The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour: Review


This article first appeared on The Culture Trip website:

Pints and Poets

Old Edinburgh was a city of two halves: the grimy, poverty-stricken Old Town, full of overcrowded filthy tenements and taverns bustling with workers, criminals and prostitutes; and the gentile New Town, home to intellectuals and professionals with plenty of cash, clean hankies and impeccable manners. Between these two strikingly different halves, the city’s most famous literary figures – from Robert Burns and Walter Scott to Robert Louis Stevenson – came out to play.

The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour seizes on this intriguing duality by presenting two very different fictional characters as guides: ‘Clart’, the literary bohemian who revels in the murkier side of Edinburgh’s literary past; and ‘McBrain’, the more refined intellectual who would rather dwell on the loftier side of things. Through their musings, we get to hear of the dark underbelly of Old Edinburgh (or ‘Auld Reekie’ as it was known) as well as the more polite society of fancy drawing rooms. This duel of wits is the tour’s high-point.

The fact that these roles are performed by professional actors rather than academics or guides reciting from books will come as a welcome tonic to many a weary tour-goer. The actors, though incredibly knowledgeable, never become bogged down in too many dry details, selecting only the juiciest aspects of the city’s literary past on which to elaborate.

Leading us through the wynds and courtyards of Edinburgh’s Old and New Town, Clart and McBrain guide us from the Grassmarket’s warm and sumptuous Beehive Inn to the Royal Mile’s cosy and atmospheric Jolly Judge and lively Ensign Ewart, finishing in the rather grand Kenilworth on Rose Street. Along the way we are led through Makars’ Court, a strangely silent, moonlit pocket of the city and a particularly atmospheric part of the tour. As we stood within the peace of the court, quotations from famous Scottish writers engraved on the stones on which we stood, we listened to the chilling tale of Deacon Brodie, who himself reflects the city’s exciting duality.

Brodie was a respected locksmith and City Councillor by day and a thief by night. As Clart reflects: ‘Now, this man finds that he cannot control this other side to him and he falls even deeper into a life of crime, terrorising his own fellow citizens, invading their homes.  And all the while, the other man, the man of day, progresses up the social and political ladder until he can no longer keep up the facade, his dark self is revealed and his fate is sealed.’ McBrain continues:  ‘A famous Edinburgh villain who led a double life… I know what you’re leading up to Clart – Brodie was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.’

Stevenson does indeed detail the perils of the double life – and double self – in Jekyll and Hyde, as Clart muses: ‘Stevenson was exploring the hypocrisy of the individual – and as Stevenson said “man is not truly one, but truly two…” but we are not one or the other, we are both!  Edinburgh is both!’ which is precisely what the tour reflects so brilliantly.

Another literary figure from Edinburgh explored throughout the tour is Walter Scott, who grew up in the filth and clutter of the Old Town tenements and, even when he was a respected writer, returned to the seedy taverns for a good day or night out. As McBrain says of Scott: ‘… Edinburgh at that time did seem to celebrate, in some quarters, the rather seamier side of life.  And I do admit it had the reputation of being one of the most insanitary cities.  But the stage was set for a great figure to arise from the dirt and filth of the old town to a golden age.’ What the tour does so effectively is show that you cannot separate this dirt and filth from the gold: like Stevenson, Scott, Burns and all the others, these writers’ imaginations were fired by what they experienced in the city, by the squalor every bit as much as the beauty.

Established in 1996, it’s little wonder that the tour has continued for as long as it has, encompassing as it does over 300 years of Edinburgh’s literary history, right through to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Trainspotting (and even a cheeky reference to Harry Potter). It’s an impressive piece of theatre, a celebration of Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, and an important part of the city’s tourism. If you enjoy palatable chunks of literary history, stellar performances, storytelling, song, comical tales and stunning venues – with the opportunity to drink as much or as little as you care to indulge in – this is certainly the tour for you. An Auld Reekie must-see.

