United Kingdom Various: Edinburgh, August 2016. (ST)
Erik Satie’s-Faction: Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
Joe Stilgoe: Songs On Film, Assembly Checkpoint (Venue 322)
Silver Lining & Jacksons Lane: Throwback, Circus Hub (Venue 360)
Elixir: Circus Hub (Venue 360)
I guess you could say that Edinburgh has always been one big cabaret in August: the sheer variety of what’s on offer, together with the exuberant variety that takes over these dour northern streets, exudes a let-me-entertain-you value you just don’t tend to find anywhere else. However, there has been a resurgence in the form in recent years, and in many ways the Edinburgh Fringe has been responsible for the genre’s reinvention.
Alistair McGowan’s Satie show is a good example. With higher production values than you’d find at the average Fringe show, Erik Satie’s-Faction presents Satie’s music and the composer’s own words in a show that plays up to the man’s eccentricities. Dressed in dapper fin-de-siècle costume, and even sporting his own carefully groomed Satiesque beard, McGowan plays the composer in a way that is sympathetic (some fear or insecurity is never far away) but that doesn’t shy away from the odder corners of his mind. He only eats white things, for example, and describes his work as phonometrics rather than music. McGowan plays all the music himself on a grand piano – all Satie, except for a venture into Clair de Lune to explore the composer’s relationship with Debussy – and does a good job, while the dreamy atmosphere of the evocative music is helped by the discrete projections which take place on the back wall. It’s interesting and enjoyable, but ultimately it left me wanting to know more. We got the composer’s words, but I wanted to find out more about the context in which he was writing and to interrogate those odd expressions rather than just present them. Hopefully it will send newcomers off to try and find out more for themselves, but I was sorry not to get more exploration below the surface.
Joe Stilgoe (yes, Richard’s son) plays it more straight but does so pretty successfully. Songs on Film does what it says on the tin, though there’s a strong hint of nostalgia running through his choices. Joined by Tom Farmer on bass and Ben Reynolds on drums, they make a mighty talented jazz trio, and I liked the way they could transform familiar songs into something pretty unusual, such as Underworld’s Born Slippy from Trainspotting, which they turned from a thumping dance track into a wistful free jazz number. Sometimes they did fairly straight covers, such as Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell from Pulp Fiction, but often they created something of their own, and some very clever stuff at that, including some great medleys (the 80s one was my favourite). True, some of Stilgoe’s inter-song patter left a bit to be desired (“a film isn’t really great unless it’s got some rain in it”), and I didn’t love their almost-a-cappella take on The Rhythm of Life, but he was at his best when at his most stripped back: his take on Kermit’s Rainbow Connection coupled with the theme from Up, I found very moving.
For the real cutting edge of Cabaret, however, you need to go to the Circus Hub. A division of the Underbelly group, this venue was new last year, and was such a success that it’s back with a vengeance in 2016. As the name might suggest, it showcases circus performances, but this is a world away from Ringmasters and Lion-Tamers. Instead you get mind-blowing feats of acrobatics, dance and showmanship, all with a carefully chosen musical accompaniment. And all this takes place in a purpose-built Big Top on Edinburgh’s Meadows, the city’s green lung adjacent to the university. Pity the students trying to get any work done in August!
Silver Linings’ show Throwback is inspired by memories of your youth. When you first enter the tent you are asked to nominate a song that reminds you of your childhood (the ensuing montage is all from the ‘90s, which is a sure fire way to make this reviewer feel old!), and lots of the subsequent routines are based around old pop songs. Around this pretty loose framework they construct a network of routines that are pretty often pretty awesome to look at. I really liked their Dirty Dancing number, where they perform a number of gravity-defying feats using only their own bodies, and elsewhere it’s pretty impressive watching somebody singing and playing the piano while balanced upside down on one hand. The vertical acrobatic routine to Michael Jackson left me unwittingly open-mouthed, and their hula-hoop-based finale, featuring, of all things, P J & Duncan’s Lets get ready to rhumble, is so upbeat that you can’t help but smile. In fact, their whole show is fresh, cheerful and a joy to watch. I left the tent feeling really uplifted (though, mercifully, not physically!).
I guess there’s an argument that you can see this kind of stuff for free on the Royal Mile during the Fringe. After all, acrobats juggling fire-clubs on unicycles are pretty de rigeur at this time of year. The beauty of the Circus Hub, however, is that it gives this art form the space to expand and do its own thing in a way you never get on the street. The three man troupe of Elixir showed that really well. This show also had its fair share of extraordinary balancing acts and eye-popping acrobatics, with a trapeze, a ladder routine and a see-saw somersault to finish. But the two beauties of Elixir were that, firstly, it told a story, using the outline of a zombie attack (and the different elixirs being developed to protect humanity) to frame the stunts. Secondly, like any good circus act, they had a clown, but this time as the bumbling third member of the group rather than someone with funny hair and big feet, and they used him beautifully to humanise the story and to interact with the audience. I found this show a real delight, for its humour as well as for its stunts. Towards the end of the show I realised that I’d had a smile on my face for the last hour solid. Now if that’s not what cabaret is all about, then I don’t know what is.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe continues until Monday 29th August at a range of venues across the city. For full details click here.