It's that time of year again! After months of anticipation, much rehearsal and considerable coverage in the national press, I'm writing a blog. Ahahahaha.
This was mine and Kate's fourth trip to the fringe. You can read about the last two here and here. Our last in particular was a bit of a washout which is why we've broken our unofficial rule of going every other summer. We don't go for the weather - you'd be mad to do that - but it was so oppressively wet and cold that promoters were reduced to shouting "come to our show because it's dry and warm". So we headed back up and (thankfully) enjoyed five almost unsettlingly hot and dry days. And if there's anywhere you want to be on a hot day, it's in a windowless shipping container in a car park with 78 strangers. This was also the earliest we'd ever been. Due to leave availability at work we visited right at the start and over a weekend, which was also a first for us. But without further ado, the reviews - if you can call them that. All with the proviso that everyone we saw was far more talented than I'll ever be. So with that in mind:
David O'Doherty: We Are All in the Gutter, But Some of Us Are Looking at David O'Doherty
A "strong start", as they say. O'Doherty is something of a Fringe veteran, presenting his fourteenth consecutive annual show in Edinburgh. His star has grown in the past few years meaning he now effortlessly fills the sizeable George Square (Lecture) Theatre. It's more of the same, but with David that is never a bad thing. Touching upon on the Irish equal marriage vote he tells a terrific story about the after-effects of a celebratory party that left us in stitches. Self-effacing, modest and hugely talented.
Chris Martin: This Show has a Soundtrack
No, not that one. Chris is a hugely likeable comedian who we first encountered warming up for Room 101, and this is the second time we've seen him at the Fringe. The time he is part of the Free Fringe - more on that later - as he points out on the flyer, "this doesn't mean the show's crap, but I'm getting married and still live in my Mum and Dad's shed". The hook of the show is that his friend has composed a soundtrack to the show that will run throughout, just like in film and TV, and the concept provides some early gags. It's a shame then that it gets almost entirely forgotten about later on, simply rumbling away in the background like hold music. Chris is also just too nice a guy. Given the gift of not one but two women-with-silly-cackles in the audience, he seemed more flattered that they're enjoying the show than anything else, and indulged them far longer than necessary when it was clear everyone else was getting a bit fed up.
|Gilded Balloon, Teviot House|
BEASTS: Live DVD
There have been some medical advancements in recent years as it seems as if Pappy's and Wit Tank have somehow managed to reproduce and give birth to a new all-male sketch trio. Pappy's Tom Parry has even been kind enough to direct their show as part of his fatherly responsibilities. I'm being unkind here as BEASTS easily fill an hour and hold the audience's attention around a plot where they attempt to film their show for a DVD release. It was easily one of the best shows we saw at the Fringe this year, and yet...it all felt so familiar. The three males all speaking to the audience, introducing their sketches, screwing them up and having to do them again. The multitude of silly props. The mad sweaty one intent on breaking the rules. The straight-laced leader trying to get things back on track. The other one. Is this harsh of me? After all, I didn't criticise Chris Martin for the unoriginal "solo male standup" act. Perhaps Pappy's and their ilk have created a genre of their own. After Last Show Ever, though (one of the most outstanding Fringe productions of recent years) they have a lot to live up to.
|Kate celebrates the Gilded Balloon's 30th birthday|
Iain Stirling: Touchy Feely
The third time we've seen Iain live, and he's come a long way from "Seminar Room 2" back in 2012, now filling up Pleasance Above - the definitive "on the up" venue - without a great deal of difficulty. Sadly whilst voicing Love Island some of the sun has gone to his head, and some of the confidence and assurance has been lost from his act. To be fair, it was a preview - but then so were virtually all the shows we saw. From the "catch-all title required by the Fringe in April before anything is written that ultimately has nothing to do with the show" to a confused dialogue about the shame of eating McDonalds (yeah!) that immediately segued into Iain's vegetarianism (eh?), it felt a little...unfocused. Which is a crying shame because he's a likeable guy who can engage with an audience well, and is undoubtedly reaping the rewards of bringing the older end of the 2010-ish CBBC viewership and Love Island's audience (don't laugh) into his gigs. Trying to get some kind of theme running through the show would be a good place to start next year.
