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Our stay in Edinburgh this year, from 20th August to 28th August 2010, is later and longer than previous years. By being later we will be in Edinburgh for the Book Festival as well and the new successful acts of the Fringe Festival will have been reviewed. It does mean that the Jazz Festival is over and we will not catch the last performance as we did in the last two years. By being here for longer we will see more shows! Wonderful! Our friend, Mary Rigg, gave us a long list of recommended shows and we identified others from reviews and so we arrived in Edinburgh with 24 bookings in hand. Getting to Edinburgh was an ordeal as East Coast Trains thought they were transporting sardines rather than people. With most passengers doing the 4.5 hour trip from London to Edinburgh they sold about 150 more tickets than there were seats. Some people sat in the corridor for the whole trip. Immoral!

We saw the following shows:

Camille O’ Sullivan is not just a singer but also an amazing showman. What a wonderful way to start our Festival. As the audience of 600 assembled at 22h30 we could see from the swing on the stage and the cat statues that we were in for something different. Camille entered from the dark like a Scottish Widow, all wrapped in black. She started slowly and quietly and then her deep husky voice built and built to a powerful loud climax. She sang mainly sad songs and some songs that I didn’t understand. She sang songs from her native Ireland and also songs that we knew well including one from Leonard Cohen. She was supported by an electric guitar, a double bass, drums, a key board and a selection of brass including a saxophone and a penny whistle. She was quirky and unnerving and outrageous and funny and wild and too loud at times but she held us in the palm of her hand and bewitched us and entertained us. 10/10

The Cape Academy of Performing Arts from South Africa performed mainly ballet and contemporary dance with a few sketches of acting and singing. The acting and singing did not match up to many school productions and detracted from a reasonable dance performance. The dancers were fit, agile, supple and the choreography was good. They lacked some discipline so often when their movements should have been synchronised they weren’t. I felt that in a troupe of twenty five dancers with only two males, the males dominated too often. There was only one black performer which indicated to me that either the Academy does not have a good enough outreach programme or that it was only the privileged white kids who could afford the trip. There are better dance shows at the Festival. 5/10

No Child is a one woman tour de force performed by Nilaja Sun. The subject of the New York City public school system was brought alive as Nilaja played the parts of teachers, pupils and the janitor. Her characters were distinctive as her tone, accent and body tension immediately conveyed to us which part she was playing. She made the difficulties, tensions and emotions very real for us. This is the joy of being at the Fringe Festival. 10/10

Gyles Brandreth is an actor, wit, raconteur and ex MP. He is clever and literate and uses the English language most wonderfully. In times past I have delighted in his performances where he has focused his skills on a subject. This time the subject was himself which was not as entertaining although I still enjoyed his intelligence, wit and use of English. 8/10

Penelope, in Homer’s Oydessy, is the faithful wife of Odysseus, who keeps her suitors at bay during his twenty year absence in the Trojan War. This play is a modern adaption and focuses on two old and two younger suitors. The 200 seats were sold out and the play scores well with reviewers but I was lost. The acting was superb but the script meandered and, after 75 minutes, drove me from the theatre. The first dud. 3/10

Kei Miller and Nadifa Mohamed are the authors of The Last Warner Woman and Black Mamba Boy respectively. This was my first Book Festival event which was wrongly entitled ‘Leaving home for the shock of a new country’. They both arrived as children in Britain from Jamaica and Somailia respectively but their books were not about their journeys or experiences but rather about other people’s experiences abroad. They each read extracts from their books. I found Miller’s reading to be lyrical and entrancing and, when they answered questions, found their answers to be well argued with a lovely use of English. Not what I was expecting but a pleasant hour. 5/10

Potted Panto. I realised that I had made a mistake when I saw that the majority of the people in the queue were younger than ten. Dan and Jeff ran through seven pantomimes and explained to the audience how they should participate. They were well prepared, clever and slapstick. I was horrified when Cinderella’s prince decided that he would rather marry me. This was perfect for the target audience but adults without children should probably give it a miss. 8/10

Soweto Gospel Choir is a favourite of mine every year at the Festival. Their mix of traditional, contemporary and African gospel songs performed in a very African and joyous way lifted my soul. 8/10

