It was the first year I’d braved Edinburgh as a performer since a rather dubious production I was in while I was at university, which has pretty much scarred me for life, but luckily for me, lightweight that I am, one of my oldest and closest friends happens to live in Edinburgh in a flat right on the Royal Mile, so my Edinburgh experience was downright cushy. Except for his kitten, Plug, who if she didn’t get enough attention would launch herself at my leg and cling on to my tights with her claws until I picked her up and stroked her (I’m thinking of adopting this strategy myself in future). So I’ve come home scarred from this Edinburgh experience too, but luckily only literally.
Walking through a torrential downpour to the Underbelly at midnight on my first night to appear in Sideshow, the Bloody Ringmaster’s late-night cabaret, I did wonder how much fun this was actually going to be, especially when I saw the water pouring through the brickwork into the building making the venue look like nothing so much as a medieval torture chamber. There were a couple of guys busking on the street under an archway on Cowgate with a double bass and a guitar. When I came out of the Underbelly after the show, two and a half hours later, they were still there, just packing up their instruments. That’s what I call a stoic performance. My own performance that night was to four people, which meant that when I got one of them up on stage to play the kazoo I actually lost a quarter of my audience. But size isn’t everything and all four of them were delightfully friendly. It was lovely to hang out with Lambchop Magoo, Chrysalis, Margaret the Gimp and the Bloody Ringmaster too – in fact the whole thing was rather cosy, despite the water running down the walls. The Bloody Ringmaster sniffed out the fact that one of our four audience members was in fact a reviewer – thanks to his built in reviewer-dar – so we all fell upon the poor guy oozing charm.
The next day I had planned to see the Bloody Ringmaster in his other play, in which he skipped across the stage in a nightie while someone played the mandolin, but I overslept and missed it. Then I decided to stay in bed and read a book called ‘The Secret Countess’ all day because the rain wasn’t showing any signs of abating, and I needed to know whether the beautiful but penniless Russian aristocrat of the title was going to end up with the young English lord more than I needed to find out what was going on outside in the rain.
That night my lovely Royal Mile Boy and his friend came to the show too, providing us with a third of our audience, which had now swelled to six. Royal Mile Boy volunteered to be my stooge and came up on stage to play the kazoo, but unlike every other audience member I’ve ever picked on before, completely failed to figure out how to get it to work – this must be some sort of Sods Law of Best Mates. To make things even more eggy, a pianist colleague who was in the audience strode onto the stage to show him how to do it, and gave an impressive performance on the kazoo which had no comedy value whatsoever and provided no closure for the little story we were telling about how someone could miraculously master an instrument in just a few moments. So I had to wrench the kazoo from my rather miffed colleague’s grasp and return it to my friend, who I would not allow to leave the stage until he had mastered it. Thankfully he did, leaving all of us feeling rather drained by the experience, which had somehow metamorphosed from a cabaret show into a music lesson.
Fortunately the reviewer who was in the audience, yet again sniffed out by the Bloody Ringmaster, was more excited about the prospect of getting a ukelele lesson off me at the end of the show. And by the time we had all been drinking for four more hours the whole thing was no more than a distant unpleasant memory. What’s more the rain had finally stopped, which suddenly made the prospect of staying out drinking more appealing, so much so that I succeeded in drinking till dawn, after making longsuffering Royal Mile Boy carry my gown and ukelele home for me while I careered off into the night in one of those rickshaws like you get in Soho, which in Edinburgh can actually climb steep hills with two girls in the back. I even managed to carry a full pint in a plastic glass for the whole journey without spilling a drop. That’s some impressive back-seat cycling skills, that is. Walking home at dawn along North Bridge my drinking partner and I encountered a charming local lady who was in extremely good voice as she serenaded us with her rendition of a traditional Scottish ballad. The next morning, unsurprisingly, I missed the Bloody Ringmaster’s play for a second time.
Friday saw me staggering up the Royal Mile with a hangover, cunningly fending off the thousands of flyering performers by clutching flyers for our own show in my hand (I appreciate this was not actually the purpose of giving me the flyers, and apologise in retrospect to the Bloody Ringmaster). It was quite overwhelming. But we found an Italian restaurant to eat lunch in, and I started to feel ready for the Fringe again after a few carbs. And just at that moment who should sashay past our outdoor table on the Grassmarket but Miss Ophelia Bitz in a fetching sequinned beret. She very generously offered me and my friend two guestlist tickets to the Tiger Lillies’ Seven Deadly Sins in the Spiegeltent, which was a riproaring hour’s entertainment.
When I congratulated Miss Bitz afterwards she revealed that from their point of view it had been a nightmare because somebody in the audience had stolen a prop. I had thought the whole baby-theft incident was part of the show, so cleverly had they covered it, which just goes to show how different a performance looks from the other side of the stage. Another unexpected discovery of Saturday was how great Edinburgh water is for washing your hair in. My bob came out all shiny and sleek. I take back all those negative remarks about Edinburgh and water – I love it after all. That night, my last on Sideshow, we had an impressive audience of ten, and my kazoo stooge was a gorgeous American boy who revealed after the show that he was actually playing the part of one of the Columbine murderers by day. So I unwittingly had a murderer on my kazoo for the night. We followed the show with another impressive night’s drinking til dawn. On Saturday I missed the Bloody Ringmaster’s play for the third time.
