In London, five shows a week is a serious haul. In Edinburgh, that’s small fry. When I was reviewing in Edinburgh, I could easily do twice that in a day.
This year, this week, I’m experiencing the festival from a different perspective. I’ve been working with producer James Seabright and Festival Highlights, guest-editing content on their website www.festivalhighlights.com, for the nine shows they’re presenting at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend workshops, rehearsals and interviews with the creators and performers of five Festival Highlights shows that are premiering at this year’s Fringe:
- Outings – a drama exploring real-life coming-out stories, written by Matthew Baldwin and Thomas Hescott and directed by David Grindley
- Potted Sherlock – the latest race-through from Potted Potter’s Dan and Jeff, directed by Hanna Berrigan
- Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult – Tim Fountain’s follow-up to his 2002 hit Julie Burchill Is Away, directed by Mike Bradwell and starring Lizzie Roper
- Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope – written and performed by Mike Farrelly about the late, great “Englishman in New York”, directed by Linda Marlowe
- Siddhartha The Musical – the UK premiere of an extraordinary Italian musical born out of a musical workshop programme with Mafioso lifers in a maximum-security prison, with American guest-star Michael Nouri (Damages) as the English-speaking narrator
Over the next three days, I’ll be taking the “Festival Highlights Challenge”, seeing, tweeting and blogging about these and four other Festival Highlights shows: Linda Marlowe and Sarah-Louise Young’s Night Bus; another Mark Farrelly monologue The Silence of Snow, about novelist Patrick Hamilton; and return hit comedies Eric and Little Ern, starring Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel, and Luke Kempner impression-packed The Only Way Is Downton, both directed by Owen Lewis.
In the meantime, here are some snippets I particularly like from the interviews with the amazing artists I’ve met to date on my Highlights adventure. Over the coming days and three weeks, you can read these and many more in full, as well as more behind-the-scenes blogging from one of the Fringe’s most prolific producers, on the Festival Highlights website.
Co-authors Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin on their hopes for the audience Outings will attract…
Tom: We want Outings to be mainstream. There’s no point in creating a gay play that only plays 11 o’clock at night in Edinburgh to 50 people who are already gay and comfortable with that and we all go home again. There’s a real statement of intent to ensure this reaches as wide a group of people as possible rather than just preaching to the converted. Our director David Grindley is married with kids. His way in was ‘everyone’s got a secret and everyone knows how hard it is to have that secret’.
Matthew: And we all know how difficult it is to be a teenager, we all know about families, that’s a very rich vein. Everyone can share the mortifying horror that your parents would even think of you as having a sex life. Also, I think the general population knows enough about gay people now to find the stories entertaining, in the same way that you don’t need to know all about Renaissance art history to enjoy The Da Vinci Code…. In fact, you need to know nothing about Renaissance art history to enjoy The Da Vinci Code!
Siddhartha the Musical
Lifers from Milan’s Opera Prison, where Siddhartha was created as part of a unique, rehabilitative musical theatre programme, explain how the musical, and its Buddhist message has changed them…
Prisoner 1: It transformed inside, my mindset. I became a child again. It was a second chance in my life to awake another part of myself that I didn’t know before. It’s enlightenment.
Prisoner 2: The musicals are an opportunity to show to other people – to our families – that we are not just prisoners, we are not just criminals.
Prisoner 3: This workshop saved my life. The Buddhist practice saved my life.
Prisoner 4: This gave me the opportunity to find out that everything is inside myself. Before prison, I had a lot of money from drugs. But I left those riches outside, I came to prison with nothing. With Siddhartha, I started a new journey. This is the most important thing to share with others, the most important message: happiness is not found outside, it is inside us all.
Prisoner 5: I was a bad boy. When I started the workshop, I became another person. I am still a boy, but now I am a good boy.
Prisoner 6: When I get out, I don’t want people to look at me like a criminal any more. I want to be a good citizen.
Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult
Author Tim Fountain on why he wanted a second look at the life of one of Britain’s most notorious columnists, the Queen of Spleen…
Twelve years on, Julie’s career has gone in a very different direction. By her own admission, she’s in ‘managed decline’. There’s a much more Sunset Boulevard element to the story now: she’s still big but the newspapers and the columns have got smaller. So has the money in journalism. Her days of earning £100,000 or £150,000 a year, like she did in the ‘80s, are gone. And yet, she has stuck to her guns and continued to live on her terms, spending and drinking like a sailor on shore leave, and carrying on being Julie Burchill.
Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope
Author and performer Mark Farrelly taught me several things I never knew about Quentin Crisp, including…
He was practically asexual and never had a serious relationship in his life. Crisp loved the glamour of dressing up, but he was not attracted to gay men and he disliked sex. According to him, “Sex is the last refuge of the miserable. It suffers from the same malaise as television: halfway through what you assumed was a new episode, you realise it’s a rerun. After that, it’s difficult to remain interested.” He liked heterosexual men and saw himself as caught in an impossible sexual paradox: he was only attracted to a thing that by definition could never be attracted to him. Bar three years when he shared his flat with an almost accidental companion, he lived alone all of his adult life. Despite his many wise observations on relationships, he admitted, “I’ve never been in love and clearly do not know what the expression means.”
Irrepressible double act Dan and Jeff (a.k.a. Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner) on why Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was ripe for potting…
Dan: Some of their methods are incredible too. In The Study of Scarlet, to test whether or not a pill is poison, Holmes takes a dog – not a stray dog, a neighbour’s dog – and forcefeeds it the pill. Can you imagine saying to your neighbor, ‘we killed your dog’? What are they going to say? ‘Oh well, easy come, easy go’?
Conan Doyle’s scientific understanding is pretty dodgy. We do a lot around The Speckled Band in the show. Without giving too much away, the speckled band is a poisonous snake that’s travelling in and out of a room by the command of a whistle. What a great idea. But even I, as a non-scientific person, know that snakes are deaf. There is no way that this could have ever happened. Just to take it further, Conan Doyle must have thought, ‘what snake do I want? We’ll say an Indian swamp adder.’ And there’s no such thing.
Jeff: Maybe he decided on a fictional snake because that’s the only one with ears?