a dramatic completion or postscript to Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston. It is therefore almost the acceptable face of folk heritage theatre. Almost, but not quite.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Sunday 6 August 2006

The weather held fast and fair for the big procession of Fringe floats down Princes Street, but most movers and shakers in the comedy world were heading for Nica Burns’ annual comedy lunch in the Point Hotel. The Perrier Awards are no more. We now have to learn to live with the awkwardly named “if.comEddies” as a result of a three-year sponsorship deal with an international finance company, a subsidiary of the Halifax Building Society. A spokesman told me that the title will be changed if anyone thinks of something better.

I sandwiched the lunch between a quick dash to the glorious Botanical Gardens, where the new Queen Mother memorial section was awash with agapanthus, lillies and roses; and a stroll round the Meadows, where the Lady Boys of Bangkok were encamped in a huge fenced off area of caravans and marquees.

The theatres have been sweltering hot in the humid weather. The hottest is undoubtedly the Gilded Balloon dining room venue, where Tim Healy is playing an old-style pantomime dame in Philip Meeks’ Twinkle Little Star; the coolest the larger Traverse space, where Nina Raine’s Liverpool Everyman production of The Unprotected, based on interviews with local prostitutes, is already, and rightly, garnering rave reviews.

My biggest disappointment so far is Into the Hoods, touted as a hip-hop musical “inspired by” Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, but in fact a fairly ordinary kids’ karaoke show with a loose pantomime connection and not a hint of the Sondheim score.

That iconic Scottish actor Tam Dean Burn told me he is just starting to rehearse (and learn the guitar) for the National Theatre of Scotland’s upcoming new musical based on John Byrne’s 1987 television series Tutti Frutti.

The “star bar” in the Assembly Rooms seems underpopulated this year. Folk are definitely adjourning to outside bars where smoking is still allowed. There’s a beautiful little terraced sun-trap for artists and journalists at the top of the Gilded Balloon, but no one who actually works in the building downstairs seems to know where it is. Best value pre-show supper is in the Tower at the top of the new National Museum of Scotland. Good views, too.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Saturday 5 August 2006

Always a good idea to catch the best exhibitions before the queues arrive, so I plunged quickly into the National Portrait Gallery for Harry Benson’s Fifty Years of Photojournalism, an eye-popping selection with terrific captions. Visitors not only relive the Beatles’ first visit to America, the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Santa Monica, the early House of Commons friendship of Harold Wilson and George Brown; they see the pix in historical context. Even more theatrical are the Ron Mueck naked human figures – some tiny, some huge – in the National Gallery. This is hyperrealism gone mad.

It was a relief to encounter the merely human-scale realism of the Black Watch squaddies in Gregory Burke’s new play about the now amalgamated Scottish regiment. John Tiffany’s production in the old Drill Hall is a mesmerising triumph, and the festival has its first big hit on its hands.

Back on the gallery beat, don’t miss the Fruitmarket, if only for the rhubarb pies and chocolate brownies in the splendid café. Right opposite, the City Art Centre is hosting a huge retrospective of Scots photographer Albert Watson, including great portraits of Kate Moss, Johnny Depp and Mick Jagger and his latest low-down of Las Vegas, with strippers, gamblers and entertainers all strutting their stuff in a wash of lurid Technicolor.

Caught up with producer Nica Burns, who was scouting for the if.comeddies (formerly the Perrier Awards) end of festival party site, and actor Neil Pearson, fresh from completing work on a £10 million BBC TV crime series with Jason Isaacs. Kate Bassett (critic for the Independent on Sunday) became the umpteenth person to warn me off the new Les Dennis comedy, but I plan to be brave. There is a nice, neat production from the excellent Nottingham-based New Perspectives Theatre Company at the Pleasance: The Allotment by Andy Barrett tries to induce peace and harmony among assorted asylum seekers and foreign nationals through horticultural therapy. Touching to see so much faith placed in poems and plants at this horrible time in world affairs.

