Monday, 29 August 2016

Edinburgh Fringe Blog 2016

2016 marked our fifth trip to the Fringe!  You can read about 2012 here, 2014 here and 2015 here.  I clearly couldn't be bothered to write anything in 2010.  This trip was a cheeky little last minute effort after previously deciding we would sit this year out, but then leafing through the programme and thinking "oh go on then".  As a late decision we went for the first time over a proper weekend (I'm not counting the first weekend of previews last year) and only went for three days, our shortest trip yet.  So, enough with the setup paragraph, I suspect you are saying, get on with the reviews!  The present Mrs Bufton, pictured below, is this year contributing some thoughts of her own - only when she can be bothered.


Show 1: John Gordillo - Love Capitalism
Our first show and someone who I first came across as the young(ish) host of BBC Choice's nightly comedy show The RDA, a wonderful ramshackle series that was loved by about a dozen people and ignored by everyone else, thus ensuring its fate.  Despite an obvious lack of content and interest and investment by the channel, what really held the whole thing together was the likeable host.  Until now I hadn't managed to see his standup (despite performing many times at Downstairs at the Kings Head, the famous comedy club at the end of our road when we lived in Crouch End for 6 years), but he doesn't disappoint. Performing in "the hottest room at the Fringe" Gordillo deconstructs capitalism's attempts to be friendly with us, particularly Virgin Trains' increasingly weary chatty marketing on their trains (such as "hey there good looking" on the mirror above the toilet as you urinate) and asking via email "how likely are you to recommend us to your friends and family", rightly pointing out that when it comes to trains from London to Scotland, Virgin are certainly unrivaled. Towards the end the show took a much more confessional turn which was more successful with Kate than me, but overall a great hour. And our only visit this year to The Stand, which was nice as now matter how smug they are they are still miles away from virtually everyone else.

Kate's review: Considering the big criticism we had of last year's run of shows was that the subject matter always felt a bit flighty and lightweight, it was a joy to kick off this year's run with heavy stuff. Maybe it's also because of the job I'm in where Gordillo's dissection of brands trying to sell 'experiences' and 'feelings' rather than services that this resonated quite deeply.

Show 2: Jake Yapp is One in a Million
You may know Yapp from his "in 90 seconds" segments from Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe.  He starts his latest Fringe show in much the same way with a fantastic "The Fringe in Five Minutes" sequence, which accurately captured all the clich├Ęs you can spot during August in Edinburgh ("we're just these three crazy guys that leap about, shout a lot and do sketches! There're no jokes, but still..."). Sadly after this point it became a bit more pedestrian with a lengthy sequence on Yapp's veganism, which was about as interesting as it sounds, and then something about his kids. I think. As with Gordillo, a genuinely lovely guy who you are willing on to succeed, but he could do with making all sixty minutes as compulsive as the first five.

Kate's Review: A lot of Jake's set sagged in places but ultimately he came up with a character that said 'I LOVE Coco Chanel. I've got a Chanel bin' which for some reason was my favourite line of the Fringe.

Show 3: Set List - Standup Without a Net
One of the more successful "late night rotating lineup shows with a gimmick" (we'll certainly more than Comedy In The Dark, which remains one of my worst comedy experiences of all time), Set List has become something of a hit since we last saw it, even being made into a TV show that no one has seen.  Now residing in the "Nightclub" venue of Gilded Balloon - so called because it is usually home to drunk students dancing to S Club 7 - Kai Humphries hosted five acts seeing the themes of their set appear in front of them as the performed.  When it works, it works really well, although you do feel the terror of performers as they stand there hoping what they come up with is funny. After sitting in the Gilded Balloon bar for a couple of hours looking at the various shows starting as we waited I said to Kate "there is no way I am seeing the bloody Axis of Awesome, they're almost as ubiquitous as flaming Abandoman in doing the same act year in year out". So I only had myself to blame as a familiar-sounding "poet" act, later revealed to be an alter-ego of Abandoman, was one of the acts, and the big finale was, of course, Axis of Awesome.  And the embarrassing thing was that they were absolutely superb.


