Edinburgh Festival is in ruins – but there's one gem amid the rubble

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

Glitch; Waiting for Hamlet; This Mortal Coil; At the Ghostlight; Comics Solving Problems; Mumsnetters! Online

The virus has broken Edinburgh. The shattered remnants of the festival are visible on the internet. Here’s what happened. The international festival has been reduced to one filmed theatre commission and a handful of videoed musical offerings. The Fringe has survived but in a horribly mutilated form. Two of its most prestigious brands, the Pleasance and the Assembly Rooms (which host hundreds of shows between them every year), have pulled out entirely. They’re so well established that they’ll have no difficulty restarting in 12 months’ time. Another big name, the Gilded Balloon, is offering a few online shows and some recorded highlights from previous years.

Lesser-known outfits such as the-SpaceUK and Just the Tonic have mounted a large presence on the internet because they want to build up some goodwill and encourage this year’s performers to hire their rooms for August 2021. There’s no altruism in any of this. It’s not art for art’s sake. Just cash. Edinburgh venues are highly profitable businesses, which are run with the ruthless efficiency of shopping centres or bowling alleys.

Normally the Fringe offers about 3,500 shows. This year only a few hundred performers are ‘coming to your living room in August’, as the website puts it. Most are free. The collapse in numbers has led to a rise in amateurism. Many performers seem to believe that a decent show can be recorded on a cheap webcam perched in a corner of the kitchen. Viewers need to be patient and persistent to find content that’s audible and properly lit. Glitch is a two-hander about an angry man whose girlfriend was accidentally killed by a car driven by a female robot. The robot (confusingly dressed as the dead girlfriend) meets the man to discuss the tragedy. They exchange witticisms. The man calls the robot ‘Alexa’ and suggests that she has the IQ of a toaster. Female robot: ‘Well, you’re basically a chimpanzee that speaks.’

Waiting for Hamlet, by David Visick, is an Elsinore spin-off featuring King Hamlet (the Dane’s father) and his court clown, Yorick. They rattle off screeds of puns and banter which might work as a quickfire sketch routine but which lack the substance for a full-length drama. The Elsinore theme continues in a murder mystery, This Mortal Coil, about an actor who dies, like Hamlet, from a combination of poisoning and lacerations. The script, recorded on audio, introduces us to a huge range of characters in episode one: Holly, Elissa, Niamh, Paul, Lewis, Gabriel, Beth, Thelonius and Quentin. A cast this large has to be phased in with great care or the listener gets smothered in names and voices. The result here is mind-bogglingly hard work.

Shakespeare pops up again in At the Ghostlight, which opens with an actor wearing a pair of orange pantaloons and a clown’s tattered tunic. This is Will Kemp, a member of Shakespeare’s company, who is thought to have originated the role of Falstaff. He’s joined by a sturdy Victorian matron who introduces herself as Nelly Power, a rival to the music-hall star Marie Lloyd. Kemp and Power gossip about their famous colleagues. Power says she used to hope that Marie Lloyd would die of pleurisy. Kemp complains that ‘old Shake-rags, that tit-brained quill-pusher’ kept removing his best comic lines. And he ruined a promising satire, Hamlet, by cutting out all the hilarious physical comedy and turning it into ‘one long depressing monologue’. The play, by J.J. Leppink, has a strong theme and some flashes of wit. But the name is a puzzle. A show about Shakespeare and Marie Lloyd should feature their names in the title.

Comics Solving Problems is a political satire show hosted by Steve N. Allen and Erich McElroy. Both presenters wear the collar-and-tie uniform of the TV news anchor as if to remind us that comedy is at least as important as journalism or statesmanship. On screen they have good chemistry but they laugh too readily at each others’ quips. Their hour of banter looks like a brainstorming session for a satire show rather than the finished product. Allen took a pop at the Chancellor’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme. ‘My gluttony is now patriotism.’ McElroy chuckled. Allen added that if he becomes obese he’ll take exercise ‘by tying my shoelaces’. McElroy chuckled again. They like to interrupt their patter with an invitation — ‘buy us a drink’ — which appears onscreen next to a Paypal button. If they wrote better comedy, they could buy their own.

Mumsnetters! Online is a witty satire about five boozy mums who meet for a drink, via Zoom, as the sun goes down. The characters are deftly drawn and the social and sexual tensions between them are subtly elaborated. The writer, Daisy Dot, stars as an uber-posh Home Counties wine-guzzler who hates tidying up after messy children. ‘Glitter is the herpes of arts and crafts.’ A precious gem gleaming among the ruins.

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