I know I run the risk of sounding very spoilt in this blog, but I wanted to write about one consequence of having seen some absolutely excellent shows over the last nineteen years at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It means that my standard for what makes a good Fringe show is very high. So a few times this year, I found myself thinking, “well, it was good, but it wasn’t as good as that other show we saw”. The audience at ‘The Magnets’ seemed to really enjoy the a capella arrangements of songs from the six piece male vocal group, and their beatbox guy Andy was very talented. But the fact that the show was in the ‘Udderbelly’ upside down purple cow venue just brought back so strongly the memories of ‘The Vocal Orchestra’ who we had seen last year and who were fabulous. They all beatboxed as well as dropping in a wide range of stunning singing performances and were so entertaining that I just found The Magnets a bit cheesy in comparison, a little too boy-band and same-y. But I was also aware that if I hadn’t seen The Vocal Orchestra I might have been really impressed with The Magnets, who did include some original songs as well as their own arrangements.
In a similar vein, we enjoyed ‘Hag’ from The Wrong Crowd which featured some great masks and puppets, storytelling and acting, but it still didn’t quite meet the amazing high standard of their previous show ‘The Girl With The Iron Claws’ which I had absolutely loved two years ago. Shakespeare for Breakfast this year was an entertaining and creative adaptation of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ with Katherina being portrayed as a wild young Kate Middleton who needed taming before she joined the royal family, and good sister Pippa/Bianca. It was fun, but I wasn’t blown away to quite the extent that I was by last year’s adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ set in a high school, with the iPhone obsessed Lady Macbeth frantically swiping her hand as if trying to access some app or other.
One surprise highlight of this year’s Fringe for me was Dan & Dan Live. Although I’d enjoyed youtube videos by this ‘duo’ (especially The Daily Mail Song which I have played in lectures) I had fairly low expectations of the live show which was part of the Free Fringe, showing at lunchtime in the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile. But the effects in their videos were even more impressive live, as Dan interacted with Dan on a projector screen and Dan on an iPad. Very clever stuff and again, really original. Maybe the fact that the show was free meant I expected less than was delivered, but I’m not sure if lowering your expectations is particularly easy or advisable in general.
I enjoyed Karine Polwart’s performance at the Queen’s Hall, and although I didn’t love her voice in the way I loved Yvonne Lyon at first hearing, I did like the mellow melodies and could tell that there was real depth to the songs. Some albums need more listening to be properly appreciated and I have bought her album ‘Traces’ and am enjoying it at home. There are some wonderful arrangements and I really like her percussionist who plays a wide range of instruments in the live show and on the album. Yvonne Lyon also has a wonderful new album, available here.
Realistically, not every show you see or every film you watch is going to be outstanding. I need to make sure I appreciate and enjoy shows even if they aren’t quite as good as previous ones, and if I’m provoked to contrast it with something more brilliant from a previous occasion, that’s perhaps just another reason to be grateful for the opportunity of seeing the brilliant show, and to enjoy the memories. It does make the achievement of a show that is truly original even more remarkable – this year I loved Mitch Benn’s show ‘Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle’. You might know Mitch from appearances singing comic/political songs on The Now Show on BBC Radio 4 – his song about being unsure of the justifications for the Iraq war has come back to mind lately. His show examined the claims that have been made over the years that various people were ‘The Fifth Beatle’ – there was masses of geeky Beatles trivia delivered in comic stand up but an additional layer of musical talent meant that some of the story was told in Beatles style songs. Mitch talked up his own personal connections to Liverpool and the band but also impressed us as he recreated the ground breaking looping of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ using just his voice and looping app on his phone. Phenomenal.
Mitch made various comparisons between The Beatles and other bands who have come after them, with both Oasis and One Direction coming in for particular disparagement. His love for the Fab Four came across strongly, but he also cautioned against idolising them to such an extent that we don’t move on and appreciate new music. He pointed out the band’s humble beginnings playing simple melodies with few chords and encouraged the audience to go out and make their own music. Very few will reach the heights of success but that’s not a reason not to have a go.
Coming back to marking resits of essays I was conscious of trying not to have too high expectations of my students, most of whom had struggled with an earlier attempt. Some of them failed again, but others had made considerable improvements and had clearly made the most of the opportunity to try again. While very few essays get the highest grades, that’s not a reason not to celebrate the achievements of each student who will graduate later this year. And in the same way that I can be pleased for a student who struggles but passes, and acknowledge that most students get 2:1s and 2:2s, then I should probably be pleased when I see a upper-second rate Fringe show. But I’ll still harp on about the really good ones…