Okay, it’s a compelling play, but The Son still follows the relatively conventional trend in contemporary plays where life goes on, despite its imponderables and idiosyncrasies, before a Very Critical Incident occurs that shatters the hearts and minds of the play’s characters. At least here there is an acknowledgement by Pierre (John Light) and Anne (Amanda Abbington) that something isn’t quite right with their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston). He hasn’t attended school for a significant period – in this regard, he’s not entirely unlike Willy Loman in the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman, who continues to dress for work every weekday and leaves the house at a time in the morning that would give the impression he’s commuting to the office, even after he’s been fired.
The critical incident is an impactful moment – and one which I have no qualms in admitting that I didn’t see coming. Sofia (Amaka Okafor), Pierre’s second wife, didn’t help matters by speaking so disparagingly about Nicolas while he was still in the house (ooh, look, an evil stepmother: how original). Overhearing it, nothing Pierre could say to smooth things over ultimately had much effect. A nurse (Cudjoe Asare) and a doctor (Martin Turner) complete the set of on-stage characters.
Because of the very nature of Nicolas’ state of mind, he is not easy to ‘read’. While there are fleeting moments of bliss, he is usually extremely unhappy, and openly admits to his father and biological mother that he feels as though he cannot go on, struggling to cope with daily living. Pierre clearly loves him, as does Anne, but both are, in their own ways, ill-equipped to deal effectively with the complex issues the (non) schoolboy faces. Eventually he ends up in a secure unit of some description, which he utterly hates, and after a week, begs and begs his parents to let him come home.
Pierre is, frankly, frustrating in his inability to understand that his cross-examinations (for that is what they are) of his own son aren’t getting anyone anywhere: Nicolas doesn’t know why he feels the way he does, and keeps saying so, because – um – he is genuinely unable to comprehend the nature of his condition. That is perhaps the saddest thing of all about this play (well, that and the critical incident). For Sofia, there are also other things going on behind the scenes, but this play is not called The Son for the hell of it, so Okafor’s character is relatively underdeveloped.
Attitudes towards mental health are changing in modern society, but not fast enough for young Nicolas. That Pierre now has another son is both encouraging and downright frightening, if only because the younger one might end up following a similar path to Nicolas. While the storyline is compelling, the set is messy for a production that has a residency in a West End playhouse: it can be worked out whether a scene is in Pierre and Sofia’s place, Anne’s place or elsewhere, but this is down to the dialogue rather than the set, which doesn’t change nearly as much as it could.
That said, it is a decent play. It’s not exactly ground-breaking but there are impactful moments and some aspects of it will be relatable in some way for many. Thoughtful and disturbing in equal measure.
The final concert in a series featuring cast members from the London production of Bat Out of Hell The Musical was announced well in advance but that didn’t stop it coming around far too quickly for those of us who have enjoyed the ride. Vision of You has always been about discovering the backstories of two ‘BOOH’ characters, Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton), and how they came to be the couple represented on stage on the West End eight times a week. As with the previous two act version of the concert, the narrative is abandoned at some point in the second half, the backstory complete.
As there are to be no more performances of Vision of You (Sexton and Fowler have been cast in an international touring production of Mamma Mia!, which will keep them busy for the best part of a year), it is rather tempting to reveal something of the ‘secrets’ of the show, previously kept under wraps by attendees so the magic of discovering the story isn’t spoiled for those who have yet to see it. But no – I couldn’t have that on my conscience.
Eleven special guests joined Sexton and Fowler for this final show, a fitting spectacular send-off. It was critic-proof, really – I might, with my proverbial reviewer’s spectacles on, have moaned about how hammy some of the performances were. But to quote Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, and this was a cast (if that’s the right word for them) that was absolutely playing to the audience, who responded in kind with cheering, applause and multiple standing ovations.
My knowledge of chart music being as rudimentary as it is, I was more at home with Stuart Boother’s rendering of ‘Nessun Dorma’ than with some of the tunes that I, um, can’t name for neither love nor money. Performed by people the audience came to appreciate through Bat, whether ballad or belter (or something in between), it was all hugely enjoyable. At one point, Sexton bounded onto the stage, mobile phone in hand – Zahara (Danielle Steers) was on the phone from New York City, where another production of Bat was having its last performances on the same day as this concert. It was one of quite a few extraordinary moments.
