Aug 26, 2012

All Things Edinburgh Fringe

I said it last year and I’ll say it again: no one is more surprised to hear this than me, but I like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe even better than the International Book Festival. Going to the Fringe just makes me feel alive in a way few things do. I love the energy of the festival; I love its infinite possibilities; I love that so many people from all over the world come together to make really great and really terrible art. The G.K. Chesterton quote “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” has been on my mind lately because of a book I read, and it really sums up the spirit of the Fringe. Yes, of course that in an unjuried arts festival there will be some truly awful shows, but among those, great and innovative things that wouldn’t have had a platform otherwise will emerge. How wonderful is that? Also, just like last year it struck me how incredibly young some of the performers are. I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, because that’s not how I mean it at all – I don’t find it in the least surprising that teenagers would be smart and creative and would single-handedly put on excellent shows, but it does make me happy to see their passion and enthusiasm and brilliance.

Anyway, remember how last year I said that the next time I went to the Fringe I’d be really adventurous instead of just sticking to shows that were closely aligned with my interests? Yeah, that didn’t exactly happen. My time was pretty limited, so I couldn’t bring myself to pass on the things that sounded right up my alley. I guess I’ll save the experimentation for one day in the future when I can afford to spend at least two weeks in Edinburgh in August. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but in the meantime I’ll continue to appreciate the great privilege that is being able to go at all. Overall I had more luck with the shows I picked last year, but hey, the risk is part of the fun. Plus the spirit of the Fringe predisposes me to be tolerant and to enjoy the attempt even when a show doesn’t quite come together. Also, I’m glad that more than half of my picks were shows by, about, and featuring women, since women’s invisibility in theatre is a continuous problem.

So, what did I see this year, you ask?
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Pirates! In space!

First of all, there was The Mechanism’s Once Upon a Time (In Space), which is perhaps best described as what would happen if Fables and Firefly ever had a baby. The show was advertised as a “steampunk musical cabaret” and it was structured more or less as follows: The Mechanisms, “a band of immortal space pirates roaming the universe in the starship Aurora”, told a story and played some songs, with the latter both adding to the atmosphere and furthering the narrative. As you can tell by the title, the story they told was a space opera that drew heavily from fairy tales. I enjoyed the show, but the songs are definitely stronger than the story. I like it much more if I think of it as a music concert arranged around an original concept than if I think of it as a musical with an actual coherent narrative. Still, the way they used fairy tale elements was a lot of fun, and hooray for having Cinders and Rose Red fall in love (though I really wish they hadn’t pulled a Tara and Willow). Not an outstanding show, but a fun way to spend an hour. If any of this sounds intriguing to you at all, you can stream or buy their songs over at Bandcamp.

Daniel Kitson ticket
A much coveted little bit of paper.

If you follow me on tumblr, you might have seen me lament the fact that, due to the last-minute nature of my Edinburgh plans this year, I couldn’t get tickets for either of Daniel Kitson’s shows. Well, the good news is that I tried at the door and did manage to get a hold of a pair of returned tickets to the sold out As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title. Before I even begin to attempt to explain the show, I need to do my best to explain Daniel Kitson, which is not exactly an easy task. I first discovered him when he opened for Belle & Sebastian in late 2010 – perhaps not quite where you expect to discover a storyteller/comedian, but his opening act (a story and song show with Gavin Osborn) ended up making a fan out of me for life. Then last year I got to see his show “It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later”, which immediately became one of my absolute favourite things that I’ve ever seen on stage.

If you read my tumblr post, you’ll have an idea of why I love Kitson’s stuff: it’s absolutely hilarious, but it’s also thoughtful and full of heart. I keep thinking of how much I wish his shows were books (which they could be with pretty much no modifications; his writing is amazing and stands on its own) – not because I don’t think they work wonderfully in his chosen medium, but because I desperately want to share them with all of you and that would make it so much easier. I know not everyone will have the chance to see him live, but if there was a book I could just go, “This! Get it now!”. The good news, though, is that he’s also on Bandcamp, and you can get “The Ballad of Roger and Grace”, the first show of his that I saw, for only £2.50.

“As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title” is a theatre show with four layers of narrative. I won’t even attempt to explain them all; I’ll just tell you how the show works: Daniel Kitson sits at a table and reads from a script. This sounds like it should have been incredibly boring, but using nothing but his verbal prowess he manages to make four stories nestled inside each other come to life. It’s a triumph of storytelling, and one week later I’m still in awe. It’s also a stylistically daring show without ever becoming so preoccupied with form that it loses its heart. Perhaps I’ll give you a better idea of what on earth I’m talking about if I say the result is a bit Adaptation-esque while still being very much its own thing. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, and it probably works better if you’re familiar with Kitson’s earlier material, but metafiction loving little me was all over it. It’s also the kind of thing that could easily be pompous and self-important, but because Kitson doesn’t take himself too seriously, that danger is averted.

