Posts tagged ‘Fringe Festival’

An Evening with Dementia

Trevor T Smith was a familiar figure on the Royal Mile in August, meandering through the Fringe Festival hooplah in character as an elderly man who was no longer himself, trailed by a protective woman (his wife, I believe) who explained the purpose of his appearance and one-man play, An Evening With Dementia. (See a photo here; I could never snap one for myself, feeling like a creep.) It was always a jolt, after eeling through crowds surrounding crudely boisterous street entertainment and politely taking flyer after flyer from eager young things desperately trying for a smile and hopefully another ass in a seat, to be confronted by a figure of senility wearing a sandwich board. Before making out what kind of show he was advertising, mental inertia filled in the details: some edgy thing self-consciously pushing the boundaries of good taste, mocking basic human compassion?

Far from it. Smith brought a little genuine humanity to the crass anything-for-attention stretch of the Fringe, along with as many or more laughs than most of the straight comedy shows on offer.

The concept is simple, and elevates his advertising campaign to a sort of performance art by tying it in with a line about nursing home escapees found hours later wandering on the high street. A former actor, who assures us that while he does have dementia, he certainly doesn’t suffer from it, mentally talks over the footlights as he once did as a Shakespearean orator and pantomime player. The life of an elderly resident of a nursing home is not without its compelling challenges and contentments, to his mind, despite regular humiliations – politely ignored – and bouts of depression; as much a crapshoot of luck and attitude as any stage of life, one could conclude.

Though the most unreliable of narrators, Smith keeps faithfully to the first-person perspective and offers many beautiful moments couched amongst midst of confusion and shame. My favorite is his recollection of holding an infant (most likely a grandchild or even great-grandchild after its christening) while a huge gathering of family takes pictures of them, the singular connection he feels suddenly as they hold each others’ gaze, “with not a memory between us.”

The topics of his monologue sometimes range outside the boundary of dementia’s fog to a larger disconnection. A defense of social workers, most likely referencing the Baby P tragedy, calls out those who are still able to connect with the larger world and choose not to, leaving overworked civil servants fruitlessly trying to fill in for all that blocked empathy and taking the blame for society’s failures. He tells us that he once knew the names of every child in his neighborhood, because people socialised across familial limits; now, he dreads visits, and his primary rule for keeping the little freedom he still has is to never use a person’s name, even when he’s sure he knows it. I don’t know the names of the people in our building or speak to their children for fear of being seen as a potential pedophile – am I that much better off?

Smith’s show embodies the emotional dichotomy of hoping your loved one is still inside this poor worn body. I’ll admit that my first sight of Smith on the Royal Mile upset me, even though I’d already mentally noted the show as one I wanted to see. My grandmother had been recently confined to a care home with dementia as well as rapidly declining physical health, and that was who I saw in the street. It hurt, almost physically, thinking of her so lost, even knowing she was getting the best possible care. As mentioned previously, she died not many days later.

When she first moved into the care home, she despised it, and spent the first several weeks trying to escape. This mild, sweet, but iron-cored woman transcended her mental labyrinth several times to set off the fire alarm so that the key-code door would automatically open and dashed through. She somehow flung small furniture through windows and tried to jump, foiled by her worn body and the very fast attendants. We wondered if she had secretly been Wonder Woman in her younger days, while worrying for her safety (and the attendants’ misery).

An Evening With Dementia had much the same feel. It was a relief to peek behind the character so often seen lost and vacant-faced amid festival crowds, to hear from the strong personality still fighting against his trials, still living. How wonderful, and how awful, that the ember is trapped within and slowly going out. This evening will stay with me.

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Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death

Matt Parker and Timandra Harkness put on an extremely well constructed show. There are a few (very small) problems with that, but perhaps only for those sensitive to set-ups. When the audience participation gets a little to independent, there’s anxiety: will they manage to bring out the punch lines of the planned brick jokes at the right minute?

The nominal thesis of the show is the calculation of your personal chances of death at any given time, in any given way, using a unit of risk measurement called the micromort: a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Taking a tab of ecstasy and smoking a single cigarette, for instance, both carry a risk of one micromort. In the UK, dying by shark attack and as the result of a tea cozy incident carry the same risk: zero micromorts. A glass of wine or a breakfast fry-up, well…that’s more complicated. Chronic alcoholism certainly shortens one’s life, but moderate drinking (whatever that may be for any individual) is actually linked to a lower risk of heart attacks. And, all factors considered, it’s actually healthier for most people to be a little overweight (again, whatever that is person to person) than a little underweight (likewise).

