Sunday, 1 June 2008

Richard Herring, Neil McFarlane, Keith Farnan, Gordon Alexander, compere Susan Calman - The Stand, Edinburgh, 25/04/2008

One of the problems that The Stand encounters as a comedy club is that as the Edinburgh Fringe draws ever closer, so the bigger names on the circuit start to be reluctant to play the city. As such, to pull in one of the biggest names of all at the end of April is quite a coup, and reflected in the bustling house.

Diminuitive Glaswegian Susan Calman is in charge of proceedings for the night, and to my mind she is fast becoming the best MC on the Scottish scene. She has everything you want in a compere, a fast mind, a cutting wit, and a seemingly genuine interest in her targets. She knows when to attack and when to hold back, and how to keep control of the punters who want to take things a bit too far, as well as an innate ability to take anything thrown at her and seamlessly find the right bit of material to suit the moment.

Opening act Keith Farnan set the pace of the evening well. A laid back Irishman from county Cork, he has that easy Irish charm that benefits so many comics from the Emerald Isle. His comedy is very much performed with a wink and a grin, drawing the audience in with a warmth of delivery and a conversational style. And although much of his material is not exactly ground-breaking, mostly revolving around “look at us Irish, aren’t we eejits, we can take anything and make it Irish,” it is nonetheless extremely funny, and as such does the job it sets out to do.

Gordon Alexander is a very blokish comic. Hailing from the north of England but now resident in Scotland, he has been slowly making a name for himself on the local scene. Standing six feet six and with a shaven head, he looks quite a scary sort, but his delivery is quite matey. Unfortunately, although this performance shows promise, his material is not really strong enough for this sort of level and routines which include saying stupid things to the Bullseye Bully’s Prize Board tune, while quite amusing, don’t seem to go anywhere.

Neil McFarlane is another local comic, but one who is starting to move out onto the national scene. Like Farnan, much of his material is based in the experience of being Scottish, and routines revolve around annoying Edinburgh tourists, his middle-class Scottish upbringing, and his years spent working in the BBC Glasgow complaints department. He’s an experienced and polished act, and one who can draw his audience in with his relaxed and often seemingly random style.

Finally we came to Richard Herring, and this was an interesting experience for me, because while I have seen him performing countless times in his own shows, I wasn’t quite sure how he would fit in the more pressured environment of a club night, in front of an audience many of whom had come out for a night of good laughs rather than because of who was on the bill. Herring can be an acquired taste, with his penchant for pedantry, and for often drawing out a gag at excruciating length to the point at which he courts losing his audience altogether.

And the answer, to be honest, was that I’m not sure that he did fit very well. Most of the material for the night was drawn from last year’s Fringe show, and while he started well with some snappy deconstructions of common mottos, when he moved into a lengthy dissection of the slogan on a tee-shirt, which proceeded to form the bulk of the set, I could see he was starting to lose certain sections of the audience who were wishing he would move on and not keep hammering the same topic over and over.

Herring is the first to admit that, despite two decades of stage experience, much of it was spent in the “rehearsed show” format, and he came to pure stand-up late in the day and as such is still learning. His name on the bill, of course, is always going to be a draw, and for a comedy literate crowd the brilliance of his wordplay is a sheer delight. But I think he needs still to learn to judge his crowd and tailor his material to the night. He’s a class act, and no denying it, but for me, on this night, there was just something missing.

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