Vision of You went from (in earlier concerts) having about eight bars, or even fewer, of ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’ before it was ‘decided’ not to do it after all, presumably for lack of stage props (which included an on-stage car), to having three Falcos (Fowler, Tim Oxbrow and Stuart Boother), three Sloanes (Sexton, Hannah Ducharme and Jemma Alexander) and a Blake (Patrick Sullivan) go for it, radio commentary and all. But that was chaotic (and it was), a rendering of ‘Bat Out of Hell’ in the second half saw three Strats (Simon Gordon, Ben Purkiss and Barney Wilkinson) all trying to win over one Raven (Georgia Carling) – the narrative remained unchanged, ultimately, so she ran off leaving all three crying, “No!” which left the audience almost roaring with laughter.
Luna Mai, Rob Fowler’s daughter, took to the stage again (having done so previously at the Southwark Playhouse Vision of You), and we were also treated to the delightful vocals of Emma Mullen, who will play Sophie Sheridan in the Mamma Mia! tour that Sexton and Fowler are also in. Indicative of how small this world can be, Mullen is also Wilkinson’s real-life partner; she was, in effect, in the ‘Batfam’ long before she was properly introduced to us. And she was in a drama series broadcast on national television.
Sexton’s version of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from Waitress was as compelling and emotionally charged as ever (without a scintilla of melodrama), and Gordon, Sullivan and Purkiss (otherwise known as ‘The Songsmiths’, having very recently formed a vocal harmony group) gave an enthusiastic rendering of the 1977 Fleetwood Mac tune ‘Go Your Own Way’, which wasn’t particularly successful as a single in the UK but has nonetheless receives fairly regular radio airplay to this day. The final section of the concert became something of a Bat extravaganza, though Sexton and Fowler’s new single, ‘My Love, My Life’ from the motion picture Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again also featured – and the crowd revelled once more to the likes of ‘For Crying Out Loud’, ‘What Part of My Body Hurts The Most?’ and ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’. On the piano, as ever, was Steve Corley, this time assisted by Nerys Richards on cello and John Gregson on guitar. An incredible, joyous and highly memorable experience: “Happy, happy, happy!"
If someone calls or emails you and asks you to confirm your personal information, don’t do it. If they say they’re from somewhere where you hold an account, call them back on the number you usually use.
If an offer looks too good to be true, think twice before clicking on a link.
If you’re entering personal details, make sure you’re using a secure site (the URL will begin with ‘https’). This makes it harder for criminals to intercept your data.
For passwords, use a mixture of letters and numbers. Never use the same password for different sites, and if you can’t remember them all, use a password manager (secure, often Web-based software) to do it for you.
Wait until you can use a secure computer before you do your online baking, or make that big purchase.
I read with interest the recent concerns expressed by twenty Jewish actors and creatives about this production of Falsettos. “It contains characters, story beats, events, humour and references that don’t just reference Judaism but rely upon it. Its opening number is named ‘Four Jews In A Room Bitching’. It contains lines such as, ‘we’re watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball [not the opening number, but one called ‘The Baseball Game’], lampooning the stereotype that Jews are weak and not sporty. The plot is centred around a boy’s bar mitzvah.” I don’t think it is, really: it’s more about Marvin (Daniel Boys), a family man who leaves his wife Trina (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and their son Jason (Albert Atack at the performance I attended, sharing the role with George Kennedy, Eliot Morris and James Williams) in favour of a same-sex relationship with Whizzer (Oliver Savile).
I recall a Jewish student when I was an undergraduate telling me (and others) that it was quite impossible for a homosexual to be Jewish in the proper sense. Referencing the book of Vayikra (or Leviticus to those with familiarity with the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible), sexual intercourse between males is a ‘to’eviah’, or an abomination. That said, there are, particularly amongst reformed Jewish denominations, gay rabbis, so clearly not everybody that is part of the Jewish community thinks the same way on the matter. That, however, is not the focus of the open letter published in the Jewish Chronicle, addressed to Selladoor Worldwide, producers for Falsettos, which does not wish to assert that “every actor has to share the same religion, background or heritage as the role they are cast to play”.
