Edinburgh – the good life on fringe benefits….

My festival Sun-day


At least it was sunshine all the way. I’d caught the train from Lancaster in the driving rain and the mist engulfed the hills of the Lake District but as if by magic after we pulled out of Lockerbie the sun painted the scenery of the Scottish lowlands with golden glory. Even the adolescent sheep were jumping for joy in their green, green fields.

And adolescent jumping for joy was the order of the day as soon as I reached Edinburgh, Waverley Station where every nook and cranny, crevice and corner was filled to bursting.

In the streets intrepid, costumed “leafleteers” tirelessly fight for your attention. Art here in festival time is a serious business and much hangs upon success in these street skirmishes.

Like some exotic Persian market, Edinburgh is a performance souk…. a bazaar of the bizarre….full of stallholders jostling for your attention, peddling a single jewel from a jewel-box containing an endless variety  of everything performable…and maybe quite a bit of cheap paste….

In this competitive cacophony you need to watch your step lest something that’s caught your eye literally trips you up and tips you into a walk-on part in some other live performance going on nearby. Sometimes as you stop to talk to some chirruping youth suddenly you have that sinking feeling you get on holiday – say in Turkey –  when you’re haggling over the price of some carpet that you really only ever half-wanted to buy in the first place.  The pitch to get bums on seats is unrelenting and endearing. It’s pavement art; it’s performance art; both energetically made-up into one kiss-me-quick moment on the giddy promenade to possible fame.

We slipped through the mayhem and had lunch in the Tower Restaurant in the National Museum. It was my second time there and looking out at the castle and eating a wonderful lunch which included a sirloin steak cooked to perfection, was a perfect beginning to a perfect day. Restaurant aside, the National Museum is a must for visitors to Edinburgh to see.

The sun shone on and on and by the time we got to evening I felt brave enough to go out in a shirt and jumper….quite exciting in itself after the saturated pleasures of Bentham – a fine stone-built village, full of country walks and endless views located on the edge of North Yorkshire and on the edge of the Forest of Bowland…

In the evening it was to the Pleasance Courtyard, first to see Josh Widdecombe at the Hut. The hut was hot and small and Josh, whom I’d never seen before, was vulnerable and charming and gave a performance that really was delightfully funny. He uses his dad as a gentle butt of some of his observational comedy. Done with great affection he explained his dad was sixty – which to me at fifty seven seems hardly any age at all…let alone one that bars you from the embrace of such cultural oddities as laser-quest. I admit when he asked if there was anyone in the audience who was single I didn’t dare put up my hand…for fear of being thought too old to be out alone at this time of night in this temple to the young and young at heart. But he wasn’t cruel to any of his audience rather he drew us into his quirky world full of his vulnerabilities and insecurities. I loved the piece on  petering-out….I will never hear that phrase again without smiling and thinking of his anxious face as he confided that his last relationship hadn’t actually ended…his girl friend had told him it had petered-out. It led to a wonderful sequence of observational gags about phrases like ‘up to here’ etc, etc.  I’m a fan and would go and see him anytime…and he’s going to get better. He has the elusive charm that takes an audience along…rather than hectoring, or harrying or just corralling them into sharing the same space as the performer.

Vulnerable and gentle aren’t words you’d first think of using when you see Russell Kane. His show is Manscaping at Pleasance One. He’s a flamboyant, edgy, acrobatic performer. It’s electric. Yet the show is so self-revealing on one level that it leaves you intimately shocked and deeply touched. Whether this is intentional I don’t know. His performance is etched by machine-gun patter driven by a random amphetamine energy but it’s far from random. This show’s content is carefully crafted and perfectly lucid in its clever, clever, knowingness. His shockingly intense sequence on the insecurities of body form and casual sex is revealing and yet also manipulatively unrevealing. He’s very clever…but it’s a delightful crazy cleverness. It’s original and kind. He’s hardest upon himself, perplexed by perceived inadequacies of body-form and personal feelings; human relationships and human behaviour and above all it’s quirkily observational. His best sequences appeared unscripted….a rush of ideas over Cheryl Cole toppling out one after the other and ending in a crescendo about her vainglorious comment on some performance in X Factor which began ‘if there is any justice in this world…’

But I loved the end…his encounter with the monstrous regiment of the better-off in a First Class carriage between Cambridge and London. I loved it not only because it was a wonderful story wonderfully and richly told. In its re-telling Kane exposed the layered hypocrisies that inform so much of what we’re conditioned to think about one another on the basis of what we merely ‘think’ we see. That was high class stuff… much higher class than the person whom he satirises in his anecdotal epic. Who says language is dead?  Kane employs it un-stuffily  and tellingly, to tell you it, how it is; to make you laugh at your grossest stupidities and hopefully to temper them with a little more self-knowledge in the process. Not bad for a night’s entertainment.

Finally for something different we dashed across the city to C Studio 2 for Last train to Wigan. This is an unlikely play on the unlikely subject of Northern Soul. And like the North and Northern Soul music it eulogises, it touches you and warms you.

The play cleverly evokes more than the seventies in which it is set. Anyone who’s been clubbing will recognise the glitter of just being in a special place; the feeling of being in the music; the feeling maybe that it’s never been like this before for anyone but those with whom you share these precious nights; and, most endearingly, the feeling that it will never be the same again. And in telling that specific story this play touches on the reason nostalgia is powerful. Nostalgia is the hard-wired cable that allows us to re-touch our life’s experience….the past we’ve lived and lost and upon which we longingly look back. This play catches the quick-silver nature of those precious times with some wonderfully warm characters.

It’s least successful maybe when it’s preachy about the nature of the drug sub-culture that’s infused this rite-of-passage experience since perhaps the 1920s…. for each generation a different recreational drug employed to the same end. The two principal larger than life characters turn-out not to be alive at all…..but how to get from eternity to Wigan in the 1970s is a journey you can only take when you too catch the Last Train for Wigan. Buy a ticket. I wouldn’t want you to miss the experience of being on that train…

There’s a lot of a good Northern accents and watch out for the Mother who has mannerisms that will make you smile as you recall your own mum. 


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