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Michael Coveney: Nude watch on the frolicsome fringe

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There was a time when nudity at the Edinburgh Festival was a matter of controversy, but it's open season these days, and has been for at least thirty years, although I've not yet seen a nude stand-up, if you know what I mean, except of course in Puppetry of the Penis, and then I wished I hadn't.

Well, there is a nude comedian this year, and it's not Barry Cryer. It's Phil Nichol, who makes his first entrance in the buff and in a great rush in The Intervention at the Assembly Rooms, though I can't remember why. His first lines passed in a blur of his bouncy bits and pieces and our genuine surprise; not so much at the nudity as the unexpectedness of it.

One of the best young actors I've seen, Fourth Monkey's Scott McGarrick in Nights at the Circus, also strips for action, which caused more amusement than embarrassment among the very young (mostly female) audience crammed into the intimate Space at Niddry Street.

Then there was the sumptuous sight of a Polish Lady Macbeth revealing an acreage of Rubens-like flesh, mostly bottom and haunches, in the chilly Old Quad of the university late at night. And bare bums briefly bowed in Tam O'Shanter at the Assembly Hall and Good With People at the Traverse.

If the weather forecast is to be trusted, folk will be stripping off all over town this weekend. It's been glorious, and great walking weather. Not that you ever have time for anything like that, except dashing between venues, but I did manage a stroll down Canongate to Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament, reading the plaques and clocking the tourists.

The delightful Canongate Kirk, the city's military church, which dates from the late 17th century and is a haven of light and airiness and beautiful proportions, has an attractive music programme for the fringe festival; there's Bach's B-minor Mass tonight, followed by a full complement of organ recitals and chamber concerts. It would make a good retreat from the hurlyburly in Bristo Square.

That square was bathed in lunchtime sunshine yesterday and I found Hattie Hayridge soaking up rays while preparing quietly for her appearance in George Ryegold's God-in-a-Bag in the Underbelly Dairy Room.

"I feel a bit like a miserable old cow," she said, pointing out her broken ankle. She's mobile on crutches (she had the accident in March) but the handicap has been written into the show, so it doesn't worry the audience. I flashed back to Finbar Lynch in The Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic, whose unexplained broken arm, encased in a sinister black sling, only added to his nastiness as the Cardinal.

Hattie's signed up for an autumn tour of a play called Soap Opera - written, directed and produced by Jamie Alexander Wilson - and featuring a cast of, well, soap stars, none of whom Hattie confesses she's heard of ("I don't watch soaps").

The ad hoc company of amateur actors in Appointment with the Wicker Man at the Assembly Rooms are called the Loch Parry Players, and their deep-dyed, remote provincialism is betrayed by the actress who asks the new recruit from Glasgow what that great city is really like... "Is it true there's a Waitrose there?"

But their repertoire betrays at least some level of warped sophistication: there are references to past productions of Glengarry Glenrothes, The Black Watch Minstrel Show and Six Angry Men.

As I've already suggested, the jury is still out on Tommy Sheppard's first season in George Street running the refurbished Assembly Rooms. You can't really wander into the place, which resembles an airport hotel in the foyer, without a ticket for a show. The grey carpeting is impressive but faintly depressing.

And the presence of Jamie Oliver's new Italian restaurant in the furthest recesses feels like an operation nothing at all to do with the festival. Which it isn't. The clientele seem to be a mixture of chavs and suits and stray tourists who aren't going to see anything in town except Jamie's menu.

My favourite onstage festival exchange is probably that between Nichola McAuliffe as a nurse and Julian Glover as her grumpy old patient in Maurice's Jubilee (written by McAuliffe) at the Pleasance. "If you don't behave, I'll have to catheterise you," she fiercely warns him. "I love it when you talk dirty," replies Glover, before subsiding into a long speech about meeting the Queen that warms the cockles of your hurt.


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