A First Day at the Fringe


We’re finishing our time in Europe, and I am finishing my sabbatical, in Edinburgh. Technically, it is the only part of the trip that hasn’t been at least partially work related. I went to London, Oxford, and Manchester for research purposes and while we were in Spain I spent much of my time work on a book, finishing a journal article, and shepherding another one through the final stages of production for Politics, Religion, and Ideology.

We’re here to enjoy the city, which is one of my favorites, visit a couple of old family friends, and take in the festivals.

August in Edinburgh is one of the great cultural moments anywhere in the world. There are several important arts and culture festivals going on at the same time. There’s the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe Festival, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival as well as a number of smaller festivals that I’m not even aware of.

So, while I am here I am going to be posting a daily set of brief reviews about the various shows we have seen. Thus far, we have seen four, only one of which we planned on seeing. The sheer scale and semi-organized chaos of so many festivals happening at the same time makes planning a little difficult. And so, while we had firm plans to see four particular shows a series of random events and unrealized decision points to miss three of the shows that we wanted to see three other shows instead. In a situation where there are more than 400 venues and over 3,000 shows it is not hard to get off track.

Mr. Chonkers

The first thing that we saw–and here I mean only Sadé and I rather than the two of us and the boys–was the American comedian/absurdist clown John Norris’s show Mr. Chonkers. We had originally intended to see something else but we spent over thirty minutes in another venue, with four different stages, looking for the performance on what felt like a surrealist scavenger hunt. The venue was packed with people dancing–on the outside patio listening to horrid pop music and on the inside listening to passable house–and boozing revelers. It was difficult to navigate and we kept getting different directions as to where to go for the performance we were looking for. At one point we found ourselves in a hotel next to the venue; in another, up a back staircase where we were very kindly offered drugs; and in a third in the midst of an unbearable comedy disco, which is genre that probably shouldn’t exist on any level.

When we finally gave up we decided to go to the first show that we came across. We walked into a nearby venue and were offered a set of tickets for free, as the show was sold out, to Mr. Chonkers, provided no reviewers showed up to claim them. No one did and after about thirty minutes–during which I had a lovely but overpriced glass of Kichoman–we got into the show.

It was terrible. I laughed on-and-off for about the first ten to fifteen minutes. I don’t think that Sadé ever did. The whole permise was that the show was so supposed to be so bad and absurd that it would be funny. Instead, it was just bad. I mean, ten minutes of awkward absurdity is one thing but beyond that… it became repetitive and stale pretty quickly. We actually left before the show ended.

Vidura Bandara Rajapaksa

The next day (Sunday) we went to go see the Black Comedy Showcase. Unfortunately, even though the show is supposed to be suitable for teenagers the venue was somehow only 18+. So, when we got there we ended up learning we couldn’t bring the boys.

Walking out and up the street with a fear that our Fringe experience was going to be a bust we found someone who gave us a promotional flyer for Vidura Bandara Rajapaksa, told us his show was going to start in 5 minutes and that it would be OK for teenagers (“there are a couple of dick jokes, but they’re not that bad,” we were told). So, we wandered into the venue, found some seats in the back, and waited for Vidura to begin.

He was excellent. I don’t think we stopped laughing the entire time. His performance was essentially about his experience of Europe as a highly skilled immigrant. His observations about both US and European culture were spot on, by turns political and personal. He had a lot wonderful one liners such as as describing something as being treated “like people in America treat human rights, like suggestions.” Apparently, he has an Amazon special in the works. I am certainly looking forward to it.

The Greatest Magician

Going to see Vidura meant that we missed the next show we had planned to see (we’re going to hit it later this week). So, we paged through the book on the free Fringe and found a magic show. It was put on by James Phelan, the nephew of the late Paul Daniels, one of England’s most famous magicians.

I’ve only been to a couple of magic shows in my life. The point of them is to do various tricks that confound the audience. Without giving anything away, I’ll simply indicate that we were confounded. It was a good all ages show and James wasn’t just a good magician, he was also pretty funny. There was lots of audience participation as well and everyone seemed to get pretty into it.

La Clique

The final show of the evening was the cabaret/circus La Clique. It was listed as 16+ but it was really 18+ and if the advertising had been more accurate we would have picked a different show. Nonetheless, it was very enjoyable. I’ve long been a fan of circuses, when I lived in Boston Asa and I used to go to the ones held by ArtsEmerson a couple of times a year, and this didn’t disappoint.

Heather Holliday, who swallows swords and eats and breaths fire, was certainly the highlight. I’ve never seen someone swallow six swords at a time or swallow a curved blade. It was something to watch.

The acrobatics were impressive physical feats filled with moments of “I didn’t realize the human body could do that.” And the clowning, which took place on a unicycle, was a favorite and involved the perpetual British obsession with biscuits.

More than anything, the show made me miss seeing circuses regularly. I haven’t seen one since I moved to Texas–the ones that I’ve seen advertised are either really expensive or the wrong kind (featuring animals) or both. Maybe next year we’ll go to Montreal, which is the home of a famous circus school, just to enjoy some there.

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