Friday, 29 August 2008

Fringe Review - Jim Jeffries: Hammered, Udderbelly, 25/08/2008

It's been a bad year, Jim Jeffries tells us at the top of his show. But then, he said the same last year. And the year before. Lets face it, when you're Jim Jeffries, it's pretty much been a shit life. No wonder he feels the need to let off steam. It seems like God doesn't like Jeffries much, but that's okay because the feeling is mutual. In fact the only deity he does have time for is Buddha, and that's just because he looks like he might be a bit of a party animal.

Jeffries is an offensive comedian. It says so, right there on his posters, so if you are the type who takes offense easily, you're pretty much an idiot if you still turn up at one of his shows. But Jeffries is also a very clever comedian, much as his perpetually drunk and stupid stage persona would suggest otherwise. He knows that the way to get away with being offensive, is to make the offense itself the object of the humour. So, for instance, rather than say "aren't retards funny," his take is, "isn't it ridiculous that we laugh at retards?"

It's an approach he uses time and time again during his show. Racists are evil and bastards, but you'd still shag one if she was hot. Dwarves are an unfairly oppressed minority, but we still think nothing of putting them in films. Sharon and Kelly Osborne are morons... no, actually there are no mitigating circumstances needed for that one. But it is this subversion of the form that sets him apart from the likes of Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson. Their jokes are simply cruel, and their only excuse is "it's just a joke." In Jeffries case, although he may be tackling the same subjects, the butt of the joke in the end is always himself.

An hour with Jeffries is an hour being indoctrinated into his particularly warped world view, and a very persuasive hour it is, as his views contain an internal logic that it is actually very hard to argue with. But cleverly he always extends the logic just that one twist too far, allowing us to see it in the end for what it really is.

He is, without doubt, an acquired taste, and it goes without saying that there are plenty out there who will have no wish to acquire it. The signs are there right from the start, the audience taking their seats while an introductory film shows butterflies and bunnies frolicking in a rainbow-filled wonderland to the joyful strains of The Carpenters, transforming into black spiders, bleeding hearts and heavy rock guitars as he prepares to enter the stage.

I'm not sure this show had the same impact as in previous years. He seemed a bit more rambling, even by his own rambling standards, and things never seemed to come to any particular point. But as a masterclass in barroom philosophising, and for some relatively guilt-free guilty pleasures, you can't go far wrong with Jeffries.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Fringe Review - Andrew Lawrence: Don't Just Do Something, Sit There, Pleasance Upstairs, 24/08/2008

When life gives you lemons, they say, make lemonade. When life gives you bright orange hair, the face of a troll, the voice of a chimp on helium and the body of the bloke off the Mr Muscle adverts, be a comedian.

Andrew Lawrence, it has to be said, has made great play of his appearance in the past and continues to do so. However, he does seem to also be trying to tone down that aspect of his act. The wild haired bug eyed loon of two years ago is gone, as is last year's uncomfortable looking scrawny youth looking like he was dressed by his mum. Instead, his hair cut fashionably short and wearing a well fitting sports jacket, he's the kind of guy you would hardly take a second glance at in the street.

And in some ways that should be a good thing, as it takes the focus away from the visual and towards the verbal, which has always been his forte. Except that this year, that seems slightly subdued also. His ability to paint horrendous mental pictures using evil twisted words has always been his forte, but this year he seems to have lost some of that amazing verbal dexterity in favour of just being a bit shouty.

What is good is that, despite road testing this show all over the country, he has clearly found the time since arriving to write a whole new section just for Edinburgh which, by its nature he will have to discard upon leaving, concerning the ubiquity of his face on the side of taxi cabs. He had thought everyone would be doing the same, he says, but finding it was just him, he now feels like the only person to turn up to a party in fancy dress.

The theme of the show, and the point of the title, is the sheer uselessness of ambition, the pointlessness of being a driven individual, striving to climb life's ziggurat, to improve ones self, to reach the pinnacle of success, when we're all just going to die in the end anyway. And to illustrate this, his example is, as always, himself, and his pathetic, miserable existance as a man who makes his living standing up for an hour each night trying amuse people, and half the time failing to do so.

The old Lawrence is still there, under the surface, that much is clear. He is still full of misanthropic disdain of the world at large, and a savage loathing of both himself and society in general, but some of the almost poetic nature of his previous diatribes is gone, replaced by more generalised speech, which might make for a more popular and easily accessible show, but for me takes away a certain portion of his uniqueness. We already have plenty of "grumpy old men" comedians, we don't need a grumpy young one, and my worry is that if Lawrence continues down this path he will join the morass of homogenised complainers we already have on the comedy circuit, rather than being the "one of a kind" talent he has been in the past.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Fringe Review - Jason Cook: Joy, Stand 4, 24/08/2008

In the last twelve months Jason Cook has experienced the happiest day of his life, and the saddest. The experience has taught him to embrace life, to take the good from every day, and to capture every fleeting moment of joy and celebrate it, and it's a message he wants to communicate to each and every one of us.

