As most of you are probably aware, I went to the Edinburgh festival a couple of weeks ago. A wonderful time was had by all, and I went to see a record-breaking 36 shows, as well as doing a lot of fat-chewing, beer-drinking andcurry-eating (the Mosque Kitchen curries from the Pleasance Dome are really fantastic).
Anyway, here's what I saw and what I thought of it:Pappy's Fun Club
Incredibly endearing group of gangly, jug-eared comedians with an exquisite sense of comic absurdity. An hour of pure, good-natured enjoyment- their trademark is the way they come across as being a bunch of idiots, thus winning the audience's hearts, whilst actually performing a very sharp and well-rehearsed set. An excellent example of the Josie Long style of comedy, positioned at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jimmy Carr-esque sneering.
4 starsLuke Toulson: Too Many Last Cigarettes
Fairly middle-of-the-road stand-up comedy, in which Luke Toulson used a series of anecdotes to describe to the audience just how unpleasant a person his stage persona is. My opinion is probably affected by the fact that I'd seen a significant chunk of his act before, when he compered a show we went to see at Pete's stag weekend, but it has to be said that he works far better as a compere than in a one-man show. Without other acts to break it up, his "I'm a bastard" routine soon became stale. There were a few genuine laiughs to be had, sure, but coming after Pappy's Fun Club (at whose expense he had a bit of a sneer), he seemed sadly unoriginal.
A very funny little play about three advertising writers stuck in a room trying to pitch an advert for a brand of coffee. In the best tradition of sealed-room comedies, their personalities spark off against each other in a range of entertaining and unpredictable directions, and it all culminates in a series of revelations that highlight just how unhappy and mutually dependent they all are. Nothing amazingly original, but very well done.
4 starsKiosk of Champions
Wonderfully likeable sketch comedy from Stuart Goldsmith and Richard Sandling. The two have a similar comic partnership to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the way Sandling's blank fat-bloke grin complements Goldsmith's manic energy, and their material was all very funny and original.
4 starsAdams & Rea
A pair of guitar wielding probable lesbians sing a series of very funny songs about middle class mothers, picking up litter and other such peculairities of modern life. Likable and very entertaining.
3 and a half starsMerrily We Roll Along
A Sondheim show, almost painfully well-performed by a group from Durham University. The show told the story of the life of an unconventional composer, starting with him as a cynical, bitter success and ending with him as a wide-eyed young hopeful. The music was unusual, in that it started off rather forgettable but, as the themes gradually emerged, we were left with some truly memorable and numbers. Of course, the fact that we knew how this story was going to end up prevented the whole thing from being too sentimental- what would otherwise have been a rather saccharine closing number was nicely balanced by the fact that we'd seem how the characters' optimism had gradually tarnished. Great show, and a nice piece of early Sondheim.
4 starsComedy at the Canon's Gait
We arrived too late for the first half of this free comedy show, but got there in time for Rob Heeney and Yianni Agisilaou. Heeney's set was a series of very funny observations on the theme of Differences Between Men And Women- whilst this is hardly new ground for comedy, he came across as likeable rather than boorish. Yianni was also likeable, albeit in a complete different (and very nerdy) way. His comic observations were sharp, but marred by an over-reliance on mp3 clips- I think this was his big gimmick but was actually the least funny part of his show.
3 starsCeltic Caledonia
Slightly twee, but very enjoyable, dance show, telling the story of the encounters of the magical Gaels (portrayed as clog-dancing green-clad Irish girls) and the warlike Picts (ballet) in ancient Scotland. I don't know much about dance, but was immensely impressed by the skills on display here; my only serious reservation is that the narration was pretty uninspired.
3 and a half starsRich Hall's Campfire Stories
Boot-faced comedian Rich Hall in a weird little play about strange events on a camping holiday. Hall is no actor, but his impeccable comic credentials more than made up for that, and the other actors in this show more than made up for what he lacked; the conspiracy-theorist fly shop owner was a particular highlight. The plot was bizarre, to say the least, involving a man who was seduced by a giant mayfly, but managed to be entertaining all the same, and the characters' various ruminations about the clutter that fills modern life were well-meant. An odd show, the kind of thing you'd only see at the Fringe, but a good one.
