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Mark Shenton’s week: Notes from a big festival in Edinburgh

Edinburgh festival Photo: Stephen Finn/Shutterstock Photo: Stephen Finn/Shutterstock
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I’ve just paid a return visit to Edinburgh – my first visit during the festivals since 2012. I’ve already written how I have become too intimated by it all to have done more than two nights this time.

But this also proved to be one of the best trips I’ve ever had to the event. It’s not just that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s that less turned out to be more. I saw only six shows (out of 3,269 productions on offer) in the 50 hours I was there.

Four of those were absolutely fantastic, while a fifth was a cabaret by a friend and the sixth was a bit of a dud. That strike rate of four great shows in two nights is pretty amazing. I’ve been for much longer and seen fewer stand-out things. It’s not just that I made better choices – though with limited slots, I had to make definite choices, rather than allow Edinburgh to wash over me in a blur of hope. But I enjoyed what I did see more by seeing less.

So I got a snapshot of an Edinburgh Fringe experience, wandering those glorious, hilly streets and – for a blessed change – not getting wet. Not only did the rain stay away, on the last day it was positively balmy. As was my mood.

I began by seeing Penny Arcade’s Longing Lasts Longer, which I’d missed on its first outing at Soho Theatre in November 2015 (where it’s returning next month for a week from September 19). It was a reminder of Edinburgh’s long past – it was there that I first saw Arcade perform in the 1990s – as well as a frank and fearless polemic on the current gentrification of New York City.

Her supremely articulate voice and confrontational yet caring performance style connect you to her and each other: this is what humanity is about, and exactly why we go to the theatre. I’d seen Penny Arcade before so it was a re-acquaintance with an artist who has simply become braver and more exciting over the years.

My second unmissable show (the same night) was a solo confessional by American TV writer and comedian Chris Gethard, whose Career Suicide details his bipolar disorder and breakdowns. I’d discovered it from reading a review by Brian Logan in The Guardian, and he wasn’t wrong: “Gethard’s openness and frankness are affecting, and he has built a comedy set around them with considerable skill and good humour.”

The next day I participated in a forum about the current state of criticism with a panel that included the two doyennes of fringe criticism, and possibly its most articulate voices – The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner and The Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan, who between them put in more legwork on the fringe than just about anyone.

In a town where everyone, seemingly, is a critic – I read somewhere that more than 1,000 critics were registered by the Edinburgh Fringe’s media office – it is dependable voices like theirs that really count. But the panel also included bloggers and website critics to help discuss the changing media landscape and the changing role of critics. It was impossible to contain the conversation in the mere hour allocated to it, and I could sense the frustration of the audience, which also wanted to have its say.

I kept the day pretty low-key, only taking in a bad new British musical and the stupendous import of John Tiffany’s The Glass Menagerie at the King’s Theatre, as part of the International Festival. I had interviewed Kate O’Flynn about it before she went to Edinburgh, which made me especially keen to catch it, but this was the sort of production that is definitely worth travelling across the country to see, so I’m glad I did.

I concluded the brief trip with a visit to catch my friend Nicky Gayner, appearing in a piano bar on the Free Fringe with her show Hooray for Love, a beautifully put together intimate cabaret through her love life, followed by Rob Drummond’s brilliant new interactive play In Fidelity at the Traverse, raising provocative questions about monogamy and sex in the form of a game show that matches up actual members of the audience on a blind date that is then played out in front of us.

A mirror held up to the theatre

Theatre routinely holds a mirror up to life, and that’s one of the reasons we find it so compelling – it reflects other lives back to us, and sometimes our own.

But I’ve now seen the latest – and possibly greatest – version of a play staged behind a two-way mirror that isolates its characters in a totally enclosed space, and turns the audience into voyeurs, in the incredible Simon Stone rewrite of Lorca’s Yerma at the Young Vic. This play about the pain (and eventual destructiveness) of childlessness has been remade for today with an intense ferocity. Billie Piper gives what may well turn out to be the performance of the year. It’s truly shattering. She’s this year’s Denise Gough.

I’ve seen the mirror trick before – in a play at the Gate in 2008 (State of Emergency), in Michael Longhurst’s production of A Number (at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre that also transferred to the Young Vic) and in Mike Bartlett’s Game (seen at the Almeida). But this production of Yerma tops them all for its intimate and shocking audacity.

Cagey about attribution?

I’ve written before about the quotations brandished outside West End theatres and in newspaper ads that have not always had the ring of authenticity about them. But I’m not sure I’ve previously seen a named reviewer claiming to be from a news outlet that did not publish or broadcast those opinions.

Neil Sean, who has an extensive career including Metro and various TV channels, is credited for his quote for The Go-Between both outside the Apollo Theatre and in a print ad in the Evening Standard.

The quote claims to hail from NBC News, but I was curious about that. I asked via Twitter where it had originally been published or broadcast. Sean’s response, surprisingly, failed to answer the question. Instead, he decided to drag up a reminder of my departure from The Sunday Express following the discovery online of some decade-and-a-half-old nude pictures of me.

I have made that episode of my life entirely public and have nothing to hide. I wonder if Sean, who Dave Gorman so brilliantly called out on his blog in 2014, can say the same?