Music and theatre: two words that when put together can really put the wind up those of us who reckon we’ve got a good handle on what’s worth hearing. But big glossy West End-style musical theatre is one thing; theatre at an experiment-encouraging festival like the Edinburgh Fringe is a whole different kettle. And a lot of it is bloody great, raising issues as well as rocking aisles.
Sometimes shows can be as useful for the performers as the audiences. In a big tent at the impressive Summerhall complex, Square Go is a very funny but thought-provoking look at the early onset of toxic masculinity, through the eyes of a lad who’s about to have his first post-whistle punch- up – a square go - with the school nutter.
It’s a wonderful thing, with a powerful original score, created by several members of Frightened Rabbit shortly after the tragic death of singer Scott Hutchison a few months ago. That came about due to their friendship with co-writer Gary McNair (who did a fine show about his Morrissey fandom last year), and has proven hugely beneficial for all concerned, by all accounts. Lovely to hear.
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Also at Summerhall, much lower-key but also a lot louder, How To Keep Time is a completely new format for a theatre show. Spoken word artist and heavy rock-loving drummer Antosh Wojcik drags his electronic drumkit up to a hospital room and bangs out riffs inspired by Mastodon – among others - to try to get a reaction from his grandfather. The latter is in the late stages of dementia, and this fantasy tale takes a rhythmic look into the workings of a struggling mind.
Over to Edinburgh city centre’s own west end, and What Girls are Made Of is the big Fringe production by Edinburgh’s best year-round theatre, the Traverse. It’s the story of rocker turned director/actor/writer Cora Bissett, who has a more familiar-to-us story to tell, although it isn’t one usually told this splendidly.
Bissett was lead singer for the Fife band Darlingheart in the early 90s, who looked set to be a next big thing, for a bit. They toured with Blur and Radiohead – there are enjoyable insights into both bands here – then endured a classic music-biz downfall: the sort of stuff that makes the post- millennial industry crash seem like justice served. It’s brilliantly staged, all taken from Bissett’s diaries, with a spunky band also filling in as the other characters. Let’s hope they take it elsewhere, soon.
Another big, memoir-driven show, Pussy Riot’s Riot Days is extraordinary, certainly in its Edinburgh setting. Part theatre, part punk gig, it uses Maria Alyokhina’s book of the same name as the basis for a show that plunges a big audience in Summerhall’s Dissection Room – Summerhall is an old veterinary college – into the Russian group’s activism and subsequent incarceration.
It’s told via on- screen footage which she then narrates centre-stage, with a spiky live band and a charismatic Belorussian sideman: it’s sort of Public Enemy meets Kate Adie.
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While Alyokhina flogs and signs great heaps of merch afterwards, Clash potters over to the Pleasance Courtyard to catch Gruff Rhys’ debut Fringe show, Resist Phony Encores!, which is a lot lower-key. This is in the ‘music’ section but there’s a lot of other stuff going on, as the Super Furry talks us through those songs, the stories behind them, and beyond. Shame about the curious lack of Super Furry cuts, but we grin stupidly throughout anyway.
Back to the daytime, and another change of pace on the Fringe’s comedy stages: Boogie Knights is one of those shows that surely emerged name-first. It’s the brainchild of the prop-loving Adam Larter – founder of the self-explanatory Weirdos collective – and involves a Camelot-style romp, with a customised disco soundtrack. It is tremendous. Someone should give him wads of money for the film rights.
Over at his regular pub backroom in the Grassmarket district, Fringe comedy institution Mr Twonkey is the bizarre brainchild of Paul Vickers, formerly of the fine Scottish band Dawn Of The Replicants. His Night Train to Lichtenstein is his most accessible outing yet, while also featuring some splendidly niche music references: there’s an early-REM pastiche (‘Carnival of Sauce’) and a song about pubs which is heavily influenced by the more minimal bits of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre. Marvellous.
Clash’s last show of the whole Fringe is an impromptu one. Sitting on a bench outside a quirky venue called the Blundabus – it’s a converted bus – we bump into Fringe comedy stalwart Thom Tuck. “I’m singing the Mountain Goats, in a shed over there, in a minute,” he says. And he does. Crammed into one side of a garden shed next to a couple of musicians, with a tiny audience facing them on the other, and us peering in, Thom and co do indeed rattle through the songs of the Californian indie- folkers. Now there’s a perfectly random finale.
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Words: Si Hawkins
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