Saturday night I moved onto my next show, And The Devil May Drag You Under in Musical Theatre @ George Square, and suddenly hit the big league. I arrived to discover a two-hundred-seater auditorium with proper wings, spotlights, the lot. If it weren’t for the warm and friendly welcome I got from the cast and the other guests I’d have been quaking in my boots. Apparently there were loads of reviewers in that night, and there was also a great deal of pressure not to overrun, because otherwise they’d be fined by the venue. Just as I was taking all this in and starting to put my white-face make-up on (to conceal the fact my face had actually gone white with nerves), the cast of the previous show tumbled off the stage and into the backstage room, and a loud female cockney voice was exclaiming about what a nightmare it had been when her radio mic failed and how stressful it had been singing unamplified. I looked up in recognition. That was the voice of Hayley Angel Wardle, one of the four lead actresses of the TV show I’d worked on a couple of years before – Totally Frank on Channel 4. And there she was, in a bright yellow dress and a lot of orange fake tan. I went over to say hello, in my white-face cabaret make-up, and an odd pair we made – a very Edinburgh Festival combination of incongruous costumes. She was in a musical called Departure Lounge about a bunch of lads on their way back from a holiday in Benidorm, and she was playing the femme fatale. I decided that the happy coincidence of winding up in the show right after hers was an auspicious sign.
That didn’t stop me getting the flutters big time about having to step out into the spotlight with nothing but my small pink ukelele and attempt to dazzle a crowded auditorium. The anticipation built up as I waited in the wings with the other performers, hearing but not seeing all the other acts perform their turns. It’s very weird listening to cabaret acts but not being able to see them, it’s a real tease trying to guess what it is the audience are laughing at and what exactly the performer is getting up to out there. I loved Sxip Shirey’s bizarre music, even though I couldn’t see what strange implements he was making his sounds on, and I really enjoyed Greg Walloch’s stand-up routine, but was almost unable to resist the temptation to have a peek and see what Lizzie Wort, Pustra and Vile’een and Scottee were up to, because I could tell there were riotous things going on just the other side of the curtains. My own turn was rather tame by comparison – more whimsical than outrageous really. I recreated a childhood fantasy diva moment by performing Don’t Cry For Me Argentina with my ukelele standing in for the orchestra, the audience standing in for the massed choirs, and a back to front chair for the balcony. The zeal – and the tunefulness – with which the audience joined in led me to suspect that there were more than a couple of performers in the auditorium.
That night I joined the show’s cast for a drink and a dance in the Spiegel Tent but managed to get home by the relatively restrained hour of 3.30am, because the next day I had to get up to go to church.
Yes, I really do mean church. Not a deconsecrated church being used as a Fringe venue. An actual church. My lovely Royal Mile Boy was singing a Haydn mass with his church choir, and had a solo part to perform, so I went along to watch him doing his stuff in cassock and surplice. Because it was a proper mass the choir were tucked away in a corner behind the orchestra, all but out of sight, so I had to sit in a bit of an odd spot to be able to watch him, which meant I missed the ‘real’ show, namely all the synchronised genuflections performed so balletically by the ministers. I must confess I found it all but impossible to sit through the service without unconsciously thinking of it as another piece of theatre, so immersed in the world of festival let’s pretend was I by this time. As such, I must say it stood up rather well, and could probably wipe the floor with some of the other shows on the Fringe. It did secretly amuse me to think that I would be in church in the morning and in Hell with the Devil that same night. But then that’s the Edinburgh Festival for you.
Royal Mile Boy joined me in the Devil’s lair for the show that night, fresh from his mass, and added his dulcet tones to the chorus of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. Later on, this being the nature of the festival, he and I ended up out for a drink with the Devil himself, of course. But sadly we were unable to source a chip shop for him where he could satisfy his late night urge for a bag of chips at 4am. Apparently “he who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon” so it’s probably just as well the chip shops were all shut, because I have no idea how you’re supposed to eat chips with a long spoon, or indeed a spoon of any description.
Disappointingly I had to go home the next day, but so smitten was I by my Edinburgh adventures that I was sorely tempted to come back for more the next weekend. In the end I decided to wait until next year, when Royal Mile Boy’s kitten will, hopefully, have got old enough to be a bit more low-key about her demands for attention, and won’t send me home covered in scratches.
I was also sorely tempted to bottle some of that Edinburgh water to bring back to wash my hair in, but in the end I realised that since I was already carrying one duffel bag, one hat box, one ukelele case, one rucksack and two gown bags, I wouldn’t realistically be able to manage a demijohn of water as well. Luckily it was raining as I walked to the station, so my hair got one last free wash anyway.