Monday, August 29, 2016

'And the award goes to ...'

I had such a good time at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. On some late night drives back to Wamphray, I took to wondering just why? In previous years my experiences haven't always been so positive. I started to blog about all the good shows I saw, but as the month progressed that idea became just too difficult as I found so many performances I enjoyed.

The reasons for my enjoyment might have been because I employed something of a 'strategy' this year in deciding what to go to. To be honest, I don't think that browsing the official Fringe programme is the best way to decide which of more than 3000 possible shows to spend the pension on! So what did I do?

This year I concentrated mostly on two groups of venues: the Assembly venues, and theSpaceUK performances. The latter places all had tables of flyers, and it was easy from these to identify performances that might appeal. I spread my shows throughout a day, with time to 'recover' after each. Four shows a day was the average. I talked to people and got recommendations too. I paid no attention to printed reviews.

And I prescribed myself one taiko drum performance each day!

My best experiences are summed up in the 'Skip Cottage Awards'! Here we go ...

1. Best drums? It is to experience the drums that has been my main reason for heading for Edinburgh this past few years. This year I saw four Japanese taiko shows, and one from South Korea, some more than once! All were different, and all were enjoyable experiences. I could go on, but Hibiki are now friends and my favourites, see previous blog posts.

2. Best music? The 'Skip Cottage Award' goes to Bookends' tribute to Simon and Garfunkel. Close call this one, as Elsa Jean McTaggart's two shows were just lovely.

3. Most persistent earworm? Elsa's rendition of Macpherson's Rant.

4. Best 'nostalgia moment'? See 3.

5. Best a capella. No question about this one - the Toronto group 'Countermeasure'. So good, I went twice. (And I made my Fringe debut on stage, fortunately not singing!)

6. Best family show? 'Chef' in the Korean season wins this one, with 'The Mystery of Ginger Creek' a close runner up. Great fun.

7. Best theatre? Fourth Monkey's production of 'The Ark'. Powerful. Simply outstanding!

8. Best dance performance? Leaving aside Natalia Osipova and Friends, as that was an International Festival show (and was excellent), of the various Fringe dance productions I saw, I would have to go for the Bhumi Collective's 'Bhumi' (meaning 'earth' or 'soil'). The photo above is of members of the group out on the Royal Mile trying to attract interest in their performance. They are multidisciplinary artists with Singaporean and British roots based in London. Their actual show was nothing like I expected, and the performance was all the more enjoyable for that!

9. Best contemporary dance score? No doubt on this, it would be the accompaniment to the Parachute Dance production of 'Entrails'. There's a section which recreates the noise of a steam locomotive! How could I not like this. And the actual dance was pretty good too! There's a short video with background to the group and performance here.

10. Best musical theatre? Techies the Musical was really great, with live music, an appreciative audience (a full house), and it was very, very funny.

11. Best standup comedy. No award.

12. Best comedy improv? I was determined to see at least one improv show, and was only able to fit this one in. But I chose well. The TBC Improv Players were excellent. Website is here. Fond memories of 'Whose line is it anyway'. Can't believe that last aired on the box in the UK in 1999.

13. Most fun show? Shakespeare for Breakfast. And this judge was not at all influenced by the free coffee and croissant, although I did not have to pay for my ticket, see here!

14. Best writer, director and actor, in a show I was looking forward to seeing since being 'flyered' when having a coffee on a rainy day early on in my Edinburgh adventures. And the award goes to ... Becky Cooper in 'Making Monsters'. We are in Geneva 1816 with Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron, when Mary begins writing a ghost story to 'curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart'! I loved it! Read an interview with Becky here.

15. Most life enhancing show? Dr Phil's 'Life and Death (But Mainly Death)'. What a brilliant communicator he is.

16. Best physical theatre? Pharmacy's production of 'The Enchanted'. Harrowing subject matter, but fabulous acting and movement! Based on Rene Denfeld's novel, here.

