Conversations with a penis, having a laugh about Brexit and why titles matter: Edinburgh Festival reviewed

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

David Greig has written the international festival’s flagship drama, Midsummer. This farcical romance is performed as a party piece by four actors supported by a plinky-plonky band playing satirical ballads. We meet two boozy drifters, Bob and Helena, who enjoy a night of rampant sex aftera chance encounter in an Edinburgh pub. Will their affair live or die? Well, since the show starts with two older actors reminiscing about the characters’ past we knowin advance how it all ends. An odd way to kill suspense.

The lovers have little in common apart from alcoholism and the madcap plot sends them hurtling through a set of mishaps and scrapes as their romance develops. They get tied up in a bondage club. They bump into each other by accident outside Helena’s sister’s wedding. Bob gets chased by a thug who suffers a heart attack and leaves Bob in possession of £15,000 which Helena encourages him to donate to random strangers.

These whimsical plot twists are marred by the dialogue, which relies on Greig’s schoolboy enthusiasms for vomit, urine and swearing. Selected aphorisms include ‘35 is a shit age’ and ‘life isn’t a game of poker, it’s a game of patience’. When not reading Dostoevsky, Bob likes to hold metaphysical conversations with his penis. He muses that because existence is a journey through measurable chronological phases it follows that life itself is ‘time travel’. His overexcitement at this trifling pun brought him close to an erotic detonation. The local crowd endured the company of these foul-mouthed gasbags with so much forbearance and good humour that I began to feel sorry for it. If Edinburgh thinks this tomfoolery is drama, the city is being swindled.

Every year Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky bring a political satire to the fringe and every year it disappoints. Brexit is a pleasant surprise. Set in the near-future, the play examines a hapless Tory government dithering over our final exit deal. The amiably shifty PM (Timothy Bentinck) wants to postpone Brexit for ever by following a policy of ‘frenetic inertia’ but he daren’t let his backbenchers discover his secret plan. He gets some of the best lines: ‘The press hate me for my beliefs, even though I tried my hardest not to have any.’ The Tory Brexiteers are led by a Rees-Moggish fop, played by Hal Cruttenden, whom a colleague cattily describes as ‘having a triple first in sycophancy and beef Wellington’. Heading the pro-EU lobby is Diana (Pippa Evans), a slippery opportunist who once served as ‘unpaid minister for women’s equality’.

Not everything is perfect here. The plot doesn’t develop beyond its opening premise, the gags are too thinly spread and the 75-minute running time may not suit the West End. But with a rewrite and a tidy-up, who knows? At times the show had the audience cheering and whooping with delight. The appetite for a decent Brexit comedy is vast.

Titles are crucial at Edinburgh. Stand-Up Philosophy is a regular and popular event that gives academic philosophers a chance to try their hand as comics. The bill changes every day. I saw a female speaker who proposed a horny old dilemma about a runaway train. Would it be ethical to push an innocent bystander in the path of the speeding choo-choo in order to save ten track engineers further down the line? That’s a parlour game, not philosophy. She was followed by a lecturer whose ten-minute hero-worshipping speech meant nothing to me as I missed the name of the genius he was extolling. The show hasa great title. Better content would help.

Science is F***ed is a lecture by Dr Stephen Darling, who campaigns to remove prejudice from scientific publications. At the start he asked us if we believed in the EU and climate change, and he seemed comforted to discover that most of the crowd supported both cults. On the issue of man-made global warming, he mentioned that some of the evidence is disputed but he was more interested in accusing the BBC of ‘false balance’. Referring to the Beeb’s habit of pitching a climatologist against an amateur like Lord Lawson he described such a debate as ‘a scientist sitting on a pile of evidence’, arguing with ‘Nigel Lawson, who was a dick in the 1980s and is still a dick today’. He cited none of the proofs adduced by either side. This struck me as the best joke of the festival: a scientist exhibiting bias in a lecture designed to eliminate bias from scientific discourse. As there were barely two dozen in the room, his secret is probably safe.

Six is a charming, sexy, foot-stomping all-girl musical about the wives of Henry VIII. The witty lyrics are well served by a great songbook that astutely mixes fast-paced rock anthems with bittersweet ballads. This show could tour the world.

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