Monthly Archives: August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 4): Back to School

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the last of four* weekly review articles on the visitors I’ve had, the shows I’ve seen and the sides I’ve split.

*All completely off-topic – no TV involved.

Week 4: My parents and I learn things, and have a right old laugh in the process

After the chaos and mayhem of last week, my 2014 Fringe experience drew to a close on a calmer note as my parents arrived for a long weekend of rather more cultural – nay, educational – pursuits. In the week that all the poor Scottish children had to go back to school, so, rather fittingly, did we.

ENGLISH LITERATURE: Our education on this core topic focused on a classic author: Jane Austen, in the form of Austentatious, an improvised version of a ‘lost’ Austen novel whose title is suggested by the audience. On this occasion there was an hour of rollicking japes on the subject of ‘Hubris and Hostility’, involving two sisters (naturally), one wild and fancy-free and one serious and responsible (naturally), whose desire for marriage was thrown into jeopardy by the problems at their father’s museum-cum-carriage-wash business (naturally). And that’s precisely what makes this show awesome: the absurd combination of impressively consistent Regency mannerisms and language (well, mostly – one actor who came out with the phrase ‘pack it in’ was roundly derided by the other cast members) with a slightly satirical inclusion of modern elements, such as the fact that the romantic hero of the piece worked as a mixologist. ‘Beach on the Rocks’, anyone?

GERMAN: Our foreign language option this week was German, as taught by Henning Wehn in his show Eins, Zwei, DIY. In addition to five minutes of actual German conversation between Wehn and a countryman in the audience – surprisingly funny given that no one else had a clue what they were saying – Wehn generally uses the whole ‘I’m German and you’re not’ theme to great effect. Indeed, the very fact of Wehn’s Teutonicity tends to be a driving factor behind his comedy in the sense that it allows him to take an outsider’s perspective on all the things Britain is currently failing at (house prices, politicians, and of course football) and thereby ridicule them in a convincing manner. I’m not sure I’m fully on board with the idea that we get rid of mortgages, but I can’t fault the suggestion that if we elected Angela Merkel the next Prime Minister, she would sort things out.

HISTORY: Specialist historical subject of the week – the Romans. This event had the distinction of being the only one presented by an actual teacher: Mary Beard, whose discussion topic was ‘He-He-He! What Made the Romans Laugh?’ Included in the Fringe catalogue under ‘Spoken Word’ rather than ‘Comedy’, and more of a lecture than a show, the hour nonetheless included several Ancient Roman jokes (have you heard the one about the absent-minded professor from Abdura?) and several instances of poking fun at Ancient Roman jokes, which was funny in itself. Beard won me over the second she used a picture from Asterix to illustrate Julius Caesar’s baldness, and the gentle, informative tone of the hour was a nice change of pace from the madness of the stand-ups and sketch troupes.

SOCIOLOGY: Bringing the focus back to the present, and taking a decisive stance on the greatest issues facing society today, were Fascinating Aïda, giving us a condensed version of their show Charm Offensive. The elegant appearance of Dillie, Adèle and Liza, and their beautiful flowing melodies, belie the content of their songs, which include ‘Cheap Flights’, ‘Song of Genetic Mutation’ and ‘Dogging’ – thus firmly refuting criticisms that it’s the youth of today who use bad language and jokes about sex to make people laugh. Both of my parents (indeed, most of the audience) were in fits of giggles throughout, and, although I’m not exactly their target market, I was smiling and humming along, and even getting a little misty-eyed during the couple of serious and emotional songs that were interspersed with the comedy. And, perhaps most importantly, I learnt an important life lesson: always be sceptical of airlines offering you a good deal.