The show, essentially, revolves around these two incidents, and leads us from one to the other. The first, his marriage, introduces us to his madcap family, his slightly racist gran, his sock-obsessed mother, and his pragmatic, sea-faring, Christmas-loving dad who will become the central character in this tale. And, of course, his beautiful new wife, through whose introduction into this madhouse, and to the concept that the Cook family are plagued with bad luck, we are led to the second event.

This is a beautifully structured show. Cook quickly establishes his credentials as a kind of loveable everyman character, and the warmth with which he introduces us into his life is infectious. Lavishly illustrating his tales with family snapshots, he leaves his audience in no doubt that, although they may be embellished slightly, his stories are essentially true ones and not some flights of fancy, and that is vital to the impact of what is going to come.

Right at the top of the show he tells us that there will be a heavy moment, and asks us to raise our hands if we think we have spotted it. It's a clever move, because when that moment comes it helps to break the tension, and that moment is a doozie, a real heartbreaker that, even if you were already aware of what was coming, causes a lurch in the gut that could kill a show stone dead in lesser hands. But in Cook's, it merely takes it in a new direction which builds slowly towards a gloriously joyful climax.

As Cook himself explains during the show, he spends most of his year working the Northern comedy circuit, MCing and gigging in clubs whose clientelle came to hear him tell cock jokes and really don't give a crap about the rest. An Edinburgh show is his chance to stretch himself, to tell personal stories and create something more meaningful. His last show ended up touring around the festivals for much of the year. I truly hope the same happens this time, because this is a story that deserves to be heard.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Fringe Review - The Angry Puppy, Stand 3, 23/08/2008

I'm not usually a fan of sketch comedy. Mostly I find the situations too outlandish and the characterisations too far outside anything I have encountered in the real world for it to make any kind of impact on me. However, I was enticed along to this one by the presence of the wonderful Susan Calman, and very glad I am that I made the effort.

The show starts slowly, and there are a few duff sketches in the first twenty minutes or so, but from an infectiously brilliant skit set in an electrical store onwards, they all seem to hit the mark perfectly providing a last half hour filled with energy and plenty of laughs.

For the most part continuing characters and catchphrases are avoided, apart from one running gag about a bizarre girl obsessed with her dad, and instead the scenes are populated by people we could almost recognise from our daily lives.

The female foursome do tend to each play to their strengths. Marj Hogarth tends to stick to slightly officious, haughty characters, Kirsten McLean to the overenergetic organiser type, Leah MacRae is generally a down-to-earth street character, and Calman usually portrays the kooky one of the bunch, although they do mix this formula up from time to time.

They make up a good team, complementing each other well, and the sketches themselves are full of inventiveness, from an unusually intense encounter in an opticians to a scene in which the foursome each attempt to remove the top from a jar performed in the style of a Superstars-type television show.

I'm still not a fan of sketch shows, but this one made me laugh far more than it did otherwise, and if they return next year and can keep up this level of quality, then television could do far worse than come knocking at their doors.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Fringe Review - Tim Fitzhigham: The Bard's Fool, Pleasance Hut, 22/08/2008

Britain is not a world leader in very much any more, but the one thing we produce more and better of than anyone else is eccentrics. Sir Tim Fitzhigham, knighted by a deposed West Indian monarchy and holding the rank of Commodore in the Royal Navy as commander of the docks of a landlocked town, who has navigated the Thames in a paper boat, rowed across the English Channel in a bathtub, and lived as a medieval knight in a cave in Spain, qualifies for this title admirably.

Fitzhigham's problem, it seems, is that he reads too much. And that this reading leads him to thinking, and that's what gets him into trouble. Each of his previous adventures have come from "I wonder if I could do that" moments after reading some historical feat, and this year has been no different, after reading the poem Nine Daies Wonder by Will Kemp, the leading clown of Elizabethan England who, on being told by Shakespeare that there would be no role for him in the play Hamlet, as there would be no comedy in it, decided to teach the Bard a lesson in comedy by Morris Dancing from London to Norwich.

There were a number of problems facing Sir Tim in recreating this feat, however. And pretty much all of them could be summed up using the two words, "Morris Dancing." But problems are the stuff of comedy, without them there would barely be a show, so more power to the problems. Fitzhigham leads us through his preparation and his journey in increasingly frantic and frenetic style, whilst under the protection of his own flag, which as a Commodore he is entitled to fly giving him full jurisdiction over the surrounding area.

It's a scrappy show, to be honest, but that is part of Fitzhigham's charm, the fact that, whilst most likely every last word has been worked out in advance, he gives the impression that he is merely bumbling through whilst making everything up on the spot. And the fact is that he is such a likeable fellow that you can't help but be charmed by him and caught up in proceedings, even during a section of the show that skates perilously close to being in extremely bad taste.