The concern is instead with the rehearsal process: “Falsettos needs Jewish representation within the rehearsal room in order to be made with the respect and consultation of those whose stories it seeks to tell and whose cultural heritage it looks to portray.” Rehearsals are not something I often consider when evaluating a production, except where it is blindingly obvious that there simply wasn’t enough rehearsal time, and something has been put in front of paying audiences as a finished show when further workshopping and development is required. This isn’t the case here.
The music doesn’t sound especially Yiddish (compared to, for instance, some of the melodies in Fiddler on the Roof), and frankly had it not been drummed into the audience that these characters were Jewish, one could well be forgiven for not having picked up on it until there is talk of Jason’s bar mitzvah. The Sabbath, as far as I can recall, is not mentioned let alone ‘represented’, and one song in the second half contains the lyric, “It’s days like this I almost believe in God” – that is, these are people who don’t believe in God. So why do they identify as Jewish then?
The production itself is a heart-warming one, and then a heart-breaking one after the interval – the first half is a bit of a hard slog, but the audience’s patience is rewarded and then some in Act Two. Marvin has a psychiatrist, Mendel (Joel Montague), and completing the set of on-stage characters are Marvin’s neighbours, a lesbian couple (their choice of description), Charlotte (Gemma Knight-Jones), a doctor, and Cordelia (Natasha J Barnes). Charlotte and Cordelia don’t even appear until after the interval: I wonder if this leaves the production open to accusations of anti-lesbianism.
Interestingly, the audience applause ramped up at the end of solo numbers rather than larger ensemble tunes. Trina’s ‘I’m Breaking Down’ raised the roof in the first half, as does Whizzer’s ‘The Games I Play’. The first half begins in 1979, and the second begins in 1981. A game of racquetball between Whizzer and Marvin demonstrates that, in fact, the show is capable of portraying decent sportsmanship amongst Jews after all. The show’s critical incident sees Whizzer suddenly keeling over and being admitted to hospital. No prizes for working out what he gets diagnosed with.
James Lapine contributes to the book, but the music and lyrics are entirely the domain of William Finn. Overall, I prefer Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, though there’s no denying the poignancy, without melodrama, of the show’s closing scenes. The melodies are generally so wordy they rarely soar, but the story is a compelling one, and underlines the adage attributed to Alfred Lord Tennyson: “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Looking around after the show, there were a significant number of audience members who had shed tears, such was the depth of feelings being expressed. Bring tissues if you are prone to react accordingly to emotionally charged shows. Every cast member puts their heart and soul into their respective roles, and the result is a beautiful and highly engaging piece of theatre.
Back in the days when theatre tickets were reasonable (we’re talking 2013 in this case) I used to see practically everything in Trafalgar Studio 2 – unless I really wasn’t keen on something – and because they would have a new show there every four weeks or so, I would pop in with such regularity that long-standing members of staff there still recognise me when I make the occasional visit, usually to review something. One of the many plays I saw there was Mrs Lowry and Son, a two-hander. Michael Begley played the painter LS Lowry, and June Watson played his mother, and she was almost terrifying in her takedowns of her son, who wasn’t commercially successful during his mother’s lifetime but persevered with his day job as a rent collector and spending the evenings doing his paintings portraying real life.
Fast forward to 2019, and with a night off from the theatre reviewing circuit, I thought I’d best make use of an underused cinema membership, to see this film adaptation. Vanessa Redgrave’s Elizabeth Lowry is comparatively softer on the big screen than her counterpart was in the theatre, though there were still audible gasps from the audience: she speaks plainly, and she’s one of those people unafraid to let it be known quite how much she despises her son. Theirs is a strange parent-child relationship, even now that the positions are reversed, such that he is now looking after her, and it seems to me that financial circumstances meant that she didn’t have much choice but to accept assistant from someone she so thoroughly disliked.
It is evident that he does love her, although this does verge on melodramatic, particularly in a huge meltdown that oddly turns out may not have happened after all. And what was with the final moments, basically advertising The Lowry, an exhibition space and theatre venue, promoted as being in ‘Greater Manchester’, which is technically true, but really, it’s in Salford Quays. It would have been okay to have merely pointed out that the place was named in his honour, but to then spend several minutes zooming in on the gallery spaces just seemed superfluous.
