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Thursday, 25 August 2011

More festival mullarkey

Ok, so I totally planned to keep a daily diary to publish here, but things just got too busy. Most days I'm doing somewhere in the region of five shows, and I'm having to work hard to make time for eating and sleeping, so sadly I just didn't find the time to write. So in place of a linear diary, I'm going to post a few random snatches and memories from the past week that have managed to defy the stress, macaroni pies and jack & cokes to stick in my memory.
I won an award. A real one. From the Glasgow Herald. I'm asked to come along and pick it up, and stupidly I think it'll be an informal little thank you, but when I get there – with one of my producers, brilliant cabaret performer Des O'Connor (no, not that one) – I realise that this might be a bit of a big deal. We're in a gorgeous ballroom in the Bank Of Scotland's HQ, and there's lots of big noises from the world of serious theatre, and Ruby Wax is presenting awards, and I feel out of my depth. People are making speeches. All I have is cigar boxes. People are talking about the meaning of their work. All I do is tricks. But when my name is called, and I get up on stage, I start to feel at home again. I thank my heroes: Rastelli, WC, George Carl and Rob Murray. I thank my producers. I thank my wife. And then I smile at the audience and say “That's enough words. I'm a juggler. Wanna see a trick?”, and they're more than enthusiastic. I'd been asked to do a short spot, so I do, and then there's lots of shaking hands and mutual congratulations. I'm told that although these awards have been running for a long time, I'm the first cabaret performer to ever receive one. And I feel a little teary and overwhelmed, and I think – not for the first or the last time – how lucky I am to have found this cabaret world to fit into after trying to force myself into other worlds for so long.
In my other guise as a photographer, I shoot the marvellous Tricity Vogue covered in kazoos, and afterwards she takes me up to Calton Hill, where there is a little happening organised on twitter by musical duo “The Jane Austen Argument”. The part of me that Dusty Limits would refer to as Grumpy Uncle Mat would usually dislike this kind of thing, but when it works, it works. And this was pure delight. Sitting in the sun with a handful of people on a little hillside surrounded by gorgeous scenery, while gifted cabaret singers perform touching songs just because they felt like it. Actually beautiful. I'd trade a few chainsaw jugglers for people like The Jane Austen Argument, if one was able to modify one's friends in the same way as I might have done swapsies with Star Wars trading cards when I was a kid.
Had a stressful morning being late for a gig at the Foodies festival. I hate being late for things, and this Edinburgh I'm doing so many shows that I seem to arrive backstage at every one looking like a sweaty harassed mess. I'm not massively happy when I arrive, and after dragging my suitcase across a muddy field, I'm not in the mood to do a show. But I do, and it's fun – more like a street show than a stage spot, and characterised by several moments when I find myself chasing a toddler across the field with a knife. It was funny, trust me. Then off to catch the end of the cabaret symposium, where I get to sit in an auditorium with lots of my favourite people and watch them talk stuff..I guess..? Maybe I missed all the juicy stuff, but by the time the end of the session came and Amanda Palmer was talking about how awful it is when audience members always want to buy you drinks, I rolled my eyes so hard I nearly gave myself a seizure. Still, it was good to bring the gang together and say a little “yay us” - especially since a few members of our community have worked so hard to get cabaret listed as a genre in the festival guide. I just worry that “cabaret” sometimes seems to mean “kooky musical people”, and us variety artists, once again, get a little sidelined.
