Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Fantasist

The Fantasist centres around an individual struggle for control over mental illness: specifically looking at bi-polar in its more manic phase, it combines puppetry, physical theatre and humour to describe the interior state of a patient who embraces the thrill of abandonment. While Theatre Temoin acknowledge that this is their first use of puppets, they take full advantage of the inanimate characters to present a world unfamiliar, frightening and funny.

Mental states, especially bad mental health, are notoriously difficult to display in art. Fortunately, The Fantasist does not follow the typical show business "undefined mental illness" stereotype, and in a superb performance by Julia Yevnine, reveals the enthusiasm and intensity of a manic fugue. The looming appearance of a larger than life male puppet, who has echoes of Bluebeard, are threatening: if the comic interludes, including a song about the dangers and delights of being seduced, sometimes break the mood, they maintain the heightened awareness of the main character.

Director Ailin Conant and her devising team of Yevnine, Cat Gerrard and Julia Correa picture the heroine's broken sensitivity to time and communication: a friendship is damaged, a nurse dismissed through the same conversation happening simultaneously on-stage but apart in real time. The ambiguity of the ending, when the real and the fantastic are finally confused, emphasises how bi-polar is not easily cured. Its connection to creativity and inevitable destructiveness are identified succinctly: Yevnine's Louise is both artist and patient, and it is the tension between the two that forces her to question whether the real is better than the hallucination.

There are a few weak points in the production: Yevnine's performance is so powerful that it reduces the others to bit-part players, and the nurse's imprecations are unconvincing against the magic of the imagined world portrayed by the puppets; the manipulation of certain objects is relatively clumsy against the puppet work. Yet the aims of representing the bi-polar mind on stage, and following an individual story towards a conclusion are successful. This is one play that elucidates rather than mystifies the workings of the unbalanced mind.

Journey into Tango (part 2: some history)

Even a cursory glance at the histories of tango (and, let's face it, that's the best I give anything) will reveal a strong rejection of the myth that the tango began life in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Christine Denniston suggests that it was simply the place where the middle-classes first encountered it, and the very thought of prostitutes dancing with potential punters is dispelled by a quick look at the economic situation of nineteenth century Argentina.

She does note that men did dance together, mainly to refine their moves for the time that they did get a woman to dance with them. Again, the cursory glance through the literature provides plenty of "they were not gay, honest" excuses. Apparently, there weren't many women in Argentina, and history provides many examples, like long distance sea journeys or classical Athenian society, were this situation didn't lead to the normalisation of male homosexuality.

Still, it is quite fun to read about an era, only just over a century ago, when origins are still shrouded in myth. Susan August Brown delves back into the 1850s and postulates that the name might come from an African word meaning "reserved ground". It was used to describe the place that Africans gathered to dance by 1853.

After this, the trail goes cold for about fifty years: it is not until a bunch of wealthy Argentinians nip over to Paris and impress the ladies with the dance that tango gets noticed. The usual narrative is that these reserved grounds attracted the men who had immigrated to Argentina in the hope of finding their fortunes, and that their fashions (which included carrying a knife) dictated the look of the dance. These characters adapted the dances, imported them into brothels, and by the time there were wealthy young men ready to impress the European saloons, the style had evolved into something recognisable as "the tango".

Personally, I rather like the myths and legends that surround the origins of tango: even if it was invented by two bored ballet dancers in their back garden, the stories of different cultures blending, street corner duets and bored johns doing the polka while they waited their turn are all stories with meaning, contributing to the allure of the tango and defining it.

It also seems that the analysis of tango's roots rely heavily on written descriptions: I am hoping to find something that looks at the actual moves and traces them backwards. The common assertion that candombe inspired tango leads into a fascinating diversion...

Tango (A Journey into.. part 1)

It is a fact rarely recognised but frequently mentioned that I think I can do the tango. I took some lessons a few years ago, and learnt the basic moves. My critics will argue that I also used to take ballet classes and, after a few drinks, will demonstrate the basic five positions: if that doesn't make me a ballet dancer, why do I think that knowing the outline of a simple tango makes me capable of taking to the milonga? They add that there was a special football made for the 1978 World Cup, probably the one that Gemmill used to score that goal. It's called tango, but it doesn't pretend that it has a bunch of slick, Argentinian style moves.

Apart from the health benefits - some research has suggested that it staves off Parkinson's Disease - I was fascinated by the tango's gender politics. It appears pretty old school, and I had all sorts of problems, being a feminist man, with leading the female. But it also has a history of being danced by two men, and there has been queer tango movements. These mix up the roles, and have men following, women leading, same sex couples, the lot. Add to that that the male dancer is given permission to look cool and imperious, while knocking out the odd flash solo.

I can't do it, but I like the idea it conjures when I claim it.

Tango also seems to have emerged from the confluence of African and European dance: it has been a street dance of dubious reputation, and a foundation for ballet choreography. There was even a time, in Argentina under the dictatorship, that it became a symbol of revolution. Apparently, the all male practice sessions were banned because they countered as an illegal gathering. So, it's a bit like raving then. And I used to do that, too.

Of course, I grew up when Come Dancing featured a great deal of tango. No disrespect to the couples on the show, but I hate that ballroom nonsense. I am Argentinian tango all the way. I like the heritage, I like the cool associations, I like the underground scene that exists in Glasgow, Edinburgh, on-line and around the world.

Radio Extract

It's just another day at the Fringe, with a healthy blast of Guilt and Shame, teaming up with death by drugs, neglect and rock'n'roll. It's Subcity's third episode direct from Summerhall, and Greg, Vile and Niall welcome their guests from the worlds of comedy theatre and cool, French performance Art.

Guilt and Shame present the perfect end to a day at the Fringe: Up all Night pairs a gay virgin and a heterosexual slut in an hour of late night mayhem. Rock, which goes lighter on the comedy and heavier on the introspective gloom, takes an oral history of punk and gives it a Gallic cool. The monologue about Jim Morrison's antics at Max's Bar is not for the faint hearted.

It's Fringe time, and how better to share experiences than Auntie Myra. Her children's show might not actually be suitable for anyone under eighteen, but her adventures on the way to the studio are more than enough for Vile and Niall to learn about how life can be for an up and coming comedian on the Fringe.

From Myra, the show rushes down to London, to observe Countryboy's Struggle in a dynamic piece of hip hop theatre. The live raps that come live and direct explain things far better than Vile's questioning, and the battle between a good soul and the nasty big city is revealed in three specially recorded numbers from the show.

Finally, Simpy the Best  celebrates the magic of the darts. Jocky Wilson gives way to Jacky Wilson in a one person piece that gets the audience up at the oche.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Let's Get Political...

 I can usually come up with a poor excuse for not getting involved in political action: truth is, I generally haven't thought enough about the issues to know what I believe, meaning any statement I make would be ill-informed. I get irritated by the behaviour of the Con-Dem coalition, especially since it appeared to express a public rejection of New Labour, coupled with a distrust of the Tories: despite Liberal Democrat's insistence, the UK government has acted as if it wants to just hand over all power and profit to their pals in business. Nevertheless, I can't bring myself to join any protests, citing suspicion of the organisers or a more general apathy about the effectiveness of campaigning.

Instead, I bang on about the importance of political theatre. I know that I missed most of the explicitly political pieces in the Fringe - The Economist, which dealt with the Scandinavian massacre, or that verbatim one about the oil slicks - and made do with work that had more of a "the personal is the political" vibe. The Shit, I am Son and, for a longer historical perspective, Bigmouth were my moments of activism.

