Rain whimpers from Edinburgh’s skies. The sodden tourists look like aliens in their steamed-up ponchos as they scurry and rustle across the gleaming cobblestones. Performers touting for business chirrup their overtures with desperate gaiety. Thousands of them are here. Tens of thousands. Vanity’s refugees hunkering on the wrong side of fame and hoping to get through the ego-crisis alive.
A familiar name forces its way through the anonymous wastes. Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult (Gilded Balloon) is a one-act play by Tim Fountain. We’re at home with the Queen of Spleen as she cracks open a litre of vodka. It’s mid-morning. ‘I’m a hideous parody of myself,’ she tinkles in her soft-core Cider With Rosie accent. Hedonism and Judaism are the twin pillars of her life. And hate. She showers her foes with caustic venom. Vegetarians, Guardian readers, British male novelists (‘either pansies or pugilists’), feng shui consultants, bisexuals, Richard and Judy. ‘Why don’t they fuck off to Dignitas like they promised?’ Her youthful beauty — tiny waist, huge bust — has vanished. ‘But what did it get me? Tony Parsons.’ Her affair with Charlotte Raven doesn’t qualify her as homosexual. ‘A day trip to Bruges doesn’t make you a Belgian.’ Newspaper journalism, she seethes, has succumbed to the hereditary principle. ‘Instead of a pony I’ll get her a column.’ Lizzie Roper brilliantly traces Burchill’s descent into a drug-addled mess but as her life and career disintegrate, her character seems to rise heavenwards towards a plateau of triumphant self-vindication. Burchill has never sold out. To my surprise, this show hasn’t either. It deserves to.
Chef, by Sabrina Mahfouz (Underbelly, Cowgate), has bagged one of the festival’s early prizes. The protagonist is a brutalised urban castaway who winds up in jail and finds salvation through gourmet cooking. Jade Anouka’s performance is charming and skilful but the storyline is muddled, and the writing style is marred by lyrical ambitions. ‘Flesh and bone moan together’ is a very weird way to describe a parental punch-up. Mahfouz evidently supports the barbaric axiom that those who witness criminality in childhood are destined to embrace it in maturity. And though many in the crowd stood to applaud this bolshie rant, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d been coerced into extending my sympathy towards a self-pitying and unredeemed hard nut.
Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky specialise in political satire. Their new play, Kingmaker (Pleasance Courtyard), features a bumbling London mayor who mounts a bid to replace an unpopular Tory prime minister. Highly topical. Trouble is, the script is wordy, embittered and short of jokes. And it feels implausible. With a cast of just three, the writers can’t hope to represent the countless influences, pressures and rivalries that lead to a political assassination and the emergence of a new party leader. The main character, Max Newman, is an uninspired Boris replica. He hasn’t the original’s zany, extraterrestrial wit and his gaffes seem seedy rather than lovable. He once ‘concussed’ the Saudi ambassador. At university he caused the suicide of a rival by mounting a relentless bullying campaign. Hardly the back story of a national treasure. These writers are good but this threadbare, narky play lets them down.
Natasia Demetriou (Underbelly, Cowgate) wants her own TV show and she’s come to Edinburgh with a half-finished collection of monologues, sketch ideas, party wigs and joke-shop hats. A video screen broadcasts clips of her father and her brother giggling through semi-improvised routines. So it’s a TV show all right. But it’s not hers. It’s Sarah Millican’s. The late-night audience, who seemed to have been drinking since New Year, didn’t mind the jumble-sale presentation and they laughed uproariously throughout. Demetriou has a lot of self-confidence, a deep need to show off, and no interest in the quality of her material. She’d make a great vicar.
Phone Whore (best title on the fringe) is written by a phone-sex insider, Cameryn Moore. The centrepiece is a call from a punter who asks her to describe a fellatio session with an eight-year-old girl. Were such imagery visual it would be prohibited. But in verbal form it seems exempt from the law. So does that make it OK? And if an audience member finds the paedo-chitchat arousing, is he an abuser? Well, no. But he might be suffering from latent tendencies. Ms Moore is captivating to watch and has as much energy as a spring tornado. Her show (at Sweet Grassmarket) is disturbing and, in parts, hilarious.
Andrew O’Neill’s History of Heavy Metal (Pleasance Dome) is intended for an audience as narrow as a guitar fret. O’Neill is a gifted stand-up who races through the annals of rock history while accompanying his cynical observations with riffs from an axe, which he wields as proficiently as Ritchie Blackmore. Here’s his view of ‘Smoke on the Water’: ‘Great opening, tedious follow-up. It’s the Saving Private Ryan of metal.’ If that means anything to you, and it may not, you’ll find this show a blast.