Space Odyssey: Some thoughts on Edinburgh venues…

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The Banshee Labyrinth is a sweaty underground maze. Its doors and stairways are narrow, its ceilings low, the rooms oppressively small and dark. It’s brilliant.

Well, it is for a bit.

It isn’t quite as brilliant after six solid hours, which is the length of time I stayed in the same small room last Tuesday. I watched, in succession, Lucy Ayrton’s gorgeous Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry, Tea-Fuelled’s fantastic (two hour long) Slam Poetry Flea Circus, and the witty wordsmithery of Jack Heal’s Murderthon. By the time I was done, my pint in the upstairs bar was much-needed. Don’t get me wrong, the performers were great, but the room was a sauna by the end, and there are only so many moist, hairy men’s arms a gal wants pressed against her in one night.

This got me thinking about venues, and how they affect performers and audiences.  There are certain venues I dread going to. Many of the Underbelly Cowgate rooms are dank and stinking. Their ceilings leak and their stone walls glisten. I’ve seen roasting-hot performers actually steam in those rooms, like horses after a race. Shows like Jonny and the Baptists are so good I quite frankly wouldn’t care if they took place in a sewer, but some shows that I’ve quite liked, like Letter to the Man From the Boy, would certainly have been more enjoyable in a more pleasant venue.

There’s a bit of a noise-pollution issue at Surgeon’s Hall. During a few performances there, such asThe House of Shadows, I’ve heard the chatter of people milling about outside as well as the chastising ‘ssshhh!’ of the venue staff. Lack of closing doors in the Banshee Labyrinth also allows noise to interfere with performances, and during the Flea Circus this did irritate me.

A couple of the spaces in Summerhall are just plain weird: cold, bare and uncomfortable, though this has actually suited the wonderfully experimental feel of the shows I’ve so far seen there, such asHow a Man Crumbled. The surreal, unsettling nature of that performance was heightened by the bizarre space.

My enjoyment of the excellent Midnight at the Boar’s Head was marred by the awkward setting within Zoo Southside. The performers had to move clumsily around tables and chairs in a too-small space, and the audience had no access to the bar which was such an integral part of the show. I gave the show 3 stars but I feel that, within a more appropriate space, it would gain more than that. It’s not the performers’ fault, but space is important to this show and its interactive quality.

There are some stunning venues. Bedlam Theatre is a beauty, as is Merchant’s Hall. The seats are comfy, the carpets plush, the décor just lovely.  Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, Assembly and C venues have all been perfectly pleasant so far. But whether this has increased my enjoyment of the shows I’ve seen in these places is unclear. If a show is great it doesn’t matter where it’s set, and if a show is terrible no amount of comfort or jazzy décor will redeem it. But issues of noise pollution and discomfort can knock the edge off an otherwise great experience, and if a space is all wrong for a show it can set it off-kilter.

But this is all part of the beauty of the Fringe. In order to fully experience its highs and lows you need to feel the slick of a stranger’s perspiration against your own overheated flesh. Just sit back, enjoy the show and try not to think about what you’d do in the event of a fire.

Luke Wright: Our New Favourite Poet

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Luke Wright’s Fringe shows sell out each year, and when you witness the performance poet in action it’s easy to see why. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly poignant, Wright’s witty and direct style, punchy use of rhythm and rhyme, and strong connection to the way we live in Britain today has garnered him a larger audience than most poets can dream of (as well as more 5 star reviews than you can shake a stick at). After the success of 2011′s Cynical Ballads, I spoke to Wright about his 2012 show Your New Favourite Poet to find out what he hopes to achieve this year.

Your poems hold up a mirror to Britain today: its media, political figures, class system and so on. Do you think that poetry should be relevant and timely in this way, and will Your New Favourite Poet continue in this vein?

Your New favourite Poet does continue in this vein. I have a long ballad about Raoul Moat and the media’s involvement in that case. I also have a jaunty ottava rima poem about a certain notorious political couple who befell a terrible scandal in the late 90s and then turned that into an opportunity for tabloid fame. The other poems are less political. The theme of this show, if there is one, is Britishness, but it’s more light-hearted over all. It’s got a greater sense of fun than Cynical Ballads.