Both The Shit and I am Son came out of Italy: the antics of Berlusconi in the past decade has led me to assume that Italian politics is hopelessly corrupt and the very public moral lapses of the country's leader reflect a more sinister political dishonesty. The Shit is more explicit in presentation than content: a naked woman describes her ambitions in a faltering voice, before singing of the Italian revolution in the style of Diamanda Galas. Her failure to control her body through diet, and to get that job might symbolise the struggle of a people towards self-determination, or the oppression of the nation, and the specifics of her life - the self-starving, the death of her father, the miserable first encounter with sex - have a brutal resonance.

Rather, The Shit reveals the process of internalised oppression: this particular life embodies the pressures of a society that is fascinated only with success, and abandons the honest ambitions of earlier generations for a chase after fame that mistakes sacrifice for self-degradation. Having garner attention for its unflinching monologue, and the naked performer, it literally wraps itself in an Italian flag and questions the impact of a country obsessed with surface on the individual.

I am Son shares a similar anger, caricaturing obsessions with nationalism, fashion, style and romantic myths through a bracing choreography. The three dancers hurl themselves through episodic sketches, reducing to clowns or elevated to icons, hiding behind masks only to reveal furious disappointment.

Based on a poem that rejects the revolutionaries of 1968 - and sound-tracked by children's voices that articulate a social despair, I am Son captures the confusion of a world made mad by information and broken promises. The lack of a coherent programme for change in both works echoes my own political pessimism.

Against this, Bigmouth offers a broader vision: a series of extracts from great speeches, each one made ironic by subsequent history. MLK is mashed up with Hendrix's version of The Star Spangled Banner; Socrates' farewell to the Athenians after his trial becomes a riposte to The Grand Inquisitor's condemnation of Christ. Again, there is little attempt to create a reasonable agenda for change, and history itself is exposed as a series of failed ambitions.  

Get on the Guid Foot

I'll admit that I was confused by the press release for The Guid Sisters. Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, called it "not only a Scots classic but it is also a timely portrayal of women and economic survival." Then director Serge Denoncourt added "Forty years ago, in Quebec, everybody was talking about a new play: Les Belles-soeurs by Michel Tremblay." I had to go straight to Wikipedia and find out how a Scots classic could begin life as a French Canadian revolutionary drama.

Tremblay's original shook the conservative theatre of 1960s Canada, and was written in local dialect. His plays, which often feature that rare phenomenon, good parts for women, reflect his belief in the matriarchal nature of Quebecois society and he has been an outspoken, if awkward, advocate for Quebec's independence from English speaking Canada.

Given the tradition of Scottish plays that emphasise the power of women (The Steamie, She Town), and the political arguments about Scottish national identity, the translation into Scots, by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman, was probably inevitable. 

The NTS/Lyceum co-production has managed not only to find a cast of fifteen women, including Karen Dunbar, but has enlisted the author's director of choice in Serge Denoncourt. Denoncourt is perhaps most famous for his production with Cirque du Soleil, but says that "Les Belles-soeurs became a fetish play, a lucky charm for me," following his first stab, at about ten years old, when he learnt it by heart and performed it in the street for his mates.

Denoncourt was mostly recently in Scotland working on Ana for Stella Quines - visually ravishing, this time-travelling epic attempted to compare the status of women in different eras: the presence of Karen Dunbar, best known for Chewin' The Fat, suggests that this production might be bigger on the laughs. And although the plot revolves around a grand prize of Green Shield Stamps (something else that probably needs to be checked on Wikipedia), the meat of The Guid Sisters is in the banter and conflicts between the large group of women.

Despite its origins in Quebec, it does fall nicely into the tradition of The Steamie - it's set in Glasgow, it's working class, it's about financial hardship, it has plenty of humour and community.

21 September – 13 October 2012

Kings Theatre, Glasgow                                                                 
Tuesday 23 – Sat 27 October

Five Stars, Four Stars, Three Stars, Two Stars, One Star, Lift Off

Over on Facebook, there is a group dedicated to reconsidering the role of star ratings on reviews. It was born during the Fringe, and features one of the most well-mannered discussions that I have ever read on the internet: professional critics, performers and interested parties presenting their opinions in a courteous and rational way: insight and intelligence grace the posts, and while consensus is absent, mutual respect ad attention is prominent.

Aside from remarking that this might demonstrate the possibility that internet chat need not descend into flame wars - if any group are unlikely to agree on fundamentals, it is critics - I am heartened by the public debate on the role of the review. However, I am not putting my comments on there, because I think that star ratings are a distraction from the more important questions surrounding the profession.

Besides, I don't want to look like an idiot, and most of the posters are far more informed than I am.

The main problems surrounding star ratings is that they are not consistent (five stars from one magazine is not the same as from another) and their use as publicity tools by the companies. Neither of these problems are easy to solve, but for the former, the same problem would apply whatever changes were made: the words "good" and "bad" mean different things, depending on who says them, and the essential subjectivity of any rating system can never be resolved. As for the latter, the problem can only be solved by the companies themselves: the requests for critics to just stop using stars, or the Fringe to monitor their use only defer responsibility.

In any case, there have been anecdotal signs that star ratings don't influence audiences too much any more.

What does emerge from the discussion is an anxiety about the role of the critic, and what reviews "ought" to do. There's the old favourites - less opinion, more description - a few appeals for longer, more detailed reviews, a decrying of those magazines that only turn up at the Fringe and their inexperienced writers. I am sure someone will make the appeal for "a single paper of record" fairly soon.

Now that on-line reviewing has become acceptable, any attempt to determine one single definition of criticism is probably impossible: every critic has their own approach, and this diversity is to be welcomed. In the past, I have been disrespectful of younger critics, students up for the Fringe. I now accept that their voices are not only valid, they are likely to speak to readers who are likely to be bored by my mixture of pretension, crude humour and insistence on seriousness. I have often been irritated by reviews, only to realise they were speaking to a different audience, and that I was being an old fart.

The review - which I expand to include any critical writing - does not have any duty to the company. It  is not there to encourage or discourage audiences, or provide cheap dramaturgy. These things may be by-products of the process. The review isn't even necessarily there to continue the conversation begun by the art work, although I write as if it is. The purpose of a review, or preview, or feature, or editorial, is to be an entertaining and informative piece of writing.

The mixture of "entertainment" and "information" will vary depending on the projected readership.

Taking advantage of the difficulties involved in defining art, I am going to say that criticism is an art form: it's like poetry, only has a distinctive set of conventions. In the same way that it is pretty insulting to expect artists to conform their work according to the use it has to other artists, the idea that criticism has any other function than expressing itself is unacceptable. There is no question that criticism engages in a dialogue with the work that it explores, and the audience, and the broader community: that does not prevent it from being art.

I'll leave it there, hoping that readers will be interested enough to deconstruct or argue against my conclusions.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012


As a firm believer in theatre as a place to further public discussion (this might be one reason why I enjoy shows that have been commonly dismissed, or get upset at performances aimed at children on moral grounds), I am enthusiastic about the various talks and workshops at the EIF. I am lucky enough  to chat to artists fairly often and believe this adds to my pleasure when I get to see their art: the EIF attempts to extend this privilege beyond the band of critics.

