Thirty years on
I first came to the Edinburgh Fringe as a student in 1981 and 1982.
1981 was the year when I worked a 48-hour shift culminating in performing in a late-night cabaret at Bedlam. No one showed. My fellow disgruntled artiste Steve Nallon, who a few years later became the voice of Maggie Thatcher on Spitting Image, gamely “did” his Bruce Forsyth on the street to drum up trade.
In 1982, this time at the Netherbow Theatre, again with Steve Nallon in cabaret, the actor “doing” his Robin Day was so spectacularly bladdered through afternoon drinking I had to rehearse in another performer to “do” her Janet Street-Porter. Robin Day is now a humanist minister, JSP now one of the most influential people in publishing. They made spectacularly unpredictable journeys.
In the same cabaret was my friend and then housemate – the incandescently brilliant singer Pinkie MacClure. Pinkie’s journey in thirty years has seen her hone her craft. This year at Summerhall in Pumajaw’s Song Noir, I was staggered that her voice has matured to have an almost superhuman range.
In 1983, we stopped coming to the fringe. With director Nick Philippou, performer/writer Mark Billingham and a bunch of others we created Bread & Circuses Theatre Company. We made a bit of a splash for a few years and learned a lot, often quite painfully, as we tussled with being a collective (does anyone do that now?) Mark Billingham is now a hugely successful crime writer, appearing at the book festival this year. Nick Philippou has continued his directing career with amongst others the RSC, Theatre de Complicite and as Artistic Director of ATC. I went on a community theatre odyssey, taking me into an area that has since become “applied theatre” and to my spiritual home at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Nick and I are now working together for the first time since the eighties on our show Wot? No Fish!!, also at Summerhall. We have reformed Bread & Circuses as bread&circuses; we’re not quite back at the same place.
I imagine that Nick, Mark, Pinkie and I may well all meet up this year and toast our teenage selves. We’ll see students on the Royal Mile and we’ll probably disparage their juvenilia, but see in them the ghosts of who we used to be.
Wot? No Fish!! at its heart is about how history works; an area that obsesses me now. It’s not a straight line with dates, as our history books tell us, nor a circle where “history repeats itself”. The metaphor that works for me is that history is a helix, the shape of a spiral staircase. You turn a corner and you sense that you’re in the same place; that some things never change. But of course, many things do change – in 1981 there was only a handful of comedy shows, no twitter, no mobile phones and no double-shot macchiatos – but the essence of the fringe doesn’t change. I’m reassured by that.