In regards the relevant/timely issue – I don’t think poetry SHOULD be any one thing. My work engages with society, often through the prism of media, so it feels very contemporary. In 100 years time the work will suffer more than most because of this. I think people are surprised to see poetry engaging with public discourses because at school we are introduced to old poetry that has stood the test of time. Therefore contemporary stuff that places itself in the here and now feels alien, but it’s not. Poets like Pope and Swift were doing what I’m doing now in the 18th century, Shakespeare is full of puns on contemporary issues and slang, Tennyson famously wrote Charge of the Light Brigade after reading an article in the Times. It was a biting satire on a military fuck-up, no different from poems berating Blair for Iraq today.

You mentioned Britishness as being the theme of Your New Favourite Poet. Your poems do seem to show a real pride in, and affection for, normal, unprivileged British lives (mentions of 3-bar fires and TV Quicks remind me of Morrissey’s lyrics). You also attack snobbery throughout your poems. How important is class to your work?

The single worst thing with the world is distribution of wealth. Pretty much everything, for me at least, comes back to the fact that, as Jarvis Cocker would put it, “cunts are still running the world.” The class system is a very visible and ugly symptom of that. It’s malicious and cruel. It also has lots of easily identifiable stereotypes which lend themselves to the kind of poetry I like to write. I don’t always sit down and think I’m going to write about class but invariably it creeps in there because it is so ingrained in the country I am writing about.

This strong connection to the country you live in reflects the direct connection you have with your audience. You’re extremely ‘out there’ with your poetry (on YouTube, the BBC, Channel 4, Latitude, the Fringe and so on) which goes against the cliché of the tortured, introverted poet. Is performance integral to your work, and would/could you write without it?

There’s no doubt that my style has been influenced by the performance of my work. I hit upon ballads as a form of writing in because I believe the seven beat gap between rhymes is perfect for live performance. If you watch these battle raps the kids are going crazy for you’ll notice a lot of the disses drop in at a rough seven beats after the last rhyme. It works, it seems ingrained in us. The Victorians would declaim their poetry, it was just something they did. They’d write it then say it out loud. We lost that with modernism but I think it’s creeping back in. Even the most hardened ‘page poet’ (I don’t like these crude distinctions as most of the best stuff straddles page and stage, but for argument’s sake) has to do readings now to boost book sales. I was talking to Hugo Williams about this not so long ago and he said that getting a reading was a very rare thing in his early days. His first one came after his second collection was published and they were very stuffy, intimidating affairs. He was told to wait on a hard wooden bench outside with his suit and tie and gravely called in after some time. The thing is, this idea of the tortured poet angsting in his garret is the exception that proves the rule that working poets are, these days, increasingly sociable creatures adept at reading their own work and often plugged into social media.

This angst-ridden, introverted vibe is absent in your work, though some of your past work does seem highly confessional (for example ‘Company of Men’). Do you enjoy placing yourself inside your work or do you prefer to put some distance between yourself and your poems?

Company of Men is an old piece. It’s from my 2007 show Poet & Man and that was a very confessional show. I did two confessional shows. I think I did it because it was very much in vogue (it’s that Apples & Snakes model of “here is me, here is my story.”) I guess a lot of stand-ups do it too. I had experimented with a poem about teaching workshops that was quite soppy at the end in my debut show in 2006. After that my director and a few other industry types convinced me that it would be good to explore a more personal angle. I don’t regret it. I still write plenty of personal pieces (though a lot of these tend to be shorter, more sober pieces that work better on the page). However, for the last couple of shows I’ve really enjoyed creating characters and stories and then letting my personality come across in a firm and ironic narrative voice, glossing over details and giving my opinions in the way a creative writing guidebook would tell a novelist to avoid at all costs. It’s not that I have issues with talking about myself, but there is limit to how much of my life is interesting enough to mine for material every year. And of course, in something like Chris & Ann’s Fish Bar, which was the centre piece of Cynical Ballads, I am mining my own experiences and emotions to write those tender scenes, as indeed any writer does.

This sort of engaging poetry is rife in this year’s Fringe, across comedy, theatre and the new spoken word category, yet (even very good) poetry sells a fraction of the amount that (even very bad) novels do. Can this change, and do you think shows like Your New Favourite Poet help the cause?