Friday's Encounters talk has Matthew Lenton, artistic director of Vanishing Point, team up with Professor Michael Lamb and Jean Kilbourne to scrutinise the representation of young women. Not only does this fit with the themes of Lenton's entry in the International Festival - a reworking of Alice in Wonderland - it homes in on a lively discussion that has been bothering feminists and commentators.

Kilbourne is listed on the programme as a feminist - in another article, I'd doubtless spend ages enjoying the irony that the woman is outnumbered on a panel that discusses representation of women - but is also a leading analyst of advertising. She takes seriously the social impact and context of advertising, identifying the distortions of human desires that are manipulated by those cheeky lads at the agency: she also has a book that has plenty to say about the sexualisation of young girls. After I realised that the Pussycat Dolls were being marketed for children, I decided this was probably a bit more serious.

Professor Michael Lamb was a witness in a trial that belies its seriousness with an amusing name: apparently, he was exposed as a committed liberal on the stand. While I am not sure I ought to be using Wikipedia to do my research, this article gives a run down on his activities. Given his support for the National Organisation of Women, he could equally be described as a feminist, but he is likely to be putting the conversation in the context of child development.

In the context of the Fringe, representation of women is intriguing. Inevitably, thanks to my taste for the avant-garde, I have seen a fair amount of nudity this August (entirely on-stage). I am Son, a brilliant Italian dance piece, had a topless lady - that she put on a vest for her bow only highlighted how nudity in performance is not the same thing as public nudity, and The Shit at Summerhall made evocative use of full nudity as a vivid symbol of vulnerability and insecurity. That I can't think of any male performers with their bits out suggests that the naked female is less taboo.

However, both of my examples are of adults, and this talk is about younger women: an expert on child psychology and the co-author of So Sexy So Soon suggest that this conversation will be less interested in experimental performance than the pervasive representation of girls as sexual beings. As a former teacher, I do object to this trend, and now that I have a niece, I am likely to become even more conservative about it.

Mind you, my reaction is mostly knee-jerk liberalism. I don't like the idea that young people are commodified,  and share a sentimentality about the innocence of childhood that is Victorian and liable to be shattered by five minutes with a real child: I remember my pupils having far more control and agency than the school system allowed. A talk like this will put my thoughts into context, and raise the consciousness of my internal debate. Better yet, it uses Wonderland  as a foundation for the conversation.

Political Correctness Gone Mad

I am a strange soul. Between wishing for a return to some kind of modernist idyll - when policemen didn't carry retractable batons and steam trains ran out of Edinburgh Waverley - I immerse myself in the most post-modern and counter-cultural arts. I might not even be real, being merely the shadow cast by the Daily Mail's morality.

Coming out of the Fringe, I can't account for the way that I can happily remember a show that began with an anecdote about Foucault taking a shit in a lecturer's mouth and being offended by an innocuous all-ages acrobatic performance. And the contrast between my admiration for Boy in a Dress, a melange of post-modern discourse, stripping and live art, and my frustration at Detention, which had an obviously talented cast, boils down to my idiosyncratic morality.

Although I have a vague hope that my morality comes from my time teaching for the Jesuits (based on both cerebral questioning and compassion), it is as likely that it comes from the stage: the moral value of something is intricately linked to its theatrical potential. And so, La Johnjoseph's promotion of  "trandrogyny" becomes more ethical than Detention's portrayal of the competitive gender roles of the classroom.

It's clear that the cast of Detention are talented acrobats, but the gender roles (simpering school-girl, macho boy pupils and a female teacher who inevitably throws off her frumpy glasses and gets down to a sexy shimmer) limits the narrative potential and turns what ought to be an impressive hour of stunts into an essay on old fashioned values. The boys get to show off and fight over the girl, who is given little agency, but none of the contests take flight. The entire performance stops and starts, a new skill is showcased and the teacher, who reveals stunning aerial techniques and a raw physical strength, is reduced to a series of interruptions to the lads' leapings.

If complaining about the relationships between the characters and the representation of male and female stereotypes sounds like political  correctness gone mad, the problem intrudes into the structure and development of Detention. With no real reason for the boys to do their spectacular actions, they never evolve their routines beyond displays of trickery. Every single move is cool, but the choreography goes nowhere.

When circus acts are trying to forge a deeper intention to their shows - Tumble Circus explore their relationship breakdown - Detention lacks coherence. That the show ends on an energetic but irrelevant session  of drumming - the characters appear just to decide to get the drums and bang away - highlights how a more thoughtful approach might have made the finale integrated and relevant.

La Johnjoseph is probably The Daily Mail's nightmare and naturally becomes my dream. An extended meditation on La Johnjoseph's life so far, it takes a series of poignant vignettes and weaves them into a sustained and entertaining treatise on the difficulties and rewards of Third Gender experience. Imaginative in its staging - a list of husbands is recounted like prizes in a cheap game show, while the revelation of the graffiti on toilet walls has the drama of an archaeologist uncovering ancient hieroglyphics - it uses only La Johnjoesph and animus to merge striptease, storytelling, dance, comedy and tragedy into a  satisfying and deeply moral tale of acceptance and compassion.

Fighting prejudice, La Johnjoseph is a gentle warrior: although the sung interludes reveal an untrained voice, each song is reinvented as a blow for freedom. Catholicism, so simple a target, becomes as much of an inspiration as an enemy: the grand moment of understanding between mother and child is a naked display of compassion.

Perhaps my morality is clearer than I thought: compassion is the divine principle and anything that strives to expand freedom is holy. Detention, despite its celebration of the bodies that fly through the air, constrains by offering such dull stereotypes: La Johnjoseph not only witnesses one life journey, but heralds new possibilities.

Cabaret Time!

When George Bernard Shaw pronounced that "to kindle art to the whitest heat, there must always be some fanaticism behind it," he had been watching musical hall sketches. This makes me feel better about the post that I shall eventually write that claims Dusty Limits is more important than Shakespeare, and connects me to a tradition of theatre critics - GBS would later become an issue-obsessed playwright but started as a critic - who are fascinated by cabaret's potential.

Despite getting its own section in the Fringe programme only two years ago, cabaret is a well established rival to theatre and comedy in the battle for star ratings during the August bun fight. I am not convinced that the variety bills that are often the foundation of any consideration of cabaret have advanced much since 2010, when Vive Le Cabaret set up in the palatial Ghillie Dhu and celebrated its new found popularity and roots in the vintage fashion scene: it's too easy to see the same acts turning up at different nights, or comedians dominating the bill with extracts from their solo shows.

What the cabaret section has done is demonstrate that acts can stretch their material over an hour, giving room to their persona's development and forging an identity as coherent as any stand ups or, in the best cases, focussing their sketches and songs into a potent theatrical experience. Dusty Limits remains far ahead here, but Jonny Woo, best known for getting more facial expression out of a gorilla mask than most actors get out of their face, and Bourgeois and Maurice prove that the five minute slot is not necessarily the optimum for a cabaret routine.

Bourgeois and Maurice don't make it easy for the critic attempting to analyse them within a socio-political frame-work: calling the show Sugartits and explicitly stating in a recent interview that their songs weren't very political, they try to pretend that their intentions are more towards the party than the party line. Fortunately, Sugartits belies their modesty. While they might lack the concentration of Dusty Limits, they have a sardonic take on both Europe's financial woes and the British desire not to get involved and their smack down of Facebook ("makes me feel shit, sometimes") is nicely posed on the precipice between virtual confidence and the grim meat-hook realities of existence.