I’m probably making little sense here, so I’ll just point you towards a real review at Mildly Bitter’s Musings. Long story short, it was a hilarious show with real insight into creativity, storytelling, and the delicate communication process between an artist and their audience. Plus anyone who can manage to use a line like “you’re laughing, you’re crying, you’re thinking – you’ve been Kitsonned” effectively has earned my eternal admiration.

Belt Up Theatre's A Little PrincessBelt Up Theatre’s A Little Princess is a loose adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel of the same title. As I said last year, I really love how Belt Up structure their performances: they play for very small audiences, who sit on sofas or pillows around a cosy little room and frequently interact with the cast. The result is intimate, immersive, and very well-suited to the metafictional nature of their plays.

As I said above, this is a pretty liberal adaptation of the novel – A Little Princess is about many things, and this version deliberately brings the themes of storytelling to the forefront (a recurrent approach in Belt Up’s productions, it seems). I thought it was brilliant how The Secret Garden here becomes one of the stories Sara Crewe tells the other girls at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School. There’s also a third narrative layer concerning Frances Hodgson Burnett’s life, but I don’t want to say too much about it and spoil it in case any of you have the chance to see this production some day.

I really, really enjoyed it, but there was one thing that made me sad. The play has a small cast of only three – Lottie’s role in this version is practically non-existent, and Becky becomes a young male servant named Lionel. The reasons for this gender swap become obvious at the end of the play (again, I don’t want to spoil it, but if you’re a big Frances Hodgson Burnett fan who has read her biography I might have already said enough that you’ll be able to join the dots), and I do understand why this choice was made. But the downside is that a novel that is very much about young girls becoming friends and enduring things together becomes a play that would barely even pass the Bechdel test. Sara does of course interact with Miss Minchin, but that’s not exactly an emotionally significant tie. I really wish the same concept could have been executed without this happening, especially because we live in a world where stories about girls interacting are still widely marginalised.

Still, it was overall an amazing and sometimes very moving1 production. If you’re anywhere near York, you really should definitely go see Belt Up’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in November on my behalf. It should be absolutely gorgeous against the backdrop of Selby Abbey.

Stage props for “The Bloody Chamber”: minimalist but evocative.

Next in today’s edition of Ana-goes-see-stage-versions-of-stories-she-likes, there is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, produced by 3Bugs Fringe Theatre (an alternative theatre and comedy society at the University of Birmingham). First, the good: they did a great job of recreating the story’s Gothic atmosphere using nothing but a few props and the sound of waves in the background. Plus the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the story was also at the heart of the play. Much like Carter’s short story, this production dealt with themes like sexuality, the power imbalance between Bluebeard and his wives, and the paralysing terror that being confronted with the reality of misogynistic violence can induce. But to be honest I felt that something was missing, and I ended up not enjoying it anywhere near as much as I’d hoped. What makes “The Bloody Chamber” unique is Carter’s narrative voice; if you don’t find a way to translate that into theatre, it becomes “Bluebeard” with a mother and a piano tuner. I realise that the fact that the heroine is rescued by her mother and not by her brothers is not by any means insignificant, but I don’t know; there’s just so much more to the original. And after seeing the amazing “The Yellow Wallpaper” (see below), I know there can be ways to make a brilliant narrative voice come alive on stage.

The Magician's DaughterThe Magician’s Daughter is a joint production by Little Angel Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company loosely based on The Tempest and written by Michael Rosen. It uses a small cast of two (plus a few puppets) to tell the story of Miranda’s daughter Isabella and of her quest to make the rain stop by restoring Prospero’s broken magic staff. It sounds like something I should like, but unfortunately it turned out to be the greatest disappointment of the Fringe for me, and the only show that truly felt like a waste of my time and money.

Part of it is my own fault: I didn’t realise the play was aimed at such young children, and so I went in with entirely wrong expectations. There were many three- and four-year olds in the audience, and they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves. But then there’s also the fact that I’m a regular consumer of children’s media – I watch shows like “Avatar” and collect Studio Ghibli movies, I read children’s literature and even pick up the occasional picture book, all because I truly believe they can have something genuinely interesting to offer to an adult like me. As the great Diana Wynne Jones put it in Reflections, the best stories for children work on two levels – one grabs the young reader and doesn’t let go, and the other gives something extra to the adults; something that the children themselves will be able to glimpse and will pick up on more and more as they grow older; something that will make the story extra satisfying. Children’s stories need not be dumbed down or emotionally hollow, and unfortunately I felt that “The Magician’s Daughter” was both.

Even the premise of the story, stopping the rain, is too flimsy to allow it to have any sort of real emotional resonance (and I honestly believe this is something young children can respond to every bit as much as adults). Also, I think I’ve been spoiled for stories based on The Tempest – I keep expecting them to at least acknowledge race, and I think this can be done effectively regardless of your target age group. But as I said, the young members of the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the puppets and the songs were good fun. I just don’t think this is a show that will stick with anyone in the long run, and I really wish I’d have seen something else instead.