Performing your work will help you gain an audience. Novels sell well because essentially the greatest tool a writer has is story, narrative. Poems tend to be moments. Moments can be much, much more powerful. They can stay with us (as indeed can a great moment in a novel) but they don’t make us turn the pages in the same way, they don’t keep us on the edge of our seats. Poetry is closer to philosophy and/or religion (not in a spiritual way, rather a meditative and epiphanic way). The casual reader of poetry tends to love poems that say something they felt but were not able to articulate. The more one gets into poetry the more it becomes about style. No poet has ever told me anything that I didn’t already know or could look up, but the way they say it, well, that’s a different matter. People scoff at the idea of style over content, but in poetry, for me at least, it’s all about style. So, while anyone can pick up a novel and be thrilled by the story, the content, I think poetry rewards the reader who perseveres and develops their appreciation of language and style. It’s less instantly gratifying than most prose and for that reason I think it will always be less popular. That said, it is short and lends itself well to new media for that reason, so that is no doubt helping poetry get out there more. Plus if you’re telling stories and your work is more accessible, as mine is, there’s no reason why you can’t develop a larger audience.

Luke Wright – Your New Favourite Poet, Underbelly, Cowgate. 22-26 August, 18.30

The Footsteps of Giants

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The challenge of celebrating literary legends in theatre is a tough one. How do you capture the essence of a much-celebrated writer whilst simultaneously maintaining the integrity of their material and creating something that is fresh and new? Two of the shows I’ve so far reviewed at the Fringe – Joyced! and Dylan Thomas: Return Journey – manage to achieve this, though they do it in different ways.

Dylan Thomas: Return Journey

Joyced! takes us through a year in the life of James Joyce (1904), when the writer was twenty-two years old.  We experience this through the eyes of Dublin market stallholder JoJo, who is obsessed with all things Joycean. JoJo performs a host of characters from Joyce’s world, including his difficult father, his lover Nora Barnacle and a ragtag bunch of Dublin greats and grotesques.

Katie O’Kelly slips from one character to another with skilful dexterity, from old frail ladies to drunken brutes. Her unstinting energy and her deft control of her voice and movements avoid the confusion audiences might feel when faced with such a rapid onslaught of different personae. The language feels utterly Joycean – rich, authentic and exquisitely lyrical – but the wonderfully inventive and unique plot avoids unfair comparisons with Joyce’s writing; the show exists on its own terms. Donal O’Kelly’s script does not try to ape Joyce, but rather celebrates him with integrity, wit and finesse. In this way, Joyced! becomes a fitting homage to the man himself.

Dylan Thomas: Return Journey was originally directed by Anthony Hopkins, and serves as his interpretation of the sell-out American tours the Welsh poet embarked on towards the end of his life. Blending a selection of Thomas’s stories, poems and anecdotes, the play is performed as if it is one of Thomas’s lectures so that the actor, Bob Kingdom, actually becomes Thomas. He touches on childhood memories, his relationship with his wife Caitlin, his literary career, his endless flight from his considerable debts, and reads a number of poems including ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ and ‘Fern Hill’.

Kingdom’s appearance, voice, mannerisms and style of address are uncannily like the man he is playing. The imitation doesn’t fall short, and the bulk of the play’s power comes from this astonishing likeness. Every sound and gesture Kingdom makes is full of the wit, pomp and undeniable charisma possessed by the poet during his lifetime.

So whilst Joyced! creates an entirely new story in order to celebrate the life and literary spark of James Joyce, Dylan Thomas: Return Journey takes from the stories Thomas already created during his life, shaping them into an original work. Both cherry-pick from the biography and writing of their respective heroes with astonishing results.

Go see these marvellous plays and celebrate the bountiful talent of both the living and the dead.

Joyced is on at Assembly George Square until 27 August, 16:45; Dylan Thomas:Return Journey is on at Assembly Hall until 27 August, 14:45. 

Just What Is Spoken Word Anyway?

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In past years spoken word acts have been quite the nomads of the Edinburgh Fringe, sprinkled throughout theatre, cabaret and comedy sections without a home of their own. But this year the Fringe Society has finally put a roof over their heads, and spoken word has its very own category in the Fringe Guide.