Des Bishop is a 34 year old comedian whose view on life was dramatically changed when his father was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. This show is a tribute to his father who was an actor and model in London in the sixties (and was considered for the part of James Bond) who changed his career to retail management to provide security for his family. Bishop regaled us with humorous stories of growing up in an Irish home in Flushing, New York and told of how he and his family dealt with the news of the imminent death of his father. His father came on stage at the end of the show. Bishop manages to maintain a very good balance between the underlying sad story and the joy and humour of life. 8/10

Smoke and Mirrors is a 100 minute late night spectacular that includes song, dance, acrobatics, magic and a bearded lady. It is edgy, crude, clever and crazy. Despite not understanding some of what happened I was entranced. 10/10

You’re not like other girls Chrissy is a one woman show written and acted by Caroline Horton about a French woman separated from her English fiancé for the duration of the Second World War. This is powerfully acted, with poignant moments and a beautiful story especially when at the end of the hour the audience learns that the woman is Horton’s grandmother. Horton is an actress to watch and has a great future ahead of her. 10/10

Lockerbie: Unfinished Business is the story of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 and the years of investigations as told in the words of Jim Swire, the father of Flora who died on the plane. This is an emotional story laying bare many facts which suggest that Iran rather than Libya were the perpetrators and questioning why UK and US government agencies have been complicit in hiding the truth. This was spellbinding with some emotional manipulation along the way. 8/10

Stripped is a one woman show acted by Hannah Chalmers revealing the characters, intrigue and ugly reality of life in a strip club. This was excellent acting. 8/10

The Edinburgh Tattoo was once again an amazing display in front of the Castle. All year I yearn to hear the sound of the massed pipes and drums and they never disappoint. We were challenged by rain for the first 45 minutes but the show went on.  I find bagpipe music very emotional and joyous and thus I love the Tattoo. 10/10

Hanif Kureishi the author of ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ and other works was interviewed at the Book Festival. He talked about the financial pressure to keep writing to earn a living and the improvement in race relations in Britain over his lifetime. He read part of a short story to us which was cleverly written and fun. He answered questions from the audience with some wit. But I did not warm to him. He was arrogant in that he hardly ever looked at the person leading the session and asking most of the questions. He showed very little emotion. I wanted to like him but didn’t. 7/10

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is six performers and a keyboard player who improvised a musical from random words provided by the audience. This was cleverly done and sung by beautiful voices. The end product was probably more fun for the performers than for the audience. 7/10

Jo Caulfield is a female comedian who we returned to after seeing her last year. She has funny observations to make about everyday life and kept us entertained. But on reflection I think that she has become lazy and is not producing new and imaginative work. 6/10

Bo Burnham is a twenty year old trying to be a comedian by throwing his toys out of his cot. Many of his observations are delivered at a ranting rapid fire rate accompanied by his keyboard so I didn’t hear everything. Thank goodness because of that which I did hear he appeared to be racist and homophobic and made tasteless jokes about the holocaust and Nazis. His show is completely sold out and professional reviewers have given him five stars and perhaps I am too old and grumpy, but I hated it. 1/10

David Faulds: Mario Lanza is the story and songs of Lanza performed poorly by Faulds. He has a good voice but it seemed to fail him at times. I was disappointed that he generally sang only excerpts of songs rather than the full song. He isn’t a great actor and I would have preferred to have been told about the rise and fall of Lanza rather than have it painfully acted. 4/10

Out of the Blue are 13 students from Oxford singing acappella wonderfully. Their voices were strong and true. They were full of energy. It was joyful and uplifting. My only criticism is that the lead singers were often drowned out by the support sounds of the others. 8/10

Wit Tank are three comics doing sketches. Some were clever. Some were inane. Entertaining but not special. 6/10

Tim Vine delivers 250 one liners in an hour. You know that the punchline will be silly. It is silly. And it is funny. He has huge energy and there are no expletives or sordid subjects. I enjoyed it but my 20 year old son walked out early. 8/10

Talk Show is a comedian interviewing other comedians with the cast changing every day. Jason Byrne was today’s interviewer and he interviewed Andy Parsons and two others who I didn’t know. They all arrived totally unprepared and spent their time on stage reminiscing about times they had lived together and previous Fringe Festivals with plenty of unnecessary effing and blinding and pointless talk about masturbation. Nothing clever or funny. Completely self obsessed with no care about entertaining the audience. They obviously thought that their musings were entertaining. Well they weren’t. Our third dud. 1/10

