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Musical Brexit: A rundown of political shows at the Fringe

There's no escaping politics at the festival, from stand-up to satirical cabaret and more.

It’s a time for theatre, comedy, culture and street performances – but every year, there’s a hefty dose of politics mixed in at the Edinburgh Fringe.

That’s unavoidable. Everything sort of comes back to politics, at the end of the day – especially given the extraordinary times we live in.

From the Donald Trump impersonator, fake-tanned and red-capped, taking constant selfies with tourists on the Royal Mile, to Julius Caesar marching on Holyrood accompanied by a brass band, the Fringe is an escape for many, but there’s no escape from politics.

There’s no escape from politicians either, who have been popping up all over the capital’s various festivals this month for often headline-grabbing talks, ahead of their returns to parliament next month.

Most memorably, shadow chancellor John McDonnell plunged relations with Scottish Labour into chaos after seeming to change the party’s policy on an independence referendum on-the-hoof.

But what about the shows themselves? Among other things, I went to see a Brexit-themed musical, a former spin doctor’s daughter and a satirical cabaret, to experience what this year’s Fringe has had to offer for politicos.

Blowfish Theatre, the Sheffield-based acting troupe behind this self-styled “satirical musical”, are no slouches.

As well as this show, the same team immediately follow it up every night with another one called ‘Trump the Musical’, having last year launched Boris the Musical.

You’ll note a theme developing, and Now That’s What I Call Brexit stays true to their formula of turning current political events into an hour of ludicrously silly musical theatre.

Sending up everything from Michael Gove’s backstabbing of Boris Johnson in 2016, to the 2017 snap election, to this summer’s Tory leadership contest, they’ve consistently packed the house this month.

“I think it’s easier to satirise because it’s a big joke, isn’t it, at the moment? Almost literally,” Laurence Peacock told STV, who plays (among other characters) Jeremy Corbyn

“So we just sort of write down what happens and perform it back to people and apparently that counts now.”

“Just a little nudge really,” agreed James Ringer-Beck, who – with the help of peroxide wig – plays Boris Johnson.

Melinda Hughes: ‘My songs are holding a mirror to the world.’ Transmission Productions

Continuing with the musical theme is opera-trained singer Melinda Hughes, whose show Off The Scale unusually blends social and political satire with cabaret.

“A lot of my songs are really holding a mirror to everything that’s going on in the world, how ridiculous things are,” she said.

“Whether it’s the selfie generation, or internet trolling, to, you know… Brexit.

“I know a lot of people are so tired of Brexit, they ask me, ‘are you talking about Brexit in your show?’ I’m like, ‘I only mention it once’, and they’re like ‘oh okay, we’ll come.’ They’re exhausted.”

Hughes was a professional opera singer many years, before an injury 12 years ago forced her to reassess her non-stop career.

An interest in the news and politics led to her reincarnation as a satirical singer, poking fun at everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to Melania Trump.

Family: Grace Campbell and her father Alastair. Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

An interest in politics was perhaps inevitable for Grace Campbell – daughter of Alastair, Tony Blair’s formidable former spinner.

But as the name suggests, her show uses a childhood growing up around the Westminster bubble to detail exactly why she’ll never enter the fray of party politics.

There are lots of amusing side-reasons, mixed in with anecdotes involving the likes of Blair himself, David Miliband and even Vladimir Putin’s children – but what it boils down to is the system is “fundamentally flawed”, she says.

An activist and one of the founders The Pink Protest, which is among the groups spearheading the #freeperiods campaign, she values grassroots politics more than getting involved in the party machines.

“We actually had a really normal life, apart from going to see our parents in work,” said Campbell.

“It wasn’t until I was much older that I started thinking about the influence my dad had.”

She added: “I talk about being very arrogant and insecure at the same time in my life but what comes with that level of arrogance is that sometimes you think you could have had an impact on these big world events.”

Mark Nelson: Comedian digs into country’s ‘Brexit Wounds’. STV

Award-winning Scots stand-up Mark Nelson is another comedian wrestling with today’s fractious politics in his latest show, aptly named Brexit Wounds.

He initially asked a little bit into the show, but now he just gets it out the way at the start: he asks his audience straight out whether they voted Remain or Leave in 2016.

He recalled: “The audience a couple of nights ago, they got quite tense, yelling stuff at each other…

“Whenever anyone does have the guts to say they voted Leave in front of that room they inevitably get the pantomime boos.”

That’s why, despite his caustic look at Britain’s political state, he’s keen to unify the audience if he can.

“There is a point towards to the end where I kind of bring everyone together and say, look, it doesn’t really matter,” Nelson explained.

“We could argue about this all day long in here and we could have completely different opinions, but we don’t really matter in any of this.

“There are people miles away down in Westminster and Brussels – it’s kind of whatever they want to do and whatever suits them is what’s going to happen.”

Loki: Rapper-turned-author discusses ‘becoming middle-class’.

Also dividing up his audience early doors – but along different lines – is Orwell Prize-winning author Darren McGarvey, also known as the rapper Loki.

His 2017 book Poverty Safari gave McGarvey not just plaudits but significant commercial success too – and his show this year, Scotland Today, explores his readjustment.

“It’s a dissection of the prosperity I’ve enjoyed in the last 18 months since my book about poverty became a best-seller, catapulted me a few tax brackets,” he said.

Early on in the show, he divvies the crowd up into ABC1 and C2DE categories – the socio-economic grading system that broadly divides the middle and working class.

McGarvey explained: “Given I am always being commended for my ‘brutal, unflinching honesty’, I really want to test how willing the audience is for me to be brutally honest.

“There are implications for the kind of prosperity I’m enjoying, especially in a society where middle class people now outnumber working class people and have done for 19 years.

“There’s a very lopsided slant in politics in which the political imperative is to appeal constantly to middle class aspirations and concerns, often at the expense of people further down the food chain.”

Andrew Maxwell: Juilius Caesar play touches on contemporary politics. STV

There’s a point in Julius ‘Call Me Caesar’ Caesar, the comic reimagining of Shakespeare’s historical Roman epic, where just after the conspirators have succeeded in murdering Caesar, they ask each other in a panic what the plan is now.

It’s a moment in the one-man play, performed by Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell, that gets actual belly-laughs – perhaps because of its resonance with politics today, which so often can seem a blend of tragedy and farce.

“I think Caesar would watch his back around a fellow like Boris ‘Brutus’ Johnson,” joked Maxwell

He believes the play speaks to the state of contemporary politics despite the tale’s classical origins, touching on issues like populism, fake news, and the age-old art of political backstabbing.

That’s perhaps why the play’s PR team staged an elaborate stunt where Mr Maxwell, dressed in a laurel crown, marched on the Scottish Parliament to hail the citizenry, backed by a brass band.

“Obviously all politicians are ambitious, and frankly they should be,” Maxwell added.

“To a certain extent, somebody who’s just happy sitting on the backbenches and getting their paycheques and voting on party lines, they’re the ones we don’t like.”

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