I liked it, but then I like plays – and this story doesn’t translate all that well to the medium of the motion picture. Mrs Lowry even suggests his son get out more – and the same could be said for the film itself, which spends rather too much time – for a movie – in her upstairs bedroom. It is, in a way, something of a missed opportunity to have focused so much on the dialogue and not enough on the cinematography.
The story of Emilio (Georgie Ioannides) and Gloria Estefan (Christie Prades), as On Your Feet! is subtitled, is a good one but their adversities aren’t far removed from anyone else who had doors closed, proverbially and literally, by various record labels because they wouldn’t conform to their pre-fabricated models of what they believed the general public was likely to enjoy listening to. But it may be easier to get a following now than it was then, in these days of YouTube celebrities and people with substantial numbers of Instagram followers.
The closest thing to an antagonist this show has comes in the form of Gloria Fajardo (1930-2017) (Madalena Alberto), who threatens not to speak to her namesake daughter again if her younger daughter Rebecca (Francesca Lara Gordon) is taken on the road with the Estefans and their band, the Miami Sound Machine. All is forgiven at some point as they do indeed resume communications – it’s hardly the stuff of Ike Turner over at Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
The show doesn’t go as far into Estefan’s career as it might have done – Estefan was inducted in 2011 into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, and I thought it would end there with a celebratory happy ending. Instead the narrative stops in 1991, when she performed ‘Coming Out of the Dark’ at the American Music Awards, having survived a road traffic collision in March 1990 and undergoing a protracted period of rehabilitation.
That is not to say that the audience is necessarily denied twenty years (or more) of her songs – it does feel like a complete story, although I suspect some of Estefan’s fans will doubtless be a tad disappointed at her later singles and albums weren’t covered here. There is some ‘triumph over adversity’ to speak of: in the struggle to assimilate into American society, these Cubans find at one point that their music is ‘too Latino’ for radio stations with majority white American audiences, and ‘too American’ for Spanish language stations.
While knowledge is gained about what character traits Emilio has, that doesn’t add up to character development. His grasp of American English, for instance, is portrayed as – well, diabolical – something which the audience is expected to laugh at. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but I find that difficult, having long since learned not to laugh at someone who talks in broken English, if only because they know another language.
The show is, by and large, very appealing to its target audience. A ten-piece band directed by Clay Ostwald (an actual veteran of the Miami Sound Machine) is sometimes visible on stage (always good to see) and the lighting design (Kenneth Posner) is extraordinary throughout, as if the lights have a choreography of their own. The celebrations are justified – this is a couple who held their nerve when pretty much the entire music industry was telling them they wouldn’t be a success. But is there a bit too much exposition and not enough dramatization? A lot of details are spoken about in conversation but are not actually seen on stage, a point underlined during a flashback scene in which the older Gloria belts out a song with an assured confidence.
The London Coliseum, alas, is too big a venue for this show. Further, the enjoyment of certain songs is curtailed by crowbarring bits of narrative into them, disrupting the flow of the tune’s rhythm before resuming once more until the next interruption, and so on. That said, it’s an enthusiastic show and one I’m pleased to have seen.
This trilogy of short plays, Making Noise Quietly, would have worked better as a motion picture if it had taken bolder steps to adapt its narrative arcs to the motion picture medium. In each of them, there are conversations that strike up between people who have never met before and end up creating memorable experiences. In the first place, I wondered if it would be better if it were titled Making Noise Very Quietly If At All, given that it is a full two minutes before any significant noise is heard – and even then it is a melancholy tune being played on a piano.
The cinematography is sometimes truly splendid, with panoramic views of sections of the British countryside. Other times, and too often in my view, shots are partially out of focus, as though this were a human equivalent of Animal Farm, where everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. Perhaps, especially in the first scene, ‘Being Friends’, this is somewhat justified – Eric Faber (Matthew Tennyson) is a gay man in the Second World War (homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967 in England and Wales), though is happy to confide in all the details with Oliver Bell (Luke Thompson).
