'Can we not just cancel this shite..?'

Tom Brogan on his nightmare Edinburgh festival

A couple of years ago I was offered a part in a comedy play about to embark upon a two week run at the Edinburgh Festival. The fact that I auditioned, was overlooked for the part and was, with two weeks to go before opening night, asked to step in when someone else had clearly pulled out was only a minor concern.

When I arrived at the first rehearsal I discovered that the script was still only half written and the director and co-star, who I had met at the audition, had bailed. She would still turn up on occasion to offer what she felt were helpful comments, usually remarks such as ‘It’ll be fine’ and ‘Oh yes, that’s funny.’ Victoria, the play’s author had taken on the directing duties and merged what was supposed to be two female parts into her own role. The play told of her journey hitchhiking through Canada, where it appeared all that happened to her was that she was hit on by a succession of creepy guys.

Graeme, my male co-star, a comedian who had been plucked from the stage of the local comedy club one night, whispered to me, ‘Thank fuck, you’ve agreed to do this,’ mere minutes after I had met him for the first time. My dreams of being Peter Cook in Beyond The Fringe died more or less at that moment.

My every instinct told me to turn on my heels, but it was the Edinburgh Festival I told myself. It would be fun. It would be an experience. The initial excitement in telling everyone I knew I was heading for Edinburgh to appear in a play for two weeks, was, with each rehearsal, tempered by the fear that they would actually come to see me in it.

We filled Graeme’s car and headed for Edinburgh with little excitement but much trepidation.

On the opening night we wandered over to Greyfriars Kirk to run our lines for one last time. Until, that was, we realised we were sitting outside a junkies’ den. We decanted to the Meadows and ran the lines once more with all the enthusiasm of 11-year olds doing a reading at church.

Graeme and I then had a feeble attempt at handing out flyers. ‘Who’s going to be interested in taking our flyers,’ we thought, when there’s a guy juggling chainsaws just yards away. Back at the venue Victoria discovered that half the set failed the PAT testing.???

The eight people who made up the audience that first night seemed to like it. The 12 folk who were in the next night appreciated it less and the seven punters on the third night were decidedly unimpressed.

The second act was becoming the problem. The problem in that not one single person was laughing at it. Victoria suggested a rewrite. Here we were four performances in to a 13-night run and we were looking at ripping out a third of the play and replacing it with, um, ‘Anyone got any ideas, guys?

After much umming and aahing, with Graeme and I having our ridiculous, mocking ideas dismissed, we did finally come up with something. We inserted a cartoonish robbery scene. No doubts it was funnier than what was there originally, although it certainly didn’t drive the plot on any further, or indeed make a hell of a lot of sense. It did offer Graeme and I the opportunity to get off stage for a few seconds to enjoy some brief respite.

In fact our departure from the stage grew longer each night. The main problem with this ‘fix’ however was that it was about seven minutes shorter than what was there originally, turning a 40 minute play into 33 minutes at best. Still it was only paying punters that were being shortchanged.

At the Fringe there’s a real spirit of community and supporting one another. In that regard I was happy to go see others shows in our venue and the sister venue. The only problem was that once the casts of the other shows found out I had attended their performance they were only too happy to reciprocate. I’ll never forget looking into the front row and seeing the withered looks of disgust from the cast of Grenofen Productions who were doing Jean-Paul Satre’s No Exit. Hell is other people indeed.

The Scotsman came in to review the show at the end of the first week. I told myself I would be happy with a two star review. Two stars was the best we could hope for and if we landed that honour we could consider ourselves as having got off lightly. It wasn’t to be however. There in Tuesday morning’s paper was the solitary one crushing star beside the play’s name.

‘Aiming to be surreal, this show's just weird, but not in a good way.’ The reviewer gave us far too much credit, just by supposing that there was an ‘aim’ in the first place. And what’s ‘good weird’ anyway?

The misery didn’t end there as the paper chose to highlight the show for the rest of the week as part of their Top 3 Shows to Avoid feature.

My work colleagues turned up to see it the following night. In the pub afterwards Victoria collared one of them. ‘Did you enjoy it?’ she eagerly asked him.

‘Aaaah, no. No, it had no sense of place, he replied to the now crestfallen playwright.

However, not everyone hated it. An audience member in the front row one evening appeared to have been on his first night out for 20 years as he laughed his guts up throughout the whole performance. He laughed one of those laughs that while that’s what you’re aiming for you can’t help thinking, 'What the fuck is wrong with him?'

My then girlfriend managed to upstage us all by laughing so hard at one point that she smashed her head off the chair in front of her. The lighting operator was still chuckling about that after the show ended.

The production did have its internal tensions. With just a few nights left of the run, as we waited in the wings to take the stage to our audience of six, Graeme turned to Victoria and said: ‘Can we not just cancel this shite?’

This failed to meet with the enthusiastic, affirmative response he had perhaps been looking for. ‘We have a funny show, guys,’ was Victoria’s reaction, designed to rally the troops. ‘Ach, you’re delusional!’ Graeme offered. He went on to elaborate that the show was crap and that she should take a look at herself.

I took a step back from proceedings and let them come to the realisation that there were onlythree more shows to go and we may as well make the most of it.

Victoria forced her boyfriend to come to see it seven times. What’s more the last night was the only time he didn’t pay to get in.

On that final night Victoria seemed admirably proud of what she had put on. She even hailed it as a success as she told us she had made some money from the run. I, on the other hand, was left with the Edinburgh Festival experience to look back on. The embarrassment, loss of respect, financial loss and artistic underachievement, but an experience all the same.

To all those undertaking the same journey this festival: I trust your experience is just as memorable. But hopefully for all the right reasons…

Published: 31 Jul 2008

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