Which begs the question: just what is spoken word anyway?

I asked George Lewkowicz, creative director of Tea Fuelled arts collective, this very question. He seemed a good man to ask, not least because I’m from Fringebiscuit and George is from Tea Fuelled and what could be a more perfect union than tea and biscuits?

Tea Fuelled are putting on four spoken word shows this year. George himself stars in Superbard Starts to Save the World, directs Lucy Ayrton’s Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry and Jack Heal’s Murderthon, and comperes the Flea Circus Open Slam. Busy fella.

This is what he had to say: ‘I would define spoken word as: a performer speaking their own words directly to the audience. Theatre often doesn’t use this direct method of address, and if it does, it’s by an actor rather than the writer themself.

‘Comedy is often a looser, less scripted form, and there’s less of an emphasis on the words and more of a focus on getting a laugh. This usually means spoken word is storytelling or poetry, and it’s often comic, but by no means exclusively so.

‘It’s a broad church and the boundaries are fuzzy, so at Tea Fuelled we think it comes down to the performers themselves; if they say they’re spoken word, they’re spoken word.’

So there you have it. It’s about where the words stem from; about the words themselves as much as the effect they have, and ultimately it’s about how the performer regards themself. Which is why it’s so wonderful that audiences now have the means to target the kind of shows they want to see, and that performers have found a place to call their own.

Spoken word performers, enjoy your new home. I love what you’ve done with the place.

The Star System: A Biscuiteer’s Perspective

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The first 5 star review for Fringebiscuit 2012 was granted by yours truly to the incredible comedy blues band Jonny and the Baptists. I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm as I sent off my tweet-sized assessment straight after the show, but since then I’ve had time to consider whether I should’ve been more discerning (which, as a young writer on a training scheme, I’m naturally keen to seem). I‘ve concluded that even after a period of reflection I still wouldn’t knock a single star off my review. The band was awesome.

There’s been much discussion surrounding the star system in the Fringebiscuit flat and it seems to me that 1 star, 2 star and 5 star reviews are relatively easy to grant. In my mind 1 star is applicable when something is so hopelessly awful you want to walk out. 2 stars are given when something is still pretty dire but there are tiny flecks of gold hidden amongst the slurry. 5 star reviews are undeniably wonderful shows from performers firing on all cylinders. They burst outside their genre, and then some. They can be life-affirming, possibly even life-changing.

But 3 and 4 star reviews have been more problematic for us as a group. Before I joined fringebiscuit I regarded 3 stars as a bit of a slap in the face. To me, they suggested mediocrity. But I soon learned that that’s not what we mean here. 3 stars suggest a show is an excellent example of its genre. It can be a great show if you like that sort of thing, which naturally a lot of people will. A 4 star show is fantastic whether you like that sort of thing or not. I struggle slightly with that distinction between 3 and 4 stars.

It’ll be interesting to see how this evolves for the 10 of us as the festival continues. Will we grow more exhausted and jaded as the weeks go on and become harder to please? Or will we hone our grading skills so finely that it becomes effortless? Watch this space, and keep watching our Twitter feed.

Lucy Ayrton: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry

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Poet and songstress Lucy Ayrton is on a mission with her new show Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry. That mission is to move away from the soppy, sleepy and domesticated women of fairy tales – currently doing the rounds in a shop near you – and get back to the grace and power exuded by the heroines celebrated in tales of yore. I spoke to Lucy to find out how she plans to use this year’s Fringe as a platform for her mission.

Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry has been placed in the brand new spoken word category. What do you think this category offers to performers/audiences that we haven’t had in previous years, and was it important to you to be placed in this category?

Yes, I was really delighted at the new category. I just think that spoken word is such a distinct thing – a bit like stand up, a bit like theatre, a bit like cabaret, but really, very much its own genre. It’s brilliant that this has been recognised and now audiences can get at the kind of shows they want to see more easily!

I’m also involved in running the Flea Circus Open Slam which is a platform for anyone to rock up and do five minutes of spoken word. We’re really hoping the show will be a great chance for everyone who’s interested in spoken word at the Fringe to meet and show each other what they’re up to.

