Saturday, 20 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Alan Cumming at the Hub, or, A Very Personal Cabaret

When the full International Festival programme was announced this show stood out as a hot ticket. Alan Cumming is both a very fine singing actor and a performer with remarkable charismatic presence. In the intimate setting of the Hub, it promised to be a memorable experience, and so it proved.

The programme of songs (ranging from Rufus Wainwright via Miley Cyrus to Marra's Mother Glasgow) is structured to a large extent around Cumming's life story – though he does play with the audience towards the end by introducing a Liza Minnelli anecdote which does cause one to wonder whether absolutely everything he's said during the preceding 70 odd minutes is true. There are particularly moving nods to aspects of his complex family history with songs chosen to acknowledge the grandfather who never returned after the Second World War and died playing Russian roulette in Malaya, and his abusive father. But Cumming is also keenly alive to the fact that his audience wants to have a good time – throwing in a Sondheim mash-up, and less niche and quite hilariously a Trojan condom advert.
Musical standards are high but in addition, like Barry Humphries earlier in the Festival, Cumming is a superbly entertaining raconteur, successfully shrinking the distance between audience and himself – whether through banter between numbers (though one or two in the audience were a little over-anxious to make their presence known) or simply by creating the feeling that he was singing directly to individuals.

This is quite simply a magnificent, memorable show. A few returns for the remainder of the sold out run have popped up from time to time on the web, failing that it is unquestionably worth queueing in hope. Unmissable.

Housekeeping Note: Fergus Linehan has played up his broadening of the International Festival's musical range (reflected partly this year in the inclusion of this show). He has also, at least in the past, talked up the existence of a cross-genre Festival audience. So it baffles me that, given a captive audience sitting in their seats with drinks for 20+ minutes pre-show, the Festival marketing team made no attempt at all to draw their attention to other aspects of the programme – not even thinking (apparently) to put a brochure or two on each table. This is in contrast to Queen's Hall and Festival Theatre shows I've attended this year where I've been regularly flyered (usually for The Glass Menagerie). I strongly suspect (because I tend to see the same people at different shows at those two venues) that that is largely an audience similar to myself who already know about the rest of the programme. My guess, simply looking round me at this performance and not seeing those familiar faces (and also tending to see more younger faces), is that the Festival is getting a different audience for Alan Cumming. Surely broadening the musical range of the programme is not just about asserting the equal merit of those other forms (valid a point though that is) but to try to use that broader range to bring a new audience into more traditional elements of the Festival's programme. Maybe it won't work, but it frustrates me to see, as on Thursday night, an obvious opportunity missed.


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