Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review - Festival

Every year, thousands of wannabe’s, has-beens and never-will-be’s descend on Scotland for the Edinburgh festival. Away from the more commercial side of the festival - where comedians you’ve actually heard of will be competing for awards - the Edinburgh Fringe is the section of the festival where unknowns will be staging obscure shows in the hope that their big break is just around the corner. Festival, a rambling new black comedy from The Book Group creator Angie Griffin, follows a number of disparate characters who are connected to the Fringe in some way, from performers to judges, and charts the fluctuating emotions which they experience.

The first character we meet is Faith (Lyndsey Marshal), a pretty young woman who is performing a one-woman play about Dorothy Wordsworth (“who’s in it?” asks one punter), while another one-person show is being staged by Brother Mike (Clive Russell), who uses his play about paedophilia to deal with his own hidden desires. An avant-garde Canadian theatre troupe are renting a room from a frustrated woman who is suffering from post-natal depression (Amelia Bullmore), and a couple of Irish stand-ups - Tommy (Chris O’Dowd) and Conor (Billy Carter) - are looking to win the big comedy competition, but they have to beat ambitious young comedienne Nicky (Lucy Punch) who will do anything to succeed. Famous TV comedian Sean Sullivan (Stephen Mangan) will be on the jury for the comedy award, and he arrives with his downtrodden assistant (Raquel Cassidy) in tow. Finally, sarcastic radio host Joan (Daniela Nardini) will be interviewing participants and commentating on the events.

Director Griffin dips in and out of these characters’ stories as they cross paths over the course of the festival weekend. Her loose, semi-documentary style is a good fit for the material but the actual content of her script poses a few problems. There are a number of different story strands going on here, some stronger than others, and Griffin’s lack of discipline in choosing which ones to concentrate on makes the film feel flaccid and unfocused. The parts of the film involving Mangan’s bickering relationship with his assistant, or Nardini’s affair with O’Dowd, are smartly written and well performed. However, the trio of Canadian dancers are hopelessly underwritten and their scenes struggle to raise a single laugh. The Canadians’ story also leads into the subplot which revolves around Bullmore’s staid marriage which, again, is flat, uninvolving, and feels somewhat unnecessary.

Griffin’s film is all about the thin line between comedy and tragedy, and she seems a little unsure when the time comes to cross the line. Her deviation between the comic and dramatic portions of Festival are often blunt and clumsy, resulting in some jarring shifts in tone, and she also includes a number of needlessly explicit sex scenes (in particular, one involving glove puppets which is as bizarre as it is unpleasant). The director’s writing is not really strong enough to make us care for the characters in these darker moments, although many of the actors bring a welcome edge of pain to their roles.

In fact the cast is superb throughout, and most of the laughs to be had are derived from their performances. Mangan, Nardini, O’Dowd, Cassidy and Marshal make the biggest impression with perfectly-judged supporting performances from Lucy Punch and Deirdre O’Kane among others. There are occasions when Festival hits the mark and raises some big laughs. Griffin’s depiction of the kind of pretentious performance that is often evident in the festival is spot-on, and I loved the jury’s bitchy arguments as they made their decisions. Unfortunately, for every joke that works there are a larger number which fall flat and Festival ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

Griffin shot her film in the midst of last year’s Edinburgh festival, mixing footage of real performers into her film, and she successfully captures the energy and atmosphere of the town. It only serves to highlight what Festival could have been, an exciting, absorbing and hilarious celebration of the Edinburgh festival, but it lacks directness and never really comes to life. Perhaps a straight documentary following some real Edinburgh hopefuls would have been a better bet; a more eye-opening, compelling film may have been the result. It might have turned out a good deal funnier too.