PSYCHOLOGY: What with all these troublesome aspects of modern life, mental health is an incredibly important topic nowadays, so it was with great relief that Jack Dee was there to help out, inviting a variety of comedian friends onto the Jack Dee’s Help Desk panel to help solve the audience’s personal conundrums (‘conundra’?). Our helpful psychologists on this occasion were Richard Herring (see here), Jess Robinson, Cariad Lloyd (of ‘Austentatious’, above) and James Acaster, who was the funniest of the bunch. The problems offered by the audience ranged from the light-hearted (‘My mate wants me to be a bouncer at his party’) to the serious (‘I feel lonely at work’) to the downright horrifying (‘I’m addicted to Holby City’); but the panellists were good humoured, witty and amusing, and, in many cases, they actually offered some quite sensible advice (e.g. ‘Try watching Breaking Bad instead’), leaving us all feeling a lot better about ourselves, each other and life in general. Plus I got a free pen. Score.

GEOLOGY: Finally, after a lot of artsy-fartsy nonsense, we got into some hard science – specifically the study of volcanoes, in Stuart Laws: When’s This Gonna Stop? (1 Hr Show). Laws also dealt with other topics – YouTube memorials, primate recognition and German biscuits, for example – but it was on the topic of volcanoes that the knowledge really came thick and fast (much like low viscosity basaltic lava). Unlike some other audience members, I was not asked for my favourite volcano – the answer would have been Arthur’s Seat, of course – but, for the second year running, my father was asked to contribute to the show in the form of answering questions about when he was a lad, which was awkward for him and extremely amusing for everyone else. What’s really nice about Laws’ comedy, though, is that it’s all very friendly, and when you’re laughing (which you’re doing for pretty much the whole show) you feel like everybody else is laughing with you, like a big comedy family. If you can spend an hour chortling/guffawing in harmonious tandem with thirty other people, and learn a little something about pyroclastic flows in the process, well, that’s how you want to spend the last week of the Fringe.

SHOW OF THE WEEK (WEEK FOUR): When’s This Gonna Stop? (1 Hr Show) (Stuart Laws) (Banshee Labyrinth, Niddry Street)

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 3): Mind Games

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the third of four* weekly review articles on the visitors I’ve had, the shows I’ve seen and the sides I’ve split.

*All completely off-topic – no TV involved.

Week 3: Sarah and I are driven to the brink of insanity, or possibly beyond

This week, I found myself sitting in the backroom of a small Italian restaurant, next to a Roman statue wearing a fedora, watching two people in cabaret-clown makeup singing songs about cats, heliophobia and Butterbeer. This was the Peablossom Cabaret, starring two of my favourite Oxford Imps, whose aim is to sing delightful improvised cabaret songs based on audience suggestions (the Butterbeer was mine – in response to Mr Pea asking me ‘What’s a nice memory you have?’, I blurted out, ‘I went to Harry Potter World!’ I’m not ashamed). Some of the rhymes and scansion during the songs were a little bit dubious, but hey, they were making it up on the spot, and that’s quite a feat; and besides, Mr Pea and Miss Blossom are a thoroughly winsome pair, with excellent on-stage chemistry, merry patter and flawless comedy timing.

Despite the wackiness and the unsettling costumes, though, this was actually the least bonkers show of the week, which turned out to be a progressively darker and more disturbing series of comedians and audience dragging each other down into a horrifying world of mental instability, panic and hysteria…

Sounds hilarious! Read on!

The road to insanity began lightly with Celia Pacquola: Let Me Know How It All Works Out. The first move of the show was a bold one: she announced that she was generally a worrier (fine) and that, in consequence, she pays actual money to visit psychics to try and calm her down (um). The evidence was presented as to why this wasn’t as crazy as it sounds – Pacquola is an intelligent person, it’s no more unreasonable than believing in an unknowable being in the sky, most psychics just tell you something vaguely positive and let you go on your way… But then there was a story about a not-so-positive palm reader and the aftermath of his clairvoyant assertions (a minor breakdown, followed by an amusing appearance from an annoying hipster) – and any sympathy I had for the reassuring nature of the psychic was wiped out. Yes, the show was funny (in a disconcerting way), the soundtrack was excellent, and there was a fun twist at the end; but it’s hard to be entertained when you’re a little bit angry, and I – and I suspect several other people – left the venue thinking not ‘That was a funny show’ but rather ‘Psychics are bloody awful.’