You sound as if you’re using this platform to communicate a strong feminist message. Is the main aim of the show to change people’s perceptions of stereotypical fairy tale damsels? Do you think this might even help to change (mis)perceptions of women in general?

The show definitely has a strong feminist message, and it’s totally true that it doesn’t help women that the stock character of a heroine is so pathetic. But what I think is even more important is the way that works the other way round – what effect on your behaviour it has if your whole childhood has been spent being told that you’re meant to act like Cinderella. This emphasis on “niceness” and “prettiness” and being super-sugar-sweet to people all the time is fine for a 6 year old, but as soon as you get any older than that, you need to put a lot more stock in your own opinions, the way you think things should be, and the way you’re going to live your life. And the way you learn that is by having a heroine who stands up and says “nope, I’m not standing for that. I’m going to sort this all out.”

This niceness, prettiness and sugar-sweetness links back to how so many fairy tales have been ‘Disneyfied’. Does your show seek to get back to the original forms of these tales, with all the brilliance (and grimness!) that involves?

It definitely does! I think that, originally, fairy tales weren’t just nice fluff to get kids to sleep – they were told as warnings. Don’t wander off on your own! Don’t make deals with witches! Don’t let your guard down! Disney has robbed us of that, by nice-ifying the whole thing.

The reason we teach kids things is to help them towards being adults. But your average Disney princess never has to grow up. There’s no development – they just go from doing whatever their stepmother says to doing what their husband says. And that’s not just annoying, it’s dangerous. If we want our little girls to kick ass in the future, we’ve got to give them some dragons to fight now.

In the process of giving our heroines dragons to fight, what role do you think poems and songs have in telling (or retelling) these sort of tales? The whole oral tradition vibe seems the perfect thing for the new spoken word category.

As much as I love books and films – even Disney! – there’s something about sitting down with someone and telling them stuff, person to person, that’s special. Part of my argument is that, if you’re using fairy tales as a teaching tool, it works best when it’s your actual mum who’s sitting you down and telling you stuff she thinks you need to know. Like, if you’re a reckless child, she’ll probably want to remind you not to run off into forests, but if you’re a bit shyer, she might tell you a story about how important it is to be brave. The oral tradition is so key to fairy tales. And I think poems and songs are very useful, because stuff sticks better with repetition, and poems and songs aren’t just throwaway things, they’re for telling and sharing again and again.

This idea of repetition links nicely to the way you tell some new fairy tales of your own in the show, because there’s a great tradition of this (Angela Carter springs to mind).  Do you think it’s important for women to keep telling and retelling their own tales to make sure they don’t ever have to go back to napping and sweeping?

ABSOLUTELY. I think we need to start telling the kind of stories that we think our girls need today. What Angela Carter did with the idea of wolves was just perfect – don’t just be scared of a raw, dangerous power, think what it means, think how you can use it. I think we have to keep questioning what we’re saying about our lives when we tell stories, because that is what we do, every time we tell a story. In a time when men actually legally owned women, we needed different messages than we do today. There are some things that we’ll always need to warn our girls about (it’s never going to be a good idea to mess with witches), but as society evolves and we get more and more equality between the genders, we need to change our messages to suit and to build on the work we’ve already done.

Lucy Ayrton: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry, The Banshee Labyrinth, 4-14 August, 18.20

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Abridged burst into life at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987 as the creation of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Adam Long, Jess Borgeson and Daniel Singer.  Such is its abiding popularity that it’s been performed ever since.  25 years on, Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Tread the Boards Theatre Company will be taking on the stomach-flipping challenge of cramming the complete works of Shakespeare into a mere 97 minutes (gulp!). I caught up with the three brave men stepping up to the helm this year: John-Robert Partridge, Dan Gough and Andrew Patrick.

Why do you think the show continues to be so popular, and was it at all daunting to fill such well-worn shoes?

I think the show is so popular because it’s accessible to both Shakespeare lovers and haters.  There’s something for everyone, and if you don’t get the jokes about Shakespeare you can laugh at the fact that there’s a man running around the stage attempting to play a woman very badly.  When we first thought about performing at the Fringe it was a little scary as the original company are so well-known and the production was such a success: would people be interested in seeing the show by a different company?  However, we put our own brand of humour into the show and the fact it’s English rather than American makes the show more our own version of the original.