3 starsHou Hou Sharou's Chorus of Descent
A group of drama students dressed up as washerwomen tell a story of original sin and the fragility of happiness in rhyming couplets, involving imaginative staging using ironing boards and washing lines. Sounds weird, right? Right. However, it was also compelling; a vicious fight scene in particular created an amazingly vivid effect. It would have been nice if the play had had a philosophical depth to match its grand ambitions, though; Ged & I discussed it afterward and concluded that the message could be summed up as "life is difficult for poor people". However, it was still an arresting and highly memorable piece of theatre.
4 starsGinger & Black
A duo of deadpan "musical storytellers", Ginger & Black are old Fringe favourites. This year, they told the story of a boy named Harold who lived during the war. It was very, very funny indeed; their mastery of their comic personas is very impressive. The only downside is that Ginger (the main musician of the two) had broken her wrist so the show involved far less music than usual. It was also unexpectedly short (probably because they'd had to make a lot of cuts). Still great though.
4 starsPaul Foot: By the Yard
Truly bizarre stand up comedy. His set began as a series of ill-at-ease, almost Aspergers-ish observations about the difficulties of finding stools where one least expects them, and the correct reaction to seeing a van. It took an unexpected swerve into bleaker territory about halfway through, when Foot started ranting about loneliness, and finished by leaping into the audience and hugging me whilst weeping and shrieking. He then launched into a series if bizarre revenge fantasties perpetrated on bed and breakfast landladies. All of this was funny (to me at least), but the cumulative effect was, frankly, pretty disturbing, and the atmosphere in the room was very uneasy for a while. It was worth the price of admission for the genuinely funny material at the beginning, but the darker stuff would have worked a lot better if the show had been shorter.
3 starsMicaela Leon: Kabarett Berliner
A German singer tells the story of several strong women of the Weimar Republic in a series of monologues interspersed with cabaret singing. Fascinating subject matter and impeccably sung and acted, this was a totally unexpected gem.
5 starsShakespeare for Breakfast
These early morning Shakespeare mash-ups are an Edinburgh tradition, and tend to be fast, funny and with free croissants. This thoroughly silly retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream was no execption; in fact, it was probably the best yet. An impeccably talented cast, lots of silly jokes and audience interaction made for a morning that was engaging, accessible and fun. I can well imagine a lot of the children in the audience discovering Shakespeare for the first time due to this.
4 starsThe Shade Ain't Right
Short play set in a jazz bar in 1920s New Orleans, exploring black-on-black racism. This had a promising premise, but an unsubtle script and some very dodgy acting made it a disappointment. The play set up an interesting situation (dealing with the jealousy of a black singer who is replaced by a mixed race singer due to the Jim Crow laws in place at the time), but unfortunately didn't take the time to properly explore the issues it raised, seeming content simply to state "racism is bad".
2 starsSchool for Scandal
Cringe-inducingly self-indulgent performance of Sheridan's classic comedy by a group of smug celebrity comedians. Marcus Brigstocke played it comparably straight; the others were utterly abysmal. Terrible.
1 starHitler Moustache
Richard Herring tells the story of how he tried to reclaim the toothbrush moustache back from Hitler, reminding the audience that it was originally worn by Chaplin. Immensely clever examination of racism in the light of the BNP's recent electoral successes, and a neat demonstration that, at its best, comedy can do serious issues better than theatre (seeing as how I saw this on the same day as the disappointing The Shade Ain't Right). One of the very best things I saw at this Fringe- if only more stand-up comedy could be as thought-provoking as this.
5 starsAli McGregor
Entertaining late-night cabaret from Ali McGregor and her comedy butler. Great hostess and great guests (including the aforementioned Ginger & Black), and topped off by a breathtaking performance from Anna the Pocket Rocket, whom I can only describe as a burlesque hula-hoop artiste. Trust me, it's better than it sounds.