Other comedians, like Jessie Cave, turn to arts and crafts to soothe their frantic hearts. Cave is probably still best known for playing Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter series, but her Twitter and stand-up persona is more of a socially awkward bundle of nerves. At last year’s Fringe, her show involved lots of fretting about running a book club where NO ONE WAS DOING IT RIGHT. This year, she has something really big to be anxious about – she’s pregnant. (Plus her stand-up partner dropped out at the last minute.) The resulting show is kooky and charming, with a wealth of handmade props and puppy-dog eyes, but all with an undercurrent of anxious mania, and, at times, the jokes seem so close to the bone that you actually find yourself worrying for her. When she finished the show with, ‘Please leave money in the bucket to support my unborn child’, everyone emptied their pockets.

Following on from that, Mark Watson in his show Flaws went one step further by actually re-enacting his own nervous breakdown on stage. It should be stated that this wasn’t the whole show. For forty-five minutes, the audience was chortling, giggling, guffawing and, in one case, hissing with laughter as Watson talked about his kids, exercise, work, and the terrible drink choices of the guy in the front row who kept getting up to pee (strawberry cider, incidentally). Then, to the strains of children’s TV theme tunes and with the help of quite a lot of balloons and a PR specialist plucked from the audience, Watson dimmed the lights and recreated apparently the lowest moment of his life. It was genuinely a bit frightening; yet, disconcerting though it was, it was still absolutely hilarious, and Watson was even more firmly cemented in my heart as one of my favourite comedians.

But the delirium was not over – oh, no. Forget about darkness and balloons: true madness lies at The Circus. Performed in an actual tent, The Circus is, well, a circus, but what a circus would be like if it was souped up on acid. The line-up changes nightly, but every performer we saw did an absolutely bang-up job in making their characters simultaneously awful and uproarious. Joseph Morpurgo’s Elemento performed some stunningly underwhelming feats of strength and bravery  (the ramifications of which, I was reliably informed, had taken fourteen years off my life); Tim Fitzhigham’s Lion Tamer went up against an astonishingly self-important and arrogant audience member who arrived late (but sadly, presumably for legal reasons, refrained from actually whipping him); Lolly Adefope and Adam Lawrence performed some actual magic, accompanied by awful puns; Ellie White and Natasia Demetriou were unhinged but riotous as two Eastern European women dressed as ‘Sexy American Girl Cousins’; and Paul Foot brought his usual brand of stream-of-consciousness nuttiness to the Human Cannonball. We came out of the show dazed and confused, with headaches from laughing so much, and no longer sure whether we were still at the Fringe or whether we’d been dragged to some hell dimension where Satan was disguised as a ringmaster and tortured his subjects with never-ending mirth.

Fortunately, after all of that, everything was calmed and cured again by Rob Auton. Last year Auton performed a show about the sky, which, as it went on, slowly began to reveal itself as part stand-up, part performance poetry. This year, it was The Face Show, which began with Auton drawing portraits of the audience members (Sarah got one, and I was jealous) and evolved into beautiful philosophical musings and poems on the subject of faces – and the people who have them – interspersed with cheeky grins and playful questions about pretty much everything under the sun. Also there was a renegade sticker book, and who doesn’t love a renegade sticker book? The genius of this show is Auton’s charisma, which means that the funny parts are sparkling, the sad parts are heart-breaking, and the uplifting parts are joyful. I definitely wasn’t the only person with tears in my eyes by the end – and not just because I finally felt sane again. If I can only recommend one show this week, it’s this.

SHOW OF THE WEEK (WEEK THREE): The Face Show (Rob Auton) (Banshee Labyrinth, 4pm)

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 2): Audience Participation

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the second of four* weekly review articles on the visitors I’ve had, the shows I’ve seen and the sides I’ve split. *All completely off-topic – no TV involved.

