Friday, August 31, 2012

Edinburgh Festivals 2012

31 August 2012

Last week we were in Edinburgh for our biennial visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We’ve been regular festival-goers since our first trip to Edinburgh in 1994 but I think this was one of our best weeks. We relaxed our pace a little, only seeing 22 shows this time, but either the standard is improving or we are getting better at picking things to see. We averaged 4.1 on our own personal 5-star rating system, and only saw 2 shows all week that we rated lower than 4 stars. I think we also managed a greater mix of artforms than ever before: we saw drama, stand-up comedy, improvisation, poetry, spoken word, orchestral music, folk music, opera and two BBC Radio 4 shows.

There were many highlights but I think our favourite show was ‘The Boat Factory’, a play by Dan Gordon, produced by Happenstance Theatre Company at Hill Street Theatre, which looked at the history of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast. This two-hander told the story of an apprentice starting work at the shipyard in the 1950s. It was funny, moving and fascinating with both actors, Dan Gordon and Michael Condron, giving stunning performances as a range of characters.

We also really enjoyed ‘Dr Quimpugh's Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions’ – a delightfully silly new chamber opera by Martin Ward and Phil Porter, produced by Petersham Playhouse, which we saw at Summerhall. Three singers, accompanied by three musicians, portrayed an ageing doctor looking back at his long career and remembering the many surreal, bizarre medical conditions he had encountered and documented – like an operatic version of Oliver Sacks’ ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’.

We saw an amazing performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s ‘Piano Concerto’ by Garrick Ohlsson with the European Union Youth Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, at the Usher Hall (as part of the Edinburgh International Festival). This mammoth, five movement concerto, composed in 1904, lasts 70 minutes and finishes with a male voice choir singing a poem praising Allah. It’s a wonderfully over-the-top piece of music and it was fascinating to witness this rare performance with Ohlsson demonstrating outstanding technique and stamina and the glorious sound of the men of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus creating a brilliant climax.

The most bizarre moment of the week happened during ‘Austentatious’, an improvised comedy show which re-enacts the ‘lost novels’ of Jane Austen. We were part of a full-house packed into a room above a pub watching the actors creating the story of ‘Vanity and Virtue’ when a live pigeon emerged from behind a curtain and flew in a panic above our heads before flying into an unsuspecting musician who screamed and bolted from his position at the side of the stage. Shocked by this sudden intrusion, in a split second I think we all moved through a range of emotions – from surprise to terror to hysterical laughter – as we tried to work out whether this was part of the act. The funniest thing was the immobility of the male members of the cast as the women took control of the situation, threw a shawl over the bird and carried it outside. At the end of the show one of the actors said “every performance of Austentatious is different but we’ve truly never had that happen before!”.

This narrowly pipped our experience at ‘Midnight at the Board’s Head’ in which Fine Chisel Theatre combined the pub scenes from ‘Henry IV Parts One and Two’ with a host of other extracts from Shakespeare plays to create a show in the cabaret bar at Zoo Southside which ended with the entire audience on its feet, re-enacting the Battle of Agincourt with balloons and party poppers!

As well as all this we enjoyed the excellent folk trio Bellevue Rendezvous, the play ‘Wojtek the Bear’, the remarkable life story of Hervé Goffings, the excellent Martin Oldfield as ‘Pierrepoint’, the last hangman, Liz Lochhead reading her own poetry, Mark Lawson interviewing Ian McEwan and the brilliant Jasper Fforde speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.


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