Trumped out: why the fringe can't keep up with 2017

Guardian Web |

This would be a bad time to try to hire a blond fright wig from a theatrical costumier. The ones that aren’t being worn, combed forward, by actors playing satirical versions of Donald Trump are, hand-brushed upwards, on the heads of performers sending up Boris Johnson.

With thousands of shows on offer at the Edinburgh fringe, audiences are inevitably drawn – before the reviews and prizes come in – to productions with easily graspable themes that can be spread to the like-minded through social media.

Related: Edinburgh festival 2017: the shows we recommend

So it’s possible this month to see three pieces in a row about the current US president: British comedian Simon Jay’s one-man show Trumpageddon ; the US import Trumpus Interruptus, a fantasy about the American president’s impeachment; and Trump’d, a musical from Cambridge Footlights revue team.

Commercially canny – all of the productions sold tickets quickly and in large quantities – the projects suffer, as all Trump satire does, from the difficulty of out-imagining reality and keeping ahead of events. A section in Trumpus Interruptus about White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci, presumably added to reflect his appointment just before the show opened, has already been rewritten to account for his sudden departure.

Trump’d tries to outrun the news by locating the show in 2030, when the 45th president has become a dictator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger his vice-president. Even so, the jokes are remarkably constant across this coincidental trilogy. Trump is lampooned for inaccuracy and boasting (expressing, in Trumpageddon, his pleasure at “playing to 15,000 people in Glasgow”), over-prolonged handshakes, obsession with female genitals and building walls, and buddying up to Vladimir Putin. Each show satirically suggests a homoerotic element to the connection between the American and Russian presidents.

Political comedy has become one of the fringe’s stand-out strands since Edinburgh 2014 coincided with the run-up to the Scottish Independence referendum. Two UK general elections and an EU referendum in the subsequent summers have encouraged the trend.

But authors and performers who hitch a ride on the juggernaut of current affairs risk being overtaken by, for example, a prime minister calling a snap election after the fringe programme had gone to press.

This jeopardy is reflected in the title of satirist Matt Forde’s set: A Show Hastily Rewritten in Light of Recent Events – Again! The audience gets tantalising hints of what might until recently have been frontline riffs – involving Paul Nuttall, Tim Farron or, once again, Scaramucci – before Forde dutifully switches attention to Vince Cable and North Korea.

Forde is an accomplished mimic – some of the audience flinched at his forensically throaty Nick Robinson – but as Mike Yarwood during Thatcherism he is unable to take off the current incumbent of No 10.

Cometh the hour, cometh Difficult Woman, a solo show for impressionist Jan Ravens that is receiving huge cheers. Even here there is evidence of emergency rewriting, with signs that Ravens had gambled at the planning stage on an international ruling female triumvirate of Theresa May, Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel. During the early summer, the performer must have been praying that if May went, she would be replaced by Amber Rudd rather than one of the contenders who would be, for a female impressionist, a difficult man.



Luckily, at least for fringe-goers, Ravens still gets to do the UK’s second female premier, showing the audience how May’s “tense mouth” creates a delivery that somehow sounds both arrogant and panicked. Cannily, she gets round Clinton’s defeat by impersonating Trump as a shrill toddler. Although she topically jokes about being paid, as a BBC woman, “tuppence ha’penny” for Radio 4’s Dead Ringers, the greater public prominence of women gives Ravens an escalating range of targets, and her ear can reach them all, offering a three-way exchange between Scottish main party leaders Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale, then effortlessly sketching in a Newsnight two-way between the double-quick Scots of Kirsty Wark and the half-speed Canadian of Lyse Doucet.

Probably expecting its script to remain safe until Britain’s EU-leaving date of , Brexit: The Musical finds itself already caught short on topicality by May’s failed gamble.

Writer Chris Bryant (not the Labour MP, but a lawyer of the same name) includes a few frantic closing verses about the 8 June general election vote, but is still stuck with a show in which Theresa May’s big number stresses her stealthy strength and tendency to be underestimated, while Jeremy Corbyn’s solo laments his being prevented by events from attending Glastonbury 2016, with no mention of his triumphant appearance this year. The cleverest composition is Mother Knows Best!, a torch song for Andrea Leadsom, that, like much of the show, would have been even funnier last August. Perhaps, to represent the current political situation, Brexit: The Musical should have been offered in alternative soft-rock and hard-rock versions in adjoining venues.

The risk for all these political comedies is that they become echo-chamber shows, assuming that, like all of the authors, most of the audience will be anti-Trump and anti-Brexit. A bolder enterprise might challenge theatre-goers to empathise with someone they demonise, as happens in Bin Laden: The One Man Show.

Related: Edinburgh festival 2017: 10 shows to see

This bold concept by the UK-based Knaïve Theatre (which, daringly, started its tour in the US) offers a sympathetic biography of the architect of the 9/11 atrocities, in the form of a motivational business talk – complete with tea and biscuits for the audience.

Sam Redway, who co-created the show with Tyrrell Jones, stands beside a flipchart listing the six steps – from “finding a cause” to “wanting it” – that permitted an underachiever from a rich family to humiliate first Russia (in Afghanistan) and then the US, in New York, and elsewhere. The result is an unsettling explanation of the process of extreme radicalism, creating a tingling sense – rare in fringe shows – of theatre-goers being led in an uncomfortable direction.

Similar mental stimulation occurs, with added simulation, in Foreign Radical, part of work by a large visiting Canadian presence this year. An interactive drama based on the US government’s anti-terrorist watchlist guidelines, the show challenges ticket-buyers to feel what it might be like to become a target of surveillance and suspicion.

Groups of 30 are led through a series of curtained-off spaces, sometimes left alone, at other times supervised by a hyperactive white-suited interrogator, a sort of CIA gameshow host, who asks a series of questions about our online habits, travel movements, languages spoken, political beliefs and sense of humour. Responses lead to categorisation as either friends or enemies of the state, with alliances and ostracisation emerging among the participants. The debate about the line between security and tyranny has rarely been so stimulatingly debated.

Mark Lawson’s top five Edinburgh 2017 shows

Jan Ravens: Difficult Woman

(Gilded Balloon Teviot)
May (and Merkel) the force be with her.

Adam and Eve (Traverse)
Eye-opening paired plays about the transgender experience in the UK and Egypt. Borders (Gilded Balloon Teviot)
The fourth in Henry Naylor’s brilliant sequence of plays about the Middle East involves a cynical photojournalist’s encounter with a Syrian refugee. A Monk’s Tale: Relics, Revolt and Reformation (Gilded Balloon Teviot)
James Cary’s musical sketch-show about the Reformation improbably combines high comedy with serious theology and history. Snowflake (Pleasance Courtyard)
Mark Thomson’s play, performed by young Scottish actors, explores the terrifying jeopardy of being young today.

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