Saturday, 1 March 2008
PBH at 60 (part one)
Peter Buckley Hill is a name that would be recognised by few outside of the world of stand-up, and by almost everyone within it. A little over a decade ago, PBH recognised that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had lost its way. What had started out as a way for smaller companies without funds or state backing to become part of the Edinburgh experience, had now become as much a commercial venture as the main festival itself. Consequently the ticket prices were rising, the venue charges were rising, and the situation was becoming that only those who had already established themselves could afford to play.
So he had the idea of putting on a show for free. The first year he made a huge loss, but establishing the precedent, he was able from there to persuade more and more people to give him a performing space, mostly events rooms in pubs around the city, free of charge in return for increased bar sales. These venues he then lets for free to performers, on the condition that they in turn charge no ticket price, but take only what is given to them in an open collection at the end of the performance. And so, the Free Fringe was born, and the list of performers who have benefitted from it is endless.
On Monday March 3rd, PBH turns 60, and having another mad idea he decided to put on a series of six free shows, four in London, two in Edinburgh, featuring a total of 60 comedians with himself as MC, all giving their time for free in aid of the Free Fringe running costs. This was the first of the Edinburgh shows, and the fourth overall.
It’s a shame, then, that as so often happens in the comedy business, those who are a regular part of it forget that those outside have no idea what is going on. The fact that a free show in the centre of a major city on a Friday night could be so sparsely attended can only be down to the lack of publicity the event received in advance. But take nothing away from PBH, there may not have been a huge attendance, but those who did turn up got a great little show.
PBH himself makes a warm and welcoming host. With a slightly ramshackle approach to performing, he genuinely appears as if he is making it all up on the spot, and probably half the time he is. In fact his performance starts even before he takes the stage, as he wanders around the room talking to folk as if they are old friends, even if he’s never met them before.
Keara Murphy started off the night. With a set based mostly around her middle-class Glasgow upbringing and her Irish mother who refuses to believe anything good can come from anywhere but Ireland, it was a good opening. Murphy is clearly experienced and looked comfortable on the stage, letting her set build by itself rather than trying to force laughs from the small audience.
Barry McDonald was next up, wandering on stage with a gag about his black stripy shirt making him look like a human bar-code. It was good to get an early laugh in, because for the opening of his set he looked hesitant and less relaxed, but he began to win the audience over about half way through. Clearly less experienced, he nonetheless had some good lines and by the time he finished he had made a good account of himself.
It was my second time of seeing Elaine Malcolmson, and she is an act I continue to be impressed by. Very quietly spoken, her comedy is low key, her act stylised and her lines clearly well rehearsed. But last night something happened about half way through. Distracted from her train of thought she launched into an obviously impromptu anecdote about a bomb scare in Katowice Airport which was superbly funny and showed a side to her personality I hadn’t seen on the last occasion, and only went to confirm my impression that she is one to watch for in the future.
Viv Gee, on the other hand, didn’t really look comfortable at all, and never seemed to get the mood of the audience. An almost interminable routine about subliminal suggestions never seemed to go anywhere and probably needed a bigger and drunker audience to really work. Despite a few good lines, she didn’t seem able to get into her stride at all, and to be fair it looked like she was well aware of the fact and couldn’t wait to get to the end.
The last act of the first half was then slightly odd. Ruby Summers is not a comedian, but a blues singer. Which would have been fine, if some warning had been given that this was what she was, but instead the audience was expecting more comedy and was thus left slightly confused as she sang a couple of numbers in a spangly red Jessica Rabbit dress which kept threatening to slip down and expose her voluminous bosom, against a pre-recorded backing tape on which the volume was turned up so high it frequently drowned out her voice. Being fair, she’s a decent enough singer, but the act just seemed slightly out of place on the night.
The second half began with Jeff O’Boyle, a personable Ulsterman who performed a self-deprecating act mostly based around relationships and internet dating. He has some good lines despite the rather well-worn subject matter, and being another relative newcomer, he might be one to keep an eye on if he can develop his material a bit more and step out of the comfort zone.
With one of the remaining four scheduled acts having already apparently dropped out, and two more not having shown up yet, Neil McFarlane was now placed in the position of having to fill wildly rather than performing the ten minute set that had been the standard up until this point. Having already been outed as coming from the posh part of Glasgow, the existence of which was hitherto unsuspected, he has a confident and unassuming laid-back approach which takes a little while to warm to. But while the early part of his set was a little bland, he got into his stride with material about working in the BBC complaints department, and managed to pull things around so that by the end of his set he had the audience well on his side.
With another act failing to turn up, Keir McAllister turned out to be the final performer of the night. Having now seen him perform three times in less than two months, it’s a little difficult to know what there is new to say about him. But the first few minutes consisted of material I hadn’t heard before, and he worked the room well, being the only performer of the night to get down off the platform stage and get in and amongst the audience.
So overall it was an entertaining night, and I’ll be heading back for the second round in a few scant hours after I finish writing this. I can only hope that a larger audience can be rounded up, because nice though it is to sometimes feel like one of the “in-the-know crowd,” nights like this deserve something more.