Week 2: My BFF (Best Fringe Friend) comes to stay, and we Get Involved

Following the relative calmness of last week’s visit by my sister and her boyfriend, things were dialled up a notch this week with the arrival of a university friend – Sarah – whose attendance for a week of Fringe fun has become as essential a part of summer as accidentally squashing a wasp into your drink. This year, we decided to make the most of one of the best things about the Fringe: the opportunity to get up close and personal to the acts. Obviously, pretty much any live show requires an audience. Take, for example, The Addams Family, a musical take on the family favourite. The version at this year’s Fringe was performed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (who last year provided a pitch-perfect rendition of Avenue Q), and all we had to do as an audience was sit back, relax, laugh, tap our feet and provide the traditional finger-clicking during the theme song. From then on in, it was a whirlwind of creepy (yes, and kooky) Broadway-style numbers interspersed with the typical love story: boy meets girl, girl brings boy and boy’s parents home to meet her family, family turns out to be bunch of violent, masochistic loons, zombie ancestors appear, hilarity ensues. In particular, the show was stolen by two characters: Gomez, whose attempt to reconcile his devotion to his wife with his love for his daughter was genuinely heart-rending; and Lurch, who groaned a lot. But many shows invite you to get a little bit more involved than some giggles and clicking; sometimes, say, you might have to proffer a suggestion for the theme of a spontaneous musical…

This approach was taken by No Strings!: The Improvised Puppet Musical, a group made up of a selection of performers from Showstoppers (saw them last year – excellent), Austentatious (of which more in review #4), Boom Chicago, and a bonus Racing Minds associate (see here). An audience member shouted out the word ‘lasers’, and suddenly we were in a world where photons turn people into rats, Hogwarts gives out university degrees, and the only thing male scientists know about women is that they have ‘This, and this, and one of those’. The songs may not have been Christmas Number 1 material, but the energy and enthusiasm were infectious, the quips were razor-sharp and sassy,  the puppets were handled with a surprising amount of dexterity, and the occasional gaffe – for example, two different members of the cast accidentally falling off the stage – was handled with aplomb and good humour. And I think I’m going to get ‘Phil! Stop dancing with the mutant rat!’ printed on a T-shirt.

Adam Hess, in his show Mustard, also asked the audience for suggestions, though these mainly involved calling out random numbers that corresponded to items on a list of slightly sinister true-life confessions he’d written on a piece of paper. We saw Hess a couple of years ago alongside Sean McLoughlin, during a show in which the stories of their sad lives were so upsetting that I hugged them both as I left and told them to stay strong. This time, a recent break-up provided some sympathy-inducing material, but most of the show consisted of fast-paced reminiscing about childhood awkwardness, from playing with Barbies at school to being obsessed with The Sound of Music (who isn’t?). There was an element of bafflement to the proceedings – largely from not being sure which bits were real and which bits exaggerated (read: completely fabricated) for comic effect, a fact which came back to bite us firmly in the behinds on several occasions – but it was funny, and it was sweet, and we got to listen to some Britney Spears, so overall it was a win. But audience participation isn’t just about shouting things at performers – oh no. You might be asked to go on stage when you least expect it.

Our musical performance for the week was Out of the Blue, the all-male a cappella group based in Oxford who’ve been on Britain’s Got Talent and actually have their own Wikipedia page (fancy). Being familiar with the city, I’ve heard them plying their trade before now, but I’d never attended an entire show.  Nonetheless, what I expected was exactly what we got: a group of bright-eyed undergraduates singing their hearts out with beautiful harmonies, impeccable choreography, a Disney reference or two, and the occasional arrangement that made you want to weep with joy. What I didn’t expect, given how perfectly everything was prepared, was one of the performers leaping off the stage and pulling a girl out from the audience to star as the female lead in the ‘Out of the Blue Musical’ love medley. Fortunately she did a fantastic job of staying calm, smiling, genially conversing and joining in with the dancing, although she sadly didn’t get the chance to wiggle her hips like Shakira – that job, naturally, was left to the boys.