In one portion of the show he makes fun of Brendon Burns' triumph in last years if.comedy awards, but the humour is in the fact that he must be aware himself that such accolades are almost certainly never going to be troubling his door. But it's an entertaining hour nonetheless, and a decent enough way to spend the early part of a rainy Edinburgh evening.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Fringe Review - Bethany Black: Beth Becomes Her, Baby Belly 3 at the Underbelly, 21/08/2008

On a rain-sodden night, when Beth Black informs her audience that she has paid five and a half thousand pounds to hire the wettest cave in Edinburgh, you believe her. As it is, the audience have to be led through darkened tunnels via a back entrance because the main one is flooded, to find Beth herself waiting to greet everyone personally and thank them for coming to her show. Which is an apposite way to begin, because by the end of the night, that same audience will feel like they know her as an intimate friend.

The show is titled Beth Becomes Her, and she quickly gets the reason for this out of the way for those who arrived not already aware. Beth literally became her, having lived the formative part of her life as him. And what we get in this show, in raw and sometimes graphic, but never uncomfortable detail, is the full story of how this came to be.

It's a tale involving hardship and heartbreak, depression and near suicide, and if that doesn't sound like the stuff of comedy, you're probably right, but in Black's capable hands it is very very funny nonetheless. And that is what makes this show something special, that without ever compromising in the telling, she can still wring humour out of real situations that she lived through that must, at the time, have taken her to some of the blackest places imaginable. One moment, in which she acts out in a brutal and uncompromising style the final thoughts running through her mind as she prepared to take her own life, and still manages to get a laugh at the punchline, sums up exactly why this show is such a must-see.

And it isn't all bleakness and heartache, because as she moves through her journey to the feminine side, from acceptance that she will never live happily in a male body, through the support of her family and friends, to finally finding happiness and love in her new life, it turns into something of a life-affirming tale. Beth advertises herself as a transgendered lesbian goth, which might lead some to expect something of a freakshow, but the result is anything but.

This is her first Edinburgh show, but it won't be her last. It isn't perfect, some of the gags are a little obvious, and there are sections which probably could be slicker, but these are minor niggles. There are plenty of comedy shows that will make you laugh, that's part of the job description, and a good few that will make you think, but it's a rare one that will rip your guts out and then put them back again intact. Beth has already made one transformation, and there's another one coming. Mark my words, a star is in the making.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Fringe Review - Mark Watson: All The Thoughts I've Had Since I Was Born, Pleasance Grand, 21/08/2008

The habit Mark Watson has of starting his shows from within the audience can be an effective trick. Except on a night when the Pleasance Box Office computer systems have failed, and queues are stretching round the block for the ticket collection windows where harrassed students write tickets out by hand and he's been told to hold the start until they can get everybody processed. When it means being trapped in amongst an increasingly fractious group of people who already had their tickets and arrived on time, while the remainder of the audience trickle in by ones and twos.

But if Watson was stressed by the situation, it's difficult to tell, being that he is a barely contained bundle of nervous energy at the best of times. But we must hope not, considering that being stressed, and how it led to him being rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack shortly after last year's festival, was the main subject of the show. But if stress there was, it couldn't have been helped by the eventual start of the show and the discovery of a fourteen year-old girl in the audience leading to the even more horrified discovery of an eight year-old one.

Who exactly would take an eight year-old to a clearly grown-up comedy show was clearly beyond the grasp of pretty much everyone, but Watson took the fact in his stride, despite his announcement of it as a personal record, constantly referring back and gleefully pushing the boundaries of filth while checking in with the confused child.

The show itself, then, details his efforts to de-stress his life, and taking into account that his job, standing in front of people talking shit for an hour a day, cannot possibly be as stressful as deciding how long to send people to prison for, he looks at the rest of his life for the answer. This, really, is just an excuse to delve into whatever areas his quirky sense of humour has led him to, from a horrendous night in a travelodge, to a schadenfreude-fuelled event on a train station platform, via a spot of J.K.Rowling envy along the way.

It is Watson's talent to take these seemingly minor events and spin them into trauma-filled tales of epic proportions, all the while jittering in his nervy persona while still having the confidence to keep checking with the audience as to how it's all going, safe in the knowledge that the answer will be "good." Watson's rise to the stature of comic who can sell out this huge venue has been rapid, and on this evidence it shows no sign of stopping.

Fringe Review - Lucy Porter: The Bare Necessities, Pleasance One, 19/08/2008

The unique selling point of Lucy Porter has always been her cute, bubbly, sweet demeanour allied to a vicious tongue and a filthy mind. This year she has overloaded on the cute, performing her show in front of a backdrop featuring a kitten and two ducklings. It provides her with a nice sight gag, but sadly it may also be symptomatic of something else.