At this point, an overweight man in front of us yelped, “Has that sample been controlled for people who’ve lost weight due to cancer treatment?”

“Yes!” Harkness replied immediately, and continued, “We have the best hecklers of any Fringe show: ‘So’s your control group!'”

A running gag is the treatment of the audience as a sample group, treating each minute of the show as a year with all of us born as it started, with Parker doing his math-genius thing of calculating the percentages for a 146-member audience on the fly. At 65 minutes, most of us were lucky: only one in ten UK resident will die before that age, so only the front row had stickers on their forehead declaring them “DEAD.” After that, though, there was the expected steep drop-off, which somehow culminated in a mock shark attack, then a song about the point of life being what goes on underneath all the calculations, ending on a cheery note.

My grandmother died a few days before the show. We’d bought our tickets earlier that week, so it wasn’t as if we chose to be morbid, but we did nearly have second thoughts about attending. It’s a testament to the show’s warm silliness that I left it feeling better about the mysteries of life, death, the universe, and everything.

Sanderson Jones: Taking Liberties

August is a painful month for Edinburgh locals. Not only do some bastards bugger off for the entire month, renting their homes out as “party flats,” but every nook of the city is hastily transformed into a dozen-seat venue for a variety of talent, all of whom spends 12 hours a day ambushing passers-by with advertisement postcards.

Getting into any of these shows is a trial, as the Fringe follows the typical UK festival tradition of nurturing a cramped, surly chaotic atmosphere all but devoid of accessible bathrooms. Sanderson Jones‘ show, tucked away in the Five Pound Fringe ghetto, initially was no exception. The venue was on the top floor of a hole in a wall, the door to which was completely blocked by amateurs with power tools bashing a groove in their stoop and pulling out the wall’s wiring. Customers who dared approach at the show’s start time were snapped at to go into a nearby bar to wait, then thirty seconds later were snapped at to form a queue up the stairs and go go go! Since this has happened at every Fringe show we’ve attended (aside from the power tools, a nice improvisation) in the past three years, I’ve come to assume there’s special courses in July, where staff have to act this scenario out again and again through intensive role-play until they’ve got it note-perfect. Bravo, GRV staff – your hard rehearsals were not wasted. Once in the small venue, piercing electropop was playing at roughly six billion decibels while a webcam projected the growing audience’s image on a small screen. Our hopes were no longer high.

But then! Sanderson Jones leapt out, with his lovely red beard and skinny jeans that removed all threat of progeny from his future, and accused my husband of pedophilia. It was funnier than it sounds. His loose theme was how prurient hysteria and paranoia threaten freedom of speech for all, and he approached a genuinely uncomfortable audience threshold with his “I’m drawing a children’s book about prophets of monotheistic Middle Eastern religions, guess which one this is!” bit. He compared the concept of fatwās to cynical advertising campaigns (drawing on his experience as an advertising seller for the Economist magazine), which was a little Bill Hicks, and used Venn diagrams to illustrate the problems of being both a comedian trying to connect to audiences via funny and being a human being trying to connect to other human beings by any means necessary.

And, to make some point or other, the webcam turned out to be a chekov’s gun, ambushing unsuspecting wankers on chatroulette with the sight of a couple dozen strangers waving cheerfully, or wearing creepy masks. I sincerely believe he was making a real point, but was too amused by the half-dozen or so naked cocks that came on screen and rapidly nexted away from us. (For once, South Park didn’t lie to me.)

There were some weak points in the show. A long segment on the Brook Shields photograph removed from the Tate Modern didn’t entirely pan out, despite Jones’ offering of one of his own nude baby pictures as an alternative (awwwww…the cute little ginger toddler). Having that photo up on stillscreen was too creepy to laugh around – which may have been his point, so, good attempt there. And, while his material is generally innovative and personal (despite a few seemingly mandatory “women I want to fuck don’t want to fuck me” bits…which Hicks himself regrettably fell into too damn often for me to deify that talented man), he doesn’t seem quite confident enough. He encouraged audience involvement but was rattled several times afterward at then being talked back to, calling fairly quiet “I want to play too!” outbursts “heckling.” You try to break through the audience’s individual shyness…meh, that’s what you get. It’s just seeking approval from the man in the spotlight everyone’s paying attention to, not repeated drunken screams of “free bird!”

Overall, the guy’s got a lot of potential, and I hope to see more of him.