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.

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