Mamma Mia! A surprise Edinburgh hit
Audiences are encouraged to stick to well-beaten tracks , and critics seem quick to form a consensus over ' must-see' productions, but the spirit of the unexpected is not yet suffocated Who would suspect before the wires began to hum, for instance, that a one-man performance combining magic, psychology and story-telling would be such a hot ticket, asks PETER CRAWLEY
IT IS NOT enough to succeed in Edinburgh (to borrow Gore Vidal's maxim). Others must fail. This is the crueller impression you might get along the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile, thronged with performers and slick with promises, where, you are assured, every show is unmissable. Competing against almost 2,700 other productions, every performer can point to a four- or five-star review, often from a suspiciously unfamiliar source, and though star ratings have never seemed like a hard currency in Edinburgh they now seem entirely devalued: "Free show. Five stars." Towards the end of the festival last week, the sales pitches had become wearier, and oddly realistic: "Free comedy," someone said to me. "I can't make you come."
Although it resembles a busy souk for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the path threads through several of the city's simultaneous festivals, stretching from the Edinburgh Castle (where the Military Tattoo booms out its salutes each night), past the humming headquarters of the Edinburgh International Festival, and splintering away towards several sepulchral Fringe venues. Among this bustle, everyone is looking for a way to stand out. Only a fraction ever will.
Now in its seventh year, the Culture Ireland showcase has long been aware of the risk and the potential gains of presenting Irish artists at Edinburgh, as well as the necessity of creating an advantage for the authors and performers it brings there. But this year, presenting a slightly smaller showcase than in previous years, the State agency for the promotion of Irish arts abroad seemed to concentrate less on the vagaries of the Fringe and, for its theatre strand, to put all of its stock in the more orderly EIF. For Culture Ireland, the Fringe was always a bit of a gamble, but risks have been mitigated through carefully cultivated relationships with quality-assured venues such as the new writing theatre the Traverse and the similarly curated Dance Base, and networking events with Irish delegates and international producers.
This year, it seemed to play it even safer. With CI's assistance, four dance companies returned to the security of Dance Base; Tumble Circus performed their confessional acrobatic comedy in the E4 Udderbelly; and Jack L performed at the Acoustic Music Centre. At the EIF, the Gate presented its enormously well-received production of Watt ("Beyond perfection . . . Five Stars" - the Scotsman); Silviu Purcarete directed a visually impressive but tediously shallow adaptation of Gulliver's Travels for Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu (for which Shaun Davey composed its score); and singer and performer Camille O'Sullivan appeared in a unique collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a retelling of Shakespeare's poem, The Rape of Lucrece, which, she gamely warned us, "may contain songs".
It has been a canny investment - Watt shows no signs of slowing down and the Gate seems likely to return to the EIF, and last weekend, following glowing reviews, O'Sullivan was presented with a Herald Angel Award for her performance - but it also seems rather risk-averse. O'Sullivan is already an Edinburgh star and the imprimatur of the RSC, the Gate and the EIF makes such performances seem like a triumph of the overdogs. This only matters to those who associate Edinburgh with taking a chance and making new discoveries, which made it all the more heartening to see Fishamble: The New Play Company's production of Sonya Kelly's The Wheelchair on My Face receive another top award, the Scotsman's Fringe First, last week. As one of three Irish productions to attend the Fringe without Culture Ireland support, Fishamble's success with Kelly's autobiographical comedy of a shortsighted childhood had the reaffirming sensation that an offbeat idea with a modest but imaginative production could stand out among the throng. It also appealed to the better nature of the festival.