Bourgeois' effete, prancing personality revels in ignorance - he tries to understand cabaret by watching some film whose name he forgets, and concludes it is about funny haircuts, an American and Nazis - skewering the lazy acceptance of pre-consumed opinion and London's provincialism with glee. A supposedly improvised number satirises the ubiquity of high street chainstores, and mocks a Britain that is slowly losing regional identity: his banter with Maurice takes swipes at observational comedy and elegantly undercuts cabaret's own obsession with glamour.

The elephant in the room with cabaret is always Weimar. Thanks to its association with anti-Nazi politics in the 1930s, Weimar Cabaret is pretty much the gold standard of the form. Never mind that GBS was elated by catching Yvette Guibert, who sung songs that would not be out of place in the repertoire of cheeky Des O'Connor (the one who wrote Cheap Shite White Wine, not the perma-tanned TV host); mentioning Weimar brings out the serious.

And so Sugartits can take its place in that heritage. It shares the ambiguous sexuality, the disrespect for authority, the barbed comments from a character who goes on to undermine their own authority. The slippery nature of cabaret, in which everything is offered to burlesque parody and the fool speaks truth and idiocy in equal measure, lends it a carnivalesque splendour which might explain why the grander variety shows, like La Clique Royale incorporate circus inspired acrobatics.

There is also an indigenous British tradition of cabaret. This ended up in the variety show, which paraded its rotting corpse on British television until the 1990s. Its bad name comes from the preponderance of shit British comics who milked it and its inevitable association with light entertainment. Stripped of politics and counter-cultural energy, it descended into a vapid endorsement of establishment values and the threatening sexuality was soft-soaped into cheap showgirl vacuity.

It's odd to see East End Cabaret draw on this more mainstream tradition. Despite having a hermaphrodite on the piano, their charming and witty set is relatively mainstream, so long as songs about sex with corpses or sexual jealousy are taken as humour rather than barbed comments on human relationships. After last year, when their Free Fringe show was being touted by the Total Theatre Awards as a display of bravura, their talent appears to be directed towards easier targets.

The chemistry between Bernadette Byrne and Victor Victoria is evident and their appropriation of popular music, culture and song is sharp: Victor Victoria has a knack for comic parodies of almost familiar tunes and Byrne is a voracious sexual predator. But for a duo who once tried to seduce audiences into bed with the red, the political punch is missing. Victor Victoria is cast more as the cute side-kick, even when stalking Byrne or dismissing a rival's attractiveness.

Notoriously Kinky is a strong show, but panders too much to the audience: it is rarely bracing and even the climax, a medley of the songs they did not have time to include, is more about the wit and skill than the cutting comment. Of course, this assessment is based on insisting that cabaret must have a deeper purpose, the critic's vanity.

Monday, 20 August 2012

After Death, All is Dust

Caught up in the bustle of the Fringe, it becomes easy to forget that performers are human and not merely objects on a conveyor belt of entertainment. Hidden behind scripts or choreography, the individual, full of aspirations and  vulnerable, is lost: art devolves to commodity and its worth is defined by the number of stars that it manages to plaster over its poster.

Fortunately, Dusty Limits is too abrasive, too compassionate, to disappear. Post-Mortem was on the Free Fringe: inspired by Limits' preoccupation with death, and animated by his mordant wit, it is a reminder of how cabaret can still be a home to a talent that is too idiosyncratic and sardonic to ever be tamed into light entertainment.

Limits has always advocated decadence as a response to oppression. He describes Post-Mortem as a sort of theatrical obituary in jokes and songs, revisiting past success - the transgendered version of  Portishead's Glory Box and adding new routines - Mr Greedy becomes a bedtime parable for the financially excluded. Yet beneath the throwaway gags about heroin addiction and sexual frustration, the apparent libertine has a fierce revolutionary sensibilty.

While many cabaret artists have a single skill and rightfully push it - Camille can reinterpret songs by rock songwriters in surprising ways, Frank Sanazi blends shock and awe - Dusty Limits proves himself more versatile. He cracks open Bowie's Ashes to Ashes to expose the wounded junkie at its heart: he reinvigorates obscure Weimar songs. He writes songs that meld jaunty vaudeville with astute satire and his comedy routines rage against the oppressive God so often advertised by conservative Christians, the tyranny of the financial markets and idiocy of politicians. He is astute like a stand up but, surprisingly for a man who seems to celebrate his egotism (his idea of audience participation is to ask and not listen), lacks the monomania of the comedian.

It's easy to forget that performers are human, and easy to forget that entertainment can be political, engaged, even theological. Limits, the joker with the hysterical face, brooding then cheeky, possessed of a voice that charms angels and summons demons, embracing the spirit of Weimar cabaret without descending to pastiche, stand proud in his persona that cannot help but expose his humanity.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Support the Power of Woo Man

If I am honest, I only intended to leave the office for five minutes at around six. It's the back of midnight, and I have just returned. In the intervening period, I have encountered contemporary Indian dance (lyrical and enchanting, powerful and delicate), laughed along with an illustrated performance lecture that rages against ageism and ended up on stage, wearing a wig, pretending to be the Olympic Flame. People often ask me why I write so much. It's because things like this happen if I go outside.

I was lucky to get a ticket for Wendy Houston: she has worked with Time Etchells (Forced Entertainment) and Nigel Charnock (DV8), two artists who inspired men to take up the word in response to theatre. Her 50 Acts is a collection of "small dances and big ideas", raced through in under an hour and embracing eloquent poetry and cheeky choreography, sketched around a counter-blast against ageism but taking in the duplicity of politicians, the ferocity of the modern world, the troubles with radical performance and the difficulty of ending something, whether that be life or a show. And she throws in a few manifestos along the way.

Houston's dynamism - for a show about being old, there are plenty of high kicks, urgent pacing about and a rocking soundtrack - disguises the thoughtful core. It may seem scatter-shot, pot shots at health and safety bumping against moving interludes that evoke nursing homes and the indignity of slow death, but her vision is clear and her argument coherent. In a world obsessed with categorisation and speed of communication, the attack against the elderly's worth is not just youthful ignorance. It becomes, rather, the logical end point of the quest for speed and its cult of youth.

After a moment of poignancy at Houston's finale, I nipped off to see Jonny Woo. His solo show tells his life story - at least so far, as Woo is only in his fortieth year and frankly, looks great on it. His adventures in the worlds of Woolworths and New York clubbing are awarded equal attention, building his ambitions until he can finally fulfil his childhood ambition: to become Wonder Woman.

Woo alternates between songs and spoken word, all dressed in outrageous costumes - his poet, Spam Eyres, is a monstrous cross between homely old school variety and a sexual predator, and the things he does with boxing gloves do need to be witness. It's not until the final number, a fantasy on the Transvestite Olympics, that the audience participation gets going. And so my evening ended, shimmying and in a white wig.

Assembly, 1- 26 August

Meet the Vile Top Five

Finally, I am going to leave my cell and see some shows. In half an hour, I shall be out, and you might be able to catch me in person at some of the following shows. For the price of a coffee, I shall pick a show that you are guaranteed to enjoy - if not, you can write a comment at the bottom of this blog. For a meal, I'll timetable the rest of the festival for you. 

So - look out for the beard, the melancholic smile and the lively laughter of a man who has been cooped up in a recording studio for the best part of two weeks...