Fittingly, right after the symposium, my friend Kirsty takes me to see Paul Daniels' show. It's really interesting. It's easy to forget that Paul was not only a proper big TV star (more viewers every Saturday night for 16 years than shit like X-factor), but also totally instrumental in people like me doing what I do. The first time I saw Kris Kremo, Bob Bramson, Rob Murray – some of the greatest jugglers of modern times – all on his show. I owe him, and have told him so in the past when I've been lucky enough to hang out with him. The show is pretty great. It can get a little awkward when he cracks the occasional joke that he shouldn't be cracking – his opinions are a bit daily mail, and that made some of the audience feel everso slightly uncomfortable at times. But when he gets into one of his routines, by god, it's spun gold. I feel honoured to have been able to watch his classic chop cup routine live – it's been honed over something like 50 years, and is as perfect as it could be. And talking of his audience – there were all sorts in – know-it-all people like me and Kirsty, people of similar age to Paul, families, young children. And good grief is he good with his audience volunteers. Once he knows your name and job, it's an unending stream of perfectly tailored gags that let you know just how many decades he's been polishing this stuff. It gleams. At one point, the tiny child sat in front of me was literally on the edge of his seat, hands over his face, unable to stop himself screaming “nooooo...dont do it...!” as Paul had his hand on a guillotine trigger. Any show that can move an audience so naturally is worthy of your attention. Everyone at the cabaret symposium should book tickets for the chance to learn from an old master, but sadly hardly any of them will see this as cabaret.
Talking of cabaret – we've been having some astonishing special guests at Vive le Cabaret, the late night variety show I'm closing every night. A couple of nights ago I found myself going on after Camille O'Sullivan who herself had followed Shlomo. Crazy. Two of the most captivating and astonishing talents in this town, and I get to be on the same show as them? Lucky boy, I am. A smart mouth and a tablecloth has got me to some pretty cool places, and this is certainly up there. Sometimes a journey rounds a corner and delivers a nice view. It'd be a sin not to stop and look at it before hurrying on your way.
Audiences are steadily growing for my solo show, and I'm getting some nice feedback. Three people have now told me that the more poignant moments have made them cry, and another couple have mentioned that they found themselves thinking about some of the things I said a day later. So that's a win, then. Part of the point of the show was to make it a little bit more than just jokes and tricks (not that I don't adore both of those things), and introduce an element of old style narrative storytelling into it. Very happy that it seems to have worked.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Edinburgh Festival diary 2011 Part One

Monday the 1st

Up at a frankly undignified hour to catch the 7.30am out of Kings Cross, accompanied by the sleeping Desmond O'Connor. It seems this train is a little too early to be full of the usual collection of performers/twats on their way to make their name at the fringe, although midway through the journey I do see two student actors attempting to carry an office chair down the length of the train. Kids, they have office chairs in Scotland. Get one when you get there.
Once arrived in town, we all start to meet up at my producers flat. Mr.B, the gentleman rhymer, is already there, so we exchange the secret cabaret handshake and inspect each others flyers. OK, so there is no secret cabaret handshake, but since this year is the first year that cabaret has been included as a genre in the fringe, I feel it's a good move to create as much mystique as possible around it. Also “Inspect each others flyers” is not a euphemism. Also, we should totally invent a secret cabaret handshake.
Off to see my venue for the first time while we tech “The Bitch Doctors”, which I'm also in. It's totally lovely – a little old ballroom with dancefloor, gorgeous ceiling good sized stage and MIRRORBALL. What's not to like? Bearing in mind that the arched ceiling of last years venue was so low, that there were parts of the stage where I couldn't stand because I would get stuck between the roof and the floor, I'm very happy with this years room.
I get settled in at my digs, and then head out to meet Kirsty – otherwise known as burlesque satirist Honey Wilde. She's up here performing and running the sound on a bunch of shows, and we're both away from our other halves so have decided to be festival buddies and keep each other sane. A good starting point is a visit to Mammas Pizza on grassmarket, where Kirsty pours scorn on my choice of cheese, tomato, banana, sweetcorn, pineapple and baked beans pizza. Until she tastes it, at which point she very grudgingly concedes that I know what I'm doing.
Tuesday the 2nd
I got up today intending to do a street show on the Royal Mile, but ended up buying an umbrella. You can divine all you need to know about Edinburgh right there. Oh, and by the time of writing this, I have – of course – lost the fucking umbrella.
Teched my show today. During the morning I was feeling a little wobbly, but after running parts of the show, sorting out a lighting state or two, getting the music tracks working and using the MIRRORBALL, I felt pretty good about everything.