A bit of a wildcard, but one of the joys of this end of the Fringe is that if you don't like something you're only a few quid down. The concept of this "part comedy show, part music quiz" is to guess which song's lyrics a sketch is performed using. The winner gets the "golden mixtape". To help you along each show has a theme - ours was "solo stars" (which hardly narrows it down...). All amiable entertainment and the enthusiastic group of performers really gave it their all. The format conspired against it, though. It's quite difficult to write a funny sketch using such a restrictive selection of words, which often resulted in them saying the same words over and over again in an attempt to not make it completely obvious. When they did strike gold with the setup, any laughs they deserved were minimal as everyone was concentrating on trying to work out the answer. Maybe it works for them - or maybe I was miffed we missed out on the Golden Mixtape by two points. They do however deserve credit for essentially putting on half a dozen different shows to support the different themes.
|Friday's winner of the "Golden Mixtape"|
The latter end of the by-time-of-day listings is full of music nights that you'd think would struggle to fit into the concept of the Fringe. One we saw had a theme of "crap music requests" - surely that's just a quirky club night paying to get into the Fringe programme for more publicity? But to prove we're still down with the kids (yeah, I've got a Game Boy Camera!) we went to PLAY, a two hour show in the Gilded Balloon which pits DJ sisters The Mac Twins against each other, with the audience "voting" using their coloured wristbands. Much is made of 80s computer game imagery on the big screen, with some impressive choreographed routines from their dancers. Attendance was a little patchy on our night but the crowd really got into the concept - initially choosing genres, before the two teamed up to "take on cheese". Given the reaction of the crowd to C'est La Vie and Cotton Eye Joe they probably wondered why they bothered with the earlier proper DJ bits, but then this is the Fringe on a Friday night. And if nothing else, it means you don't have to go to Late 'n' Live next door.
|The Mac Twins and co in "action"|
Phill Jupitus is Porky the Poet in Apologist Now!
Our first Fringe cockup. One of the problems with the Free Fringe is there is no way of stopping over-capacity, as after all there are no tickets to sell. So we found ourselves cramming into a room to see Christian Reilly before it became obvious that not only was there nowhere to sit, there wasn't really anywhere to stand either, so we cut our losses and headed back to bar. According to the Fringe app, Phill Jupitus was due to start 20 minutes later in the same building. As fall-back options go, I've had worse. Phill did an hour of poetry - an area of his repertoire I've not really encountered before - but it was enjoyable stuff, in particular a diversion into some of background and family history.
Michael Hill: My Two Years in Tokyo
Another Free Fringe show, and with exactly the same problem as we'd just encountered - too many people cramming into a corner of a bar, not helped by a table of mouthy blokes who refused not only to move but to stop their loud conversation once the show began. Newcomer Hill could have demolished this opposition easily as he had the entire audience behind him but chose to instead try to pacify them and carry on. As you can see from the photo ours seats were directly behind him meaning we spent an hour staring at his arse (the Free Fringe, there). We were inspired to see this show following our trip to Tokyo earlier this year, and it didn't disappoint those with or without any knowledge of Japan (and looking at the crowd there were a few men with a certain kind of "interest" in the country).
|Sitting behind the mic stand!|
James Acaster: Represent
Acaster is one of the most promising comedians of his generation. We first encountered him on Josh Widdicombe's XFM podcast show at last year's Fringe, after which he received a Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination for his own show. Expectation was high and he didn't disappoint, skilfully weaving together a story involving a period on jury service and the Christingle service that was layered and peppered with subtle call-backs for those paying attention. Sadly this was Saturday night in Edinburgh so the audience contained a number of individuals were definitely not paying attention (possibly Mock The Week viewers killing time in between hospital appointments). Acaster is a master on the stage and adeptly dealt with the interruptions, although sadly this extended the show length by around 15 minutes, meaning many ended up dashing out during the finale. Despite this, a hugely impressive show and (still) one to watch.
Voices In Your Head
And so it came to pass that we were wandering around the Assembly beer-and-food area (enclosure? compound?), thinking of calling it a night when we were accosted by a flyer-er offering us two for one tickets to see Voices In Your Head, an intriguing-sounding descendant of Whose Line Is It Anyway where unprepared performers have to inhabit a given character based on instructions from "the voice" and props given to them by the audience. Our hearts sank when we arrived at the venue and found a solitary person waiting, but eventually the theatre was about a quarter full. And it was a decent enough show, although one you feel would have been improved by a bigger audience and some less petrified performers. Kate bravely volunteered her handbag for one sketch, and the performer deduced that based on the contents he would be "a bitch who works in PR"! "How do you get through the day" asked the voice. Looking through her bag, out came some Nurofen and the answer "drugs"...