Before he finishes, I want to see Dusty Limits. He is hosting the Bongo Club, and his show Post-Mortem ends tomorrow. It's free, he's one of the true neo-cabaret greats, and his show is at the Counting House Ballroom. Rather than sing his praises  - I have to be out in ten minutes and thinking this stuff up is hard work - I'll let him do it for himself.

"The show incorporates a songs from each of Dusty's previous solo shows, plus some brand new offerings, strung together by implausible reminiscences and barbed observations. No gimmicks, no tricks. Just a body, a voice, and a slightly-addled mind."

Counting House, until 19 August

After that, it's Dance Base for Wendy Houston. I am going for the solo shows today... here's a legend of the Performance Art scene (a tag I am sure does not justice to her range) in a rare Fringe appearance. Again, it finishes tomorrow, and has a good crack against ageism. It is boosted by Donald Hutera, one of my favourite writers on dance and the whole awkward squad of artists I so adore.

Dance Base, until 19 August

Jonny Woo claims that partying with him can seriously improve your social life. I have a story about a Fringe a  few years ago that has nothing to do with Woo but involves an angry bar owner, a male burlesque act and a late night chase that explains why I am up for Wonder Woo-Man. He has apparently shaved his beard since the show started, and now looks more like Mary Portas (I mistook him for her when he arrived for a radio interview, even though I don't know who she is). 

Woo's way with drag has much in common with comedy and the edgier work I love: cabaret may be the bucket for work that fits neither theatre not dance nor music nor stand up, but it has given a space for the maverick Tranny Superstar to reach out his love to the Fringe.

Assembly, 1 -26 August

I accept that The Shit needs to be thrown: it's Italian, it is angry, it is late night at Summerhall. A monologue that is howled and screamed, it rejects musicality for sheer expression of rage, a bellow of disgust at the devouring of the body by forces human and beyond. How can I miss it?

Summerhall, 7 -26 August

And my last choice - my chance meeting with a reader of this blog, who feels sufficiently inspired by my words to offer me a drink. I'll stick to the coffee, but will reveal some of the backstage anecdotes that even Criticulous won't share...

Yes, Grant, But...

Taking a break from the Fringe, I attended the Book Festival for an evening. I decided to pay respect to my love of comic books, and found a ticket for Grant Morrison.

Morrison, in person, is rather lovely and funny: far from the esoteric, brooding genius I had imagined from reading his Invisibles, he was lively, chirpy and quick to mock his own image. Nevertheless, I was disappointed by the talk: the interview was based around his latest book, a prose guide to the superhero. This personal, but exhaustive history of the medium has a few of the touches I adore in his comics - the fascination for human potential, the child-like wonder at the imagination - but these were under-emphasised.

The question I longed to ask is based in my understanding of Morrison's great works, The Invisibles and The Filth. In both of these, there appears to be a tension between Morrison's beliefs in an almost anarchic lack of restraint, against his absolute power as an author to direct the narrative. Although he briefly touched on the manner in which he finds his characters taking on lives of their own - to such an extent that he suggests that the stories write themselves - this conflict seems to energise his writing and lends his work a consistent, distinctive voice.

In his superheroes work, particularly his series of New X-Men, the conflict is made more explicit by the nature of the universe he is manipulating. The Marvel Universe has a history, a set of physical laws, a social structure and even morality that is preordained. Characters come ready defined, and while Morrison might inject his preoccupations into the action, there is still a sense that nothing he can do will change the essential nature of the universe.

Most tellingly, he injected major changes into the life of Cyclops, the X-Men's leader. For so long the ideal boy scout, happily married, noble and idealistic, he became a more complex character under Morrison. He had an affair with a noted "bad girl," Emma Frost, gained a more pragmatic approach to life and death and finally started a new life with Frost. This appears to have derailed his subsequent development. Later writers, less able to deal with the shades of morality than Morrison have converted Cyclops into almost totalitarian leader, his new sexual liberation reflected in a more oppressive form of leadership.

The problems faced by his characterisation of Cyclops echo the themes of an earlier leader, this one belonging to Morrison, in The Invisibles. King Mob shares the open, comfortable sexuality of Cyclops, without the levels of angst that were inevitable for a mainstream good boy getting it on with a naughty lady. He operates a similar battle pragmatism, although he moves towards the "thou shalt not kill model" at the same speed Cyclops moves away from it. In place of eye beams, he has guns and martial arts skills (The Invisibles inhabit a far more realistic universe, although still in the fantasy genre).

Both leaders seem to embody the themes of Morrison's personal battle between anarchy and leadership: how can freedom exist within organisations that, out of necessity, need to have a single person in a commanding role? This tension, and its elegant unfolding in both works, is the friction that elevates Morrison's writing above the usual smash and grab of comic book action.

Given this, and considering the importance of the occult meaning hinted at in all of his writing, the inevitable question arises. Since it was not raised at the event, replaced by queries about the position of women readers, how he got on with his dad and something about some other author, I shall articulate it here, in hope of some answers, perhaps from the wider community. Who would win out of a fight between Hulk and Superman?

Top Five for 85a

For eleven months of the year, I broadcast and write from Glasgow. This has caused me to be a terrible West Coast chauvinist, loudly proclaiming that the heart of Scotland's creative culture is on the left hand side of the map.

One group that have enabled my opinion are 85a - they might have roots in the visual arts, but water them with enthusiasms for live music, esoteric cinema and immersive performance. Their event at the Glasgow Film Festival converted The Glue Factory into an inverted multiplex, scattering the films of Svankmejer between installations, performances and shoved inside industrial sized boilers. They followed this up with Chernozem, their expressionist movie that included live action episodes, monstrous machines and a handy reminder of the link between industrialisation and totalitarianism.

Apparently, members of the Collective are coming to the Fringe tomorrow. I don't want them to be swept away by the horror of Edinburgh's mass appeal, so I am picking out anything that looks like it will chime with their aesthetic.

Chernozem made it clear that the Collective are tough enough to handle David Harrower's Blackbird, which looks unflinchingly at the issue of child abuse. By shifting sympathy between the characters, and refusing to follow an easy, judgemental line - although this is no apologist's piece - Harrower builds the intimate two hander to a moment of incredible intensity in the last few moments.

Originally, it was staged at the International Festival: now it is coming to the Fringe in a site specific production. Admittedly, it's in some offices, which is where the play is set, and I doubt they'll be going as far as 85a do. It's Harrower's characterisation of the couple that chills, and whether it is acceptable to describe this as a sort of love story opens up an entire can of critical worms about how theatre represents and persuades.

Edinburgh Training and Conference Centre, 17- 24 August

I'll get round to going on and on about I am Son  in a full post later, but I'd be remiss not to shout it out for 85a. They are three angry Italians, who take their cues from disillusion and distraction. Extracts from a poem that castigates the failures of the 1968 revolution soundtrack a vicious series of vignettes that lampoon fashion, nationalism, romance and alienation: high energy action from start to finish, it allies dance discipline, live art irreverence and a tiny taste of clowning (red noses are present, sardonic and tragic). Proving that dance can not only be political, it can be more precise than a script, I am Son is a refreshing burst of rage, controlled yet potent, when entertainment is being touted as the arts' answer to the idiocy of Our Friends in Westminster.

