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)

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