But certain people being in focus and certain other people not being in focus carried on, even when in completely different contexts. It sits especially uncomfortably in the final third of the film, also called ‘Making Noise Quietly’, in which Helene Esslin (Deborah Findlay), a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, works so consistently to instil (amongst other things) mutual respect in Sam (Orton O’Brien), a child with selective mutism. The boy’s carer, Alan Tadd (Trystan Gravelle), who adopted him, has issues of his own to deal with, which makes for an intriguing last half hour.
Each scene is set in a different part of the countryside, where the way of life is relatively more sedate than the frenetic pace of living in the city. There are many advantages to this – I wonder if the sort of deep and introspective conversations that take place here would even be possible today, not least because of the seeming ubiquity of social media and instant messaging. But I found the movie was too much of a slow burner for me to properly maintain interest throughout, and I daresay that if I had seen this at the cinema, there’s a chance I may not have stayed awake throughout.
The best one for me is ‘Lost’, in which May Appleton (Barbara Marten) receives the sort of news that Geoffrey Church (Geoffrey Streatfeild) reasonably assumed she would already know: the Falklands War is ongoing, and her son Ian will be coming home in a coffin. There are all sorts of narrative details that arise from this simple meeting. It seems a little contrived, though – would a naval officer (or indeed anyone) really open up so quickly and with so much detail to someone they had met for the first time? Then again, this is precisely the point the film is making: it is possible to be perfectly honest with complete strangers and yet conceal the truth from friends and family.
The main problem for this film seems to be that, for all the scenery, there’s a lot of talking heads going on, and as I started by saying, this still feels like it should be in a playhouse rather than a cinema. The score (Stephen Warbeck) is to be savoured, however, and there’s no faulting the acting from a strong cast. An impactful reminder that the consequences of war and conflict stretches far beyond the immediate battlefield.
I really don’t watch television these days, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a fairly new thing in my calendar (and may yet, the spiralling costs of accommodation and train fares being what they are, something I may decide sooner rather than later to stop doing), so I’d missed the initial run of Fleabag when at ran in 2013 at Underbelly Cowgate. Indeed, I had no idea who or what Fleabag was, which led to some astonishment on social media when I simply asked, “What’s Fleabag?” Most responses, though, were very understanding and told me what I needed to know, and I subsequently spent part of my journey up to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe on the Caledonian Sleeper watching the Fleabag television series on DVD.
It’s interesting to note the reviews from 2013 – Laura Barnett in The Telegraph found Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character “distinctly unlikeable… [her] narcissism does grow wearisome”, and Lyn Gardner, still employed by The Guardian at the time, gave it three stars, which by Edinburgh Fringe standards is pretty lukewarm. Philip Fisher in the British Theatre Guide, however, got it right: “For anyone that is not shaken by adult themes or contemporary language, this beautifully-performed, tautly-written play, which could soon become a cult, should prove a highlight of their trip to Edinburgh.”
It is, as far as single performer shows go, highly compelling. Even having seen the television series (and, evidently, I wasn’t the only one in the Wyndham’s Theatre audience that had) and seeing and hearing the storylines that are further developed on the DVDs than they are in the play, it’s still as poignant as it is hilarious. It’s incredibly sharp – Waller-Bridge has a subtle yet compelling stage presence, and delivers punchlines in such a deadpan manner that almost betrays quite how lewd some of it is. One national newspaper, really missing the point, complained about the number of swear words used in the play. Perhaps that journalist who works for The Sun should go and see The Book of Mormon before whingeing about the strong language in Fleabag.
The title character is ridiculously open about all aspects of her life, with the audience ending up knowing more than other characters as she acts as gatekeeper to her own secrets. Even in relatively liberal London, there were a few gasps at the revelation that Fleabag has “a handprint on the wall from when I had a threesome on my period”. Usually, given the choice between the DVD and the live theatre show, I’d plump for the latter. Here, though, other characters are (because there’s time and scope to do so) more fleshed out on the small screen than they are on stage. But it was still very much worth seeing an extremely versatile actor hold a West End audience captive all on her own.
