Edinburgh Fringe Festival – nine reviews and some thoughts

After three years in a row as a performer, it was strange to attend as just an audience member. For one thing, I kept encountering other performers (usually flyering) and greeting them by first-name and receiving confused looks. I’m generally better than most at identifying the odd face, and I guess if I’m not wearing my trademark suit it’s a bit more difficult. Other comics never managed to see my show, since I was in a ‘family’ venue nearly a mile from the main strip. The anonymity was quite pleasing, as was not having to wander around with several kilograms of computer, projector, leaflets, etc. What follows are my thoughts on the nine shows I saw. Speaking of anonymity, I’m not naming any of the shows I didn’t like. Comedy is subjective, and every performer has bad days. There is one performer you must see, and I reveal all below.

Show one: The Seasoned Comedian

When I got off the train on Saturday I went into the first show I came across on PBH’s Free Fringe. It was a comedian who’s been on the circuit for almost a decade. It had been three or four years since I last saw him. He’s a very confident and hard-working performer, and this was the first show in his run. There were some good (what we call in the trade) rug-pulls which elicited guffaws from a few people in the late-afternoon crowd. However, comedians are the toughest audiences, and I’m sorry to report I didn’t laugh. I was just off the train from London, but I did notice that a few people at the back left. The material was delivered pretty well but… he hadn’t moved on since I last saw him. He just needed that little oomph, and I don’t know what it would be. Maybe his ‘attitude’ wasn’t for that particular audience. The stories were lovely, and some of them heart-warming. I would have thought that some professional direction would help.

Show Two: Domestic Science

On Monday I dived back in. First up was Domestic Science, which was clever comedy in front of a clever audience (a poll of the highest level of science qualification achieved confirmed that). No cheap gags or swearing here – some interesting science and cutesy jokes (the duo are a real-life couple who met whilst performing in the venue two years ago). They had two guests, one of whom is my discovery of the year: Martin Croser. He’d been asked to write some science-based puns, a couple of which had me laughing like a drain. The poor man was shaking with fear (or maybe it was the DTs) but his attitude was wonderfully carefree and self-deprecating. I know great writing when I hear it, and these puns were word-perfect. More on him below.

This show is on PBH’s Free Fringe, but to suggest that audience members give the same kind of donation as they’d pay for a full paid-for show is a little cheeky if in excess of 40% of your show is comprised of guest spots. Still, there was interesting domestic science and good audience participation, so it delivered most of what it promised.

Show Three: A Complete and Comprehensive History of the Roman Empire in Less Than an Hour – With Jokes

Next it was to Ed OMeara. I have to confess that this kind of thing is my ‘beat’: intense knowledge of a rich subject-area, and mining the comedy gold from it. Ed’s clearly a very confident performer and knew his subject inside-out. He was blessed with a good audience who were clearly nerdy with their ancient history because they were able to call in facts.

It’s tough as hell to dig those jokes out, and there were few truly funny moments. However, I would say he delivered much more of his promise than our friends doing Domestic Science. Why so? Check the title of the show. He was never for a moment off-subject and delivered it in detail – with jokes. I know how hard it is for a solo performer to push out that kind of delivery for an hour, and he maintained excellent energy levels throughout, with fairly good degree of audience participation. Indeed, he had to edit down his material towards the end because he was over-ran the hour.

Show Four: The Bright Young Thing

I’m not going to tell you the name of the comedian or title of the show I saw next. No one likes a bad review – though this guy needs a dose of reality. His blurb said he’d won no fewer than three ‘new act of the year’ awards. Having seen the show, I can’t for the life of me fathom how. He came on stage in an underwhelming manner, made what he admitted was a pathetic attempt to create a bond with the audience, and then proceeded to ramble on in what he admitted was a monotone for forty minutes about how he feels about life. The audience sat there stupefied throughout. And then the show just ended. No attempt to inject any energy. No clear ‘attitude’, just an aimless drifting and an annoying and unprofessional fiddling with the microphone stand – displacement behaviour, I guess.

Judging by their ages, I’d guess that many in the audience were from his fan-base – hence my suggestion that this performer needs a kick up the arse for his own benefit. He told us he wanted to write something a bit more sensitive, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to big yourself up in your blurb you had better deliver on that promise. Delivering sensitive material about where you are in your life can be funny. This wasn’t. A comic twice his age plus another ten years might have got away with it at the end of a long career. He said he had a meeting with a producer scheduled at the Fringe. Not if she sees this show first, he won’t… Zero points on delivering against promise.