17. Most persuasive flyerer? This was the performer who persuaded me I should go to see 'The Enchanted', above. It would not have been my natural choice to go to watch a performance that involves death row, mental illness, venereal disease, and child abuse. But I'm glad I was persuaded. It was an experience not to be forgotten. Well done to all involved! Interview is here.

18. Best free show? Audrey - the last remaining mobile vintage cinema. We got a history of the vehicle and some clips of British Pathe's coverage of the Edinburgh Festival over the years! It had not dawned on me before that the Festival and Fringe are the same age as I am!

19. Most frustrating experience? Realising that a show I had wanted to see had already finished its run!

20. Worst 'senior moment'? Turning up to buy a ticket for a show whose run had finished the day before.

21. Biggest disappointment? I had been looking forward to seeing the Havana Ballet, but they failed to make it to Edinburgh.

22. Worst show? Email me if you want to know. But really, there were very few I would say were awful, the worst actually not at the Fringe, but at the International Festival. Enough, I feel a rant coming on!

23. Best venue? No doubt about this category. Venue 43, theSpace@Symposium Hall has the most comfortable seats, in tiered rows, and great acoustics. 

24. Best food? The Mosque Kitchen.

25. Best Art? Visiting galleries between shows is a great way to pace one's day. The exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery of the shortlisted photographs from last year's Taylor Wessing prize is wonderful. I didn't look to see what the prizewinners were before going round and wondering what would have got my vote. Would you believe it, I actually picked the winning photograph. If you've ever pointed a camera lens at anyone, do go and see this exhibition! It's on until October. And it's free.

26. Best photo that I took myself? I like this one of a member of UTO drummers 'in the mood' when performing on the Royal Mile.

27. Best advice I received? To talk to people. I did this, in queues especially, and met lots of interesting people, from all over the world. I talked to many of those out on the street promoting their shows, and that way met many performers - hard work for them. It was also interesting to talk to those working at the Fringe, for example, selling tickets, and finding out if they had had a chance to see any of the shows.

28. Biggest regrets? Having identified quite a number of shows that I would have liked to see, the Fringe has finished without my getting a chance to see them. It's all over for this year.

Culture interlude over, it's back to living a quiet life at Skip! But how am I going to survive a winter without drums!

Note: Skip Cottage Awards have no tangible value, other than to remind myself of good times in August 2016.

Actual photos © Skip Cottage, otherwise images are from flyers.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Final Fling

I went up to Edinburgh yesterday for a final fling at the Fringe, and to say goodbye to my Japanese friends who are now heading home.

I had the opportunity yesterday to take some photos of Hibiki's final performance at the Fringe, flash not allowed of course. It was the first time I've ever tried to capture live performance, and it's a skill that will need to be honed! But here is one taiko moment in time.

Natsuko even gave me a lesson in handling the bat bachi - the drumstick that looks like a baseball bat. My wrist will never be the same again! Great fun.

Thanks everyone! Lovely people, and such talented performers. Safe travels and 'Haste ye back'!

Coming soon .... the Skip Cottage Edinburgh Fringe Awards!

Pics © Skip Cottage 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Wild West Murder Mystery

One of the best bits of advice to Fringe goers, see here, is to talk to people around you as you queue for various performances. Now, I've never been slow in coming forward in this regard anyway, but when the woman standing in front of me in a queue a few days ago had a big button on her rucksack which said, "Ask me about Ginger Creek," I did just that.

To cut a long story short, she was from New York and the director of a 'family show', called 'Mystery at Ginger Creek'. Good salesman too, of a performance suitable for 7 years of age and up, and I (big kid that I am) duly turned up at the show. Lots of interaction with the audience. Which was just great fun.

Personally I thought Sally Silver Gunz was the murderer, but it seems I'm not much of a detective!

Mystery at Ginger Creek is produced by the Panto-WHAT?! Theatre Company, see here, and was written by Michael Curtin and Ruthie Scarpino, who was also on the stage.