Dance Base, 16 - 25 August

Given how 85a feel about Eastern Europe - there is a strong Soviet Realism to much of their iconography - I'm calling up Future Tales (Sierakowski). It's rough and ready punk theatre, laughing at the vanity of a particular Polish leftist to make broad points about the failure of the Marxist cohorts to engage with society in a meaningful way. The music is loud, the performances direct, the bit about WWIII is funny and intense, and komuna//warszawa used to be anarchists. They decided that this wasn't working, so evolved into the closest thing Poland has to 85a.

Where 85a build huge sculptures, komuna are more likely to have suggestive mouse suits, but both gangs have a loud of the DIY, the punk, and the found space as a venue. Their dialectic against dialectic is superb, cabaret in style, their attitude harsh and their humour dark. Wait for the three way between the future Marxist dictator, the Christian and the Muslim churches. Apparently, it's all about the size...

Summerhall, 15- 26 August

I usually try to push my luck in the Top Fives, and roam around the venues, catching as much as I can... I am keen to mention  Zoo venues, because they have physical theatre and held a line against the encroachment of comedy... and Greenside is worth a visit both for its commitment to dance and the rather lovely gardens. But frankly, if I don't suggest the Polish work (any of it at Summerhall) and the Russians, I am not reflecting what I know about 85a.
Mr Carmen by Akhe: don't be fooled by the rash of stars it has been getting. This is not a strong theatrical production. Michael Cox from Across the Arts endearingly compared it to a live action Tom and Jerry cartoon: it stars the two Akhe guys as classic Russian style clowns (that is, like they have come out of a production of Waiting for Godot) arguing about who's the best out of the famous romantic opera. 85a would be interested in the way that these "theatre engineers" foreground the act of building a set and their ingenuity in staging: the runway that they set up around them is charming and funny, and their antics behind it can raise a wry smile.

For sheer action, I would still go for Mefisto Waltz, same venue, same austere Russian atmosphere but with the bonuses of a fairly coherent narrative and emotive choreography, but Akhe is a curiosity. It might even guide your future approaches to installation based theatre.

Assembly Roxy, 3 -27 August

 Finally, it would be wrong of me not to mention Planet Lem. Of course, if you don't like the idea of a roller-skating robot, an astronaut arguing with the author, who has ended up a bit like God, only on a video screen, a rebellion against luxury and a warning against the dangers of relying on technology, I am sure there is some comedy around the corner.

This is in the Quad, so it is a massive spectacle. It is based on the writings of a great science fiction author from behind the Iron Curtain - apparently, he heard rumours about American sci-fi and wrote his own, without having actually read any. That he came up with Solaris might be astonishing given the circumstances, or the result of not having wasted time reading the pap that makes up much of the genre (like any genre, kit  has its share of cliché and dilettantes).

Planet Lem feels like a brief episode in a larger story, imaging a future universe, inhabited by millions of species across thousands of world, policed by travellers who bring their ideas to civilisations not yet ready to accept them.There is a cool spaceship bit, too.

Quad, 18- 26 August

MEITHEALand Worst Case Scenario

The double album is a notoriously hard beast to appreciate: with four sides of vinyl to cover, it is difficult for any artist to maintain any initial vitality and the irony of an art form that begun in the sprightly single (three minutes of buoyant youthful energy) stretching over a length more suited to the weighty themes of opera is often enough for the critic to reject the project out of hand.

The dance double bill battles with the opposite problem. Choreography evolved, in both western and eastern traditions, into a long form: the use of specific gestural languages to fill in plot (a feature of both Bharatanatyam and ballet), the set formats of pas de deux or solo, the emphasis on large companies and spectacular costume all evolved in the context of an art form that would fill an evening. Yet the pairing of max.IMEALLdance and Taciturn Dance Company suggests that the shorter the piece, the sweeter the impact.

Billed together under Dance Base's overall theme of a journey around the world, this is not an attempt to contrast Scottish (Max.IMEALLdance) and English (Taciturn) approaches. Rather, they are connected by the youth of dancers and choreographers, the quirky use of music - ranging from Alvo Noto to Henry Mancini, this is a fine example of post-modern eclecticism, where high and low art, the populist and the experimental rub shoulders and find community - and a dedication to staking out the edges of dance and adapting the past's techniques to contemporary dynamism.

Perhaps Max.IMEALLdance's MEITHEAL could be read as a comment on the mechanisation of the dance process. The emphasis is on precision partnering, patterns revealed through the group's collective movement and the sparse, yet imaginative use of lighting that draws attention to the dancers. The focus and seriousness of the company ensures that the intention to represent the way that the group functions as a unit prevents any sense of the individual dominating the whole: the choreography responds more to the discipline of the corps than the spectacular show of the soloist.

Worst Case Scenario, however, emphasises the individuality of the three Taciturn members. They trawl through a series of disasters, explaining, in dance, how to best survive them. It's witty, playful, each episode a  brief burlesque of the logical advice given to those caught without a parachute or about to punched in the guts. The three women come across as likeable characters - when they work together, perhaps to attempt a saving hold, they never meld into a unit, like Max.imeall, but seem to resist the lure of merging by emphasising their individual physicality and identity.

If this double bill is more than a pleasure, or a linking between English and Scottish dance (I would call it contemporary but since Fringe 2011, the phrase has been rendered meaningless), it reveals current experiments within UK dance. Both are easy to define by critical jargon, although this would be far from a total explanation of their works and process: Max.IMEALLdance are a collective, disciplined unit emerging from the technical schools of dance discipline, while Taciturn are Dance Theatre with a dash of comedy and Live Art.

Of course, that last sentence says nothing about the actual pieces. It simply signifies that there is an interest in these works for certain audiences. Like star ratings, it flatters to deceive, an attempt by the critic to hide the fundamental problem of assessing dance (is it a totality that cannot be deconstructed into words without losing its essential meaning or the experience). For the record, both pieces give pleasure: MEITHEAL for the quality of dance, Worst Case Scenario for the personality and style.

The rock double album, however, remains a really bad idea, for the most part.

Dance Base, 16- 25 August 2012

Kind of Bharatanatyam

There is an Indian dance art form where the artist is forced to work with a well established range of gestures. She must choreograph on the basis of 108 key transitional movements, using the facial expressions (abhinaya) and hand gestures in such way that an unnatural or inappropriate movement would destroy the style. Mistaking Bharatanayam for any other dance is impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea or story of the dance to express itself through the communications of their hands and body in such a direct way that any audience, regards of their cultural context, can understand the meaning. 

The resulting compositions lack the eclectic influences and bravura displays of much western dance, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation. 

The conviction that the direct transmission is the most meaningful reflection, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique discipline of the Bharatnatyam dancer. Ensemble cohesion is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved in Mythili Prakash's Natyam.

As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the dancer needs her framework of time and space - in this case, the converted studio at Dance Base. Mythili Prakash presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate an emotive performance with sure reference to the primary language of her tradition.

Mythili conceived the three settings to showcase the diverse aspects of Bharatanatyam and arrived in Edinburgh ready to explain to the audience what they would see. Therefore, you will hear how particular gestures indicate certain characters - Krishna signified by the flute - or conversations. Prakesh has performed these pieces internationally and I think without exception each of the three pieces expressed the core idea precisely.