Show Five: The Impro Show with Good Publicity

Last up on Monday was a bit of impro. Thanks to the presence of a journalist in the crew, this show’s had a decent splash in the media. The parameters within which the cast were operating were extremely tight, based as it was at a particular point in history. That offers advantages and disadvantages. One big advantage was that the title of their show was a catchy bastardisation of a couple of TV programmes. Another advantage is that what improvisers call a character’s ‘status’ is immediately clear to every other performer. Thus, there’s no confusion as to where they are in the on-stage pecking order. Instant comedy can be generated by transgression, or transition of status. Something just didn’t work that evening – simple as that. I received an apology from an acquaintance in the show later on. I told him that it was unnecessary – improvisation sometimes just doesn’t work. Everyone on stage can be working like mad but sometimes the magic stays in the bottle.

Day two was a different story…

Show Six: Martin Croser – Funny Bone China

First up was Martin Croser – Funny Bone China, playing in a venue a little off the main strip of the Free Fringe, but still pretty central. When I arrived he was standing on the corner with a small dry marker board with ‘a show ostensibly about tea cups’ written on it. He’d had five people on day one, and another five on day two. It looked like I was going to be the only audience member that day, but three people wandered in looking for a specific show starting half an hour later. I didn’t hesitate to tell the trio that Martin had delivered a stunning set the previous day at Domestic Science, and that the writing was genius. I made a personal promise that he’d be better than whatever it was they’d wanted to see.

After offering to help them find their show, Martin told them he’d aim to edit his show to half an hour, which he did. That takes a high degree of skill, and he did it very competently. When the half-hour was up, the trio stayed – which made it extremely difficult for him, because he’d just cut the middle of his set and given us the punchline that tied the start to the finish. He ploughed on with a wonderful mix of old, new and visual comedy.

His brand of self-deprecating tragi-comic and honest humour is a thoroughly refreshing change to the sort of navel-gazing ‘aren’t I marvellous’ rubbish spewed out by so many award-winning comics (see Show Four). I was actually quite concerned about the extent of the brutality of the self-mocking, but it was impossible not to laugh – heartily and often. Where the subject-matter ranged beyond that, the gags were pushed right up to the end of the absurdity curve with immense skill.

This is a man who clearly cares passionately about his writing – he must spend hours chiselling away at veins for rough gems, then cutting and hand-polishing them until they gleam just so. Great audience interaction – but then there would be with just four audience members. Attitude was spot-on – a man pushed beyond caring, but with deep humanity visible in the most atrocious subjects. Oh, and the trio admitted I was absolutely right.

It’s extremely upsetting to see a writer of such obvious genius not receiving the recognition he deserves. Hey – I don’t know how he’d be in front of a huge audience, and looks like ‘a strategically-shaved bear’ (his description). At the very least someone needs to come along and pay this man to sit and write comedy gold for a living. You must see him.

Show Seven – The Coin-Operated Girl

After Martin Croser it was round the corner for The Coin-Operated Girl (points for the correct hyphenation). Miranda Kane was a sex-worker for seven years, having retired from the industry in the late spring of 2012.

She’s what she describes as a BBW, which is Big Beautiful Woman. Being 25 stone and from a small seaside town she’d had body-image issues. After moving to London and leading a promiscuous lifestyle she discovered that a lot of men wanted to sleep with BBWs, so she ‘set up in business for herself’. She shared with us her learning-curve – the highs and lows of being an escort (or prostitute, as she puts it in her blurb), which was amusing, titillating, and fascinating in equal order. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t spot the fact that she filled a long and wide venue without amplification. A great voice in all senses of the expression.

She had trawled thousands of emails from her ‘punters’ from over the years to give us a list of her top ten requests. I’m not going to share these with you here because that’s her intellectual property so far as I’m concerned. What’s astonishing is that not a single one of us in the (large) audience was able to guess what the number one was. Oh, okay, I relent and I’ll tell you one. The Girlfriend Experience (GFE in the trade) was number six. She did caution us that these were the top ten for her, and her only, and that she’s a BBW. It may well be different for other sex workers.

This is a massive industry that society refuses to recognise, and yet some politicians seek to legislate against in ways which don’t make sense, and are not endorsed by its workers. Definitely a show worth seeing – fun, enlightening, uplifting, and Miranda Kane is a very professional performer (pun not intended). For more information: http://www.coinoperatedgirl.co.uk/

Show Eight: Chris Fitchew – Jack of All Trades

Third show of the day two was was Chris Fitchew in Jack of All Trades at the Gilded Balloon. I had no idea who Chris Fitchew was before I booked the tickets. He promised several different characters performing sketches. He opened up in the character of a camp wedding planner, and was straight into the audience (boom-boom), getting members to dress up. This was a high-energy punch to the funny-bone – a great opener.