Here are the main protagonists. Left is Emilie Deschamps - the director and 'lighting guru'. Centre is Gabriel Spector who played Hank, the Colonel and Drusilla. Right is Ruthie Scarpino who played Sally, Ms Ketch and Igor (you had to be there!). Great talent, and the two actors were just wonderful with the kids, two of whom, sisters, in the audience were the stars of the show too!

The whole idea of family shows at the Fringe is something I had not considered before, but 'Mystery at Ginger Creek' shows that great family entertainment is available if you know where to look. 

Serious drums today! Kensaku Satu is considered one of the greatest exponents of Japanese drumming, and his show was a solo masterclass. It was wonderful to experience - from Sakiwai (meaning felicity) played on the O'Daiko (the big drum) with a tree trunk (!), through a variety of different drums and styles, finishing again on the O'Daiko in a performance which, if you shut your eyes, you would think that there were rather more than one artist on stage!

Definitely an hour for the taiko fan, although I suspect that others might find a group show (such as Hibiki, my personal favourites) more accessible.

Kensaku Satou says, "The beat of Japanese drums unites the people in the world beyond the language communication." True, so true!

This all male a cappella group from Exeter University was my 'an hour to spare, what's on' pick, and was a brilliant choice. I sometimes miss my students - young people have such enthusiasm. And talent. Exeter doesn't do music degrees, so Semi-Toned are all students of different things - I talked to a student of archaeology, a biologist and a mathematician. The twelve guys provided great entertainment as they spanned the decades with their choice of music to sing.

Their version of Fleetwood Mac's 'The Chain' was a masterpiece! And what good ambassadors for the University.

I don't want this year's Fringe to finish!

More to come ......

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Back in the Box

So, having had a few days to recover, I caught the early train back up to Edinburgh yesterday for more Fringe adventures! It turned into a good day. I saw four shows, all very different, and all excellent.

First up was another in the Korean season, Binari.

Early off the train, I bumped into two of the performers out on the street promoting the show. It was great to be able to say, "I'll see you in the theatre in a short while!"

I knew it was going to be a Korean mask play with 'shamanic exorcism where unhappy souls are entertained and are finally able to leave the world'. I thought it might be a bit dark. It was anything but. Song, dance, drum, and even lots of humour - I was reminded of the various theatre performances I went to see when I was living in South East Asia. Always, there were comedy interludes in even the most serious and traditional stories. Binari was great. It was a charming way to start my day.

I've seen four shows in the Korean season. All were different, and all really enjoyable.

Then it was a return to the little performance space, the Box, where I had my best theatre experience last year, see here.

Now, I have to admit that it had not been my original intention to go to see Octopus. But I had kept the flyer in my bag (rather crumpled as you can see) because it had come with a free bag of crisps as an incentive! (There's probably advice out there that says 'Never accept crisps from a stranger', but I did check over the pack carefully and the sell-by date. And they were very tasty.) So, suitably bribed, I made my way to the small, hot venue to join a full house (how many bodies can you fit into a container?) to see three women act out an 'anarchic satire' written by Afsaneh Gray.

It is about what it means to be British. The women have been called to an interview to ascertain if they qualify for benefits. Sara 'looks kind of Asian'. Scheherazade looks Middle Eastern. And Sarah is 'kind of white'.

I was sitting beside a visitor from New York. I'm not sure if she would have caught the subtlety of all the political references, and she must have wondered just what I was guffawing at. Very funny at times. It was extremely well acted, and definitely thought provoking. You don't need to be bribed by packets of crisps to go and see, and enjoy, this performance. Full marks.

So, that was me batting two from two for the day. What next?

Time for coffee. One of the best free shows in Edinburgh is to sit with the hot beverage of your choice anywhere around the University area and watch those trying to distribute flyers for their own performances. Gimmicks abound. I've already mentioned the crisps. This couple had their own innovative way of catching attention!

For me, it was a hunt for a venue I'd not been in before. Venue 45 is in a church in Jeffrey Street, surrounded by lots of building work, just along from the south entrance to Waverley Station. I knew I had found the right place when I saw these young Japanese performers waiting to get access to the space for their show.

