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)