Udderbelly brings a taste of the Edinburgh Fringe to Hong Kong

Cirque Le Roux, Rory Bremner and beatbox group Gobsmacked among inaugural line-up for Harbourfront event

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 9:26pm

In the first weekend of December, one of the most ridiculous looking theatres in the world will rise sedately above the Central Harbourfront.

It will be in the shape of an upside-down inflated purple cow, with its comical purple ears waving in the wind beside the Hong Kong Observation Wheel.

And if the experience at its home town of Edinburgh in Scotland or its adopted second home at Southbank in London is anything to go by, all around it there will be people.

People of all ages and several nationalities, talking and drinking and meeting and chatting and finding a bite to eat in the warm of the evening or in the rain, before or after going to a performance. And that atmosphere, in a 10-week festival of comedy and circus could be a terrific new addition to Hong Kong’s winter cultural celebrations.

The story of the Udderbelly Cow Theatre (owned, confusingly, by a company called Underbelly) involves almost-forgotten bank vaults, an almost-accidental knack for entrepreneurship, a shared love of puns, six shows that wouldn’t take no for an answer, and an absent-minded scribble at the bottom of an advertising pitch.

“In 1999 I was a student at Edinburgh University, and I fell in love with the Fringe festival, so the next year I decided to bring three theatre shows, but I didn’t have a venue,” says co-director of Underbelly Ed Bartlam.

His old schoolfriend Charlie Wood had heard of some disused vaults in the Cowgate area of Edinburgh near George IV Bridge. When they went to see the site it was damp, smelly and bits of rust were falling down from the ceiling. But to the two young impresarios it was perfect. It fitted all their criteria: it was cheap and it was central.

“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” Wood recalls.

But the comforting thing was that they didn’t know they even needed to have a clue what they were doing, so they did it anyway. The following year they expanded onto another floor of the vaults, installing lights and air conditioning for another theatre space, working out the fire exits. “And it grew from there.”

The duo soon had enough theatres on the premises to stage the productions they presented. A key moment came in 2002. A major vodka label expressed interest in supporting them, but said that Underbelly’s branding was amateur. They would come in as sponsors only if Bartlam and Wood accepted their help on a new logo. Naturally they said yes.

“When the ideas came back from the agency they were all pretty corporate and boring,” Bartlam says. And then at the bottom of one of the printed pages there was a little pencil scribble, of an upside down cow and an arrow to it saying “purple”. And they thought “yes, that’s perfect”.

So when a few years later they had the chance to expand their theatrical operations to one of the courtyards of Edinburgh University, and realised that it cost similar amounts to buy a tent as to rent it, it seemed natural, if slightly insane, to commission a tent that matched their logo. Purple and shaped like a cow.

“People thought we were crazy,” Bartlam says. “But we thought it would be funny.”

And it turned out that the purple cow was grazing in fields of gold. It wasn’t just the ticket sales, although they help (last year they sold around a million tickets for 131 shows in more than a dozen venues). It was the alcohol and food bought by happy punters that sealed the success.

At every Underbelly venue in Edinburgh there’s somewhere to sit and drink and eat. It makes it a complete entertaining concept. And it makes it supremely profitable.

The intention is to bring a small taste of the Edinburgh Fringe to Hong Kong
Charlie Wood, co-director of Udderbelly

“We have lost money in the past,” says Bartlam. This summer, a tent canvas had ripped in a high wind at the group’s new circus venue on The Meadows and all tickets for the first few days had to be refunded. He shrugs: “It happens.”

It also happened when they decided to send the cow tent (which they’d named Violet) to Brighton on England’s south coast, to create a small theatre festival there just before Edinburgh. However, Brighton was not ready for the purple cow “and it rained a lot that year”, says Bartlam.

Later they moved Violet to London in the early summer, which has been a huge success. Moving to Hong Kong in the winter has taken three years of planning.

“The intention is to bring a small taste of the Edinburgh Fringe to Hong Kong,” Wood says.

The line-up includes the acclaimed mime act The Boy with Tape on his Face, the terrific beatbox a cappella group Gobsmacked, well-known British impressionist Rory Bremner, Hollywood comedy actor Michael Winslow, Britain’s Got Talent street dance team Flawless, and the rather wonderful blend of film noir and circus that makes up The Elephant in the Room by Cirque Le Roux (imagine circus performed live in black and white, with a storyline written by Noel Coward).

The fact that they are located right next to AIA Great European Carnival, which is into its second year, will help draw crowds. Bartlam says they couldn’t have asked for a better location: “It enables us to bring the best of what we do, right to the heart of the city.”

Udderbelly Festival Hong Kong, Dec 4 to mid-Feb 2016, Central Harbourfront, HK$225-HK$683 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288