Arranged to meet a bunch of stand-up comedians to go see Captain America, which was an awful film, but a fun time. Me, Stuart Goldsmith and Rob Deering all agreed that after our techs we were all feeling positive and excited about our shows. Something is sure to go wrong. Afterwards, we were all walking across the little piazza outside the cinema when what looked like 5 bucketfuls of water dropped out of the sky and landed a few inches in front of Stu. No idea where it came from. Empty sky. We all stood around staring at it for a while. Strange.
Then off to the Pear Tree – via somewhere where me and Kirsty could purchase chips (with cheese in her case, with mushy peas in mine, 'cos that's one of my five a day, right?) - to meet filth hurricane Lizzie Roper. One of the great things about Edinburgh is that everyone is seemingly everywhere, so although we'd gone to hang out with Roper, we also ended up hanging out with Hardeep Singh Kohli, Rhiann and Ben from Tricity Vogue's show, and Art Maliks daughters. Funs. There was talk of getting Honey Wilde to do her Mrs. Thatcher burlesque act on Neil & Christine Hamilton's chat show, which would be awesome.
One more late drinkie with Roper, and then I'm back in my bed. Nervous but confident about tomorrows first nights.
3rd August
Wandered up to the royal mile to see which street performers were around, and arrived just in time to see my old double act partner Dave starting a show. Had a fun time sitting in the front row watching Dave throw clubs around and be silly. If you see a tall, lumpy blonde fellow in an ill-fitting tuxedo on the street during the festival, give him half an hour of your day, you won't regret it. The last time I'd seen Dave was earlier in the year when we took the old double act to a festival in Fremantle, Australia, so we caught up over a baked potato during which I received a call telling me I'd been booked for another show today. Which made four. Four opening nights in one evening. Go hard or go home.
Bitch Doctors was first – partly improvised comedy based around sorting out the problems, woes and ailments (via twitter #BitchDoctors, or submitted live) of the Edinburgh festival folk. I'm on with Des O'Connor and Helen Arney, who are both great. I feel slightly out of my depth, which can only be a good thing. Comfort zones, and stuff. Bearing in mind we'd never done it before, it was actually pretty good – great in places, and will only get better.
Then it was a guest spot in The Voodoo Revue – small audience, but lovely. And then it was the big one, my one man show.. was fine. I think I struck the right level in that I was happy with it, but I can see places where I can tweak it and make it a little more theatrical and stylish.
Finally a demented dash to the Pleasance to do a spot in Vive Le Cabaret, alongside Marcel Le Cont, Piff the magic dragon, Rayguns look real enough and similarly great acts. Another lovely audience, and I'm done. Knackered, but contented. I walk back to my digs munching on a samosa filled with vegetarian haggis. Just have to do all that another 24 times.
4th August
Same four shows today. It's only the second preview, so I perform “Three Balls..” to six people. Hilariously, I'd been told the there was a reviewer in tonight, and while usually it's a challenge working out who the reviewer in the crowd is, when the audience consists of two friends, the girlfriend of a friend, a couple, and a single guy, the game is easy. There's a part of the show where I ask the audience to name a famous comedian, and when the reviewer suggested Harry Lauder – a scottish music hall legend – I had an inkling he might be my kind of person.
Over the Vive Le Cabaret after my show, as per usual, and then we were all rolling down to perform at The List's launch party, where we were doing cabaret in the old operating theatre – one of those victorian lecture theatre cum surgeries – an amazing room with fold out wooden benches in the steepest rakes I have ever seen, and amazing acoustics – when Ed cracked his whip is echoed for days. Packed house, and another lovely show.
I caught a taxi back to my digs, and the driver had me pegged:
“Just seen a show or just done one?”, he asked
“Just done one”
“Are you funny or a play?”
“Observational or surreal?”
“Um. Observational, with juggling”
“Good lad”
5th August
First official day of the fringe, and I get myself down to the street performers draw. Lovely to see so many old street performer friends. Lots of people I haven't seen since this time last year, who travel from the corners of the world to do shows in this high street in this week. It's also a year since I last worked the street properly, so I have to make sure to take it easy or my throat will up and leave me on day one.