4 starsBite-Sized Breakfast at Bedlam
In a similar vein to Shakespeare for Breakfast, free croissants, coffee and strawberries are up for grabs in this selection of short comedy and theatre pieces. All of the vignettes were funny and/or effective (as appropriate); the highlight was a look intoi the lives of three urinal cakes.
4 starsOrigin of Species: The Musical
I loved this to pieces. A one-man show, in which an actor playing Charles Darwin, acoustic guitar in hand, introduces the audience to his study, tells them of his biological work and life-consuming obsession with barnacles, before turning to his greatest, and most controversial, work yet. Clearly a labour of love and beautifully acted, with a real ear for period dialogue. A lot of the humour came from anachronisms, which in lesser hands could have fallen flat, but the actor's earnest delivery suspended disbelief throughout. In particular, a joke about Josiah Wedgewood (the famous pot maker) being a pot head could have fallen flat, but instead became an unfeasibly funny recurring joke. Definitely in my top three.
5 starsPrivate Peaceful
Well acted but rather one-dimensional play about the loss of innocence during the First World War. The play was apparently written (by Michael Morpugo, no less) as part of a campaign to posthumously pardon soldiers who were shot for cowardice during the First World War. Unfortunately, it does nothing new with the concept, so the whole effect is relentlessly mawkish. Oh well; the writing was good enough on a scene-by-scene basis to drawme in, even if I was left feeling a little non-plussed at the end.
3 starsA Grave Situation
Gloriously silly and brilliantly produced musical about the WW2 misadventures of a group of gravediggers from Huddersfield who are sent to Dunkirk due to an administrative error. They visit a French bordello, Hell, Heaven and even London before returning home to a hero's welcome. This show made almost no sense, but I didn't care- superb comic acting, a funny script and frankly breathtaking production values, complete with enormous musical humbers, kept me laughing heartily throughout. It was produced by the Young Pleasance group, who wowed me with the Pierglass (a play about a group of actors) in 2006, but whose previous two shows have been rather too po-faced. I'm overjoyed to see that they've rediscovered their sense of fun- if they can marry it to a coherent storyline, they'll really have another hit on their hands, but until then, this kind of thing cannot disappoint.
4 and a half starsClever Peter
Rapid fire sketch comedy. Incredibly well-acted, frequently jaw-droppingly obscene and never less than hilarious, Clever Peter was one of my favourite shows at last year's Fringe and they've definitely kept up the standard. I left feeling my funny bone had been raped.
5 starsGeraldine Quinn
Tim Minchin recommended this flame-haired Australian chanteuse, so I arrived expecting great things. Unfortunately, despite a likeable stage presence, she simply wasn't all that funny. The act was saved by a very funny song about the reasons that young people are annoying (worth a star in itself), but apart from that (and a general sense of respect for anyone who rhymes "placenta" with "World Trade Centre"), she didn't raise many laughs. A pleasant enough hour, but not a very funny one.
Late night comedy mash-up, Spank is always a mixed bag, and this was no exception. The first half had some really excellent comedians, such as Matt Green whose impeccable delivery left me very impressed and Pippa Evans, whom I fell in love with a little bit (enough to make me want to see her full act, more of which below). Unfortunately, the penultimate act was an absolute stinker. Maundering delivery, non-existent material and flat charisma combined to see him hissed off. By that point, the mood was pretty ugly- Spank can often be pretty rowdy, an attitude the comperes seem to encourage, and I started to feel sorry for the final act. I needn't have bothered- he had, without a doubt, the sharpest heckler comebacks I've ever seen. I found myself on the end of a couple of them at one point and I have to take my hat off to him- he was very quick indeed. Annoyingly, a woman in the front row took offence to some of his comedy and decided she was going to needle him for his whole act. Whilst I'm not denying the woman's right to be offended (the material was pretty near the knuckle), walking out would have made her point more eloquently. Anyway, he was entertaining, if gladitorial, and the night turned out to be, if mixed, entertaining.