The show’s known for its spontaneity and for having no ‘fourth wall’: can audience members expect a fair amount of participation?  Will you be improvising?

Well we don’t want to give away too much, but this show needs the audience for ideas, suggestions and willingness to give everything for the cause, including looking as stupid as we do (and, believe me, that is pretty stupid!). The show itself is scripted, but the structure of the script allows for a few adlibs to be thrown in, and dependent on audience reaction, we will have to improvise no doubt!

The show features lots of references to pop culture (rap, cooking shows etc.).  Do you think this is a good way of introducing Shakespeare to a younger audience (the way ‘Horrible Histories’ does with history, for example)?

We think this is a fantastic introduction to Shakespeare.  Many people that have watched the show have no understanding of Shakespeare (certainly not the more obscure plays like Titus Andronicus, Pericles or Troilus and Cressida), so by the end of the show the audience have laughed their socks off and learnt a little something, even something as simple as how many sonnets Shakespeare wrote.  We’ve had a 9 year old in the audience on our tour and other children along the way and they’ve found it hilarious.  It’s not really meant for the younger children (as it does contain some swearing), but innuendos are laughed at by the older audience members and the younger ones laugh at the silliness of it all.

There are so many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works set in just about every time-period and setting imaginable.  Why do you think people have so much fun playing about with Shakespeare?

Well, from a business point of view, there are no performance rights, so people can do whatever they like.  There are no rules, which can be incredibly freeing but can also be very dangerous and people can take it too far.  But Shakespeare is global, and the reason he’s so popular is because of the relevance his works still have on modern society, so you can cover current topics.  For example, Comedy of Errors is all about twins coming into a foreign country, so why not cover illegal immigrants?  There really are no rules.  Many people come to watch the shows purely to see how the actors will interpret the most iconic characters in Shakespeare.  For me, Malvolio is Twelfth Night so I’m always intrigued to see how different actors play him.

Your credits listed on the Tread the Boards website include some seriously impressive, high-brow stuff: was it a treat to do something altogether comedic and a bit daft?

The three of us have worked together for a long time; we’ve known each other for about 5 years and we’ve acted and directed each other in many shows.  This show definitely caters to each of our strengths.  We all love comedy.  The character Dan (played by John) is always the leader who attempts to keep the other two from killing each other.  Jess (played by Dan Gough) is the bookish ‘intellectual’ and Adam (played by Andrew) is the cross-dresser who we found as we had no one left to cast.  But seriously, this show is harder than some of the straight stuff.  This show relies on laughter and energy and perfect comic timing, so a huge amount of rehearsal goes into putting on a piece of work like that.

3 men, 37 plays, 97 minutes: there’s a fashion in the Fringe for ‘cramming’ things into an hour or so, for example this year we have the complete works of Dickens, the history of the BBC and the complete Greek myths.  What do you think draws people to take on this challenge?

It’s great for losing weight for a start!  We’re on the Shakespeare diet and so far we’ve all lost 1/2 a stone, so we’re hoping to lose another 1/2 by the end of the Fringe (fingers crossed!).  It’s also just about the craziness of attempting to cram so much into such a small space.  It’s the challenge of how we can make this interesting, fun, accessible and still cover everything.  Sometimes you have a moment of madness, say you will do something, then wake up the next day and think ‘oh my god I must be insane’.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Abridged, theSpace@Venue45, 3-11 August, 8.05pm

Rise of the Nerds

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Who doesn’t relish a bit of gloom every now and then? Comedians like Stewart Lee and Dylan Moran tickle audiences with their brilliant cynicism and grumpy displeasure over the irritations of modern life. Who can blame them? There’s a recession on, the politicians representing us are just awful, we’ve used up all the oil and ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ is in its seventh season.

But I’ve noticed a new trend of geeky, shambling comedy emerging in this year’s Fringe guide. Much of this comedy shares traits with that of Lee, Moran et al. It’s wordy, conversational, sometimes seemingly rambling, but it reacts to modern life with a lighter, more whimsical touch. In short, it’s a bit nerdier.

