The Edinburgh fringe is obsessed with food – so I went and gorged on the best shows

From comedy about carveries to clean-eating rants, food is a huge theme at this year’s festival fringe. The Guardian’s restaurant critic gets stuck in

At Valvona & Crolla, a venerable Edinburgh deli dating from 1934, I am eating arancini for breakfast and trying to make sense of the abundance of food-related shows at this year’s fringe. For three days, I’ve plodded rain-drenched backstreets, consuming hours of drama, comedy and performance art about eating. I’ve watched comfort food cabarets and comedy about the Toby Carvery, listened to rants about clean eating and calorific excess and met (albeit figuratively) the young women who tested Hitler’s dinner each evening for poison.

There has been a drama about a British-Chinese family, Citizens of Nowhere?, staged in the restaurant of a Novotel hotel, and a Fawlty Towers dining experience where a man with a stick-on moustache and a faux-Spanish accent proffers waldorf salad to fans of the 70s sitcom. In Hold On Let Go, a drama with music by Paul Smith from Maximo Park, bread is baked live on stage. Despite all the walking, I’ve gained extra pounds, having eaten chocolate mousse made by an Australian woman singing Teenage Dream by Katy Perry as she whisked, plus a weirdly delicious chicken caesar salad made in a cement mixer by the anarchist cook George Egg.

The highlight, however, took place in a humid, rather fetid drama space in Summerhall, as 20 of us watched the performance artist Sacha Plaige silently dissect the concept of dining during her one-woman show Feast, by Clout Productions. Plaige’s deft movement contains traces of Rik Mayall, Leigh Bowery and Björk while remaining beguilingly unique. It is a wordless, head-spinning, messy muse on appetite, scarcity, debauchery and greed. Plaige eerily mimics a chicken being roasted, flavouring herself first with parsley, shrinking as her skin becomes crisp and irresistible. Although she squashes tomatoes behind her knees, devours raw onion and rolls in cornflakes, it is the section where Plaige mimics the masks we adopt around fine wine – from the sommelier’s proud brandishing of a label to the customer feigning knowledge of a vintage – that stays with me long after the performance.

“I’m half French,” Plaige tells me afterwards. “So I wanted to show that wine tasting, this delicate process, is actually grotesque. The gargling, the sniffing and swirling, the spitting through teeth. It’s an acknowledgment of the strangeness of the process.” Plaige describes Feast as “visceral”. She doesn’t warn the audience they might get hit by fruit pips or watch a courgette make love to a melon. Yet, on the night I went, this worked out very well. “Feast is about our relationship with food. It wasn’t supposed to be political, but then food does mark how and where we belong in society … hunger, excess. I’m interested in how we often disrespect the things we are given. We gorge, we eat too much, we do things to our own bodies that are violent and scary.” By the end of Feast, as a viewer I felt exhausted. As a restaurant critic, I felt understood. Plaige is delighted. There’s a sense, she says, “that I have taken my skin off every night”.

Lavinia Savignoni in The Perfect Body
Lavinia Savignoni in The Perfect Body. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Another piece that tackles the human obsession with food is the one-woman show The Perfect Body, by the Italian actor Lavinia Savignoni. She delivers a whirlwind, nigh-hysterical 50-minute monologue on “wellness”, diets, purging and the ghosts of our past that haunt every mouthful we eat. Savignoni plays the part of a clean-eating guru and Instagram star, dispatching juicing advice to clients longing to be as happy, toned and centred as she is. On stage, Savignoni loads a juicer with melon and guava. Vitamins are paramount! Meat is evil! Wheat will cause inflammation!

Savignoni’s facade soon slips as she rambles into a secret world of hunger, craving and painful-sounding coffee enemas. Both The Perfect Body and Feast contain moments where young actors squat on stage straining to evacuate their bowels and flush the “badness” out. Both shows view food as friend and enemy. After watching The Perfect Body, I ate a warm cinnamon twirl from Baba Budan, weighing up, exactly as Savignoni would have, the calorie value against the seven miles I walked the previous day.

