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Pick Of The Fringe 2016

30/08/2016 12:41 | Updated 30 August 2016

The London sunshine had got far too samey for me. It was time for some proper rain. A last minute visit to Edinburgh was my only hope.

Having sped around the venues getting customarily soaked and, like the local cheeseburgers, lightly battered, I offer you my gems of choice from the finest entertainment festival in the world.

I usually spend all my money on stand up comedians when I go to Edinburgh. This time I promised myself it would be different. For 2016, I decided to major in theatre.

Around this time of year, many people are thinking about pilgrimages. Some, like my old pal Dick Kempson (http://www.lifepilgrim.co.uk/walking-to-rome), are tramping the Via Francigena. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim faithful are making their way to the great Hajj, travelling thousands of miles to Mecca.

I went on one once. Sort of. To Malta. I was going to pay homage to my favourite hellraiser Oliver Reed. I'd read Robert Sellers' hysterical book 'Hellraisers' and felt like I needed to find myself a little piece of the legend that I could keep in my liver for ever. In Valetta, the picturesque Maltese capital, there stands a little pub that was once called, rather cogently, The Pub. It is now called "Ollie's Last Stand" as this was the final scene of the man's demise. I managed to drink rum with the crew of a submarine that was moored just of the Libyan coast, but I didn't arm wrestle any of them, as Oli did, because I think that's probably what killed him. Can't think of any other reason.

Oliver Reed: Wild Thing at the Gilded Balloon Teviot is a one man show performed by Rob Crouch. He tells Reed's life story as Reed himself, and at times it's a quite delightful likeness. It is set in that very Maltese bar and Crouch's unwavering confidence in the role puts you immediately at ease with the enormous amount of booze he is (seemingly) knocking back during the show. I don't think the 12 or so bottles could really have contained beer as there was virtually no belching, but the performance made you wonder. Drunk acting is something of a skill, and Crouch has it down, as of course he should if he's playing Oli Reed. In an often emotive journey, the play mitigates much of Reed's behaviour: a lack of meaningful attention from a male role model, his misinterpreted academic capacity, confused by the idea of love when pitted against the idea he had of himself. These things seem to have driven the young Reed to adore distraction, and Crouch plays him looking back over his life and career through a bibulous haze. There's only so much you can cram into a festival hour, and I think the choices were wise. The voice wasn't quite there but the performance was storming.

Fabric at the Underbelly was always going to be on my list this year. I'd seen actor Nancy Sullivan perform a couple of years before, in a play by Philip Ridley called The Fastest Clock in the World, and it left me devastated, distressed and upset, so brilliant and harrowing was her performance. I was telling myself on the way into the space that it was bound to be a little lighter this time round.

Massive miscalculation.

Sullivan plays Leah, a young woman who is not located within any specific pigeonhole - which is part of her appeal - and who is telling us a little bit about her relationship. Each confessional section is delivered initially with bright-eyed confidence and self-deprecating humour. We like Leah, she's approachable, she's nice. The sudden panic and confusion that takes Leah over momentarily at the end of each section is enhanced by small but significant light and set changes that demonstrated highly intelligent studio theatre choices.

We sense something is wrong. And then we hear it. And we see it. And it is one of the most extraordinarily blunt and courageous performances I have ever witnessed.

Sullivan's unquestionable power aside, Abi Zakarian's script is a fascinating, layered approach to a difficult issue. But there are problems with it. The Bob Monkhouse mother-in-law joke at the beginning misrepresents the narrative voice that she has worked hard to hone, and the final ten minutes of the play occur after a very clunky gear change that sees the protagonist change her direct manner into a host of marginally transparent metaphors. But I feel that it's too powerful a piece to recede into history. Director Tom O'Brien's brave decision to let Leah completely lose control was a masterstroke and though I couldn't see with perfect clarity due to helpless tears, I could sense a unique collective dialectic of distress and admiration permeate the room. I suspect it's up for a transfer. Go and see it.

As Aerosmith once said, Falling in Love is Hard on the Knees, and with that in mind I am going to wear skateboard pads next time I see Jess Robinson. As I walked into her Pleasance Courtyard venue to see Jess Robinson: Impressive she was welcoming other people in and sitting them down. I saw a single front row seat and made a dash for it, and I'm so glad I did. Robinson radiates talent. She throws it all at you and the closer you are to her crackling magnetism and impossible beauty the better. If it weren't for the pockets of naffness that her script insisted upon, she would have been like a drug. After an opening song in which she impersonates no fewer than ninety-nine vocalists, I was ready to fall forward and beg for her clemency, but then the dated lines crashed into my longing and skewed the picture.

It's an intriguing situation. Here is a woman whose impersonations are actually uncanny, but whose written material largely fails to live up to them. The type of joke Robinson churns out is from precisely the time when she would have undoubtedly been a major TV star. Thirty years ago, Jess Robinson would have been a household name with her own peak-time show. I hope TV execs one day fall off the reality wagon and shoot people like Jess Robinson to stardom, but if they do I hope she spends as much time crafting the segues as she does on the voices. I would have loved to have heard more of her Bassey, but the Natalie Cassidy impression we got instead was so amusing that we were pleasantly distracted.

Her narrative centres around her recent divorce, and so perhaps her salvation should come from pain. Instead of sticking with the light entertainment motif, perhaps it could have been darker. We can take that as an audience and she needs to show us that she knows that.

After a mammoth roast at The Doric, a very fine pub near Waverley Station, it seemed perverse to see a play called Lunch, and so it had to be done.

Luke Courtier is a tremendously engaging performer. His entirely whimsical treatise on the nature and conceptual truths of ones 'Lunch' experiences was perhaps the most unexpected piece in my entire pick. This was a show that I admired more and more throughout the performance and - making it even more enjoyable - I was largely unsure quite why. I think it was because, under my amusement at his darting brain's obscure references, lay the joy in seeing someone do exactly what they want to do with the unshakeable confidence that people will go with it.

I adored many of his meanderings. His song about shopping for bolognese ingredients is deeply important for a generation of budding chefs who have a fearfully inept grasp of historical world affairs.
"You might remember to get a little parsley from the fresh veg section...you might remember to get a little onion, if you think it needs it...but you've probably forgotten all about...The First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845."

He takes us on further journeys featuring disparate subjects from quails eggs to the fabulously unsung (and now thoroughly sung) Thomas, Duke of Clarence. Occasionally, he would assure us of our role as his philosophical lunch-seeking accomplices by reminding one or two of the audience of a conversation from some time ago. The audience go with him again. And they will keep doing so for Luke Courtier sprays absurdist tangentials out from behind his six-string like Willy Wonka throwing WHAM! bars to us from out of the back of a Nissan Sunny 1.5 SGL.

He allows his impressive voice to comedically wail off key as he explores what his fringe-soaked voice is going to offer him today - and what he has offered us is, certainly, original. He doesn't talk down to his audience either. He knows they're either with him or they're not. There's probably no middle ground with this one, and I've always admired that in any performer.

And with that, I was off. Back to life, back to reality. Back to hiding in Jess Robinson's bins.

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