Show 4: Radio Active
One of the Pleasance's headline shows this year is quite a coup - a reunion of the Radio Active cast, performing two episodes of their 1980s Radio 4 show which parodied the then new concept of local radio stations. Obviously I was too young to hear this the first time around but the idea (and the rare chance to see the cast back together) seemed too good to miss.  With the sense of occasion in mind it was a bit disappointing to see quite how safe and Home Service most of the material was, causing barely a ripple of laughter in the carvernous Pleasance One. The highlight was Status Quid performing "Boring Song", and you can probably guess what that entailed.  

It seems a little churlish to describe a Radio 4 programme as "very Radio 4", but it is the best description I can surmise. One can only guess you had to be there, and it just kind of worked in the background whilst doing the washing up in the way that it doesn't in a massive venue.  But we did get three things out of seeing Radio Active: 1) seeing how at 60 years old Angus Deayton is incredibly well preserved and hasn't aged a day, 2) an afternoon of Googling Michael Fenton Stevens to find out where the hell we recognised him from (answer: virtually everything), and finally 3) our Anecdote of the Fringe 2016, which you can find at the bottom of this blog.

Kate's Review: Gutted that we missed Mark Cooper-Jones' 'Geographically Speaking' to watch this. Mildly amusing, if I'm feeling generous.

Show 5: Lolly 2
Lolly Adefope is someone who we have sort of followed from the start, after a hysterical turn at the 1Xtra Comedy Night two years ago followed by her debut solo show in 2015. So Lolly 2 continues with more of the same character comedy, but this time with the recurring theme of her reviews from last year, many of which bafflingly remarked that she didn't mention her race at all (Adefope is black). This idea, fed into various skits including Lolly auditioning for "Black Hermione", accompanies plenty of other set pieces, none of which quite hit the heights of Lolly 1's talent show conceit, particularly one item about an American talk show host which went on for far too long.  But she remains one of the Fringe's most exciting talents, and it is to be hoped TV will manage to harness this in an appropriate format at some point.

Kate's Review: I LOVE YOU LOLLY. Although I agree that the talk show host bit went on too long. Her 'Diversity Inclusion' Officer character was inspired. She just does character comedy so much better than everyone else, with an attention to detail and mannerisms that leaves everyone else trailing in her wake. 

Show 6: James Acaster - Reset
Another outing for James "always nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award but never gets it" Acaster, this time graduating to Pleasance One, the second biggest venue at everyone's favourite yellow Fringe venue on a hill (the biggest being Pleasance Grand which even Adele would struggle to fill). The promotion didn't entirely suit his act, or indeed any standup, the room being very long and thin.  We didn't find this show quite as good as last year which was quite exceptional, but Acaster remains one of the stars of his generation.  Any show which refers back to his failed musical career as part of "The Wow Scenario" is going to be worth seeing.

Show 7: Princes of Main - Cool
IT'S ANOTHER MALE TRIO SKETCH GROUP! Following Pappy's, Wit Tank and Beasts we decided to see these guys on the basis of the show being directed by Lolly Adefope.  Residing in "the hottest room at the Fringe", Princes of Main made a pretty good stab at providing a variant on the now ubiquitous format this time loosely themed around how to be cool, the highlight of which being "badly translated French" sketch where someone was listening to "Jason of Rulo" whilst eating a "little boy" yoghurt. The hour didn't really sag at all and the room was pretty full for Sunday night, so they must be doing something right.

Kate's Review: A boy sat behind me laughed too loudly and for too long in my ear in order to impress his date. I liked Princes of Main but was largely preoccupied with thinking about what a massive tool he was. Plus, the 'crazy one' in all these male trio sketch groups is never as loose a cannon as Tom Parry from Pappy's, so they end up looking like a pale imitation.


Show 8: Five Go Off On One
When we were kids Kate and I loved the Famous Five books, and despite this have turned out to not be racist and sexist. Kate does however love ginger beer.  So when we were handed a flyer for this comedy play we were quite keen to see what they'd done with the subject matter.  After all, surely getting laughs out of the Famous Five is like shooting fish in a barrel? You'd think.  You can't really do the obvious jokes as the Comic Strip have kind of exhausted that one.  But still a lot to work with, you'd hope? 