Corsets and ripped paper: a perfect visual summary of “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

My absolutely favourite Fringe production this year comes last: Room 37’s adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Room 37 are “a drama class of 6th form students from Cheltenham Ladies College”, and this stage version was written by Fiona Ross. The play has a cast of eight girls, all of whom play the narrator of Perkins Gilman’s story. The main speaker alternates, and the remaining seven girls occasionally step in to deliver lines in unison like a Greek choir. And honestly, could there be a more apt way to capture the strained and fragmented nature of the narrator in the original story? The acting was completely flawless, the props (two bed frames, eight Victorian corsets, and several pieces of paper) were used brilliantly, and the whole thing was absolutely amazing. This is what the Fringe is all about: a small student theatre group that is doing dazzling and inventive things finding a larger audience. Plus there’s just something about seeing a group of teenage girls putting on a feminist play and doing it so well that gladdens my heart. If you’re anywhere near Cheltenham, you can catch this stunning production in early September.

That was all I managed to see at the Fringe this year. I certainly won’t complain, especially considering that I was only in Edinburgh for a couple of days and that I spent half my time at the Book Festival, but I so wish I could have seen Beulah, The Fantasist, Eurydice, The Road That Wasn’t There, The Lonely One, Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History, oh, so many things! But infinite possibilities are really what the Fringe is all about. I suspect that even if I ever do fullfill my dream of a long stay in Edinburgh in August, there will always be more exciting things going on than I could possibly take in. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ll leave you with some more photos:

Just another day at the Fringe

The cast of “The Road That Wasn’t There” giving passersby a free preview of the show. I wish I could have seen it.

Don’t ask.

Alright, do ask: yes, it’s a giant inflatable cow upside down. Also a Fringe venue.

Lovely Victoria street.

Oh, Edinburgh.

Lots of lovely old editions of children’s books in a bookshop just outside the Royal Botanical Gardens.

I happened upon this place completely by chance.

Also, I made it to Leith this time around, which was just beautiful on a sunny morning.


Nom. Grilled halloumi burger = best thing ever.

The Paralympics logo overlooking the city from the Mound. They were putting it up just as I arrived :D

1I kind of wanted to hug the ten-year-old girl who spent a good half of the play in tears. As for me, I will say two things: Angel, “A Hole in the World”. For a solid week after watching that episode I couldn’t even think about A Little Princess without tearing up. In fact, I’d better not dwell on that scene too much even now. This comment probably makes no sense to many of you, but I trust that at least Amy and Memory will know what I’m talking about.


  1. This looks and sounds like so much fun!

  2. Wow! What a great event. And you have me coveting those old editions of children's books. *Sigh* Once again, on the wrong side of the Atlantic. ;-)

  3. Oh! Now I want to go! One day . . .

  4. Wow this sounds and looks so much fun!!!! We have a fringe festival here in New Orleans every year and stupid me STILL has never gone to it…will go next year! After your review of this past one in Edinburgh I know I'd enjoy it.

  5. Looks like you had a wonderful time, I am rather jealous :-)

  6. What fun. I love the picture of those vintage books.

    Your post reminds me of how much I enjoy the theater and how sad that it's been years since I've gone to see a play. that is just wrong!

  7. Oh I do miss Edinburgh in August. As frustrating as it is to live and work there, you are right, there is an atmosphere that makes you feel alive.

  8. This sounds like a blast! It's been years since I've been to Edinburgh and I would love to go back one day. Such a beautiful city, which I'm sure has changed a lot (and in some ways, not at all) in the past few decades.

  9. I love the pictures, they are lovely - I've been to Edinburgh and really want to go back again one day for another visit. There's always so much to take in, there, never mind the festivals you went to!

    Complete book love for those books you took pictures of too. Isn't it fun when we find books, no matter where we go?

    I'm glad you had this lovely break, Ana, it sounds like you had a marvelous time.

  10. I'm going to be deadly honest here--I didn't really understand much of what you were saying about the productions (owing completely to my not-so-well-readness), and yet still I managed to be captivated by your descriptions! How do you do that?!! But oh my, do I ever wish I could see that adaptation of "The Yellow Wallpaper"!!!

    I also wish I could have one of those halloumi sandwiches because I'm absolutely drooling here! (Of course, I had to go google halloumi first because I'd never heard of it. Is the sandwich just a hunk of the halloumi grilled?) Okay, Debi, time to stop talking about food now... :P

  11. Wow!

    I'm a YA/Romance/Fantasy blogger who just discovered this blog due to Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and I loved that you posted on the Fringe!

    I just came off volunteering for the best Fringe Festival from the other side of the pond, and I had a fantastic time. We're a town that's big on improv (in one of the shows, Harold of Galactus, two improv artists create an hour-long superhero origin story from a single name prompt), and sci-fi and I saw so many cool things - including a musical version of Reefer Madness where Jesus cautions against drug use wearing nothing but gold short shorts and a crown of thorns.

    Although I will say - I love my Canadian hometown but holy crap Edinburgh looks like a ridiculously gorgeous city to have a theatre festival in.

    ...I also really really love the style of your book reviews!



  12. The Fringe looks and sounds FANTASTIC. I'd love to come over and experience this one day!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.