Dance Base 16-25 August

With apologies to Bill Evans.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Bad Memories Fringe Shows

 I know that critics and theatre-makers are natural enemies, but I am taking this personally. There's a bunch of shows at the Fringe that are intent on reminding me of my past, dragging up memories of terrible pain from my years as a Latin teacher. I mean, aren't drug dealers a far more fertile subject. Must we be subjected to educational trauma?

Dickson Telfer is in my bad books, and I don't care if Alan Bissett, who has written some of the best plays of the last few years, thinks he is great. Secret Weapons is about the class from hell, the one that makes the teacher throw it all away and join the critical circus. Mind you, the plot does involve the teacher getting some tricks to fight back, so maybe I'll get some vicarious satisfaction...

Gryphon Venues at Point Hotel, 22-26 August 2012

Then other memories come to mind. It's my first ever lesson and I shout. I shout a great deal. And when I am finished the class begin a slow hand clap. So along comes a company and call themselves Slow Clap, has a successful show in 2011 - The Hermitude of Angus, Ecstatic, a rare example of dance working alongside comedy - and returns to tell the Truth.

The Slow Clap style is as suited to the Fringe as I was not suited to the Latin classroom. Humorously blending movement and storytelling, they exaggerate the character to get at the story, racing to a conclusion at a fair clip.
Underbelly, 2 -26 August

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


There. Just there. I have never considered suicide seriously and, as Camus said, that is the mark of a trivial man. Only by acknowledging the limitations of human freedom - that we are born not at our own command and live at the whims of other forces, known and unknown - is a moment of freedom possible. In the corrupted words of William Burroughs, in the time when a man recognises that he is about to die, then he is immortal.

Teatr ZAR deserve applause, a star rating, the standing ovation, the encomiums and receptions - the feast laid out for them, a table groaning with red wine and shattered glass, rich foods awaits as they sneak away, into the rain and leave behind the hollow clapping of an audience. There. Just there.

Caesarian Section. Essays on Suicide, supported by heavy struts of solid song, howls and rages and even laughs on foundations cast in death and the thoughts of death, the vignettes of disappointed love and frantic sensual drumming. There, just there, above the heart, their voices rise and harmonise like heavenly choirs - the cliché seems set to take hold but like the polyphony there are levels of emotion, the higher notes anguished, the lower echo out the stability of the tradition. The stage was made for those whom the church was not enough.

Alone, two hours of more later, the hum of the air conditioning above me and the world outside the building in silence - or at least, I cannot hear the warm conversations of the Summerhall night - I take snatches of hot Korean food, sip coffee and try to retain the mood that was left behind when ZAR escaped the theatre. In my head, Dylan snarls, "sometimes even the President of the United States must stand naked" and I replay that moment when he sings to Donovan... "look at yonder orphan with his gun..."

There. The day begins in sunshine and ends in rain: The Traverse after breakfast and Rob Drummond saunters on stage. The audience know he will perform the most deadly trick in magic, The Bullet Catch, and he wanders around a variety of shticks and stunts, befriends one man before asking him to shot him in the face.

My day has asked me about the nature of suicide, and how it might be the only way to determine freedom. In the early evening, murderous rain clamouring against the roof, ZAR are demanding. Just there. Not the cheap participation of pantomime, instead they want attention, silence, a willingness to embrace the horrific sequences of despair. Rob Drummond makes eye contact with his audience, appears to read their minds.

No tardy celebrations of the post-modern here... the Fringe is filled with worthy souls who recognise the potential of this age, the age of information and juxtaposition. Here's a necessary freedom, to match and mix, to mismatch and fix, to reconfigure Shakespeare to swing or hip-hop, the spoken word lilting over a pounding beat... those ancient questions won't go away, the quest for meaning, Rob Drummond reflects on his father's ministry (his work forever becomes a tale of the Christ who does not rise), The Stranger forever caught on that baking hot beach, shooting a human who is never named but ever just "an arab."

If meaning is up for grabs and everything is possible, can rolling out eighteen scenes in a large black tent to the sound of two cellos, an accordion, a violin, the drum and the voice, the holy voices recant this modern age and instil a soft, silent point around which the world can ever revolve again?

More coffee. Just there. Outside a festival filled with laughter and the memory of a time when a therapist looked at me.

"Have you ever thought that the jokes are just a defence mechanism?"

ZAR do not speak (a quotation from the programme notes "we had no language between us. Only words") only run and fall, run their arms through a river of broken glass, the metaphorical falls into the literal. Here's a single light on a single body. Then the woman tries to remove her straps, only to be trapped by the repetitive gestures, fast and more hysterical and the drum hammers, the shrillness of the song and saw is damning...

Only fragments. It begins in darkness and the smash of glass. It ends in a face, leaning backwards, mouth open. Rob Drummond comments that it is a fact: if the beginning of a sequence is predetermined, there can be no freedom within that sequence. Suicide is in both works, a symbol of freedom, perhaps, and polished so brightly that is becomes freedom. Just there.

Caesarian Section, Summerhall, 15- 20 August

Bullet Catch, Traverse, 3-26 August

New Writing Top Five

After all the hilarity of my idiosyncratic top fives, I have decided to try and play it straight. I have finally seen Caesarian Sections and currently feel chastened. This will express itself in a later post: for the moment, I want to calm myself by following a simple path. A new writing at the Fringe top five is sufficiently predictable, although the pieces I intend to choose are full of idiosyncratic vitality.

My first choice is easy: Kieran Hurley's Beats is on at the Traverse, following from its short run as one of The Arches' Platform 18 award winners. Hurley is one of a rising wave of young Scottish artists who are establishing themselves, with a cosmopolitan and intelligent approach to theatre making. Writer and performer, he is backed by DJ Johnny Whoop and visuals from Jamie Wardrop: he goes back to the late rave scene of the 1990s, and uses his charismatic on-stage presence and lively idea for a metaphor to relate a story of hope, disappointment and rebellion.

Hurley's skills are evident in his original use of music - the DJ is not mere add on but an integral part of the show, putting down the tunes to accompany Hurley's moving stories - and the easy manner in which he charms the audience and shows compassion to all of his characters, even the cynical copper. His own idealism, previously revealed in Hitch is tempered by a sharp intelligence and a winning manner: Beats is at once cerebral and emotional.

The Traverse, 14- 26 August

Up from Manchester for a short run comes A Sky Burial. Having been described as "ambitious... visceral and violent" by Amanda Dalton of The Royal Exchange (a theatre that has a generous policy on access for young authors), it has a more conventional script-based approach than Beats, and has been described as an episode of Casualty at the end of the world. Preoccupied with the uncertainty of the post-modern condition, and juxtaposing the screams of the sick on a ward and the roars of the streets beyond, it centres around a blind date that might offer redemption in the hour of chaos.

Author Joe McKie honed his skills as a curator of a comedy night, and his director Sophie Taylor has recently come from a successful Titus Andronicus - a Shakespeare number so brutal that a hardcore punk took their name from it. The combination of the author and director's interests sets the tone for this dark comedy that retains a belief in the power of human relationships.

theSpace on North Bridge, various dates until the 24 August

New writing isn't always my enthusiasm - I tend towards the physical theatre but there is a wave of Scottish writers - who often perform their own words - like Hurley and Gary McNair who have reminded that the script is far from moribund. Every time I head into the Underbelly, the huge poster for The Old Vic's New Voices chimes in by insisting that it isn't just about Scotland.