One of the stars of the BBC's Hip Hop Comedy night we attended last year, this was Lolly's debut hour, and the flyer promised she was "as head on 1Xtra and Radio 4", which is an achievement if nothing else. After instant brownie points for her audience-entry music being the "Wheel of Fortune" theme on a loop, so many times that it stopped being funny and then started being funny again, the show was based around a regional talent show that allowed Lolly to perform various characters, with local radio-style adverts playing as she changed outfits behind the curtain (my favourite being "Maplin Electronics. If you want electronics, we sell them"). Able to effortlessly nail characteristics of her characters, Lolly is a star of the future. See her now before she's pushed into an ill-advised BBC3 vehicle that kills her career stone dead.
|The BBC site on Potterow|
Ivo Graham: No Filter
Another name we discovered through the XFM show last year, Ivo is a young performer with a strong grasp of his material, although at 24 having been out of uni a few years and in a relationship for one, he doesn't yet have a great bank of life experience to draw on, so heads straight to the old fall-backs of social media and modern technology. Despite this it is an entertaining and promising hour but one you feel could probably be better in a few years time, and perhaps delivered at a slower pace with a tad more audience interaction.
|Time-travel adultery. Monday 8.30 on BBC1|
Matthew Crosby: Smaller Than Life
Crosby is one third of the aforementioned Pappy's who this year are largely focussing on their solo endeavours. After many years of performing Cosby is a master of communicating with his audience, and his hour - looking at a trip to Russia and ironically celebrating a certain V. Putin - zips along and doesn't dip at any point. It's a real talent to be able to engage with an audience with them feeling relaxed enough to not worry about being humiliated. Although a decent-sized audience for a Sunday the show wasn't sold out, which is a real shame as there are far less talented acts packing rooms out night after night. Plus he looks like a bloody nice bloke.
|Just the Tonic @ The Mash House|
Bridget Christie: A Book For Her
Ah, Bridget. Once again a Bridget Christie hour means getting up painfully early (well for an 11am start, which for anything other than children's shows should be forbidden) and trekking over to The Stand. Was it worth it? Well, we got a seat this time, which was good. The book of the title refers to her newly released tome (and is a play on her former show A Bic For Her, which is itself a satire on pink pens for women), but the hour of new material didn't refer to it at all, and instead was another energetic discussion of political and feminist issues. I find it hard to say this without it sounding anti-feminist - because I'm not - but it does feel, much as with her husband, that we're getting the same show each year.
Rhys James: Remains
A show I'd have been happy to see based on this tweet alone but more heavily endorsed by Kate who's actually worked with the guy in her other life as an online video guru (yep, she works for Real Player). On the surface another Ivo - early 20s, middle class, white, even the same room at he Pleasance, and not much to talk about other than, yep, relationships and social media, but delivered with a great deal of confidence and presentational zing (including an entertaining opening video featuring - it's that man again - Matthew Crosby playing Rhys's manager). Once again, one to watch.
|Underbelly Cowgate: condemned chic|
Tom Parry: Yellow T-shirt
Another Pappy's refuge, although a brief reunion in some ways as Crosby turned up to flyer his own show at the start and "the other one" Ben Clark helped with props and the collection. Not the Free Fringe but a new "pay what you want" tier from Just The Tonic, with a suggestion of £5-7. Ironically this show could have charged far more given the sheer enthusiasm that Parry delivers it with. Loosely themed on fancy dress, Parry's incredible engagement with the audience is such that he is able to pre-arrange and rehearse a standing ovation to end the show with in advance, and everyone's more than happy to go along with it.