A shorter list of non-reviewed shows to write about for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, as there weren’t that many shows that I wasn’t reviewing one way or another (my pithiest ones were a mere two paragraphs, a first for me). I’d have liked to have seen more stuff without a proverbial reviewer’s hat on, but as I appear to have found a repeat destination for my summer holiday (I’ve already booked for 2020) more people found out I was going back to the Fringe, and could I please consider their show? Then, as a result of Assembly (one of the Big Four venue operators, the others being Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly – all are easy to distinguish from one another by the different coloured uniforms of their staff and the overall colour schemes of their signage, red, yellow, pink and purple respectively) wanting reviewers to obtain ‘accreditation’ from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, and I obliged, PRs and producers I’d never heard of were inviting me to shows. I just might go the whole hog next year and not see anything at the Fringe unless I am specifically invited to it.
I was invited to two ‘meet the press’ gatherings, both of which I missed on account of having shows to go and see when the meetings were on. This was the first time I ventured into Surgeons Hall, where the press office for theSpaceUK – I am grateful to the press team there for booking me into shows, sometimes just by me walking in and saying, ‘Hello, I would like a ticket for such and such a production’. I thank Emily Hay at Gilded Balloon for sorting out press tickets for shows, again sometimes at short notice. And the unnamed person at Underbelly who was beavering away, sending me confirmations of press tickets as late as 11:30pm on a Sunday night – well done.
Overall, it has been a very good Fringe – there was only one dud production I saw out of 58 – Bible John at Pleasance Courtyard if you must know. As I said ‘yes’ to so many miscellaneous review requests and had gone through the Fringe brochure to see if there was anything I wanted to see anyway, there was little scope to investigate show recommendations from others – it’s necessary to time oneself appropriately, leaving time for meals, getting to and from venues and finding time to bash out reviews. I was, however, able to check out ‘In Loyal Company’, written and performed by David William Bryan, on the recommendation of Catherine Francoise, a singing teacher based in Buckinghamshire, and on the back of that astounding performance, I booked to see his other Fringe 2019 show, ‘Fragility of Man’.
I also caught the new musical ‘Cathy: A Retelling of Wuthering Heights’, because its title character was being played by Emma Torrens. I wasn’t aware of Torrens previously, but she was highly recommended by Barney Wilkinson, a young musical theatre actor, who said she had the finest singing voice he’d ever heard. This turned out to be no exaggeration, and indeed Torrens even won the Derek Award for Best Voice 2019.
‘Fragility of Man’ is a vastly different show to ‘In Loyal Company’, telling the story of John Doe, a name given to the narrator character in this one man show on account of his notoriety (I think – as I wasn’t on reviewing duty I was as relaxed as I could be, even in an extremely hot venue, and those two things combined in such a way that I wasn’t all that attentive to minor details, sitting back and enjoying the performance for what it was). There’s a partner, Jane, and together they have a son, Michael, whose very existence proves a game changer for John. For various reasons (not all of them his own), John keeps being put in prison, breaking my cardinal rule for anyone who wants to dabble in things like drug dealing: Don’t. Get. Caught. It’s a compelling story, and told with the intensity and passion that David William Bryan is starting to gain a reputation for.
I also managed to find time to catch ‘Holy Land’, presented by a fresh upstart production company called Elegy Theatre. I reviewed it for them when it previewed at The Space Arts Centre on the Isle of Dogs, and am pleased to report it has been enhanced with the kind of video projections and images that would have made the narrative clearer in its earlier incarnation. But they had an actor in their cast at the time who was sufficiently triggered by the hard-hitting nature of the narrative: he left the show by mutual consent. Another actor (Rick Romero) came in at short notice, and did very well at the London press night. It’s about the ‘dark web’ and the consequences of indulging in such online activity.
I also took a punt on ‘Christianity and Me’, a work in progress comedy act by Nick Dixon. I have seen enough Fringe shows to know that the title of the show is not necessarily even remotely indicative of its content. Fortunately or unfortunately here, he actually does want to talk about the Christian faith – his Fringe audiences have apparently been boosted by the membership of the evangelical Destiny Church Edinburgh. Most people in the audience on the night I attended were Christians, or at least said they were, and most of those were also evangelical, though one described her kind of religion as ‘liberal progressive’. Dixon has some traditionalist views, stating a preference for sombre and reflective services over guitars and chart-music style hymns.