My pick - although all five of the shows are getting positive critiques - is for Sabrina Mahfouz's One Hour Only. Her entry to 2011's Fringe was a searing portrait (in couplets) of the life of a lap dancer had her nominated for The Stage's Best Solo performance: this year, she has a two-hander that pitches the naivety of both john and prostitute against the seriousness of the situation that they are both caught inside. AJ and Marley might have been brought together by his mates and her profession, but Mahfouz draws an intimate portrait of a meeting of minds in an unlikely location.

Underbelly, 3- 26 August 

It's a little tentative as a connection, but both Kieran Hurley and my next pick, Dancing Brick, have appeared at The Arches: Perle is not just a new work, it is creating a new genre. It's a live action comic book, based on the oldest poem in English, a one person show that grapples with grief and a young father's journey to reclaim his dead daughter.

Serge Seidlitz was called in on illustration duties, and this new writing is not about the words: the performance is all mime, contemporary clown style, with the text scrolling across the illustrated screen. Like Beats, it has the same writer and performer: Thomas Eccleshare approached the script as if it were a comic book.

Assembly Roxy, 2- 26 August

It is my last choice, and I have not even managed to scrape the surface of the diversity within new writing: of course, that's the top five format all over. The British approach to theatre has always privileged the script - when I am in dance mood, I can't stop complaining about it. But the five here ought to remind even Criticulous that the script is not played out and the way that authors approach writing for the stage is much more sophisticated than slapping the words down and leaving the director to fix it.

The Damsels Most Daring are on the Free Fringe, and I feel that I haven't given enough love to it this year. I admire the spirit of the companies that have stepped outside the relative safety of the paid programme, and who are clear in their intention to value art over money. The Bravery of Miss Anne and Other Tales of Splendorous Adventure has all sorts of different antics going on: they call it comedic, musical storytelling theatre. Their interests are obviously broad, and the live piano that accompanies their tales is typical of the way that the modern play integrates words and other theatrical aspects.

Miss Anne has hysteria, gun fights and grave-robbing, all in nineteenth century style: the author is on the stage again and the anarchic spirit of the press release made me consider that here is a work  that might reflect the anarchic state of current playwriting, where everything is up for grabs and talented new voices can mix and match and not be bothered by the demarcations of critics or academics.

French Quarter, The Voodoo Rooms 21-25 August


Five for Laurin: Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance

Today, Laurin arrives to join the team on The Skinny. I am delighted to have her back in Edinburgh: she is a rare example of a dancer who can write well about  many performance arts.

Before we get into an argument, I'll need to clarify. In my capacity as an editor, I am suspicious of the dancer who writes reviews. There are many exceptions to my distrust, and I am not saying dancers can't write. Indeed, Laurin proves that they can. But, when it comes to reviews, I have always wanted the voice of the critic to be distinctive from the one of the performer. Let's just say it's about protecting my patch, and save it for another time.

Maybe one when I am not trying to see fine shows a day. If there are any critics or editors out there, I finally realised that the way to prevent Fringe burn-out is to ensure that I stick to one venue per day. It concentrates the mind, allows breaks between shows and saves on the rushing about a city that is full of artists trying to get people  to see their show...

Any venues reading this might want to encourage audiences and critics to stay in one place by offering a free drink or snack to anyone who has tickets to three shows in their venue on one day. They might even buy more coffee, or more food, or stay for four. Just saying...

Anyhow, I need to give Laurin her recommendations. I am going to scatter them across the Fringe, but that's because my tips for her are really a framing device for another idiosyncratic top five. This is really a top five for potential audiences who are hip, young and might like to see some dance, enjoy scripted theatre and have a taste that can include the mainstream and the lighter, or skill-based end of the underground.

I had those Up and Over It boy and girl on my radio show this week... I started off on the wrong foot when I asked whether their show was a parody of Irish dancing, and made a joke about Michael Flatley. They didn't mind the joke, but Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding are not just taking the piss. They are reclaiming Irish dance  from Lord of the Dance.

We know the score with that juggernaut success. Man with no top and a headband gives it laldy and the girls are stuck in the back doing the soft-shoe shuffle. Harding is vociferous in wanting to reconstruct the gender roles back to what it used to be, when women got a chance to hit the hard shoe action. There is humour in their choreography, yet they aren't about to mock the very form tha sustains them. Cleary used to be in the chorus for Flatley and they know without him, they would not have a foundation for their bold reworking of a traditional style.
Assembly, 3 -26 August

Stellar Quines don't need the Fringe: they've been winning awards and plaudits year round. Their emphasis on the female - these days, I can't get it right when I say "feminist," as the younger generation eschew the title (A Young Man's Guide to Sainthood, for example, might deconstruct the idea of masculinity, but the director denies that this is feminist), and the older generation have a clearly defined understanding of it that lacks any stability - has made them stand up and stand out in the Scottish scene. The List might share a name with a popular Scottish arts magazine, but it earned a rave review from Michael Cox from Across the Arts.

Despite his love for Eric Clapton, Cox is a critic who can recognise a good script and strong direction. Starring Maureen Beattie - another heavily lauded performer - it revisits Stellar Quines' recent interest in French Canadian theatre (their Ana also needed a translation into English). However, it has a universality in the story, of an isolated mother and housewife.

Director Muriel Romanes also has an eye for a good script, and her signature is a sparky vitality that emphasises the seriousness of the themes without getting stuck in rhetorical grand-standing. The List might be the break out hit that the critics are hunting. I am not sure, because I am behind with my reading.

Summerhall, 4 -25 August

A bigger risk, as I have no press release and no reviews to check (they got four stars from Broadway Baby, but that's on the flyer) is Into the Fog. They caught me coming out of Dance Base, and I rather like their approach to selling the show. They were standing very still, hands stretched out, and covered in quills. That's a good start, and there are a few keywords in their advertising that intrigue me: "physical theatre," "inspired by Russian animated film," "illuminate," "demanding movement."

They look like a young company, and are in one of the smaller venues... I have a belief that is always worth taking risks on these shows because giving the next generation a chance, even if they don't make out, is part of the Fringe spirit.

Sadly, that doesn't explain why I am not taking the risks in my own programme, as yet.

Venue 13 (Lochend Close), 4 -18 August

After these rather serious choices, you'll be ready for some fun. How about Mr B's Chap-Hop Hoorah? I caught the master of the riddling rhyme atLatitude a few years' back (he actually gave me a lift to the festival, and got us lost in Suffolk), and was surprised that his humour was backed up by the skills to get a tent rocking like mother.

His schtick is clear from the first couplet: he is applying formal English to the twists of rapping, and has acts the Original Gentleman. There are plenty of laughs in his cover versions - he knows his old school beats - and can drop a mean ukulele solo in the breaks.

Voodoo Rooms, 14- 26 August

While we are on the hip hop tip, I was impressed by my chat with Robbie from Bad Taste Cru. If The Council of the Ordinary is anything like the choreographer, it is hard-working, thoughtful and socially engaged, willing to remain hip-hop but ready to go beyond it.

A few years back, Robbie was part of the winning team at Castle Rocks, the annual Big Battle that happens during the Fringe in a nightclub I would not go anywhere near except for the promise of headspins and back flips: he's done his time with 2faced Dance and Liv Lorent, so I trust that The Cru are ready for prime time.

Besides this, he told me that when Flawless didn't turn up last year when I challenged them to a dance off, they failed by not turning up. So, I currently own Flawless, until they challenge me back in 2013.

Zoo Southside, 14-27 August