Josie Long and Sam Schäfer’s Awkward Romance (Mood Nightclub) will relate the cringe-worthy tales of fumbling encounters and dating faux-pas made by the pair. Harry Potter-graduate Jessie Cave (she was Lavender Brown) will unashamedly discuss her favourite literary characters in Bookworm (Underbelly, Cowgate), her pretty face obscured behind a chunky pair of nerd-specs. Tim Key will continue to delight audiences with his ruffled style and wonderfully maladroit poetry in Masterslut (Pleasance Dome), and in Numb (The Bongo Club) Simon Amstell will discuss the vulnerability of, and daily blunders made by, gawky individuals like himself.

Over the past year there’s been a backlash against a nastier streak of humour (Frankie Boyle’s vitriolic ‘Tramadol Nights’ springs to mind), and this swell in sweeter comedy might be due, at least in part, to the public’s growing distaste for shock tactics. Certainly many folk will welcome the increase in comedians who have at least a kernel of kindness in their material.

In doing away with a more scathing form of delivery and celebrating our universal fallibility in an increasingly uncertain world, these performers demonstrate that you can be intelligent, subversive and satirical whilst wearing a crumpled suit, an unfashionable jumper and a bewildered expression. They’re not the sexiest or sleekest bunch, but they’re certainly some of the funniest comics the Fringe has to offer this year. All hail the rise of the nerds.

Book Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

Book Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

This first appeared in the Scotsman books section Saturday 3rd March 2012

Lynn Shepherd has a knack for setting literary murder puzzles. Her previous book, Murder at Mansfield Park, re-imagined Austen’s original, elevating minx-like Mary Crawford to the position of the novel’s heroine and painting the previously angelic Fanny Price as a scheming heiress. The jaunty mystery featured Charles Maddox as a young detective who unravels the central mystery, and so too does Shepherd’s new novel, Tom-All-Alone’s.

This time around, Shepherd uses Dickens’s Bleak House as the backdrop to her work. Tom-All-Alone’s is her response to the events and themes of what is widely regarded as Dickens’s masterpiece, and features a number of characters from the original text – Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket, Lady Dedlock and Dr Woodcourt – whether as central or peripheral figures. The book seeks to depict the grim underworld of Victorian London which respectable gent Dickens could only hint at.

In this new murder mystery, Maddox is hired by the lawyer Tulkinghorn to undertake a seemingly simple task, but in doing so uncovers a scandalous and deadly secret that Tulkinghorn and his wealthy clients are desperate to conceal. Through his investigations, Maddox is plunged into a world of child prostitutes, murdered babies and the deeply unsavoury practices of high-ranking men.

Tom-All-Alone’s has a postmodern, knowing feel reminiscent of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, another novel set in the murky underbelly of Victorian London. Shepherd reveals plot details to her readers that even Maddox is not privy to, and places us directly into the text alongside her: “Noon, Waterloo-bridge. From where we stand we can look up towards Whitehall and Westminster…” She speaks to her readers in a conversational manner (“And I can tell you…”) and leads us by the hand as we follow a man through streets thick with fog: “We have a way to go yet and the day is darkening. We must find him soon, or risk losing him altogether.” She advises us to muffle our faces against the stench, placing us into the story just as she has placed her own characters into the world that Dickens first created, giving the book an immediate feel, despite its nineteenth-century setting.

This literary magpie-ism is a treat for book-lovers, a little nudge-and-a-wink here and there which will delights Dickens fans without alienating those who’ve never read his work. Indeed, it is possible to fully enjoy and understand Tom-All-Alone’s without having any prior knowledge of Bleak House, although those who have read the original will get an added layer of appreciation for Shepherd’s ingenious use of the source material.

By placing her own detective into a classic work of fiction, Shepherd does something which fans of Austen and Dickens will doubtless have strong reactions to. Tom-All-Alone’s could be regarded as a brave attempt to expand on an already great text, or simply an ardent fan’s tribute to a much-loved author. Some might see Shepherd’s work as an impudent work of literary vandalism. But whether you think of this sort of book as a scandalous trampling of consecrated ground or a witty homage, it’s an intelligent and gripping novel which sparkles with a bibliophilic glee that reminds us that literature should, above all else, be fun.

