I saw a few car crashes at Edinburgh but I’ll mention only one. Hells Bells (Pleasance, Courtyard) by the excellent Lynne Truss is a peculiar experiment. Truss sets her play in a TV studio and she spends the first 40 minutes explaining the storyline. The show lasts 45 minutes. So when we finally learn what the action is about, the action is about to cease. The nub of the drama concerns a TV show that was cancelled suddenly in 1995. So the play’s conflicts are rooted in the distant past and involve characters who aren’t on stage. The play culminates, weirdly, in a fight involving the destruction of some elaborately ugly hats. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that this closing scene is Truss’s comment on her own work. Strange, pointless and a bit desperate.
Coalition (Pleasance, Queen Dome) by Robert Kahn and Tom Salinsky is a flawed but often very funny political satire. Matt Cooper is a LibDem deputy prime minister struggling to control his party while maintaining good relations with his Tory colleagues in government. Cooper is not Nick Clegg. He’s a vain, scheming, foul-mouthed and arrogant Little Englander who heartily loathes anyone living outside the Home Counties. The skilful comic Thom Tuck makes him ludicrously unpleasant rather than utterly obnoxious.
The writers have sprayed comic ideas all over the place in the hope that some of them will work. And plenty of them do. They’ve gathered a harvest of jokes from every source known to man: from history, from biography, from Westminster rumour, from P.J. O’Rourke. They’ve even written a few themselves. Like this. Cooper is accused of being ‘only interested in power’. He reacts furiously. ‘If I was only interested in power, I wouldn’t have joined the Liberal Democrats!’ The comedienne Jo Caulfield delivers a great performance as an icily competent, and secretly ambitious, government whip. And the show’s secret weapon is Phill Jupitus, who plays a creepy gay political fixer, a blend of Peter Mandelson and Fatty Soames. Slyly subverting his own character, Jupitus dominates every scene he appears in. Coalition is selling well enough for the producers to start dreaming of a West End run. There are a few ifs. If they can hang on to Jupitus. If they can iron out the bumps and crimps in the script. If they can find a small theatre, such as the 400-seat Trafalgar Studio, and two dozen investors to spread the risk thinly. Then it might work.
The truism that stand-up comedy is vengeance for show-offs is confirmed by Peter Michael Marino in his one-man play, Desperately Seeking the Exit (7 Baxter’s Place, Leith Walk). Marino is a charming, witty writer from New York who devised the Blondie musical Desperately Seeking Susan. It opened in the West End in November 2007 and closed after a month with the backers having learned how easy it is to misplace £4 million. Marino took to his bed for a year. Eventually he got up and penned this amusing and informative account of his humiliation. He’s a good storyteller, an excellent mime and an enthusiastic mocker of London manners. The only person who won’t enjoy the show is the musical’s director, Angus Jackson, who gets all the blame for its failure. Bit unfair. If the show had triumphed, Marino wouldn’t have given Jackson sole credit for its success.
Joyced! (Assembly, George Square) is a curious amalgam of poetry and documentary. Set in Dublin in 1904, it traces James Joyce’s life between the funeral of his mother and his first encounter with Nora Barnacle. It’s all a bit daft, left-field and fringey. But a must for hardcore Joyceans.
The festival always produces a real gem and I was lucky enough to see it. Virginia Ironside (Growing Old Disgracefully, Gilded Balloon), once a rock journalist, later an agony aunt, has earned a living by writing for so long that she can’t even scribble a thank-you card without enclosing an invoice. Aged 68, she takes a flame-thrower to all the cosy platitudes of the elderly. A friend tells her, ‘I’m 70 going on 50.’ ‘No, dear,’ says Ironside, ‘if you’re 70 you’re not “going on” anywhere.’ She loathes women who complain that old age makes them invisible. ‘So wear a pigeon on your head! Or leap out from behind bushes at people.’
The label ‘stand up’ has been attached to this show but Ironside is far wiser and kindlier than a nightclub comic. Her reflections on death are moving and very comforting. Far from being huge and scary, she says, death is small and perfectly natural. Like the dropping of a chiffon scarf. No doubt she’ll tour this show until her chiffon scarf drops as well. If it arrives anywhere near you, leap on to your mobility scooter and zip along.