Five Go Off On One failed on so many levels it is hard to know where to start.  It had no idea what it was trying to be - spoof, farce, surreal, or even straight comedy version of the Famous Five? All of those were thrown into the mix throughout the hour, almost as if to see which worked, but nothing stuck.  The most annoying element was trying to work out what was going on as so many plot threads were thrown into the mix, and at 55 minutes in there still wasn't a resolution, which rather gave the game away it was going to be a bit of a cop out.  Various bizarre set pieces were added, the oddest of which was an interlude where fictional news headlines were read out to the sound of the extended BBC News theme, culminating in terrible puns. The including something about Ed Miliband's hair resulting in the punchline "Ed Fringe". Yes, that's Ed Miliband off of 2010. 

Bits that could have worked well were flunked, such as a plotline that Timmy had gone missing. This could have worked into a terrific running joke with the audience who were well aware that a dog would never feature in the live play, but the resolution of Timmy being played by one of the cast with a sock on their hand when he was finally located was poor (surely pretend he's run off to continue the gag, or put a giant dog costume on or something?).  Bits that did work well, such as an interlude where Uncle Quentin looked menacing to the War of the World theme before starting to strip off when the music kicked in, was run into the ground when repeated a few minutes later.  Some intriguing plot possibilities were ignored when the suggestion that Uncle Quentin was just keeping the kids occupied by leaving crates around was brushed under the carpet.  By the end we had absolutely no idea what was going on.  The final line "Five Go Off On Two", yelled by the cast presumably to excite the audience in the idea of a sequel, instead had the effect of stunning everyone there into silence. I really really wanted to like this show but instead went away Googling to find out who was responsible.

Kate's review: The people involved in this show seemed absolutely lovely, and I genuinely believe that the best of intentions were behind the production. But my God, why did nobody in what was presumably quite a long road to get this to the Fringe stop and say 'Hang on everyone, this material isn't funny. It's really NOT FUNNY.' And we even paid for the privilege. My god.

There were numerous pointless scenes written to showcase the individual talents of the cast (for example, filling a cave with infinite crooks so one guy could show off his range of American accents) which added nothing. I was also pissed off that George the tomboy was a sap in pigtails. Ideally the show needs a talented script editor and a big red pen, otherwise they should stick it in the bin and use this year as a learning experience to write something better.

Show 8: Rhys James - Forgives
Second year running for us seeing Rhys, once again in the not-at-all-a-Portcabin surroundings of Pleasance Beside, apparently "the hottest room in the Fringe" (guys, enough, we're all sat down out of the glare of the lights drinking beer so don't get as hot as you).  James is another likeable guy with a very deft set of funny lines weaved around...well not very much, that's kind of the problem. James falls into the problem we all do at 25 in thinking we are now fully grown adults, rather than children who have only recently stumbled into the real world and still have a lot of learning to do. A bit harsh, but if you're going to fess up that you recently moved out of your parents' house, get used to it.  The highlight of the show was undoubtedly a letter he wrote to himself 15 years previously as part of a school project, apparently entirely true judging by the hysterical laughter coming from one of his friends in the audience. A decent hour but we'd probably go and see someone else next time.  He did however have the courtesy to finish 10 minutes early to allow us to dash across Edinburgh to our next show, beginning 15 minutes later...
Reading out the Chilcot Report, in full, in a bus, 24 hours a day. 

Show 9: Alistair McGowan - 12th Impressions
In the early noughties I thought Alistair McGowan was the bees knees.  Rory Bremner aside, impressions had largely gone out of fashion when The Big Impression launched on BBC1, and I loved it. So seeing that McGowan was back at the Fringe I jumped at the chance to see him live.  So it was we crammed into "the hottest room at the Fringe" - only this time it was, with the chairs in the Gilded Balloon's Debating Room pushed so far together everyone had a pair of knees crushed into their buttocks. The show didn't get off to the greatest start, with McGowan seemingly genuinely annoyed people were still sitting down when he came on (perhaps try playing a smaller room next time?), but as it progressed I was reminded of what used to frustrate me about The Big Impression - spot on impressions, and slightly ropey comic material, the exact opposite of Dead Ringers. (Why couldn't McGowan just join them? Oh, he did, for one Radio 4 series, and left. That answers that one then).  Some of the material was a little questionable - in particularly a tired run though Dad's Army characters, a rather pervy interlude where he imagined commentators at Rio 2016 admiring the bodies of female athletes, and a request that woman stop bothering to worry about what earrings they wear as we are looking elsewhere.  Al, 1996 is on the phone and wants its material back.  Put all that together with pausing for applause after every bloody joke and you've got a major disappointment.