Porter's humour has always relied heavily on her disastrous love life, but this year she is happily settled and in a relationship, and this seems to have spilled over into her humour, because there is just something lacking here. Her biting wit seems to be just that little bit lacking in bite for once, almost as if, having reached the level where she can sell out the three and four hundred seater venues, she's settled back and decided to coast for a while.

Not that this show is bad, exactly. It is an entertaining hour, and Porter is still capable of delivering a few absolute killer punchlines during its course. And her theme could not be more timely in this year of belt tightening, as she tackles the subject of identifying the things that are essential to us in life for our own happiness and wellbeing, and divesting ourselves of all the extraneous frivolities.

But it all seems a little flat. The laughs are there, but they are fewer and further between and separated by an awful lot of filler. If this were your first experience of Porter you might find yourself wondering why so many had come to pack out the room. It's a decent enough show, but pales by comparison with some of her previous triumphs.

Still, Lucy may be diminuitive of stature, but she is fiesty of nature, and I'm sure this is just a minor blip in what is an otherwise excellent CV and that next year she will bounce back with the kind of quality we have come to expect.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Fringe Review - The Best of Irish Comedy, The Stand, 17/08/2008

Ensemble shows with an ever changing line-up can be a bit of a hit and miss affair at the Fringe. The "Best of Irish" and "Best of Scottish" shows at the Stand can some days feature some of the biggest and best in the business, and the next you can be treated to four complete unknowns. On this day, however, the bill featured two of the old stalwarts of the Irish comedy scene, so disappointment was unlikely to feature.

Opening the show and acting as compere was Bernard O'Shea, a new name to me but clearly a very experienced and natural performer. A chirpy chappy from Northern Ireland, he made great play over the complete lack of sexiness in both his appearance and his name, entertains us with a shaggy dog story in the form of a song, and makes a lengthy plea for more global warming so that he can improve his tan. There isn't much audience interaction, but he doesn't need it as he is great fun and gets the room nicely warmed up.

Elaine Malcolmson may, however, have been slightly put out by the fact that he introduced her as Elaine Williamson, and repeated the error later in the show, which is something he should maybe sort out, as it is disrespectful at best. I am an unashamed fan of Malcolmson's dry deadpan humour, but have to admit that she struggled a little at this show. I think maybe the early hour in the evening did her no favours, with an audience in from work or from shopping, looking for easy laughs and not in the mood for clever wordplay. Her "I'll do anything for a biscuit" material went down well, but some of the more intricate jokes seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Owen O'Neill is such an experienced old hand at the stand-up game, and such an instantly recognisable face to anyone who has spent any time in Ireland from his appearances in various TV shows and movies like The General and Michael Collins, that it is something of a surprise that he is not the headline act, although an indication of the quality of performers The Stand can attract. His laid-back but incisive humour holds the audience from the word go, from comparisons between expensive hairdressers and old-fashioned barbers, to tales of growing up in a family of 16 children, all punctuated with trademark bizarre facial expressions.

Headline act Michael Redmond is equally recognisable, as evidenced by the fact that the moment he took the stage an audience member shouted out "you were electrocuted in Father Ted!" But Redmond's style is the antithesis of O'Neill's carefully constructed anecdotes, as he shambles around the stage seeming to make his act up as he goes along. Much of his time is spent talking randomly to audience members, especially a front row South African whose beer he quickly appropriates. But Redmond makes it all look effortless, and he is one of those comedians blessed with the ability to get as big a laugh from a simple hangdog expression as he can from any of his gags.

Of course this is a show with a line-up that changes day by day. But with a roster this strong, it is a clear indication that the quality on offer is never likely to disappoint.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Fringe Review - Rhod Gilbert and the Award Winning Mince Pie, Pleasance Cabaret Bar, 10/08/2008

For his fourth full length Edinburgh show, it is clear from the venue that Rhod Gilbert is moving swiftly up the comedy ladder towards "star attraction" status. It is also clear that it is taking it's toll on him physically, as his always throaty voice is now so raspy it sounds like someone has taken a power sander to it.

And the pace with which this show moves can't help. Those who have experienced Gilbert's brand of "not comedy but misery" will know to expect a slowly building tale in which disaster and disappointment pile on each other with ever increasing frequency until it arrives at a cataclysmic conclusion.

The premise, this year, is that Gilbert has been persuaded by others to move his comedy into the real world, and leave behind the fictional Welsh town of Llanbobl where his previous shows have been set. Doing so, however, has led him inexorably towards a fateful encounter with the staff of an almost deserted Knutsford service station on the M6 at two thirty one morning, where he finds himself buying myriads of useless tat, hoping to catch some form of entertainment show in the toilets, and having a mental breakdown over the titular award-winning mince pie which is the last item left in the cafeteria.

