Sunday, 20 April 2008

Absolute Beginners - The Mercat Bar, Edinburgh, 14/04/2008

The world of stand-up comedy is split roughly into four levels. At the top end are the star names, the likes of Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee, who can tour the biggest theatres and sell out every night. On the next rung down are the club headliners, people who are not household names, but make a good living out of comedy nonetheless. Below them are the ordinary club comics, who seldom appear on the telly, who fill up the early evening bill in a club, who earn a bit but probably still have to hold down a day job.

And then there are open spots. The bottom rung. The people just starting out, who have yet to prove themselves, who are still learning what’s funny and what isn’t, and how to handle an audience. They rely on the charity of club owners to give them five minutes of stage time, and will often travel for several hours at their own expense just to get it.

But they are the bedrock of the comedy world. The big pool of swirling potential talent that every act further up the ladder had to once be a part of. Many will never find their way up to the next step. Hardly any will ever make it to the top one. But without them, the comedy world would eventually wither and die.

There’s a vicious circle in play. Most promoters would never let an act appear at their club without a bit of stage time under their belt. But unless they can find a spot to play in, the comic is never going to get that necessary experience. That’s where a club like Absolute Beginners comes in.

Started about six months ago by Glaswegian-Irish comic Keara Murphy, the original idea for the night was as a spill-over from The Stand’s new act night Red Raw. With so many aspiring comics vying for so few places, the waiting list for a spot at The Stand was often five or six months long. Keara’s idea was to give those waiting a place where they could practice their act in front of a non-threatening audience, so that when their Red Raw chance came along, they would be ready for it.

And so, every Monday night, folk can file into the basement of the Mercat Bar to watch Keara host eight acts of varying quality, plus a headliner generally from that second rung level, all for the princely sum of £2.

It wouldn’t be fair to these acts to critique their performance. The whole point of the night is as a learning experience, so those who die on their arse get to pick themselves up, brush themselves down and move on, having learned from the experience.

On this particular night the quality ranges from the excellent to the obvious total newcomer. At the top there was Daniel Webster, an act clearly ready now to take the step up to the next level, who had come along to try out a set of all new material. And very good material it was too. A couple of others impress along the way, a few show promise, two or three noticeably need to work on their delivery, at least one loses it altogether.

None of this matters, because that’s the whole point of the evening. Keara, meanwhile, keeps things moving and keeps things light, skilfully glossing over things that have obviously gone wrong, making sure everyone gets an encouraging word in public and a few handy hints on how to improve in private.

To close the show we get Quentin Reynolds, probably best known to readers of the Scottish Metro letters page as “Q from Airdrie,” but also an accomplished stand-up and comedy writer with many years experience under his belt. He takes us through a whistle-stop tour of life in the Scottish heartlands, an unusual world where muggers haggle and neds discuss open heart surgery on the bus.

It’s a suitably good ending to an evening which has pulled in a good sized crowd of probably forty or fifty, and suggests that the Scottish comedy scene is in good hands.

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