Book Review: Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride

Book Review: Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride

This first appeared in The Scotsman books section Saturday 28th January 2012

CRIME fiction can be formulaic. But what if your policeman protagonist, normally the story’s moral backbone, is capable of just about anything?

What if you’re in the hands of an author who doesn’t flinch from even the grimmest scenario? And what if, amidst all this darkness and grot, the book manages to be funny?

The serial killer in Birthdays for the Dead, the new book from Stuart MacBride has been dubbed “The Birthday Boy” by the tabloids. He’s been abducting little girls for 12 years, always in the run-up to their 13th birthday, sending their parents homemade cards each year showing their daughters being slowly and horrifically tortured.

In this stand-alone departure from MacBride’s popular Logan McRae series, Detective Constable Ash Henderson has a seriously faulty moral compass. He’s lost everything good in his life; his daughter Rebecca’s been missing for five years, his marriage has collapsed, he’s been forced to live in a nasty council flat and he’s been demoted. Ash has little left to lose.

What’s more, he has a terrible secret. Each year he is sent a card from “The Birthday Boy” showing Rebecca being brutally tortured. He cannot tell his colleagues because if he did he’d be taken off the case, and he is determined to catch the killer. He cannot even tell his ex-wife, a heavy and lonely burden for any man to carry.

Ash is capable of extreme violence, even torture, and is a seriously corrupt cop, guilty of blackmail, cover-ups and extortion. Through this deeply flawed and troubled character, MacBride liberates the plot by showing us that when we are with Ash, anything can happen.

MacBride sets the story mainly in a fictional Scottish city, fearing he’d be sued by (or at least seriously offend) the police of any real-life locality. This gives an indication of how deep the police corruption featured goes and just how liberated the plot gets. With his rich descriptions of child abuse, torture, suicide, gruesome bodily functions, terrible smells and festering wounds, MacBride requires his readers to have seriously strong stomachs.

Yet, despite all the filth and corruption, the book has a lighter side. Ash has a sense of humour as dry as his name and cuts through pretensions and affectations with his satisfyingly direct manner. When a swaggering local radio personality, the self-proclaimed “Sensational Steve”, invites Ash into his conservatory, Ash reflects: “The conservatory … was big enough for a baby grand piano, a leather sofa with matching armchairs, coffee table, a couple of large pot plants, and Sensational Steve’s ego.”

Though Ash is violent and sarcastic, there is a sliver of nobility at his core, and some of his most vicious moments are shot through with humour. This lack of black-or-white/good-or-evil/funny-or-bleak divisions is another reason MacBride’s work does not fit comfortably into a set formula.

MacBride’s characters are full of convincing idiosyncrasies. One such character is Dr Alice McDonald, a forensic psychologist who aids Ash in his search for the killer. The nervy rapidity of her speech, hair-twiddling and the way she wraps her arm around her body in a self-protective gesture lead Ash to store her number in his phone under the name “Dr McFruitloop”.

But Alice also gets out-of-her-head drunk in order to lower her inhibitions and enter into the mind of the killer. She eats like a horse, dresses like a teenager and proves to be intuitive, loyal and brave. She has a past and troubles of her own. This sort of well-rounded, three-dimensional characterisation lifts the story above formulaic crime fiction, and the relationship between Ash and Alice is one of the most engaging aspects of the book.

It is clear that MacBride thoroughly researched the book (just look at the list of soil scientists, pathologists and the like he thanks at the beginning), which ensures the plot is watertight and authentic despite its fictional setting. MacBride also has a keen ear for dialogue, whether it’s a Scouse, Shetland or Edinburgh accent he’s writing. There are some lovely, acutely observed moments, such as when a mother hides a packet of Jaffa Cakes in the one place her daughter will never look: the tea-towel drawer. These real-life minutiae give the book a human and relatable feel.

The ending isn’t happy, tidy or fair – that’s life, after all – but it is surprising. MacBride’s unflinching exploration of disturbing and senseless crimes, his dark humour and the skilful way in which he gathers several inventive plot threads together at the novel’s end combine to make Birthdays for the Dead anything but predictable.