In his incandescent rage at these seemingly minor irritations, Gilbert raises the mundane to the level of Greek tragedy, providing his audience with the catharsis he fails to attain for himself. The pace is relentless, but occasional respite is given to the audience through various sidetracks in which he discusses his relationship with a much younger woman, a trip to Afghanistan to entertain the troops, and an explanation of the difference between "ballroom" and "cabaret" style venue layouts in Ebbw Vale.

It's all wildly entertaining stuff, and when he finally collapses in exhaustion into his service-station bought canvas directors chair to deliver his conclusion, the audience feel like collapsing alongside him. It's been a wild ride and we can feel his fatigue as if it were our own.

Gilbert grows in stature year on year, and could be the perfect Edinburgh Fringe comedian. Where other comics often find difficulty in sustaining an hour long show, he thrives on it, using the time to build the various strands of his tale until it finally explodes into a climax of callbacks. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next year.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Fringe Review - Andrew O'Neill, Banquetting Hall at Nicol Edwards, 10/08/2008

"Welcome to the Banquetting Hall," Andrew O'Neill tells his audience at the start of his free show, "the most inappropriately named venue on the Fringe." He's not kidding. We are in a dank cellar under the South Bridge, with a floor made of loose rubble and water dripping from the ceiling. But somehow it seems an appropriate space for this slighly surreal and unusual looking comic.

O'Neill has been hovering around the edges of the big time for a while now, without ever quite breaking in. With a few low-key TV appearances under his belt, and a whole series of strange but interesting Fringe shows behind him, this year he has decided to perform twice a day. Late at night he does his paying show, the
Totally Spot On History of British Industry. O'Neill is a bit of a history buff, as previous shows have established. But in the afternoon it's just a straight stand-up set, performed as part of the Free Fringe, for donations only.

Nearly everything you need to know about O'Neill before his show starts is summed up by his appearance. The long, jet-black dyed hair and black cut-off tee-shirt showing his collection of tattoos all act as a frame to highlight the face of a nerd. His act veers from the fiercely intelligent to the supremely silly, with bizarre asides that punctuate his set and allow him to move from topic to topic without any forced links.

His star is clearly still in the ascendency, as witnessed by a room bursting at the seams, an unusual occurrence for a Free Fringe show. And he didn't let them down, with strange tales of heterosexual cross-dressing, horrendous night-bus journeys, and his experiences of dealing with American tourists at the Cabinet War Rooms museum which includes the most perfect response to the charge that we'd all be speaking German if it wasn't for the Yanks that you will ever hear.

Not all of the show works, but over the course of an hour the success rate is as good as you will find in many top price shows at the Fringe, and a good deal better than many, and all this for Free. It's a testament to his determination and his work-ethic that he is willing to put in the effort to build his reputation in this way, and a clear signpost that he is surely destined for a long and successful career.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Fringe Review - Jason John Whitehead: The Joker, Belly Laugh at the Underbelly, 09/08/2008

Canadian comic Jason John Whitehead is so laid back there are points during his set you wonder if he's about to fall asleep. But his easy smile and stoner demeanour work well in his favour, because as an audience you find yourself almost willing him to succeed.

He has, sadly, been landed with one of the very worst venues in the Fringe. The Belly Laugh is essentially a long narrow tube, far too long to use end on so instead it has been rotated ninety degrees and is now simply ridiculously wide and shallow. Add to this the tendency towards front row avoidance in the average Fringe audience and the result is an audience scattered so widely it makes it difficult for the comic to address them all directly and results in his having to move the focus of his attention on a regular basis to keep everyone involved.

Whitehead has, in the past, wisely eschewed the Edinburgh propensity towards themed shows, preferring instead to simply range randomly through any subjects that take his fancy. But this year, after a decade in the comedy business, he has chosen instead to take a step back and look at what made him want to take up the comic lifestyle, and the choices he has had to make to maintain it. Or, to put it in his own rather more simple way, it's a show about being a comedian.

Whitehead takes us from his early years at a dolphinarium in South Carolina, to his arrival in Edinburgh ten years earlier and his search for a job to fund his stand-up fixation, an end only achieved when he ceased trying, and through some of the drink and drug excesses of his years since.

All of this is narrated in an easy, unhurried and non-threatening way, and most of it is very entertaining, but there is never really a wow factor with Whitehead. He never seems to hit that killer punchline that has you doubled up in your seat or draws a spontaneous round of applause. And maybe it's the fault of the room, but in the end, he is something like the old comedy cliche of the Chinese meal, he leaves you vaguely satisfied, but in half an hour you'll be wanting something more.

Fringe Review - Liam Mullone: In a Dead Man's Hat, Billiard Room at the Gilded Balloon, 09/08/2008

Towards the beginning of this show Liam Mullone informs his audience that this is going to be more of a storytelling experience than straight stand-up. What follows is essentially a series of reminiscences, framed by the tale of a potentially life-altering experience during a trip to the United States.