What was needed, after all this truth, was comedy; so off I went to see Pierre Novellie’s You’re Expected To Care. Novellie is one of my favourite funny-thinkers, as well as a food lover who cannot help writing material about Christmas dinner, Chinese takeaways and his fight to stay slim and TV-ready as all new-wave comedians must. In his show, Novellie, who is South African, puzzles over the intrinsic sogginess of British cuisine. Our need to add vinegar to battered fish. Our need to roast meat for so long that the juice depletes, then scoop these same juices to add back. “We moved from South Africa to the Isle of Man,” he tells me, “and I can still vividly remember queueing up for my very first school lunch. Nuggets, yes, chips, yes, but then beans poured all over everything. It was outrageous. Why do the British need to put a varnish on their food?” Novellie’s breakdown of the British gravy obsession is deliciously funny to a northern woman like me. He never mentions the word Brexit, but it hangs in the air like Bisto.

Pity and anxiety for those eating alone is laid bare in Gareth Mutch’s new show, The Old Man in the Carvery, in which Mutch, who is in his mid-20s, discusses a moment that has haunted him. As a teen, Mutch met an elderly solo diner in a Toby Inn in Livingston, West Lothian. “Just sitting there … on his own … and he thought we were laughing at him … but we weren’t. It just looked like that.” Mutch says that he has let this diner who was clearly alone in the whole world, maybe widowed, maybe worse, define his adult happiness. But did the whole thing even happen? Mutch’s chaotic hour is really about how, in the absence of true angst, sometimes the brain likes to invent things. Nor does he talk about carvery at all, which was clearly quite a shock to many audience members who had bought tickets to hear 45 blistering minutes on the Toby Inn’s limitless veg and stuffing ball policy.

Another show that left me puzzled was Hitler’s Tasters, although it was playing to sellout crowds. Based on true events, this hour explores the world of loyal young Third Reich women sitting in a room gossiping while waiting for a meal that may or may not kill them. The subject matter is fascinating and there are moments of pathos, but the thrust of this venture relies on the girls snapping selfies of themselves continually and at one point having a rather long twerking session wearing swastika vests that is pure Springtime for Hitler. This is apt, as the play is written by Mel Brooks’s daughter-in-law, Michelle Kholos Brooks. It is a strange way to pass an hour; especially at the end, when the actors begin flogging Hitler’s Tasters merchandise.

George Egg’s Movable Feast
George Egg’s Movable Feast. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

I lament the shows I’ve missed. I failed to see Chocolate by the Java Dance Theatre, which promised a rich, dark story, the air heavy with cocoa and a performer smeared with melted goo. I missed the rather wonderfully titled The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs Is a Great Play & the Desire to Succeed, where two Mexican domestic servants cook breakfast. The Edinburgh festival is like a tremendous running buffet of things you’ve never tasted. All you can do is stack your plate up and hope you enjoy some. Others will stick in your throat and you will overlook some things completely.

One selection I’m happy I made was George Egg’s Movable Feast, in which an anarchist amateur chef cooks a three-course meal with power tools, laptops and a cement mixer, then shares it outside with the audience. There is a mischievousness about Egg’s humour that is deeply lovable. Egg was never a chef, but he did once run the crepe stall for the circus troupe Archaos. In Movable Feast, he plays the part of one man against the system, eschewing boring service station food, going off-menu at Pret with his own salmon sous-vide, cooking aubergine on a Virgin Pendolino, caesar salad on a building site and haddock on his car engine as he motors down the highway.

“This show is about anarchy, resourcefulness and the ability to cope with life’s situations,” Egg says when I chat to him afterwards. At the end of each show, audiences line up to chat about his recipes. “A man came in who couldn’t see the other day,” he says. “But he loved it. He could smell the toasting aubergine with tahini way before everyone else.” In a world of food restrictions, it is rather quaint to see queues of strangers digging in together, sharing forks, not giving a stuff for allergy advice labels and the threat of cross-contamination.

“I come here every two years,” Egg says. “I love anything to do with food. It was either this, or run a cafe.” I left Edinburgh 4lb (1.8kg) heavier. On balance, it was totally worth it.

• This article was amended on 14 August 2019 because the Citizens of Nowhere? show is a drama about a British-Chinese family set in a hotel restaurant, not an immigration drama set in a hotel kitchen as an earlier version said. This has been corrected.


Grace Dent

The GuardianTramp

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