I found David Benson all a-jitter as he prepared to go on stage as Kenneth Williams, and Sue Kelvin all made up and ready for take off as Sophie Tucker. Sue still has hopes that Steven Berkoff’s Sit and Shiver, in which she appeared at the New End, will make it into the West End after a date at the Hackney Empire.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Friday 4 August 2006

Weather held fair as the usual teams of jugglers, barkers and students with painted faces took their stands along the Royal Mile and I enjoyed one of my favourite rituals, lunch in the Doric Tavern, with Liz Smith, godmother of the Fringe and former queen bee at the Assembly Rooms. Philip Meeks, the former publicity officer at the West Yorkshire Playhouse who has written a play about a fading pantomime dame at the Gilded Balloon, joined us. Meeks’ play, Twinkle Little Star, opened on the same night as his brother, actor Dale Meeks, bowed out of TV’s Emmerdale… in an episode written by Philip!

Once we fixed the phone in the apartment, we discovered a problem with the hot water. This was soon solved when we realised the boiler was not turned on. This only took us about two hours to work out. The usual gaggle of critics assembled at the Traverse - for the opening of Pump Girl by Abbie Spallen, a Belfast actress and writer - all looking as though they’ve been running around already for two weeks. Ian Shuttleworth (Theatre Record) loomed alarmingly large in a tent-sized tee-shirt, Kate Bassett (Independent on Sunday) was trying to keep up with her own note-taking and Benedict Nightingale (The Times), sporting his trademark crumpled seersucker jacket, wondered how on earth everyone else remembered to end up in the same place as him. Scottish freelance Jackie McGlone’s had another astonishing makeover, thinning out her hair to a striking ginger bob and matching her stunning black taffeta outfit with a pair of black and white pearly spectacles. Smart, but terrifying.

Rendezvous with Amy Glazer, artistic director of the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, who has replaced Wilson Milam as director of Finders’ Fee by Wesley Moore at the Assembly Rooms. Milam has got stuck on recasting The Lieutenant of Inishmore in New York. Glazer’s had two weeks to get the show ready for this Monday’s opening. She knows all about making a triumph out of unlikely circumstances: her uncle, the late, great Sidney Glazier (yes, the surname spelling is that subtly different) was Mel Brooks’ producer on The Producers. And her brother, Mitch Glazer, produced the sleeper smash Lost in Translation.

Biggest surprise of the day was a student production of Making a Scene at the Edinburgh College of Art. JJ Markson’s scenario of actors backstage of their own rehearsals of Uncle Vanya has been wittily, and a bit rudely, relocated in a lavatory, actors over-hearing each other in adjacent cubicles. There are five toilets on the stage, nine less than Calixto Bieito had for his notorious production of Verdi’s Masked Ball at the ENO. And the acting is fresh, lively, innocent, a nice change from the Traverse. First light rain of the festival.

To contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.

Thursday 3 August 2006

Edinburgh was bathed in sunshine for the miraculous awakening of the 60th fringe festival. As my train from London hurried north, and as I strained to overhear some tetchy telephone conversation about the West End rights of the Assembly’s big production this year, Midnight Cowboy, the skies turned as blue as the producer’s language. First task was to get my own phone fixed in the New Town apartment where I’m staying for a week. Next, a quick scurry round the press offices.

The Assembly in George Street looked like a battle zone as boxes were unpacked, bar staff briefed, dazed performers comforted. Rory Bremner was wandering around looking lost. Then I saw two actors I last saw in Wellington, New Zealand, in February; they are here with Wheeler’s Luck, a hilarious low-down on the Kiwi property and development markets patently inspired by Irish playwright Marie Jones’ hit West End comedy Stones in His Pockets. There is a tectonic shift in the geography of the Fringe this year: a huge plastic upturned cow auditorium – the Udderbelly, part of the Underbelly – has appeared in Bristo Square, right between the Gilded Balloon Teviot and the Pleasance Dome and a short stone’s throw from the Spiegel Garden in George Square Gardens, where La Clique is ensconced. There’s a lively new outdoor bar and, when I passed by, a mill of human traffic as exciting as in the Pleasance Courtyard or the Assembly box office queues.

The Gilded Balloon press launch was as chaotic as ever, though the haggis meatballs were delicious. Later, the Assembly launch gala was mercifully much shorter than last year’s and there seemed to be a buzz about a new American stand-up, Maria Bamford, who says that she’s not so much depressed as paralysed with hope.

The 2006 Edinburgh Fringe, which is the 60th annual Fringe, runs from 6 to 28 August and is joined by the Edinburgh International Festival from 13 August to 3 September. For overviews on theatre highlights from both, see related stories in the News section. For all the very latest festival news, reviews and listings, check out the detailed reporting from our partners at The Scotsman at And to contribute your own festival thoughts and experiences, visit the Discussion Forum.