For various complicated reasons, Mullone found himself, some while ago, having to survive for six weeks in a dilapidated van in a dry ravine in the Nevada Desert with only a big bag of pork chops and the world's worst paperback for company. Like a cut-price Jesus Christ, he endured forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, and came away from it wiser, but probably not ready to form his own religion just yet.

Despite his Irish sounding name, Mullone is a big shambling Englishman, the product of an upper-middle class family from Leicestershire who spent some of his childhood in Hong Kong. Tales from that childhood, and of family life in general, are intersperced into the main narrative giving a sense of a man re-evaluating his life during the long hours of loneliness.

It's an entertaining and engaging tale, and if not often laugh-out-loud funny, it contains enough humour along the way to hold the attention. Mullone holds his audience with an easy charm, and makes good use of lighting and the various areas of the stage to suggest different modes of rememberance. As an early evening show, it works very well, and for anyone planning a full evening on the Fringe, it will serve as a very nice appetiser.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Fringe Review - Richard Herring: The Headmaster's Son, White Belly at the Underbelly, 08/08/2008

It has almost become a tradition now. This is the fifth year in succession I've been to see Richard Herring's solo show in the Fringe, and he seems to get better year on year. I am happy to report that this year is no exception.

For the past few years his shows have been straight, vaguely themed stand-up, as opposed to the rigidly structured shows that went before. This year he's moved back towards those older shows, but the theme remains broadly the same as the one that seems to have obsessed him for a while now, namely that of why he is moving into middle-age without ever having seemed to grow up.

Herring is 41 now, never married, no children, sexually promiscuous, and still seemingly trying to act like a teenager. And he has recognised that a great many people who act inappropriately in their advancing years blame all their problems on their childhood. It has become something of a trend these days to blame your parents for almost anything you do which society frowns on. So he decided to examine whether his parents could be responsible for his behaviour, particularly his father, and his experience of growing up in a school where his dad was also his headmaster.

Of course, he instantly recognises the absurdity of claiming to have suffered psychological trauma from what was, essentially, a nice, happy, middle-class upbringing in the picturesque Somerset town of Cheddar. But he still manages to get easily his hour's worth of mileage out of the situation, often brilliantly, especially the section in which he reads excerpts from his teenage diaries, pricking the pomposity of his former self, and culminating in a conversation between his 16 and 41 year-old selves discussing the way his life has gone against the way he expected it to be.

It's a more rigid and rehearsed performance than we've been used to from Herring of late, and this caused some problems on the night as he had to battle against a large group of Portuguese schoolgirls who sat right at the front, didn't speak much English, and insisted on talking to each other all the way through. But if he was thrown off his stride at all, it didn't show, and the rest of the room seemed to lap up his verbal dexterity and intricate wordplay. It may not be the show that finally breaks him through into the big-time, but if not then it can't be far away.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Fringe Review - Jason Byrne: Cats Under Mats Having Chats With Bats, Assembly Hall, 07/08/2008

At this point in his career, it appears, Jason Byrne has given up any pretence at having a theme to his shows, thus the nonsensical titles which grace each year's offering, (last year it was "Pigs With Wigs Hiding in the Twigs.) This is a good thing, because the only thing you are guaranteed with Byrne is that on any given night there is no telling what he will decide to talk about.

By all accounts, there are nights when he ad-libs entire shows, and this is probably a good thing as generally his rehearsed material is the weakest part of his performance. But this year he seems to have upped his game a little in this respect, and tales of moving his family to the countryside or fixing a television bracket in his son's bedroom are well worked out and often pant-wettingly funny.

As usual, his long-suffering wife is the butt of much of his humour as he prowls the stage screaming in frustrated rage at this impossible harridan. But of course the audience is always in on the joke, well aware that in reality she is most likely a nice and normal woman merely driven demented by years of having to live with him.

But of course it is in the audience interaction that Byrne really shines. It is his ability to think on his feet which moves him out of the category of competent comedian and into the super-league of comics able to sell out huge venues.

Tonight he has plenty to work with. There is the couple who have brought their twelve year-old son and sat in the front row. "There goes half the show," he says, "you're going to learn a lot tonight kid!" Then there was the man trapped somewhere inside the middle of his body, the doctor who makes models out of poo, and the man who, on being asked questions, merely shouts out random words.

Byrne makes great play with all of them, continually returning to them as characters in a narrative he is constructing in his head. Everything seems to be clicking in this year's show. Even his closing set piece, often a disappointment after what has gone before, is this year suitably barking mad to provide a fitting climax to the show.