Bluebird is the story of Jimmy, the cab driver, who listens to the stories of six of his fares. His own story emerges through the play and when he meets his estranged wife. This was powerful acting and completely absorbing. 9/10

W;T is the story of a professor of English who has terminal cancer. Rebecca Mackinnon is outstanding in the lead role, delivering a compelling and mesmerising performance. She is an actor who will do great things. 10/10

Harmonics are four singers singing cocktail lounge style songs. (Are there still cocktail lounges like this?) They are clearly accomplished musicians with good voices and they probably enjoyed doing the arrangements of the songs but the outcome was only pleasant and inoffensive. They can provide better entertainment. 6/10

Terry Alderton tries to be a comedian but is a waste of time and money and is a buffoon. He should not give up his day job. Our fourth dud. 2/10

Kopano Matlwa and Marlene van Niekerk are the authors of Spilt Milk and Agaat respectively and were interviewed at the Book Festival. They each read with passion from their books. With many South Africans in the audience there was a discussion of the state of literature in the country sixteen years into the post-apartheid world and in a country with eleven official languages. This was interesting and informative. 7/10

Joanne Harris is the author of Chocolat and other books, with her recent book being Blue Eyed Boy. This was my best Book Festival event because Harris was animated, professional, informed, thoughtful and vocal. 8/10

Shirley & Shirley are two performers in an East London community centre acting out different events that happen in the centre. This was disciplined, clever, well acted and funny.  7/10

Why Men Cheat is two Irish comedians revealing the truth and complexity of relationships in a relaxed funny way. 7/10

Impressionist Gardens is an exhibition of almost 100 paintings at the National Gallery of Scotland. These paintings include many by Monet, Manet, Pissarro and others and show private gardens, parks and kitchen gardens mainly in spring and summer. This was a delight. 9/10

Jewish Chronicles is principally songs by Daniel Cainer about his search for his Jewish identity from his secular upbringing. We returned to this after seeing it last year and it was just as delightful. My father’s, father’s, father was Jewish and married a Gentile so the Jewish line was broken and I was brought up in a Christian home but my Jewish ancestry is very consciously there even If I don’t understand much about it. 9/10

Stephen K. Amos is a thoroughly entertaining comedian and made us laugh about his upbringing in a house of eight children of Nigerian parents. He is attuned to the silly things that happen all around us and helped us laugh at ourselves. A consummate professional. 9/10

So I attended 34 events with 19 rated as excellent, 10 as good and 5 as poor or duds. That is a good record. My six best shows were three theatre shows being No Child, Chrissy and W;T; two late night shows being Camille and Smoke and Mirrors and finally the Tattoo.

Postscript: If you are planning to go to the Edinburgh Festivals be aware of some realities. Book your accommodation months, if not a year, before the date. Make sure that you have reserved seats on the train. Once in Edinburgh be prepared to walk. I estimate that we walked four to five miles every day as we went from event to event. I climbed the 140 steps from Princess Street up the Playfair Stairs to the Royal Mile at Lawnmarket  at least twice every day. Be prepared for rain on most days. If you are lucky it will fall at night while you are sleeping or while you are in a show but at some point you will find yourself walking from one event to another in the rain. And of course when it rains there are no cabs. The Tattoo is always cold and often windy.  If you have not made a reservation it will be difficult to get a table in most restaurants in the evening. And then the standard of food, even in normally good restaurants, is pretty poor during the Festival. I was served risotto in two good restaurants that had to be served in a bowl, rather than a plate, because it was swilling around. Steaks were burnt to a frazzle and new potatoes were not cooked enough. Hadrian’s Brasserie at the Balmoral Hotel, Howies on Victoria Street and Amore Dogs, which are normally good restaurants all disappointed.  The best meal we had was at Stac Polly at 38 St Mary Street, ideal for Pleasance Courtyard. We also had a good meal at Thai Orchard at 5A Johnston Terrace near the Castle. Try and book good shows before you get to Edinburgh. I met a couple who arrived on the last Friday and found that all good shows were sold out. The shows have become more expensive. A few years ago most shows were around £5. In the last two years prices have spiked. It cost £420 for me to attend the 34 events which included £50 for the Tattoo. The other events thus averaged £11.20 per event. But don’t only spend your time in shows. The streets are alive with performers and stalls and life. Take time to soak up the atmosphere and the joy of lots of happy people enjoying themselves.

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