Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2003

The Edinburgh Fringe and Book Festivals

reviewed by Tony Challis

“If I ever get to the Pearly Gates and an angel is standing there and he says, ‘Did you enjoy the joke?’, I swear I’ll tear his wings off.” You don’t need to be a believer to know that in this image is the authentic voice of a transgendered person.

Gender realignment is no honeymoon. Shelley Cooper (quoted above) presents Growing Pains; she is the first ever transsexual comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe, and her other job is psychotherapy.

She talked about taking up boxing as a boy because she liked the satin shorts, and becoming a junior champion in Middlesex. Entertaining and very pointed.

Among 1,500 Fringe shows, a “main” festival, book, film, television and jazz festivals, it’s necessary to keep an ear to the ground to find arresting, involving, original shows. Shelley Cooper’s is one of these.

In the audience when I saw Growing Pains were Topping and Butch, an extremely talented duo, known on the gay circuit in Brighton and London, dressed in bits of rubber, leather and titillating weaponry.

They sang “Fag Hag” to the tune of “Down Town”. The final section, “Gaydar – The Musical” (the futility of pretence), was hilarious, and their political commentary was wonderfully sharp. Catch them if you can.

Mitch Benn and the Distractions heavily distracted me – I bought the CD! You might call them a very talented rock-satire group, though they do “takes” on many musical forms and are probably best known for “crap shag”. It was really the very accurate three-minute rap “My Name is ... Macbeth” that most grabbed me. I think kids should study it at SAT level. Brilliant.

I didn’t think I was watching a likely Perrier winner when I saw Demitri Martin at the Assembly Rooms. Much of this Greek American’s humour turns on his being an intellectual “geek”: his programme includes a 150-word palindromic poem he has devised. He tells of various games he invented to liven up boring lectures, the weekly chart of “moral progress” he kept, etc. Not uproarious, but very cleverly entertaining.

More uproarious was Danny Bhoy at the Pod. This is a “circus tent” venue – the performer has the audience all around, and no set. Fully exposed, Danny Bhoy was so at ease, he might have been a hilarious guest who has arrived at your house party. His Scots-Asian ancestry allows him to make jokes about “seaming burqas” – even about crocodiles in burqas.

His material from his Australian tour was memorable. He described drunkenly meeting an angry male kangaroo in the outback. Danny Bhoy, seeing the kangaroo’s testicles withdraw, and having been told this is a sign of anger, decides to take down his own trousers as a sign of goodwill. Ah! Reappearance of marsupial bits! The extent to which Danny made us imagine him naked and exposed made me wonder ... I’m sure Danny Bhoy is a wholesome straight lad, but this punter was genuinely aroused! He has moved to London, so look out for his cute face on local posters in the south.

Originally, Another Midas Theatre Company’s Dirty ... Little ... Secrets was original. Mrs Janet Gordon becomes “the Magpie”, a light-fingered whore who takes all that sparkles. The cast of Harper Ray, Lucinda Ryan and Lindsay Trahearne (see cover photo) athletically work on a structure of scaffolding in high heels, in a take on Restoration comedy inspired by the music and lyrics of the rising young composer Shane Cullinan. If this intrigues you, catch them at Battersea Arts Centre and elsewhere. Look out for them.

After Sex, All the Animals Are Sad – by Adam Bruce (a Royal Court young writer) and Nicholas Cartwright, for Velocet Company, London (at “C” Venue, Chambers Street) – examined an intriguing tendency. Christine has an academic boyfriend engaged in primate research. He scoffs at her church involvement, and says there is no such thing as a disinterested act.

Christine joins a convict support group, visits her correspondent in prison and becomes increasingly drawn to him. She and her boyfriend’s sex more and more focuses on taking intimate photos of her that can be sent to the prisoner. Why do prisoners – including murderers – get sackfuls of mail from women? I’m sure we all have our theories.

This play has been previewed at Hoxton Hall, London. It may continue after Edinburgh, and is worth looking out for.

The dramatic high point of the Fringe for me was the work of Van Badham. This 27-year-old Australian playwright is the real thing. She has had previous successes in Edinburgh (Kitchen, notably). Camarilla this year at “C” Venue was electrifying. A fifties left-wing lecturer is caught up in a bombing in which her daughter is injured. Suddenly, theories become reality. The media, political violence and the “War on Terrorism” increasingly invade her life.

The play Bedtime for Bastards, also by Badham and also at “C” Venue, was in two parts. In Part 1, Polly is in bed with Ben, telling him she is marrying someone else – wisely, for Ben is crassly insensitive, even though he realises how awful are some of his remarks. In the push-me/pull-you of their relationship, you see that these 24-year-old fuckbuddies of eight years’ standing need each other, but are disastrous for each other.

In Part 2, we see two American PR guys having to come up with a gloss on an atrocity committed against Afghan children by their army – and they have 30 minutes. Their verbal imaginations are on overdrive, they torture each other, but they do the job.

Some Americans walked out of this show, causing newspaper headlines; but it was not about a specific event, more about the human tendency to “excuse” ourselves and those to whom we are loyal, or who are paying us, and how we use language to permit horrors.

This was very Orwellian. The use of language was the theme, and how this can be used to suppress feeling. Who, post-Vietnam, blinks at the word “escalation”?

Another Australian triumph was The Return, by Reg Tribb (Fresh Track Productions, directed by Geordie Brookman). This takes place on the last train from Perth to nearby Fremantle, and the guards are on strike. Steve and Trev control the carriage, intimidating all who board, including a writer. Steve (Alistair Scott-Young) is brilliant as the tough whose power games get out of his control, until more is revealed than he would have admitted to himself. It would be unfair to reveal the gay twist in the tail, but the tension is fierce, and the play received a standing ovation the night I saw it.

At the main International Festival, a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull was at the King’s Theatre. Peter Stein’s production was in contrast to the Fringe – three and a half hours long, gradual and musical, with Fiona Shaw as the awful Arkadina, an ageing actress, and the delicious Cillian Murphy as her son, Konstantin, whose creativity she cannot understand or accept, plus Iain Glen as Trigorin, the blithely destructive writer.

“How can you live like this?” was Chekhov’s famous remark concerning his characters. That came to mind during The Last Night of Mankind, by the Argentinian company El Periferico de Objetos. This purported to show how mankind’s behaviour might bring about its extinction. Part 1 shows a group, post-holocaust of some kind, clad only in mud, playing with dummies (the dead?) and singing.

The second half shows the same group, in white, in a cage (a human zoo?), given numbers and instructions and forced to communicate in English. Any relapse into Spanish is stamped upon.

I cannot convey the disturbing impact of this show in print, but maybe if the two halves had been reversed those who left at the interval would have had the benefit of the whole show, and things might have followed better. Overall, a stunning theatrical coup d’état.

At the Book Festival, Merlin Holland talked about the new transcript of the first trial of his grandfather, Oscar Wilde, which he has edited. New material has made this three times the length of any previous script. Holland and Owen Dudley Edwards re-enacted part of Wilde’s cross-examination, Edwards explaining his reasons for giving Carson a particular Dublin accent. Very revealing.

The major American essayist and novelist Susan Sontag was present for this talk, and at her own event later spoke of how important Oscar Wilde was for her. She spoke about her fiction and about how difficult she found it to say what she wanted about relationships if she set her work in recent times.

She was talking about her essays at a later date. Her new book, Regarding the Pain of Others, is about war photography. That word “regarding” has so many shades.

Edmund White, Val McDermid, Paul Bailey and Mario Vargas Llosa were among writers appearing after I had left, whom I would like to have heard.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-10-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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