Kate's Review: Alistair had a segment which was basically a long whinge against Twitter and the pointlessness of it, with the audience loudly agreeing. I think I last heard those kind of jokes around 2009.

Show 10: David O'Doherty - Big Time
After, quite frankly, a bloody awful day of shows, we really needed someone to pick things off the ground for our final show of the Fringe, and O'Doherty delivered in the way he always does because he's a genius.  In something like his 15th consecutive outing at the Fringe he mused on subjects including mundane promoted tweets, his Twitter hassle from Ed Sheeran fans and the realisation that, after being on the up for the last few years, he's only going to go down now in terms of success.  We also learnt about his efforts to have a "No Lilt February" and his hatred of brunch DJs.  Despite being in his words "the enviable third Monday of the Fringe" show we finished our fifth Fringe on a high, after which he promptly followed us into Pizza Express.  Man, know some boundaries.

Kate's Review: David O'Doherty tweeted me back when I called him out on his Pizza Express stalking, saying 'I can't help it. I just h8 all K8s' which absolutely made my week.

Finally, as is traditional, a few final Fringe thoughts...

Due to the seemingly never ending redevelopment around Bristo Square that has already displaced the Udderbelly, the BBC's Fringe - sorry, Edinburgh Festivals - venue was relocated this year to the grounds of a school, quite out of the way.  I've written a few times on how despite pouring money into this venture each year they don't seem to have a clue what to do with it, and this year was no exception.  The three editions of The One Show live from Edinburgh included some festival content, but you do start banging your head against the wall when they open with an interview with someone from Casualty.  This year also saw the notable absences of Radio 1 and (by definition) BBC Three, which hasn't helped things.

Caldonian Sleeper
We got the sleeper train home!  In order to maximise our time at the Fringe (and only take one day off work), we checked out of hotel on Monday lunchtime and were still able to see a full day of shows before catching the train home late on Monday night.  This was our first trip on the sleeper since Serco took over from ScotRail as a standalone operator, which they have cunningly named "Caledonian Sleeper".  It doesn't need pointing out that the rolling stock is on its last legs but some improvements have been made, such as two pillows on each bunk, USB charging points in the cabins and more breakfast options.  We must have caught the various sleepers in the UK about half a dozen times now, and I think we've only had a decent night's sleep a couple of times.  But there is something undeniably special about going to sleep at one end of the country and waking up in another.  Long may it continue!

Anecdote of the Fringe 2016
OK, you've waited long enough.  Before we saw Radio Active Kate spotted Ian Hislop hanging around the Pleasance Courtyard.  Surely not here to see Angus Deayton, with whom it is quite well documented he doesn't see eye-to-eye with?  More like Paul Merton, also on that afternoon with his Impro Chums.  Anyway, after the show we again found ourselves behind Hislop as he negotiated the tiny staircase down to the toilets at the back of the Pleasance.  What are the chances that he should find himself facing Deayton coming up in the other direction?  #awkward.  Anyway, all that was a long time ago now wasn't?  Surely after 14 years they could at least acknowledge each other?  Nope.  They both looked in the other direction and pretended they hadn't seen each other.  And Kate was stuck in between them both.

And on that buttock-clenchingly embarrassing tale, we're done.  Will we make it four years in a row?  Unlikely.  This year was, as you've probably noticed from the reviews, a bit of a disappointment.  Partly due to our own choices: too many big rooms, as the people we follow have become more successful, and not enough small "will this work?" type shows.  Perhaps also an inevitable consequence of going at the weekend and only having 3 days to cram things into this time, there were plenty of shows we wanted to see but just couldn't due to clashes.  Or maybe it's time to take a break...