Brilliant and possibly borderline insane, it's always a banker at any Fringe that Jason Byrne is going to give value for money.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Fringe Review - Pete Firman: Flim Flam, Belly Button at the Underbelly, 06/08/2008

Magic, like so many other forms of entertainment, has undergone a radical rethink over the years. Like so many things before, it has been referred to as the "new Rock and Roll." So if Paul Daniels was the Val Doonican of the genre, we moved on to the Manilowesque gloss and glamour of David Copperfield, to arrive at the Kurt Cobain grunge of David Blaine. Pete Firman would clearly like to associate himself more closely with the latter of this trio, but it has to be said that underneath the surface appearances he has more in common with the first.

He starts well, employing shock tactics to get the audience squirming in their seats, hammering a nail into his own face and doing something with a maggot which defies description. But that seems to be a mistake, because he has nothing much to back it up, and for the rest of the set falls back on the old staples of making objects appear and disappear and appearing to predict the results of various "random" set-ups.

Even his big finale trick, in which he tries to present himself as being in great danger, is so obvious it is hard to believe that any audience member could not have been aware of how it was being done. And when he follows that up with a final "flourish" performing cutting the rope tricks that we all learned how to do at school, you can't really prevent your eyes starting to roll.

All that said, the tricks may be old and obvious, but the showmanship is quite definitely all present and correct. His banter is amusing, the little twists he puts on his stage equipment are fun, and the silly spoof tricks he performs to blind-side the audience are all pulled off well.

But in the end, it's just a magic show, and one that, the first ten minutes aside, offers very little that's new, and that is a problem. Firman is clearly a talented man, and he has had some television success recently and maybe he's just resting on his laurels a bit here. Flim Flam will keep you entertained for the hour you are watching it, but will probably leave you with a vague lack of satisfaction afterwards. Must try harder.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Fringe Review - Tom Wrigglesworth: I'm Struggling To See How That's Helping, Pleasance Below, 03/08/2008

Hardly a household name, despite having won So You Think You're Funny five years ago, Tom Wrigglesworth is a lanky Yorkshireman with wildly unlikely hair who adopts the always popular style of the slightly befuddled Englishman nonplussed by the world around him.

Wrigglesworth greets his audience from the stage, already there seated on a stool, noodling away on a guitar while making wryly sardonic comments about those coming in. On this particular day he seems to have an obsession with umbrellas, having spotted a large and burly man carrying a particularly effeminate-looking example of said article, and this acts as a good way to get the audience warmed up and ready for comedy by the time they are in their seats.

The broad theme of the show, as can probably be surmised from the title, is the little things in life which seem designed to baffle us. But Wrigglesworth himself admits very early on that this is merely a device to allow him to paint on a wide-ranging canvas by being deliberately vague about the actual focus. It is admissions of this kind that help him to make the show seem like an inclusive experience, a kind of "we're all in this together" attitude which you can't help finding yourself warming to.

Many of his themes during the show are broad, a number of them are the usual popular targets, and he includes a routine on Facebook which seems to be becoming this year's ever-present topic, and while nothing he does is exactly ground-breaking most of his routines are funny, find original things to say, and hit their mark.

Meanwhile his audience banter is very good, and he finds particular fun in having a French girl in the front row whose boyfriend frequently has to explain points of reference to her.

Overall this is one of those shows that you often come across in the Fringe, that are not going to be troubling any of the awards panels, but nonetheless prove a highly enjoyable way of whiling away an hour and send you back onto the street with a broad smile on your face.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Fringe Review - Tim Minchin: Ready For This?, Pleasance Grand, 01/08/2008

The title of Perrier Best Newcomer is not always a guarantee of great things to come. One or two of the recipients have gone on to great things, but some have fallen by the wayside and most simply went on to be jobbing comedians. Few, surely, have ended up, just three years later, filling one of the largest regular venues on the Fringe.

Such is Tim Minchin’s talent that it is hard to believe that it can only have been three years. But so meteoric has been his rise that, with this, his third Fringe show, with a documentary film about his life already under his belt, this is beyond doubt one of the hot tickets of the year.

Which is a lot of pressure to put on someone so, relatively speaking, inexperienced. And as a musical comedian, it must be equally difficult to leave behind songs that have served him long and well, especially with loyal fans who would have been just as happy with another outing of Inflatable You and Canvas Bag.

But this is an all new show. Nothing borrowed from earlier shows, nothing recycled. And once again, Minchin has come up trumps with a set of songs which range from the silly and fun to the complex and thought-provoking. If there is a disappointment in the show it is maybe that the opening “Ready For This” song is a little too reminiscent of the previous “So Rock” from his last show, with a similar “pretend instrument” theme to it.

But that’s just a niggle, a minor blip in another all-round triumph which can only enhance Minchin’s reputation. It’s a show in which he appears to be airing a few general grievances, working through some of the things that bug him in life, whether it be religious fundementalists trying to tell him how to be a good person, new age hippie idealism and the rejection of science, or just intolerance that he is subjected to on a more, shall we say, hirsute level.

