It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m in the rented Edinburgh flat of the Cambridge Footlights. The John Cleeses, Stephen Frys and Emma Thompsons of tomorrow are seated around me and urging me to perform my one-man, four-minute play The Telephone Call, written on a restaurant napkin earlier that day. I argue that the piece was designed to be performed in the intimacy of a telephone box, in the hope this will put them off. It doesn’t. They eagerly suggest we all squeeze into the bathroom. There is no escape – and it is all thanks to the Dice.
Seventeen hours earlier I’d arrived in Edinburgh with a copy of the Fringe programme, no tickets, and a set of dice borrowed from my nephew’s Cluedo set. It was my first ever visit to the festival, and frankly I felt intimidated by the sheer scale and variety of it all. I’d spent most of the previous week poring over the programme and cross-referencing venue locations and show times with the aid of a slide rule and Edinburgh A-Z. But I still wasn’t confident I’d get the authentic Festival experience. And that’s where the Dice came in.
These would be my guiding force during the next 24 hours, they were to make all my decisions and dictate my every move. With over 500 shows to choose from, not to mention all the peripheral distractions, I was handing complete control over to a couple of plastic cubes with dots printed on the sides. It was my blind date with destiny.
Unlike the hero of Luke Rhinehart’s classic novel however, I wasn’t going to let the Dice dictate anything too heavy – rape, murder or impersonating Jesus were definitely out of the question - nor would I let them influence any tricky moral or ethical decisions: if I wanted to have a double latte in Starbucks, I would. But everything else would be at their whim, from the types of shows I saw, to what I did in between them, and where I ended up spending the night.
The only other concession I made was that, for the first few rolls at least, all the even numbers would mean I had to go to the nearest pub and have a drink. I thought if I threw sufficient twos, fours or sixes, I’d soon be feeling brave/reckless enough to add some more interesting possibilities to the list. But for that first throw, in the buffet of Waverley Station, the other options were:
One – see a show in the smallest venue you can find.
Three – convince a foreign tourist Edinburgh is Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Five – persuade a china shop to let you perform your one-man version of Raging Bull.
"With over 500 shows to choose from, not to mention all the peripheral distractions, I was handing complete control over to a couple of plastic cubes with dots printed on the sides. It was my blind date with destiny."
Of course, I ended up looking for a pub that was open, but it was far too early so I rolled the Dice again. This time it was a one. I made my way up to the Fringe Office on the Royal Mile to find out where the smallest venue was, bracing myself to be attacked by SWAT teams of flyer distributors, kamikaze unicyclists and clowns on stilts. Even though it was barely ten in the morning, I found all my stereotyped preconceptions to be bang on target, though at least everyone who gave me a piece of paper advertising their show was extremely friendly.
At the office, I was told the Festival’s smallest venue was actually a two-seater Smart car, in which performer Benji Ming would chauffeur his audience around the city while acting out his trilogy of plays. But he wouldn’t be starting until the 22nd. Instead, a two-hander called Tonight Matthew, I’m… in the basement of Oxygen bar was recommended. When I got there, the photocopied arrows on the wall pointed down the stairs to a tiny corridor and into a room small enough to be the gents, where I thought another Festival cliché was about to be confirmed. Only when another audience member arrived, unzipped his fly and leant over the urinal in front of me did I realise it actually was the gents and that I should be in the slightly larger room next door. But the play was very good, and its female star so beautiful that I’d thought of another couple of options for the Dice when it was over. These were:
Two – pretend to be a casting director for the next series of Big Brother.
Four – heckle any act and/or leave mobile phone switched on during a performance.
This left six as my only escape route to the pub, but I was already feeling confident I could meet any challenge the Dice threw up. Which was just as well, as the number of spots revealed after the next roll was five.
The duty manager at Jenners department store was very sympathetic – “we had quite a few groups put on extracts from their plays last year, but to be honest, no-one was interested, the customers just ignored them” – but declined my request when I revealed the name of the play I wanted to perform. At Castle Antiques on Lawnmarket, which boasted a fine display of Victorian china in its window, the bow-tied manager declared: “Not likely, you might be thieves!”
So, not wanting to let the Dice down, I changed tack slightly, and succeeded in persuading Ian Cameron hairdressers to not only let me put on an abridged version of Hair!, but also use one of their floor-sweeping apprentices as an extra. (Sorry I never called you back, Jackie).