More drums! I had heard that UTO was an amateur group, but there was nothing 'amateur' about this performance. It was thrilling. Youthful energy and wonderful skill. The ten strong group are from Uto city in Kumamoto prefecture. A loud, exciting performance with flutes too, cymbals, the biggest gong I've ever seen on stage, and a strapping lad, clad only in a loin cloth, beating a sweat session on the biggest of the taiko. (You had to be there!) Wonderful stuff - a different type of performance than that on offer by Hibiki and Drum Ikki elsewhere on the Fringe.

Here's the group afterwards.

Right then, three from three. I had time for one more show before catching the train home.

This was special. Fourth Monkey's production of 'The Ark' was the great theatre I've been struggling to find this year. It is one of a series of shows by the company at Venue 9, theSpace@Niddry Street.

The show tackles the modern day refugee crisis with those fleeing Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe. The performance switches amongst three groups of actors, the people traffickers in Libya in this instance, the refugees themselves, and a group of EU commissioners. The performance does not hold back on satirical condemnation of these last. Very funny, and very well acted!

There are very moving scenes depicting the journey of those fleeing their homes, and their reasons for so doing. I'll not spoil it by giving details. You have to see it.

Great theatre should be memorable. This was. I certainly will not read newspaper stories or watch television reports of the refugee crisis again without thinking of 'The Ark'.  A powerful theatre performance which was absolutely first class.

First Monkey Theatre Company's website is here, if you want to find out more about them, and an article about how 'The Ark' performance was put together is here. There's only a few more days to catch the show, 6.20pm until the 27th.

Four from four. Days at the Fringe don't get better than this!

Images from flyers, and photos © Skip Cottage

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Edinburgh Days

I'm going to get these two bits of wood framed, as a souvenir of my two weeks 'holiday' in August 2016, with several days at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. My 'batting average' of enjoyable shows was excellent early on, but was too good to last. And once you've been to two back-to-back shows that have not been very good, the remedy is to go and see, for the second time, a show you've enjoyed before.

Hibiki's Super-cussion (at Venue 43, theSpace@Symposium Hall until the 27th at 2pm each day) I could enjoy many times over. See my previous post here. Do go and see them if you can. The top pic is a broken taiko bachi (a drum stick). They don't make trees like they used to! A wonderful memory of Edinburgh 2016. I saw it happen. The performer (Hironobu, I think) barely missed a beat as he grabbed a replacement!

And I've now got the full set! Great fun.

I got up early one morning to be sure of seeing Elsa Jean McTaggart's morning show, and that was a lovely way to start a day. Elsa has two different shows each day until the 27th, at 11.50am and 7.30pm, both now in the same venue: theSpace@Symposium Hall, in Hill Square, Venue 43.

My 'find' of the Fringe was Countermeasure, a Canadian a capella group like no other. I went back to see them again, and enjoyed the second time even more than the first, partially because I didn't have to take part again! Their run has finished and the group should now be in Italy at a festival there. I hope our paths will cross again. A credit to Toronto, and Canada! I found this promotional video.

 
I have gained an admiration for those who 'flyer' their shows, which must be a thankless task, but is a vital marketing strategy. It is only this year that I've discovered that many of those who I've stopped to talk to about their show, are actually the performers.

It is a lovely thing when one is approached, to be able to take the ticket out of your pocket and say, "I'm just on the way to see your show!" Or better, "I saw your show the other night, and it was great!"

On the other hand, I have had to kick myself a couple of times when shows that I've looked forward to going to see have reached the end of their run before I was able to get to them!

I came across a couple of visitors with cameras pointed upwards. It took me a little while to appreciate that they were fascinated by this strange, rare, meteorological phenomenon. Yes, a Scottish blue sky, with nary a cloud in sight.

Next day, the rain was belting down, and the outside tables looked a bit forlorn!

