Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014

4Time for my annual report on the Edinburgh Fringe – the world’s largest arts festival. Read last year’s report here.

This is my second year attending as audience-only. I’m now concentrating hard on my novels, and am in the closing chapters of the sequel to Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens. I really do miss being up in front of a crowd. Getting wonderful fan-mail via Goodreads is some compensation, but doesn’t have quite the adrenalin rush.

By a bizarre quirk of circumstance, first up this year for me again was Gary Colman at Whistlebinkies, who was in the same slot as last year. As with last year, few in the audience had heard of him before. It was almost all new material, but the same old Gary. He’s been at it at least a decade now, and is one of the hardest-working comics on the circuit. He now boasts some endorsements from the likes of Frank Skinner on his publicity material As Woody Allen said: “80% of success is turning up”. Gary turns up a lot: QED – the answer to his lack of success isn’t in the turning up. The missing 20% must be Gary and his material. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days, and discussed my thoughts with other people. Is it his material (partly), his audience interaction (partly), or Gary himself (partly)?

He does make a connection with the audience, but never asks for names. It’s always “You, Sir,” or “Yes, Madam”. You could argue that his life in the Army, or his Civvy Street job as a GP might have a bearing on this, but I doubt it. It’s a distancing thing. There’s no warmth. It’s an act. I mean, obviously it’s an act. But it is so obviously an act – it looks very contrived. Others succeed in contriving to be spontaneous, but Gary doesn’t. There’s no bonding. Although much of his material relates to his family, he’s not letting you in. I’ve met Gary. I nearly worked with Gary. I like Gary. But his public persona is so obviously forced. He did promise us three gags in the show, and I think that’s all there were. I do recall giving him a two-liner to use to open a new venue once. He ballsed it up by reordering it so that the words lost their humour: he’d ironed it out Maybe that’s it: maybe Gary’s trying to force something that’s just not there.

I was joined by my longest-suffering friend the next day. I’d chosen Pippa Evans for our first show, but it was her day off. An earnest young man with an American accent promised us improvised comedy based on a movie pitch with the audience as producers, if we came back in a few minutes. We promised we would. “Run!” hissed my friend as soon as we cleared the door.

So we ended up at Luke Graves’s show (Hastings Comedian of the Year 2013, no less). He’s around thirty years old, had warmth and wasn’t afraid to be a little spontaneous. A smaller and more intimate venue than Gary’s, so probably easier. He asked the audience questions and genuinely engaged with members, coming back to them periodically. A reasonably amusing set, but it was a ‘work in progress’ and only lasted half an hour. I’d much rather a comic were honest about it and didn’t try and stretch the same thing out to an hour. Better than the dreadful bearded young award-winning bore I saw last year – who did just that with similar material (minus any humour).

Next up was with The Story of Medieval England from 1066 to 1485 at Roughly Nine Years and Two Jokes per Minute Incorporating the Hundred Years War as a Football Match and of course Scottish Independence Performed by Paul B. Edwards.

Edwards was dressed in a Norman helmet and mock-chainmail, using a ring-binder with notes to take us through this history at speed from a pulpit. There’s a bit of this stuff about, and you know you’ll at least learn something even if it’s not funny. Edwards is funny, and so is his material. He’s learnt to play with the audience and get them onside. He’s clearly also relaxed doing it, which relaxes the audience. The show lived up to its promise, and we were definitely entertained. And educated.

Finally we went to see the marvellous Jacky Wood with Five Characters in Search of a Guitar. Disclaimer: I used to improvise a bit with Jacky. She’s a very accomplished actor and comedienne, but this was the first time I’d seen her perform music (guitar and ukulele). Both of us were delighted by her performance. Here’s a professionally trained actor who can deliver the goods, every time. The characters and their songs were well-thought-out and funny on a number of levels. She kept the audience occupied with pre-recorded material whilst she did quick changes (which can’t have been easy, given that she’s pregnant). This wasn’t an act that had been cobbled together from a few random thoughts by someone forcing their funny. Full marks.

Day three saw me venturing out to see the Maydays with Jacky. They were doing an improvised show based on Nineties sci-fi series Quantum Leap. Each day they would have a guest improviser. The guest that day had no show to plug. Was it a coincidence that the show didn’t quite work? Maybe, but I think the problem might have been with the ‘offer’ in a second strand of the story which didn’t involve the guest. Just sayin‘. The format was good, and I’m guessing I saw a bomb that didn’t detonate as planned. That’s improvisation. Jen Rowe was good as Al, and you could argue that she doesn’t have to work quite as hard as the others, since her character is static. Liz Peters stood out, giving her smouldering vixen act.

Do I review BBC Writersroom? As you’d expect from Auntie Beeb it was well-organised. A good, honest Q&A with two top-flight script experts. There’s no shortage of aspiring writers out there, but the questions showed that expectations and preconceptions are often very out of kilter. The experts were patient, understanding and eager to help. The BBC is one of the greatest institutions this country has, and it tries very hard to fulfil its public-service remit.

I took a random dip next and ended up watching Andrew O’Neill’s Mindspiders at Whistlebinkies. Younger than Gary Colman (remember him?), and has been featured on TV. And he is a TV, in fact – complete with tights and makeup, long hair, covered in tattoos and referring constantly to his wife, and occasionally his veganism (as a result of which he’s never had a Kit Kat Chunky – so he must be fairly strict).

O’Neill is definitely a discovery for me. He takes Harry Hill-style tangential asides but pushes them a bit further up the absurdity curve. In case you hadn’t guessed from his physical description, he’s very in-your-face, but not in a rude or abrasive way. Some genuinely good laughs. He got to know a couple of people by name, and had a bit of banter and then progressed to full audience participation for the finale. He was relaxed and in control when he spilled a pint of beer (presumably vegan beer – or does alcohol make things with animal ingredients okay? I have no idea.) over hand-written notes he was due to read out – very professional and competent. His material was bright, imaginative, original and funny – and his confidence made all the difference in its delivery. Great stuff, and I look forward to seeing more of him.

Last gig of the day was Jim Eoin in Edinburgh’s most comfortable venue (150), which is a conference centre. Not really a Fringe show, and not really a Fringe audience either. (It was the first time I’d smelled alcohol fumes from the audience, and I don’t think it was because it wasn’t taking place in licenced premises. Most licenced premises in Edinburgh reek of piss and disinfectant.) Gary (yep – still trying to fix him. It’s because I care.) could learn a lot from Jim. He’s a seasoned comic who does a lot of fairly physical stuff – pulling faces and acting silently. Again, his confidence shines through. His humour is of the very relaxed kind, and the audience is invited to see the world through his eyes – to join his cosy little club. There wasn’t an endless stream of gags, but the laughs were good. He gave me my only truly explosive belly-laugh of the entire Fringe, for which I’m grateful. It was pretty good, but didn’t quite live up to the expectations I’d built up from TV.

My last show of the whole Fringe was Wil Hodgson: You Will be Taken from This Place. What an extraordinarily captivating performance this was. Wil Hodgson and a microphone. No notes. He just told us a history of hanging in the United Kingdom from conception to abolition. He told us about the lives of the hangmen and the development of the art (if you can call it that) of hanging. One huge comic-relief laugh. This is a man who knows how to hold an audience and tell a story. Absolutely brilliant. If there was one show that made me want to get back up and perform again next year, this was it.

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