The next throw of the Dice produced a four: heckle an act or leave mobile phone switched on during a performance. Among the flyers I had accumulated so far was one for Geeza – Memoirs of an ex-Football Hooligan. I thought a heckle there would probably be welcomed. But when “Dangerous” Dennis Watson bounded onto the stage threatening “a portion of boot pie” to anyone who interrupted him, I thought better of it. But I did leave my mobile switched on throughout the show. That’ll teach him.
It was time to consult the Dice again, this time with a new set of options:
One – find a tattoo parlour and ask for tickets for “that big firework show up at the castle.”
Two – stalk comedian Alan Davies for some mortgage advice and/or get a celebrity’s autograph.
Three – go to see the most controversial show you can find.
Four – picket the most controversial show you can find.
Five – perform your own street theatre on the Royal Mile.
Six – tell a comedian your “nun and a bicycle” joke.
I drained my beer and rolled the Dice onto the restaurant table: five. Well, I thought, the Royal Mile was already full of people making fools of themselves, one more wouldn’t make any difference. So I started working on my script. Several minutes later, I had finished, having reworked an old joke I remembered from The Comedians circa 1976. The location of the two scenes in my four-minute epic was a telephone box, and conveniently there were two of the old-fashioned red variety at the corner of Lawnmarket and Bank Street. I scribbled out about half-a-dozen flyers containing key phrases like “World Premiere” and “Free!”, and began handing them out to passers-by. But just when I’d managed to convince people that I wasn’t some sad reject from Big Brother and that the play was about to start immediately, I would find my “venue” suddenly occupied by some Philistine who wanted to make a phone call!
"I succeeded in persuading a hairdressers to not only let me put on an abridged version of Hair!, but also use one of their floor-sweeping apprentices as an extra."
In the end, The Telephone Call lasted for three performances, and the reviews ranged from “worth a couple of quid admission” (Brendan from South Africa), “interesting but a bit short” (Clare from Australia) to “couldn’t really get into it” (Mary Jane from London who was too petrified to make eye contact with me throughout).
Half-an-hour later I was having a drink in the Pleasance Courtyard and recounting my thespian woes to anyone who hadn’t been able to get a ticket for Emo Phillips, when the bloke next to me introduced himself. He was Phillip Breen, writer/director of the Cambridge Footlights show. He wrote down the address of their flat and invited me around after midnight – “we should all be back by then” – for a free consultation and a gin and tonic. I thanked him and said I’d try my best, secretly knowing I would only go if the Dice decreed it.
But for now, the Dice had spilled out once more onto the table, and this time the number four stared up at me – I had to find a controversial show to picket. A quick flick through the official programme turned up a promisingly salacious advert – “curvaceous body” and “female sexuality” caught my eye – for a Japanese dance act called The Pillow Book. It was due to start in an hour, so I made my way down to the far corner of Princess Gardens where a group of shifty-looking men loitering outside a tent confirmed some full-frontal nudity was imminent. Admittedly, my argument was weakened by not having actually seen the show (though that never stops the Daily Mail), so it wasn’t too surprising that the only person I managed to turn away was a French tourist who was only looking for the bar anyway.
It was now 9.30 and, anxious about being caught up in Night of the Living Neds, I rolled the dice again – a two – and hastily exited the park. Alan Davies was due on stage at the Assembly Rooms in half-an-hour, so if I wanted his recommendations on fixed-rate versus variable mortgages, I’d have to be quick. Having successfully negotiated entry into the Members Only bar – a suit, an English accent and a press card helped – I immediately spotted my prey, looking like a rambler who’d got his grid references mixed up. He was in a circle of friends, and I must have stalked backwards and forwards half-a-dozen times waiting for a convenient break in the conversation to jump in with: “Alan, I was wondering, what do you think about an endowment mortgage in the current economic climate?” But the chance never came, and I ended up in a corner with a pint conducting celebrity surveillance for the next couple of hours. I eventually satisfied the Dice by impersonating a Dr. Who groupie and bagging Sylvester McCoy’s autograph.
I was about to throw the Dice again when my phone rang. It was Philip from the Cambridge Footlights saying they were all eagerly awaiting my performance. I knew what they really wanted was a plug for their show (Far Too Happy, Venue 33, Pleasance Courtyard and Over The Road), but I had far too much integrity for that. So I let the Dice decide: throw an odd number, I would go to their flat and humiliate myself. Throw an even number, I would find a late-night comedy club and while away the wee small hours there. I threw a five. An hour later, in the cramped, smelly bathroom of a flat just off Leith Walk, a slightly drunken rendition of The Telephone Call was slated by the comedy stars of tomorrow.
When I woke up on the sofa several hours later, there was one more throw of the Dice to be made: out of the window.
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