Still, I've enjoyed the two weeks. I took the car up on a number of days, so that I could see evening shows. It's something I haven't done often, as the train is so convenient. I have learned about Edinburgh's various park and ride schemes, and have obtained good value from my National Entitlement Card, aka my bus pass. Lothian buses are wonderful!

One show that should get an 'honourable mention' from me is Joe Stilgoe's 'Songs on Film' at Assmbly Checkpoint, of an evening. That I did enjoy. See Joe's website here.

I had not intended that my Edinburgh adventures would last longer than two weeks. But many Fringe shows have another week to run. There are more drums to experience, and I've yet to find some good theatre to enjoy. Maybe I'll manage another couple of days in the big city this coming week!

Pics © Skip Cottage

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Two disappointments, but the day saved by Canada!

I had been batting very well at the Fringe and Festival. Twelve great performances. But yesterday I saw my first 'not very good' show. Now, I don't blog about shows I've not enjoyed. I did wonder what I might have said had I been working, and had needed to file something. I might have said, "The backing musicians were very good." Or "This musical tribute made me want to download some of the original artist's music." If I had intended to speak my mind fully, I would have said, "It was a lovely day in Edinburgh yesterday, and I should have just stayed sunbathing in the Gardens." I should have. It is always disappointing when a performance that you hope is going to be good, turns out not to be - in my opinion, of course.

The second of yesterday's disappointments was when I went to book a ticket for what was to be my birthday treat to myself. I thought to be well organised and make sure I had a ticket in my hand for a later night at the Assembly Roxy, where the Havana Ballet's 'The Cuban Gypsy' was going to be top class, I was sure. Except .... the company had failed to reach Edinburgh, for whatever reason, and all performances have been cancelled! Ah well.

So I was strolling along, wondering what had happened in the Universe for the Earth to be revolving around the Sun faster and faster. Recent years have passed so quickly! This next birthday has come round too soon. I was passing Venue 38, Space Triplex, when I was 'accosted' in the nicest possible way, "Would I like to see some talented Canadian singers?" And why not.

I found myself in the queue with a group of former Glasgow University Alumni, who, when we were ushered into the hall, left a seat for me, front row, right in the middle! This turned out to be significant. The performance: 'Countermeasure: 14 Characters'.

I was promised 'Genre-defying versions of jazz and pop favourites, powerful originals, stunning harmonies, dramatic staging'! And as the show got underway, I found myself really enjoying it all.

It was at that point that the mistake of sitting in the middle of the front row, with a big smile on my face, became apparent. The compere decided to find out the names of some of the audience, and what they did for a living. Not a problem. I'm retired now of course, and I've done a few different things in my life. So when asked what I used to do, I mentioned that I had been Editor of the Scottish Curler magazine. Countermeasure being a Canadian group, that identified with some of the cast, curling (arguably) the country's national sport!

That should have been it, but no. A few minutes later, with a couple of other members of the audience, I was making my Edinburgh Fringe debut. I was taken by hand out of my seat, to a chair at the back of the stage and told to "Sit there, I'll be back to get you later!" I have to say that in all my adult years, that's never been said to me by a beautiful woman. But I digress again.

My Fringe debut involved some dancing to samba rhythms, shaking my rear end, and a conga round the stage. At least I wasn't asked to sing!

I trust no live footage or photographs of my 'performance' exist. It was not pretty.

Of course, the programme was not finished. The group sang to accompany clips from the wonderful 'Runaway', a National Film Board of Canada animated short by Cordell Barker, and that appealed to my love of trains!

The penultimate song was trailed as a Scottish tribute, a traditional love song. And we got a version of the Proclaimers '500 miles'. Absolutely brilliant, especially when it morphed to the 'metric version'!

Exit theatre, big smile on my face! Well done Canada. Countermeasure have only a few more shows in Edinburgh - the last is on the 20th - before they are off to Italy for a week at another festival. Go see them if you can. I promise that I won't be on the stage next time!

If you can't get to see them live, Countermeasure's website is here, with lots to explore.