His show is in a work in progress, so I’ll side with the religionists and be forgiving. His lines of argument do need fleshing out – why are songs from yesteryear superior to the ones written recently? But as Dixon says, he’s got one of the most difficult tasks at the Fringe, where the default position is to be atheist, or at least do what I’ve done and be highly critical of organised religion. My attitude towards Christianity is best summed up by Gandhi, who is quoted as having said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” Still, it was a surreal experience, if anything, listening to someone promote chastity before marriage in all seriousness: it’s a message still given out at chapel but rarely if ever at a comedy gig. Dixon does at least have a suitably pleasant manner.
Australian comedian Rhys Nicholson, who I’ve seen and loved three Fringes in a row, likes to close his set by encouraging audiences to take a punt on someone they’ve not seen before – maybe there will be someone who people really like and will follow in the future, whether at the Fringe or elsewhere. Now, the first time I saw Irish comedian Ed Byrne live, he was on about how relentless wedding planning is. When I saw his subsequent show, he got married and he was on about living together with his wife Claire and getting used to one another’s eccentricities. Fast forward to Fringe 2019 and he’s 47 years of age and his two children are growing up fast. Well, he kept saying he’s 47 now, but he still jumps around and commands the stage with the energy of someone considerably younger. And he’s as funny as ever, at least as far as I’m concerned.
What else? That walk up to the Pleasance Courtyard is probably always going to be exhausting for me (it’s a particularly steep incline) and when August rolls around again, there’s no point denying it: I’ll end up succumbing eventually to the oh so calorific but oh so tasty eateries like the City Restaurant on Nicolson Street and the various places around the main Fringe venues that do pizzas and fish and chips and what have you. Don’t bother with the coffee from the outdoor stands at places like George Square and Assembly Rooms though – bleurgh. But no summer cold to report this year, and I’ve come back not nearly as exhausted as a schedule of 58 shows in 12 days plus reviews for the vast majority of those might suggest.
Haste ye back, so the saying goes. Is 21st September soon enough? I’m seeing some people I rather like in a touring production of Mamma Mia! at the Edinburgh Playhouse.
Now this is a departure from the usual Edinburgh Fringe staple diet of straight plays and stand-up comedy sets: An Introduction to Joy, presented by a former Free Church clergyman. There are more verses from the Bible read out than there would be at a typical church service, all of which are from Ecclesiastes. In an arguably radical (re)interpretation of the selected verses, it would appear that the relative fleetingness of life means that life is to be lived and appreciated. Bell goes on to quote the Talmud, a major source of Jewish theology, “A person will be called to account on Judgement Day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.”
If this goes against the ideals of organised religion, which has a habit of eschewing anything remotely fun or entertaining, so be it – Bell draws his audience back to the essence of the holy texts themselves, and at the same time (and I’d say this is crucial) nobody is asked to convert to anything. It’s all about the practicalities of increasing the amount of joy in people’s lives, small steps that people can actually take. And this is a very slick presentation, complete with photographs and images projected onto a large screen, which demonstrate the points being made very well.
Amusing social media posts are shown and chortled at, and the repeated mantra is to “lower the bar”, to the point where one is able to lighten up at smile at things that others may find infantile or unfunny. There are road signs showing distances to oddly named destinations, cute pictures of cats and dogs, that sort of thing. I can see why some adherents of religion absolutely hate the guy – God forbid people should actually have “life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). In the end, whatever one’s stance on faith, whatever one’s sexual orientation, whatever one’s stage of life, there’s joy to be found wherever we are, if we just look closely enough.
Rob Bell: An Introduction To Joy
The Stand’s New Town Theatre (Grand Hall)
17, 18 and 19 August 2019
21:00 (1 hour)
Former pastor Rob Bell is the New York Times bestselling author of Love Wins, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, The Zimzum of Love, How To Be Here and What is the Bible?. His podcast, RobCast, is the number one spirituality podcast. He’s been profiled in the New Yorker, toured with Oprah, and Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. He has a regular show at Largo, the legendary LA club, and now brings his brilliant new show to the 2019 Fringe.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.