It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later / Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford / Jack The Knife /
Touching The Blue / Miranda / First Love / Honest / Bunny / You're Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2010
**** / *** / **** / *** / *** / *** / **** / **** / ****

Since there are some 2500 shows on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, it may seem fundamentally inaccurate to refer to the cost of bringing a production here as “prohibitive”. However, it can cost not just an arm and a leg but a full set of eye-teeth and a mortgage on a kidney, unless all superfluous costs are ruthlessly excised. One of the most obvious and brutal ways to do this is to jettison all but one of the cast. The Fringe solo is a genre in itself.

Most comedy shows here are solos, of course, and one of the Fringe’s favourite solo theatrical offerings each year is written and performed by a comedian. In fact, Daniel Kitson almost certainly performs to fewer people each night with his “proper” stand-up show than he does each morning in the Traverse Theatre’s main house with this year’s storytelling presentation It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later. It is a series of sketches, in the non-comic sense: brief accounts of moments in two trivially intersecting lives. As the narrative nips back and forth in time, so Kitson moves across the stage amongst a host of light bulbs, each signifying one of the moments. His defiant blend of sentiment and cynicism, and above all his relish of language, are to the fore as always.

Other performers have carved out niches for themselves as soloists. In the Assembly Hall, Simon Callow is for once not playing Dickens but rather giving an account of Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford. Jonathan Bate’s script trots (at increasing speed: some re-gearing is required) through the Bard’s biography, illustrating it with an assortment of greatest-hits excerpts. Callow gives a characteristically value-for-money bravura performance, although I was surprised by how many slight misquotations he made at the performance I saw, including one in the speech which gives the show its structure, “All the world’s a stage...”.

Jack Klaff also has a long and honourable reputation as a solo performer, albeit of a more maverick, agitational bent. His Jack The Knife (Assembly @ George Street) at first seems little more than a chat to the audience, a string of theatrical anecdotes. Gradually, though, motifs emerge. Klaff is arguing that in theatre as in politics and life overall, we are too often given only the illusion of choice and in fact manipulated into behaving as others want us to; it behoves us, he suggests, to be both bolshy and principled by refusing to accept the premisses on which those illusory choices are based.

Being a recognisable name always helps. This may be an individual name, as in the case of Clive Russell, who seemingly learnt nothing from his role as a solo Fringe performer in Annie Griffin’s film Festival a few years ago, as he has now embarked upon the same kind of project in real life. In Touching The Blue he plays a formerly hell-raising snooker player now past his best, a fictionalised portrait made topical by the recent death of Alex “Hurricane” Higgins. Although Russell is the only performer on the stage, well known faces from John Virgo to Leslie Grantham appear on mock-television footage. Joe Wenborne’s script is nothing special, but Russell is always a magnetic performer.

A well-known company brand may also be advantageous, as in the case of Tara Arts’ Miranda, performed in the same room a little after Russell’s piece. Again, this is a solo show only in certain senses, since performer Ankur Bahl is accompanied onstage by a pair of live musicians. Farrukh Dhondy’s script is an intriguing mishmash containing Shakespeare (hence the title), Bollywood, gender-bending, the Indian Mutiny and a ghost story. Bahl’s constant stylised movement seems almost literally to weave a web of atmosphere across the stage.

The most minimalist name of all is Samuel Beckett. Conor Lovett performs Beckett’s story First Love (Pleasance Courtyard), about a young man’s relationship with a prostitute, almost exactly as he did the same author’s Molloy back in 1997: I described his characterisation then as “diffident, dismissive and distracted”. It is a skilful low-key performance, but in the context of ever-greater Fringe frenzy, 75 minutes of it can seem rather too much of too little.

Yet miniatures can be beautiful works of art. In D.C. Moore’s 40-minute monologue Honest, Trystan Gravelle’s narrator begins by explaining how he cannot help speaking the truth about his colleagues, family, strangers on the street, but his account of one increasingly drunken night reveals more about him than anyone he encounters. Nominally a part of the Assembly @ George Street programme, the play is in fact performed in a bar just off Princes Street.

Playwright Jack Thorne is similarly skilled at understated character portraits; it is one of the strengths he brings to his work on C4 TV’s Skins series. In Bunny (Underbelly), Thorne creates Luton sixth-former Katie, who recounts an afternoon’s spiral into sexual danger and racial violence from the most casual of beginnings. This is not a grim underclass tale of deprivation; Katie is a middle-class girl and we never find out the cause of her self-esteem problems, we are simply afforded an unfolding glimpse of them as Rosie Wyatt gives a remarkable performance against a projected backdrop which constantly sketches in her environment.

One of the most established sub-genres is the solo biography of one of the performer’s ancestors. All too often it is hackneyed territory, but in You’re Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy (Pleasance Courtyard), Caroline Horton avoids all the traps. Her portrait of her Parisian grandmother, whose engagement to a young Englishman was interrupted somewhat by World War II, makes a quirky but undistinguished start yet gathers in both charm and emotional engagement until even a hardened hack may be on the brink of tears. Winsome in all the best ways, this Horton may not be hearing a “Who?” for very long.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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