The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour is available: May-Sep (Everyday); Oct & Apr (Thur-Sun); Jan-March (Fri & Sun) and Nov-Dec (Fri). Meeting point is outside The Beehive Inn, Grassmarket, at 7.15pm. Tickets are £14 (£10 concession) and are available at the meeting point on the day or online at:

A Taste of Honey: Theatre Review

taste of honey

This review was originally published on The University of Edinburgh’s Pre-Honours English Website:

A Taste of Honey

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh


When A Taste of Honey premiered in 1958 it became part of the revolutionary wave of British theatre (and later TV) known as ‘kitchen sink drama’, so-called because of its ordinary domestic settings and the everyday lives it portrayed. Written by Shelagh Delaney when she was just 18, the play tells the story of 17 year old Jo and her overbearing mother Helen as they linguistically wrestle with each other in the working-class heart of 1950s Salford.

Feisty, articulate Jo initially has to deal with her alcoholic and sexually promiscuous mother abandoning her to marry well-off but drunken idiot Peter. Jo then falls pregnant to black sailor Jimmy, who soon disappears from her life. She sets up home with her gay friend Geoff and they play at houses until Helen returns to dominate Jo’s life once more.

Tony Cownie’s production stars Rebecca Ryan, who plays Jo with a fierceness and vulnerability that is both funny and devastating. Her delivery is natural, the droll lines rolling off her tongue with a wonderfully musical Manchester twang. Loquacious, shouty and occasionally shrill, Ryan’s Jo is a fighter who, in better circumstances, would clearly have made something of herself.

Lucy Black as Helen is equally brilliant: caustic, bitter, glamorous and garrulous, as funny as she is infuriating. Both Jo and Helen typify the sort of strong, Northern women who roll up their sleeves and get on with it, no matter how dire their circumstances. The fiery banter tossed between the pair is one of the best things about the play: there is hatred there, but also love, no matter how poorly that love is demonstrated.

Charlie Ryan is lovely as sweet, sensitive Geoff; kind, nurturing and ‘big sisterly’, but essentially too meek to make any real difference to Jo’s predicament. Keith Fleming deftly portrays amusing but sinister chancer Peter, and Adrian Decosta is beguiling as Jimmy.

Janet Bird’s incredible revolving set is at once naturalistic and strangely dream-like, a grubby bedsit complete with ageing furniture, faded wallpaper and an industrial-looking backdrop that immediately contextualises the action.

In 1958, issues of race and homosexuality were shocking. Being an unwed mother with a mixed race baby could have rendered Jo a social outcast, and being gay was illegal in England until 1967. Obviously, a lot has changed. We’re no longer shocked by these things; they are part of the tapestry of British life. So does the play still have something to offer in 2013?

It certainly does. The humour and the interplay between Jo and Helen are timeless. The school pupils in the audience were laughing as much as everyone else, a good indication of how spot-on Delaney’s script remains and how entertaining the performances are.

It’s a play worth revisiting, no matter how much Britain’s social climate may have changed, and this is a production well worth investing in.

Shane Koyczan: Talk Rocker

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Shane Koyczan: Talk Rocker was the first show to make me cry at the Fringe. There, I’ve said it. I’m not much of a crier normally. I have a reputation in my family for having a heart of stone. I didn’t even cry during the episode of The Royle Family where Nana dies. I’m basically subhuman.

But Koyczan’s poetry did something to me. He had a difficult childhood: raised by his grandparents, bullied throughout his youth, but don’t think for one second his poems are maudlin. They’re authentic, wise, wry and sparklingly funny, despite the heart-wringing content. Koyczan doesn’t ‘milk’ his past but utilizes it to form poems of rare depth and insight into the human heart, from first love and night terrors to the bonds of friendship and heavy weight of bereavement.

His delivery is understated, his quiet voice leaving audiences hanging on the lyrical beauty of his language. He seemed delighted that so many people turned up to hear him read. It’s touching to witness such a talented individual display genuine modesty. Shane Koyczan rocks.

