Laugh-a-minute last rites

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Brian McGee didn't mean to put on a farce at the Edinburgh Fringe. Putting on a show at the Edinburgh Festival is an experience of a lifetime -but not without its pitfalls.

This summer I took a group of A-level theatre studies students to perform Dust to Dust in a city-centre church. Our production, devised by the students themselves, was hardly a candidate for the Perrier Award, concerning itself with death and the rituals of burial.

Although the church was a Fringe venue for the duration of the festival, no one seemed to have told the ladies on the flower rota. Just as the show was reaching a dramatic climax they would emerge from some subterranean place under the altar, armed with lilies and vases. Unabashed,they would clank around the church as if we were workmen mending the pipes - certainly no reason to interrupt their labours.

Equally disconcerting was the drunk who arrived during one performance, forced his way past our front-of-house team and demanded to see a priest. Illusion and reality began to merge as he took his place in the audience and knelt, believing he had walked into a real funeral.

A full pipe band marched down Princes Street daily at 11am, drowning any other sound within half a mile, so we had to time our performance promptly, to end just before the pipes started. That aside, everything went reasonably smoothly until the last day.

We were due to perform at 10am, leaving for Shaftesbury by lunchtime. The night before one of our company was mugged and we woke to find our minibus vandalised. In the morning, a violent electrical storm caused fires all over the city. It felt like a scene from Trainspotting as we travelled to our venue, accompanied by a dozen sirens.

No staff were on site and our stage and lighting systems hadn't been set up. With minutes to go before curtain-up, the church door opened and a 60-strong Lithuanian dance troupe came in, laden with costumes. They were seeking shelter from the teeming rain, having been locked out of their dance workshop in the church hall next door.

We ejected the Lithuanians, persuaded our audience to sit down and began our performance. Sombre organ music set the funereal atmosphere. The first scene opened with the vicar welcoming his congregation. Then, to my horror, a stream of Lithuanians poured through a door behind the altar, chatting away as they collected the paraphernalia they'd left under the pews. The dramatic moment was irredeemably lost. We stopped mid-scene and cancelled the show.

Perhaps we should forgive and forget, remembering the laissez-faire atmosphere of the Edinburgh Fringe, but when you're paying Pounds 900 for six two-hour slots you expect some professionalism in return. The Fringe is an unforgettable experience and somehow its chaotic ragged edges are part of its appeal. So there will be a next time, but we'll choose a different venue.

Brian McGee is head of English at Shaftesbury School, Dorset

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