Minchin is really a comic who entertains on every level. His show combines superb physical comedy and slapstic with amazing verbal dexterity and virtuoso musicianship, and even some risk taking as there are few who would have the guts to hand over nine whole minutes of their hour long show to a beat poem which is, in essence, just a single extended joke.

But it works, and does so superbly, blending with all the other elements to create what would, if I were the kind of reviewer to give out stars, be the first this year to receive all five of them. Minchin is unmissable, and long may he remain so. It will take something special if I am going to see another show this year as good as this one.

Fringe Envy

For those of us not fortunate enough to make it to Edinburgh this year, we still have the opportunity to live vicariously through others...

Chortle are posting daily video clips, giving a taste of a different act each time,

Ewen Spence is back for the 4th season offering a very good Edinburgh Fringe podcast that contains interviews, news and reviews,

The Guardian will also be providing their own podcast offering, hosted by Miles Jupp,

The BBC will be recording two shows at the fringe, hosted by Sean Lock and containing performances by a number of Edinburgh favourites and new comers,

E4 also have a podcast, which will be hosted by different people throughout the fringe run,

There will also be radio shows, more videos, podcasts and articles cropping up all over the place, and we will be updating this list as we find them. If you see anything that we haven't, let us know!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Fringe Preview - Nick Revell: Sleepless, Wee Room at the Gilded Baloon Teviot, 01/08/2008

Although he emerged as one of the alternative comedy crowd of the early eighties, doing his apprenticeship at the Comedy Store and on Friday Night Live, Nick Revell was never really an angry young man of comedy, more his thoughtful intellectual cousin. And now, quarter of a century later, it is that thoughtfulness which keeps him from being just another of the grumpy old men generation. He may be grumpy, but his concerns, for the most part, are by no means trite.

It was quite a surprise to me to see this elder statesman of the alternative scene in such a small room at such an early hour. But maybe today's audiences don't know their history so well, because while the comedy literate will be well aware of the huge influence he has had on British comedy, he has never been much of a one for pushing himself into the public eye, content to make his home in Radio 4 satire rather than BBC2 panel shows.

Revell begins by explaining the title, saying that the theme of the show is things that keep him awake at night. But like so many Fringe shows, it's a theme he almost entirely forgets about from the moment the words leave his lips. Apart from the occasional mention along the way, what the theme really is, is simply things that bug him. And we're not talking things like loud music or not getting a seat on the bus, Revell's concerns are of a serious bent, world politics, global warming and why the world seems to care more about the cult of celebrity than genocide in Darfur.

These are tricky subjects to tackle, but Revell does so with eloquence and intelligence, and while very little of his set is bust-a-gut funny, nonetheless he never loses your attention. And that attention is adequately rewarded by the few occasions when he does let loose with a killer punchline.

So perhaps the early evening slot is a blessing after all. This is comedy that should not be viewed through the bleary eyes of excessive alcohol consumption, even thought that too is a topic covered along the way. This is smart and clever and you'll want your wits about you to appreciate it properly. So perhaps not a show to go to if you just want a bunch of giggles with your mates. But for the more discerning viewer, a thoroughly enjoyable experience nonetheless.

Fringe Preview - Reginald D Hunter: No Country for Grown Men, Pleasance Grand, 30/07/2008

Is Reg Hunter mellowing in his old age? After courting controversy with show titles such as "Pride and Prejudice and Niggas" and "A Mystery Wrapped in a Nigga", and last year responding to the furore with a show called "Fuck You in an Age of Consequence," this year's strapline seems positively tame. It does, however, succinctly sum up the idea that Reg is trying to put across.

The theme of the show is the way in which, in modern life, we are not trusted to be grown-ups, even in a matter such as choosing what to do when you find there is no paper in the pub toilet. His beef is that men are not being allowed to act like men any more, but this isn't a macho thing, just a question of disposing of the "rules" and letting us get back to using our basic common sense.

Hunter has some great routines and a few killer lines in here, but this being a preview show, it has to be said that it was yet to really gel into a coherent whole. There were a few points where it was clear that he was struggling to remember what he had planned to talk about next, and one or two of the topics seemed a little random and scattered.

But that's what previews are for, and it was equally clear that there was enough good stuff in here that, once he's up and firing on all cylinders, it will live up to the quality we have come to expect.

And of course Hunter always has the main weapon in his arsenal, that deep-voiced warm soothing southern drawl that you could listen to all day. Combined with the baffled grin with which he punctuates his most salient points, it makes him an extraordinarily charismatic performer, which gives him the freedom to draw the audience to him rather than reaching for laughs and punchlines.

As more of an initial overview than a finished product, it is difficult to say, but I'm not sure this show is ever going to reach the heights of some of his previous outings, but nonetheless it maintains a very high standard, and in its late night slot could make an excellent end to a packed Fringe day.