I stand at the top of The Royal Mile and look out across the mass of faces pushing through the throb of people. As flyers glide about of their own accord, seemingly bereft of owners, more paper is pushed into my reluctant hands. I filter in between shoulders, searching for a familiar face. My luggage is pulled tight against my back as I tackle the swathe head-on. Acting troupes strike poses; the roller-skating dancers spin mid-split; a girl sings next to a boy with a slide guitar. Street artist after street artist, performer upon performer, the next Big Thing follows me wherever I go. “See The Rebirth of Renaissance theatre: 50 Shades The Musical!” Over there is a topless man in a kilt juggling knives whilst balancing on an upright ladder. “Come get your tickets for The Best Worst Show at The Fringe!” The topless man taunts his audience and takes off his kilt. “Do you like words? This play has words.” Earlier, someone had offered to read my mind in exchange for their flyer – I think I prefer the bizarre sells. “What do we want? Hearing aids. When do we want them? Hearing Aids.” It’s all rather disorientating.
No sooner had I escaped the immediate craze of the throng did I come across a melee of a cappella groups, housed by temporary stages. Each choir bands together on their platforms, moving with the arrangements, singing-out to an instrument-less beat. I’m looking for one a cappella group in particular, The Oxford Gargoyles. If you’ve been to The Fringe anytime these past nine years, or live locally in Oxford, you might have heard of them. They sing jazz a cappella and they’re always dressed to impress. Whatever time the show, it’s evening wear without fail.
I spot current Gargoyle Elsa Field and walk over to make myself known. She guides me to C Venue on Chambers Street for this afternoon’s performance. I expect a bowtie song and dance, with singers doubling as instruments, whooping like trumpets and twanging like guitars. Call me a sceptic of the a cappella tradition, but I’m not much a fan of anything remotely similar to the American television smash hit Glee. It seems fair to say that that particular wave has peaked and subsided, fascination and all. Whilst many groups still ghost this tradition, conversing more or less exclusively in Top 40 remixes, The Gargoyles hit up a refreshing concoction of swing, funk, and jazz. Dosing dulcet licks and soothing energy, this bunch of singers are your remedy to the Old Hat Copycats of a cappella.
Having seen them scat previously in and around Oxford, I prepare myself for the usual recital and recline. I didn’t prepare myself for lightshow theatre, or choreography that winks and ribs you into smiling, or the occasional brandish and swish of a prop. I have a good time. And it isn’t too musical hall either. The production sounds like a soft big band who play easy on the ears, but who aren’t afraid to fool around with up-beat tracks or wail high notes like they really meant it. The Gargoyles open with In the Mood and rub you just so. Next they Pass Me the Jazz, followed by a slick rendition of blues classic Fever. A take on Tower of Power’s Diggin’ On James Brown is certainly a highlight; gilded with scat and full of strut, the tongue’s placed firmly in cheek with this one. A few songs later, three couples in the rows ahead cradle one another during the closing moments of Unforgettable. It is an unusually bare and vulnerable arrangement of a song popularised by sweeping strings and Nat King Cole; a version that may prove to be marmite for many. Wonderfully choreographed, Disney’s Friend Like Me is a crowd pleasing encore as well as a fitting finale. From Glenn Miller to Top Cat, there’s something in the set for both the jazz veteran and virgin.
I managed to catch up with three of the Gargoyles later that week. Elsa Field, Sam Galler and current musical director Caroline Hall answered a few of my questions about their Edinburgh Fringe run, the Gargs’ future, and the possibility of a music video.
Check out the interview below.