Countermeasure images are from the group's flyer and a CD. The middle image is a screenshot from 'Runaway'. Watch the whole film here

Monday, August 15, 2016

Natalia Osipova

Yesterday afternoon I was having an enjoyable time with some old friends at a BBQ in Glasgow (thanks Leslie), but I bailed out early and headed across to Edinburgh. I had a ticket for the above performance at the 'real' Festival.

Now, last year, one of my disappointing experiences over a number of visits to Edinburgh had been an evening at an International Festival performance. A visiting company, big money production, expensive ticket, yet it had not given me anything like the same enjoyment as many of the Fringe events I had seen. Ever the pessimist, I wondered as I drove along the M8 yesterday, whether I should just have stayed in Glasgow. Would the evening at the Festival Theatre be worth the effort?

I had bought the ticket as soon as the Festival programme had come out. The opportunity to see one of the world's best dancers - in a contemporary dance production - seemed too good to miss. And the very fact that I'm blogging about it today means that it was a great night, one I am so glad to have experienced.

Bear with me, I have to tell you a bit about it!

Natalia Osipova is a Russian ballerina, once Principal with the Bolshoi, and, since 2013, with the Royal Ballet where she has starred in many productions. Last night though was a Sadler's Wells production to showcase Osipova's talent in contemporary dance. There were three pieces by different choreographers.

The first piece was called 'Run Mary Run'. I found the photo above in this positive review by Kelly Apter in the Scotsman, here. You can find lots of photos of Natalia online.

The story of 'Run Mary Run' was a simple one, easy to follow, and exquisitely danced. It did help that I was in the front row and almost in the performance!

The director/choreographer was Arthur Pita, whose inspiration for the piece came from listening to Shangri-Las songs from the 1960s.

As a youngster myself back then I probably didn't really appreciate the significance of the various teenage tragedy songs, or 'death discs' as they were called, that appeared in the charts of the time. Think 'Tell Laura I love her' (here, the 1960 Ricky Valance version); 'Teen Angel' (here) by Mark Dinning from 1960; and of course the Shangri-Las 1964 hit 'Leader of the Pack, here, all with the authentic scratches of old vinyl.

 ('Billy don't be a hero' by Paper Lace, here, came later in 1974 and was one of my favourites, and can be considered as another example of a 'splatter platter'! But I digress.)

Steering clear of 'Leader of the Pack', Pita worked 'Past, Present and Future', 'Remember (Walking in the Sand)', 'Give Us Your Blessing', 'Give Him a Great Big Kiss'', and 'Dressed in Black', all by the Shangri-Las, into the score, as well as other appropriate tracks, such as 'Walkin' Along' by the Crystals. (Look them up on YouTube, and Mary Weiss has her website here.)

As the programme notes say, 'Run Mary Run' was 'a doomed love tale, an obsessively possessive relationship, with some sex drugs and rock 'n' roll!' Indeed, there was a warning posted on the auditorium doors: 'This performance contains adult themes'. Splendid stuff.

In 'Run Mary Run', Natalia was partnered by Sergei Polunin, another of the world's great dancers. In the third of yesterday's performances 'Silent Echo', with Russell Maliphant the choreographer, the two occupied the stage separately and together in a mesmerising performance to specially composed music by Scanner, with Sergei's solo danced to 'Trouble in Paradise' by James Lavelle.

The second performance was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's 'Qutb', an Arabic word meaning 'axis' or 'pivot'. Natalia danced with Jason Kittelberger and James O'Hara, to a wonderful score and an amazing backdrop of a red sun in an eclipse. Completely captivating, and, of the three performances, the audience's favourite. 

Natalia and Sergei are partners off the stage too. This lovely pic is from this fan's tribute website.

Some in the packed out theatre who were expecting more of a classical ballet performance might have been disappointed, but those who appreciate contemporary dance would have been ecstatic - I know I was! August in Edinburgh continues to be a great success so far. Let's hope it continues!

Photo credits as indicated.