Stage-based participation was also required for Joz Norris: Awkward Prophet, a stand-up who comes across as wacky and light-hearted with a hint of clinically insane. In all honesty, I was a little bit concerned about how this one would pan out: sure, his show last year had Sarah literally crying with laughter, but that was partly because at least half of it involved me being chatted up, serenaded, stared at, flirted with, begged for a date, embraced and, eventually, forced to come up on stage and dance with Mr Norris as he wore a stocking over his head. This year, fortunately, it was other members of the audience who were prevailed upon to join in, mainly through wearing something stupid and/or stuffing their faces with marshmallows (well done, Sarah). The experience was educational – we learnt all about how to do online dating, pour juice from a carton and liven up a birth for the price of a Christmas cracker – and interspersed throughout the madness were moments of surprising pathos (to the extent that Norris paused a story to let us know that, really, he was OK, and we didn’t need to call the Samaritans or anything); but mostly there were snorts of laughter, tears of mirth and some worryingly damp Skittles.

Alex Horne, in The Percentage Game, went one step further by making the show all about the audience; indeed, the show was officially “39% experiment”. One hundred audience members; a square painted on the floor; and a beardy guy at the front shouting out maths-based topical questions (“What percentage of the UK supports gay marriage? What is the average life expectancy in Japan? What percentage of the world’s population dies of fireworks each year?”). Working together, moving in and out of the square, we (the audience) made our best guesses, and were generally completely wrong. And a lot of the fact and figures were actually fascinating: did you know, for instance, that a lady in eighteenth-century Russia had sixty-nine babies (owww…)? Other statistics, particularly the ones relating to death and poverty, were fairly depressing, which made for a slightly more sombre affair than most Fringe shows; but all power to Mr Horne for shaking things up and trying something new – the very fact of having to think and make decisions instead of just sit was a welcome change, and to top it all off, we saw our third performer of the week fall off the stage (they were all fine, by the way).

Leaving that show, I thought I’d managed to avoid anything too embarrassing in terms of participation – but I hadn’t counted on Cupcakes with Colebrook and Khoshsokhan. We didn’t really know anything about the show – we went because, duh, they were offering free homemade cupcakes – but it turned out to be more than we could ever have imagined in our wildest dreams (or our most horrific nightmares). The first of the two half-hour sets was Khoshsokhan, who told a rambling tale of ex-girlfriend woes: apparently a recurring theme for comedians, but this well-worn comedy trope was substantially improved by the presentation, which was a weirdly mesmerising – and pretty funny – combination of pathetic and psychotic. And then… Then Colebrook happened. As far as I can reconstruct it in my head after the fact, his half of the show was made up of three characters – a French mime, a crazy Italian with a beard, and a man called Franz who was “half German, half tropical!” There was definitely some stuff involving bananas, and some homo-erotic icing play, but for some reason the bit I remember most is being pulled up onstage, handed a fake beard and made to sing the Spice Girls then dance like a monkey as everyone else pissed themselves laughing. On the one hand, mortifying. On the other, bloody hilarious. And that’s how you get involved in the Fringe.

SHOW OF THE WEEK: Cupcakes with Colebrook and Khoshsokhan (Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Cellar Monkey, 12 noon). The cupcakes were actually delicious.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 1): Fringe 101

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the first of four* weekly review articles on the visitors I’ve had, the shows I’ve seen and the sides I’ve split.

*All completely off-topic – no TV involved.

Week 1: My sister and her boyfriend join me for their first ever Fringe experience

Now you may not know this, but the Edinburgh Fringe is quite a big event: we have shows coming out of our ears, noses, mouths and other orifices too unpleasant to mention. To try and distil all this excitement into a one-weekend period for a couple of newbies, we decided on three major categories of show – stand up, improvisation and music – and agreed on one show from each, plus a wildcard.

