Our Edinburgh Fringe highlights
Among the highly encouraging signs for cabaret in Edinburgh this year were baffled audiences and shows that didn't quite work - sure signs of expansion and experiment from a form that has never been as prominent on the Fringe as it is right now. From new showcases by stars of the scene and high-profile mixed-bill flagships to experiments by up-and-coming names and cross-pollination projects drawing on other forms, even those without a particular interest in cabaret couldn't fail to notice its presence. For those with a strong engagement, it feels as if a tantalising threshold has been reached.
Big names who already have a mainstream presence are offering strong work on familiar terms. For 'Chameleon', Camille O'Sullivan again draws on a songbook of Cave, Waits, Brel, Bowie and Dylan, melding raw musical beauty, sly theatricality and personal charm to wrenching effect. Meow Meow's latest satirical self-deconstruction, 'Feline Intimate', again saw her dragging audience members on stage as props and hurling herself among them while delivering compelling takes on Brecht and Amanda Palmer plus a couple of her own new numbers. Barb Jungr's (3) set confirmed her facility for bravura delivery, an endearing manner and drawing surprising meaning from familiar songs; 'I'm A Believer' became sad and self-pinching. The Tiger Lilies were on confident if underwhelming form; without any narrative or even patter, their litany of squeezebox falsetto depravity gets a bit samey.
Rising crossover stars Frisky & Mannish and Sarah-Louise Young also opted for more of the same, with updates of last year's Fringe successes: F&M's 'College Years' was a further lesson in musical 'collision theory', mashing up incongruous elements (a high-energy 'Creep'; Florence And The Machine meets cheesy '90s pop) to amusing effect, while Young's 'Cabaret Whore Encore' was another polished showcase of character cabaret full of assured song-writing and deft characterisation.
Plenty of other familiar faces were also on hand including 'Me! Me! Me!', Young's jaunty collaboration with Des O'Connor and Mr B, The Gentleman Rhymer; the funeral-chic ditties of Lady Carol; Tricity Vogue in both Blue Lady and uke-wielding modes; the amiable larks of the Hairy Pretty Things and sister show Magic Faraway Cabaret; the singalong knees-up fun of Underbling & Vow; the provocative nude poetry and witty videos of Ernesto Sarezale; and slick conjuring from Piff the Magic Dragon and Barry and Stuart, whose '98% Séance' was an ambitious and sustained triple-bluff drawing on spiritualism, Derek Acorah and 'The Blair Witch Project'.
Collectively, these acts constitute a compelling case for a cabaret scene bursting with talent. For newcomers, the most efficient way to sample it is the mixed bill - and there are plenty of options.
The long-running Bongo Club - hosted in part by Dusty Limits, who also had a showcase gig at the Spiegeltent - found itself deluged with high-profile rivals of generally high quality. 'Vive Le Cabaret' - the flagship of the Ghillie Dhu, a beautiful new Pleasance venue programmed by O'Connor and Blonde Ambition - decisively won over an initially reticent, somewhat older crowd with Dillie Keane on dogging and cheap flights, participatory 'sexercise' from Gypsy Charms and Tom Cat and the superb tumbling of Circus Trick Tease. 'The Crack', at the Assembly's mirrored tent in Princes St Gardens, was less successful on the night I went, with several acts feeling stretched and the lukewarm crowd unconvinced by Miss Behave's sometimes hectoring, slapdash manner ('Please welcome to the stage… whatever the fuck comes next!').
The Eat Your Heart Out crew offered a more ambitiously transgressive walk on the wild side, upending the dynamic of the performance space and shoving Scottee, Miss Annabel Sings, Myra Dubois, La JohnJoseph and Masumi Tipsy Saito (4) at a gape-mouthed crowd. Local outfit Kabarett presented a strong line-up of New York comics and genuinely funny burlesque comedy while the C Central cabaret venue offered a sweetly queer line-up including young dragster Ms Minelli and agitprop burlesquers Lashings of Ginger Beer. Meanwhile, 'Smoke and Mirrors' (2) at the Spielgeltent was a high-concept affair aiming to take the spot of 'La Clique'. With acts including desperate tap-dancing, a yearning-voiced bearded lady and sensational acrobats, threaded along an emotional through-line of alienation and escapism, its impressive production values and execution bode well for bigger things, even if its gestures towards narrative felt unclear.
Other projects also aimed to fuse elements of cabaret with more established disciplines to fascinating if never entirely satisfying effect. The most successful is probably Les Enfants Terribles' 'Vaudevillains' (1), a music-hall murder-mystery musical whose suspects are the acts on a mixed bill, each of whose Grand Guignol backstory is presented in flashback. Inventive, entertaining and strong on narrative appeal, it could perhaps do with more set-piece acts. 'Cabaret Chordelia' fused opera-trained delivery of cabaret standards with modern dance to technically intriguing but ultimately unengaging effect.
The Rififi Theatre Company's bold 'Lulu', starring La Clique's Marawa and showcasing plenty of circus skills, was let down by weak performances and incongruous expressionism. Other stand-outs included Alan Cumming's delightful song-and-anecdote show, 'I Bought a Blue Car Today', adored by a home crowd; Bryony Kimmings's thoughtful, imaginative and sympathetic performance piece 'Sex Idiot' (see p. 112); the poetic filth of Tommy Bradson's vaguely Hedwig-ish monologue diptych 'When the Sex Is Gone'; Peter Straker's rib-nudging old-school set, 'I'm Still Here'; and Australian troupe Princess Cabaret's funny feminist deconstruction of Disney's happy-ever-afters.
It's surely a sign of present abundance that I was able to watch five shows a day for a week and still leave Edinburgh regretting the further dozen I wasn't able to squeeze in. Plenty to be excited about here, then; even more exciting to imagine what's to come.