As I'm having breakfast my phone pings and google alerts tell me that The Glasgow Herald has published a review of my show. I'm not confident – hard to get an atmosphere in a venue with only 6 people there, and although they were attentive and appreciative last night, the laughs didn't really roll. I look up the review and and stunned to see that they loved it. “Brilliantly written and consummately performed”. I get five stars. Knocked out by this. To get such a glowing review on the first official day of my show is about as good as it could possibly get. It sounds shallow to be so encouraged by something like this, but the truth is that there are just so many shows at the fringe that it's impossible for punters to choose what to go and see without a little guidance. For someone like me, fairly unknown outside of my little pond, a couple of great reviews make a massive and tangible difference.
Also luck has gone my way in the street show draw and I have a show scheduled for 1.15 on the high street. It's been a while, but I'm in a giggly mood, so I get myself into the crazy throng that is the Royal Mile and knock out a nice show. Following up the show with the traditional cheese and beans potato, and then I'm ready to yomp down to my venue and do what will become my regular set of shows: Bitch Doctors (which as we start to work it in is rapidly becoming quite great), Voodoo revue, Three Balls and a New Suit, and Vive Le Cabaret. Five shows today.
I'm a little disappointed to find that even with the review and my flyering of my street show audience, I'm working to 6 people again in my solo show. Most of it is story telling, which is fine with a small audience, but some of the routines are really helped by atmosphere, and feel – at least to me – emptier when the laughs are sparser.
My mood dips a little, but not for long. However crappy any of my days at the fringe turn out to be, every night I'm headlining Vive Le Cabaret which is turning out to be a peach of a show – great core cast and brilliant special guest spots. I'm stunned and honoured that I'm closing this show every night, and Des O'Connor's astonishingly great compering assures that I always bounce on stage feeling like a star. 6 people or not.
The only reasonable way to round off a five show day at the fringe is, of course, with drink, so I put a little call out on twitter for people to come a hang out in the courtyard and have a lovely night in the company of Honey Wilde, Eastend Cabaret, Ed and Amelie, Cherry Loco and various other brilliant cabaret wierdos.
6th August
Bearing in mind that in Edinburgh (a) all the streets are on hills and (b) It's always bloody raining, I'm not sure why there isn't one part of town – the part where all the hills end – that just fills with water every day and drowns everyone there.
Comparitively slow day today – only three shows – and due to the drinking last night, it's well into the morning before I stir. Next door to my venue there is a good looking little cafe – all cramped tables and steamed up windows - and yesterday Kirsty, our fabulously enthusiastic stage manager, was raving about it, so I figure it's time for a nice big fry-up. The menu options are:
Big veggie breakfast
Bigger veggie breakfast
Biggest veggie breakfast
I opt for the biggest, and then add extra eggs and toast. It's great, and it's a pleasure to see a “Tattie scone” on my plate for the first time in a year. But then, beautiful tragedy: I am still hungry. Fuck it. I order macaroni cheese and chips as a chaser. Mmmm carbs.
Bitch Doctors today is great, really tightening up while still allowing for improv. I always love working with Des, but it's a huge treat to be sharing a stage with Helen Arney every night. She's just completely brilliant. A smart, silly and elegant performer, and gorgeous musically. If you don't know her stuff, seek her out.
I'm having a day off from the Voodoo revue today, which means I can crack open a can of Relentless and sit at the back to watch. Halfway through the show, my producer taps my on the shoulder and whispers in my ear that one of the acts hasn't turned up, so could I do a spot. One hurried set-up later and I'm back on stage.
And then it's time for my solo show again – I'm hoping that I get at least seven in tonight, and am very happy to discover that I'm in the low twenties. That still might not sound like much, but it makes all the difference and or the first time this fringe I get to feel how the show should feel. Afterwards I cruise over to The Pleasance for Vive Le Cabaret in the pouring rain, with a big shiny grin on my face.
And who's on at Vive but the brilliant Norman Lovett, who you might know as Holly the computer from Red Dwarf. He's been going for ever, and is a wonderful stand-up. An act full of craft and art. Gentle, clever, thoughtful and silly. We go for a drink after the show – the last time I shared a bill with him was nearly 25 years ago in a tiny little London cabaret club – and he's a mensch. So great to be able to chat to him. This is one of the things that makes the fringe such a seductive and intoxicating place to be.