Representing the stand-up contingent was Richard Herring: Lord of the Dance Settee. Now I’d seen Herring on various panel shows, but all I really knew about his comedy was that, in 2009, he grew a Hitler moustache just to see what would happen. Consequently, I was expecting a controversial show – not necessarily Frankie Boyle-standard, but something a bit edgy. What we got, however, was a sweet but slightly disjointed ramble through the trials of childhood, from the challenges of singing hymns in school (“I was cold, I was naked… hee hee, naked!”) to kisses from scary aunties. I do like observational comedy, but I find that it’s funnier when it makes you go, ‘By Jove, he’s right! I’d never thought about that before!’ than when your reaction is, ‘Well, naturally…’ A couple of times, the observation did evolve into something unexpected; for example, the aunty-kissing moment became a meditation on the longevity of human memory and existence (which, to be fair, was funnier and more interesting than I’ve made it sound) – so the show was engaging, and thought-provoking at times. But ultimately it was an hour of gentle smiles rather than belly laughs – plus one horrified gasp during a disconcerting story about window décor, but the less said about the nightmarish vision painted by that particular (hilarious) anecdote the better.

Next came some improvisation, in the form of Racing Minds’ Aaand Now for Something Completely Improvised. Now in contrast to Richard Herring, I’m pretty familiar with Racing Minds – I’ve seen them several (dozen?) times before, and last year I described them as “the greatest improv troupe known to man”. I therefore had extremely high expectations, which, you’ll be pleased to know, were not disappointed. As usual, the preposterous storyline took a back seat to a constant stream of puns, self-mockery, questionable regional accents (Welsh? Indian? Geordie?) and general high jinks, mainly to do with increasingly ineffective attempts to create a realistic-looking zebra out of a walking stick and three scarves. Minor changes from past shows were all to the good – for example, the always-impressive keyboard player was actually allowed to speak (and made an excellent job of it), and the slightly larger venue meant that for once there was an offstage area where costumes could be changed with a minimum of fuss. Even though it wasn’t my favourite show they’ve ever done (that honour would have to go to either the one about pinguins [sic] or the one with the Australian horse-people), it was still an absolutely fantastic hour, and my respect for their ability to be that funny, for that long, without preparing any of it in advance, increases every time I see them. Sadly, I didn’t get a Werthers – but there’s always next week.

The third show of the weekend – in the music category – presumably involved somewhat more preparation. Of all the various musical genres on offer, we went for a cappella (largely due to an ongoing sisterly obsession with Pitch Perfect), and we chose Exeter University’s all-male group Semi-Toned: Toned Up. They were tuneful and slick. The presentation was fluid, the voices were harmonious to the ear, and the outfits achieved an aesthetically pleasing smart-casual balance (although I bet the one guy wearing skinny jeans and multicoloured socks had a telling off after they finished). The only drawback, for me, was that many of the songs featured were recent (you know, Jay-Z and the like), and since my knowledge of popular music from the last five years is patchy at best, I was forced to lean over to my sister several times and ask, ‘Who did this originally?’ As a result, subtly humorous changes in the lyrics and clever vocal reinterpretations of bass lines often went over my head. Still, I could get fully on board with the Disney number – Donny Osmond eat your heart out – and the Meat Loaf song, both of which were very well performed. Plus, the beatboxers were genuinely incredible. I especially liked the one who looked like a Spanish Charlie Brooker.

Finally, the wildcard. With time in the schedule for one more show, and with my sister commenting that she’d be quite interested in something about feminism, we flicked through the guide and said, ‘That one’ll do’. And what a wise decision we made. Andrew Watts’ Feminism for Chaps was a delight. I was quietly sceptical about how much I’d enjoy an explicitly feminist show – my sister and I have had some quite vocal debates on the topic in the past – but it turned out to be my favourite sort of feminism: less debate over terminology and affirmative action and more making fun of sexist idiots. Jokes ranged from cricket metaphors (which I generally didn’t get, but the men in the audience were wetting themselves) to puns based on French philosophy (which I did get, and since I was the only person in the room who did, I was singled out and called a show-off – whatevs). Thrown into the mix were a few genuinely upsetting stories about how far we have left to go, tempered with a brilliant anecdote about Watts sticking it to The Man in a strip club, of all places. The show was hysterical and heart-rending by turns, Watts was extremely likeable, and we left hoping that his message of peace, love, equality and orgies would be spread far and wide. If you’re in Edinburgh this month, you can help with that…

SHOW OF THE WEEK: Feminism for Chaps (Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Counting House, 6:15pm)