Shane Koyczan: Talk Rocker, Underbelly. Until 27 August, 7.30pm.

Eponymous: The Perils of the Titular Star

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The great thing about producing a show with a legendary band/singer/actor in the title is that you have a potential ready-made fan base. Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths should, theoretically speaking at least, draw in Smiths and Morrissey obsessives. Somewhere Under the Rainbow: The Liza Minnelli Story should do likewise for followers of the Queen of Broadway, and Oliver Reed: Wild Thing should appeal to those who appreciate the exploits of the boozy scoundrel.

The downside is, of course, that if you dislike a group or person and their name is in the title of a show then that show is unlikely to feature on your list of things to see at the Fringe. When I interviewed Joe Murray, star of Half a Person, I asked him if he thought it was necessary for audience members to be Smiths fans: ‘I think knowledge of, or love for, The Smiths certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s a necessity. I think it’s a fairly charming and touching story in its own right. I’ve had people dragged along to it that hate Morrissey, but have really enjoyed the show.’

To a certain extent, I disagree with Joe. I adored the show, certainly not just because I’m a Smiths fan, but if I actively disliked their music then I wouldn’t have gone along with the story the way I did. The songs would have interrupted my enjoyment of the otherwise excellent plot and stellar acting. The Smiths are viewed by their detractors as miserable, and Morrissey’s evangelical vegetarianism and provocative political statements infuriate many. The chances of one of these people going to see Half a Person are about as slim as Morrissey’s waistline circa-1985.

But sometimes it does pay to take a risk. Morrissey-haters might flinch at the thought of Half a Person, but who knows? Seeing the show might just change their opinion of his music. In fact, disliking his music might not actually get in the way of the haters’ enjoyment of the play. Personally speaking, it’s often my own ignorance that stops me giving shows a chance.

Throughout this month I’ve been sent to review shows I wouldn’t have gone a mile near if I hadn’t been told to, and I have absolutely loved many of them (a puppet show about Hiroshima, anyone?). So next year, when I’m no longer reviewing and am back to being a Fringe punter, I’m going to try my best to see shows I’d normally avoid.

That’s another thing that writing for Fringebiscuit has taught me: be more open-minded, take a few chances. The clue isn’t always in the title.

Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths

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Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths tells the story of William, a young man obsessed by The Smiths (and himself), who is torn between two people: the red-lipped, black-haired, dour Salomé and his best friend, gentle playwright Rick. Lolling on couches, slugging red wine and generally feeling sorry for himself whilst listening to Smiths LPs, William (played by twenty-three year old Joe Murray from Cross Cut Theatre Company) faces infatuation, heartache and a final terrible loss. I met up with Joe in a rather chaotic Black Medicine on Nicholson Street to talk Mozzer, Britishness and bloody critics (!).

I was curious to discover whether Joe had been a fan of the Smiths before he became part of the show – as a diehard Smiths fan myself it seemed the natural place to start. ‘I’ve been a Smiths fan since I was about 17 when I read the NME’s Queen is Dead anniversary edition. Never quite to William’s level, but I certainly got even more into them from doing the show. I’ve become a fairly massive geek on the subject.’

Joe’s vocals and movements when performing the Smiths songs sprinkled throughout the show are testament to this geekiness. Learning the singer’s mannerisms must have been a challenging task; how does one performer mimic another without slipping into karaoke or caricature? ‘I watched a LOT of Morrissey performances and interviews on YouTube and I listened to The Smiths pretty much non-stop. We really wanted it to be William singing the songs, not a sort of bad Smiths cover band. I think the way Morrissey sings is very hard to replicate anyway. Movement-wise, I just had to really commit to it. If you go about it feeling worried about looking awkward, that’s when it looks naff.’

