Seeing Red

This Fringe is arguably more political than ever. Stewart Pringle talks to the artists who've had enough

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The Red Shed
Published 20 Jul 2016

A week is a long time in politics. A month is an eternity. When this feature was pitched back in the heady, carefree days of about six weeks ago, it was tentatively titled ‘The Corbyn Fringe’ and planned as a sunny, slightly fighty chat with some of the country’s finest left-wing artists about the ascendent ‘soul of the Labour party’. So, clearly, as a concept, that’s utterly fucked. Presumably by the time this issue actually reaches your hands the country will look like the set of Mad Max: Fury Road but with shite weather, and the entire Tory party will have torn one another to pieces like battery hens at a pecking party.

I speak to Mark Thomas first, on the Monday after the Brexit before, and he’s angry. His voice is screwed tight with rage. His new show The Red Shed is the story of that titular building, a 47-foot Labour club in Wakefield where he cut his teeth as a comedian. "It’s about history," he tells me. "It’s about working-class history, about how the stories of the working-class become marginalised, and why they’re important. Why it’s important to have a sense of continuity, in terms of your place within the struggle."

Thomas is pretty clear about where that struggle lies; he acknowledges the manifest failings of the EU, but rails against the transformation of the Leave campaign into a "plebiscite on immigration". It was a referendum won in the kind of working-class communities The Red Shed is talking about, and that’s no surprise: "The working-class North is furious, fucking furious. And I don’t blame them."

I catch Shappi Khorsandi days after Glastonbury Festival, which she describes as a combination of tearful solidarity and protective shield. There have been a lot of hugs given, a lot of plans made. Khorsandi's new show is called Oh My Country! and it’s an apparently unintentionally resonant attempt at "reclaiming patriotism, and the idea that a geographical space belongs to the people who live on it, and care for it, and that you don’t necessarily have to have Oliver Cromwell’s DNA to call it your own".

Khorsandi’s feeling acutely aware of the impact the Brexit vote has had on her neighbours, and on her country at large – expounding on it all, her usually laid-back and ironical delivery hardens: ‘‘If someone has made a life here and identifies with this country being their country, then who is anyone to tell them it's not? You can't challenge what someone identifies with. Farage, for example, was born in Britain but identifies with the 1940s."

No less angry are Jonny Donahoe and Paddy Gervers of politico-musical duo Jonny & the Baptists. They’re rehearsing for their new show Eat the Poor, "about the incredible extraordinary expanding gulf between the poor and the wealthy in the United Kingdom of Great Britain", explains Donahoe, but they’ve recently taken a break to soak in the Brexit bad news.

"There’s been a lot of drinking," according to Gervers. "We drank through the pain, and the sadness," Donahoe adds. "And then we had a curry, because they’re probably going to stop, at some point soon." You sense he’s only half-joking.

Jonny & the Baptists made headlines a couple of years ago with their Stop UKIP tour, which ruffled a few of Farage’s greasy feathers, but for once their focus isn’t on the dickwads on the right, but on building bridges and building understanding with all those people, and those communities, who saw leaving the EU as their only option.

If anything, their targets this year are themselves, and the metropolitan elite they represent:

"Don’t be angry with people who voted a different way from you. Don’t castigate an entire section of society, don’t assume they’re moronic and racist. They’re not. They’re hurt and their society has been damaged so much more than you can imagine if you are part of the elite." Donahoe pauses, serious now, serious and almost sick: "Please, let’s try and do something positive. That’s the message of our show. We have had a number of years of gently attacking the Tory government. And now it’s time to accept that we are the problem. And fucking fix that."

For reasons of political impartiality, I have to mention that not everyone’s weeping into their pints or gearing up to man the barricades. Maggie Thatcher (that’s the Queen of Soho, rather than the stone dead former PM herself) is back for her third Edinburgh Fringe with Margaret Thatcher Queen of Gameshows. But even Mrs T is feeling a little green around the gills at the news of an upcoming Brexit:

"I rejoiced! Finally, I thought, we're free from the tyranny of the European Union. However as the day went on I realised that all these years I've been using the word 'tyranny' where I actually mean 'financial and political stability'. Whoops!"

Whoops indeed. I’ll leave you with a sign-off from Mark Thomas, or actually more of a warning. Something to keep us up at night, or maybe it’s just the wake-up call we need.

"We are about to face the biggest fucking neocon government we’ve ever seen. And either the progressive forces of the left come together to find a way of fighting that, or it’s over. It has to be done, and it has to be done now, because we have to protect people from the oncoming fucking onslaught. 

"Because it’s coming. It is fucking coming."


Politics in the Spotlight

Letters to Windsor House 

The reliably barmy Sh!t Theatre take an oblique but moving swipe at the housing crisis, the destructive force of gentrification and the unnoticed lives all around us, in an investigation of the previous tenants of their own ragtag London flat.

Summerhall, 1:35pm, 3-28 August (not 22)

Lifted 

A box-fresh take on national identity, immigration and police violence that seems almost eerily prescient on the biggest themes of this bizarre summer.

theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall, times vary, 5-20 August (not 7) 

Forest Fringe 

Always a haven of experimentation outside of the commercial megalith of the Fringe proper, this year Forest Fringe is offering up a "festival of reflection", with new artists and artworks mingling with some of the best work of the past 10 years to respond to this period of political uncertainty ‘with hope and compassion’. Just don’t call it a greatest hits.

Out of the Blue Drill Hall, various times, 11-20 August

World Without Us 

Maybe the world would be better off if we all cleared out altogether? That’s the premise behind provocateurs par excellence Ontroerend Goed’s new show about the ultimate extinction of humanity, and what, if anything, comes next.

Summerhall, 11:30, 3-28 August (not 8, 15, 22)