You’re now expecting me to say that the rest of the show lost the energy. Nope, it didn’t. He made sure we were bounced around a series of very different characters and, as he changed into the next one, we got to know a metrosexual fitness fanatic by way of a series of videos. He made sure he finished the show at an energy level just as high – if not higher – than the one he started with. Everyone left smiling. A great show, and even your gran would love it. In fact, she’d fall in love with the camp wedding-planner. I don’t know what it is about the blue-rinse brigade and camp performers. Full points to Chris for absolutely delivering to the audience what he promised and just making people laugh and be happy.

Show Nine: Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III – Brothers and Sisters

Last, but most certainly not least, was Rev Obadiah Steppenwolfe III at the Gilded Balloon.

I’ve heard a lot about the good Reverend over the years, not least because my own return to stand-up after a 17-year hiatus was in the character of an American preacher. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I knew he was going to be offensive, and probably in a fairly blunt manner. What was a surprise was the profile of the audience: a higher proportion of women (at least 50%) than I’d expected, including a couple of groups – one of which occupied the front row. Sitting next to me was a woman who looked like a sixty-year-old librarian, and she loved it.

The Reverend is wearing a beard and a wig on stage these days, as well as wraparound shades. I’m going to hazard a guess that this is for personal security off-stage. Yes; the material really is potentially that offensive in certain quarters. I have to say that he treads a very careful line when it comes to issues like race, and it’s a clever one. He plays it without being racist, so that you’re laughing at society’s attitude to racism. Smart – very smart. I guess the Gilded Balloon has a reputation to protect too, and I do believe they had observers in the room. He plays other cards too, such as paedophilia, anti-Scottish gags (well-received by the Scots in the audience). In fact, he offends everyone equally – so I guess that’s what makes it alright. When he called Bono the most offensive word in the dictionary, and he was met with a massive cheer.

I’d not realised when I booked it, but the show was the Reverend interviewing other comics. You might think that’s fudging it a bit; that he’s avoided having to write a show. Not a bit of it. Remember that he has to stay in character for a whole hour, and do his best to undercut another performer. The first interviewee was Miles Jupp, who happens (we discovered) to have a degree in Divinity from Edinburgh University. I didn’t know that the Rev had worked with Jupp a decade previously, but they’d not done so since (the Rev pointed to their very different career trajectories). Jupp was excellent. He’s a very experienced performer, and gave at least as good as he got – if not better.

Second on was Daniel Sloss. I think I recall the face from a TV show somewhere, but at twenty-two he’s – as the marketing folks would say – out of my demographic. Experience counts, and Steppenwolfe was all over the lad, making him ‘confess’ to all manner of real-life sins and talk far more openly than he probably should – particularly about his girlfriend. This was not bullying, by the way – this was just masterful performance. Sloss revealed that his mother was in the audience. I looked around as we filed out and, sure enough, it looked like he was getting a pretty good talking-to from her.

This is not a show for everyone, and it’s not supposed to be. If you go to an offensive show, you have no right to complain about it being offensive. But, it’s one of those forbidden fruits or guilty pleasures that a real comedy connoisseur should try. I saw Roy Chubby Brown in Newcastle back in the Eighties. Definitely offensive – and Brown is an extremely intelligent man with a strong set of morals off-stage, by the way: he once assaulted a man for swearing in front of a child – and does it in his stage persona. Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe does offensive in a different way to Brown. His is a different demographic, and so the humour is more thoughtfully offensive; maybe less overt. Plus, of course, he’s only doing prepared gags as he warms the audience up at the start.

I did wonder how the man behind the character makes a living. Most shows lose considerable amounts of money for the performers. He charges a premium (£13.50), but he does have another professional on stage. I can only assume he takes his show to Spain for the holiday crowds.

The Fringe – How to ‘do’ it

So, day two of my Fringe was magnificent: I couldn’t have gone away happier. What have we learnt from this article? We’ve learnt that marketing hype – be it in the form of past awards or newspaper coverage prior to the run – are great for the performers’ audiences, but are not a marker for quality.

Can we rely on reviews during the Fringe from the range of publications that cover it? Again, probably not wholly – the same performance of the same show can get two stars from one reviewer and five from another. I’ve had nice reviews from people who quite clearly didn’t know the first thing about either comedy or reviewing. It’s not just that comedy is subjective, it’s that a comedy writer of Martin Croser’s standing can – and will – remain either unreviewed, or severely under-rated if he is reviewed. A fresh-faced young reviewer might judge his show as unsuccessful just because of audience size, yet that’s partly because he’s not reviewed. It’s chicken and egg, and there is little justice or logic at the Fringe.

To get the most out of the Fringe, make sure you pick a few shows at random. Immerse yourself in it. Commit to going from one venue to another with little time between. Keep going – you’ll find something you like. It’s also a good idea to take in a couple of shows where there are guest spots, so you can judge for yourself before committing.

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