Reginald D Hunter: Bitchproof
We booked our Fringe tickets soon after the programme was published in June. Each time we do this we pool together our requests, see if there are any the other is really not fussed by, and as long as there are no clashes we go ahead and book the lot. This year, Kate was really keen to see Reginald D Hunter. I can't remember why but she was adamant we had to go and see him, so on the list he went (as our most expensive show, no less). August rolls around, and checking our planner reveals what is lined up as our final show. "I don't remember wanting to see Reginald D Hunter", says Kate. So it was that we ended up seeing a Fringe show neither of us were that fussed about, but we'd already bought tickets. Notably it was our first show in the Pleasance Grand - a cavernous 750-seater which is more Live at the Apollo that Edinburgh Fringe. I've nothing against the guy who has been amusing enough on Have I Got News For You, and in the slightly more intimate setting of our old local pub in Crouch End. But there was nothing about this fairly pedestrian 50 minute set (not even the full hour) that suggested it deserved the enormous patronage it received.
BBC at the Edinburgh Festivals: Vic Galloway
But we weren't quite done! We wandered over to the BBC area on Potterow. Conscious we hadn't managed to see anything in the tent this year, we watched some of Vic Galloway's show via the big screen outside. Vic Galloway! You know Vic Gallow? Session in the Nations, Radio 1 Scotland, 1999-2010? No? Well he's still on BBC Radio Scotland doing much the same thing. This doesn't quite qualify as a show but brings me back to the subject of the BBC's presence at The Fringe. Going to their area is much like going round your grandparents - you know you'll pop in at some point and it'll be well presented and exactly like it was last time. Fringe broadcasts by the likes of Scott Mills and Richard Bacon were amongst the reasons that made us want to go to the festival for the first time five years ago. It is somewhat bafflingly that the exercise hasn't yet succumbed to the cuts, but the food and booze sales probably go some way to paying for it. They do need to remember what the Fringe is supposed to be about, though, and not just use it as a cheap way for a programme to do an outside broadcasts (The One Show, I'm looking in your direction).
|The spirit of the Fringe|
And that was it. Our favourite shows? A threeway tie between Lolly, Tom Parry and Matthew Crosby. My least favourite? Undoubtedly Colin Baker. (and a pat on the back to anyone nerdy enough to get that joke). To finish with, a few random thoughts.
The biggest change we've seen over the past five years is undoubtedly the rise of the Free Fringe, which was almost non-existent in 2010 but unavoidable in 2015. Some big names as well, such as Phill Jupitus, and more of the "squeezed middle" who previously charged for shows, such as Chris Martin. It is an area that is likely to keep on getting bigger as it means the acts don't have to pay to use the performance space. They are however reliant on audience donations at the end of the show, which can often be quite miserly. As we experienced in the Tokyo show, audiences just don't seem as committed and invested during the Free Fringe shows. Organisation can also be less than slick. Waiting for Jupitus's show we found ourselves in a stairwell with a crowd not knowing where to go, before the man himself emerged and (to everyone's amusement) pointed everyone in the right direction.
Money Money Money
It doesn't have to be expensive. Whilst certainly not cheap, it doesn't have to be as huge an outlay as you might think. As well as the aforementioned "free" Fringe (which isn't free, but a lot cheaper) the opening few days have preview prices and then two-for-one deals on the first Monday and Tuesday. We travelled by train for free on reward scheme tickets (admittedly one no longer running) and stayed in an Airbnb flat, for around the same price per night as a hotel room - and a price not hugely inflated by the Fringe either. This then allows you to have as many meals a day at home as you fancy.
Be Nice to Flyer-ers
They're not chuggers (who incidentally you should be nice to as well - or at least polite) so allow them to give you their spiel and a flyer. They'll clear off pretty soon as it'll be clear if you aren't interested. A huge number of these are actually flyer-ing their own show, so smile, be nice and say thankyou, even if you do throw it in the recycling bin round the corner. This is how the world goes round at the Fringe, so even if you're in town just to see Jimmy Carr on his three nights at the Festival Theatre, remember this is how it all begins.
GO TO THE TOILET BEFOREHAND
I MEAN SERIOUSLY HOW HARD IS IT TO ANTICIPATE THAT YOU NEED A SLASH BEFORE A SHOW? OR ALTERNATIVELY HOLD IT IN FOR A WHOLE HOUR? WOULDN'T THAT BE PREFERABLY TO SQUEEZING OUT, DISRUPTING THE SHOW AND BEING RIDICULED AS YOU GO?
And on that note - thank you for reading. I'll be in Pleasance Twelve from 1st September with my new show Bellend in a Courtyard. I hope you can join me - if not, wait till I'm out of sight before you put the flyer in the bin...