Half a Person is written by Australian playwright Alex Broun, and the original play was set in Melbourne. In this version the story has been relocated to London/Manchester. ‘I think the show has really benefited from being anglicised. The Smiths are so iconic and so synonymous with a sort of “Britishness” that it was a fairly easy job. I think that’s part of the show’s charm now, so if we were to take it overseas I think that would be a major selling point. I think it adds authenticity.’

The show has received a wide range of responses. Fringebiscuit gave the show four stars, the Quotidian Times five stars, The Stage was full of praise for Joe’s performance but not the play itself, and Broadway Baby went for 1 star. I think this disparity may have something to do with the fact that if you hate The Smiths/Morrissey you may automatically hate this play and, on the flip side, if you’re a massive Smiths/Morrissey fan you’ll probably love it. (This question of ready-made fans/detractors is the subject for another blog. Stay tuned).

Half a Person is a wonderful, touching and funny show, and the songs are beautifully and lovingly performed. Go see it, swig some red wine, loll in your seat, and revel in the talent of The Smiths. And as for Joe – he’s a charming man (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths, Zoo Southside, 17-27 August, 7.50pm

Audience Interaction: The Agony and the Ecstasy

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Ever had a foil cloak wrapped round you and Nutella smeared on your arm? Ever been handed a box of soothing tea because you look ‘fragile’? Ever had balloons thrown in your face and your laptop chucked in a binliner? I’ve had all these things (and more) done to me at the Fringe and we’re not even halfway through. I feel thoroughly abused.

These sort of experiences take me outside the performance. They don’t make me feel part of it, which is what I think they usually intend to do. I feel conspicuous, sometimes downright embarrassed, and spend the rest of the show worrying what might happen next. Because of this, I feel unable to give my full attention to the actual content, as much as I wish to, and as a reviewer this isn’t helpful.

If you’d told me these things would happen to me here I might never have applied to be a Biscuiteer. And yet… I’ve actually started to enjoy the abuse. Is that weird? I’ve developed a sort of Fringe Stockholm Syndrome; I begin to love the performers who rough me up the most.

One tip I’ve learned for avoiding being singled out is to never let a performer know you’re from the press. I stupidly asked comedian Martin Mor for directions to the press office. It wasn’t my fault. I knocked on a door which said ‘staff only’ on it and it was just him inside. I couldn’t think of an excuse on the spot so spent the next hour squirming in my seat. He was mercifully kind to me, although he did make fun of the name Fringebiscuit (bloody cheek).

I was beside myself with glee when Tim Key asked me to test his bathwater during Masterslut, which featured an on-stage bubble-bath with a bottle of Radox perched on its edge. I rose from my seat, approached the bath, and stooped slightly to dip my hand in the water. ‘It’s perfect’, I said. Key smiled. He asked me how I ‘take’ my bath, with both water and Radox? I answered yes and he agreed that ‘neat’ Radox would be a bit much. He asked me what I do in the bath. I told him I listened to Radio 4 (Key is a regular on Radio 4. He knew it. I knew it. An unspoken understanding formed between us). He said something about cricket and lost me a little, if truth be told. Then he asked me what I read and I told him my Kindle (which in retrospect was a bit vague, should’ve said Kurt Vonnegut or something) and he told me he listened to Russian ballads and I told him I’d never heard any of those and he told me to sit back in my seat.

But the bond had been established. A little later, Key showed an image of a pornographic playing-card on the screen. It was of a muscled man. He handed the card to me and asked me if I liked it. I told him I did and he commented on the way I bit my lip while I said this. This was one of the most erotic moments of my life.

Later, as the show ended, I got (what I like to think was) an extra-special hug from him (wet, bear-like), and he popped a sugar cube into my mouth. I actually tasted his fingers. They tasted of Radox.

So I’m embracing this whole audience interaction thing now. It can be exciting, it can heighten experiences and, if nothing else, will leave you with lasting (albeit potentially awkward) memories of the Fringe.

But oh sweet lord: no more Nutella please. And hands off my gadgetry.

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.