4 starsThe Beta Males' Picnic
Free sketch comedy performed by a group of four likable if slightly shambolic young men. It made for an enjoyable hour, if a little slack in parts. When I tell you that the undoubted highligh was a sketch portraying Shakespeare as an egomaniac cyborg, I'm sure you'll get the sense of what type of show it was.
3 starsA Fete Worse Than Death
Hmm. This was advertised as a free play about a village fete that went wrong. I thought it sounded funny, so decided to check it out. Unfortunately, it turned out that the woman organising the play had fallen ill and, as a result, the play was cancelled. Instead, a couple of comedians who were doing a different show in that venue put on an impromptu comedy performance to entertain people who had come to see the play. Despite not having any material. At all. I can see how this may have seemed like the hospitable thing to do at the time, and I can't hold it against the two comedians, who seemed like nice enough chaps, but really, it was terrible. I left after 20 minutes.
More free comedy, this time from Henry Paker and Gavin Richards, who proved to be extremely likable, engaging and funny. Hooray. They finished the show by playing Audience Top Trumps, during which I was called up on stage to volunteer. Funny, though hardlyground-breaking.
3 starsCigarettes and Chocolate
A play by Anthony Mignella about a young woman who takes a vow of silence as a protest against materialism, Mostly well-acted and with excellent dialogue; thematically a little well-worn, but it still managed to be thought-provoking. The staging was a little self-consciously arty for my liking, with the cast moving the furniture around rhythmically to oratorio, but that's a small niggle. It also featured a totally gratuitous topless scene at the end; whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on your personal opinion and, I suppose, how good a seat you got.
4 starsThe Pirates of Penzance
The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group can generally be relied upon to perform a thoroughly enjoyable, energetic and lively interpretation of Gilbert & Sullivan. This, however, I found rather staid and unimaginative. The singing was first-rate throughout, but there was little indication that any other aspect of the show had really been thought about. In particular, casting appeared to have been done entirely based upon voice, resulting in the lead role of Frederic being played by somebody who had neither interest nor ability in acting. Perhaps I'm being harsh- I have been in Pirates, so found it a little over-familiar, but I felt this was a missed opportunity. Had it been a purely choral production, it would probably have been enjoyable enough, but if you're going to go to the effort to stage a show you should put some thought into the non-musical aspects of the show.
2 starsPlay on Words
A play that tried to be thought-provoking, but only succeeded in being confusing and dull. A non-linear plot with multiple flashbacks, time loops and interaction with audience plants could be interesting, but unfortunately neither the writing nor (fatally) the acting were strong enough to support it. Moreover, the plot was cliched (the twists were that the woman that had come into both of the male characters' lives during the flashback scenes was dead, and that she was having an affair with one of them, both of which are precisely what usually happens in plays involving two men, a woman and a non-linear plot) which made it very difficult to care. Ultimately, a play which tried to engage head and heart failed to have an impact on either.
Wonderfully funny monologue about a private detective. Incredibly well-acted (every character came to life, despite being played by the same person), with some great jokes and a nice sense of the conventions of the Chandleresque world it was parodying. The actor was a very talented mime as well; the world he was describing came to life in his actions very nicely.
A one man physical theatre interpretation of Homer's Odyssey. Everything I said about Bane applies to this times 100. The level of physical control and storytelling skill that that performer had was absoltely breathtaking. Another of my top 3 shows.
5 starsPippa Evans
A very funny (and hot) musical comedian, playing a series of different characters. By far the funniest was an American country music singer; unfortunately, this was the part of her act that I'd seen before in Spank. The rest was still very good, though, and the part where she sang "I Don't Know How To Love You" imploringly to my friend Ged is an experience I'll remember for a long time to come.
A capella musical about a matador from Spain who returns to Norfolk to take up his dead father's mantle as a barber. Brilliantly sung, acted and staged; an utter delight from beginning to end.
5 starsThe Late Show
A late night stand up show, the Late Show is usually fairly reliable as a place to go in Edinburgh; it's occasionally unbelievably funny, and only rarely disappointing. This one was... pretty good. Likable New Yorker Jamie Kilstein opened the evening, and was, to my mind, the best of the bunch. The feeling was clearly mutual, as he came to me in the interval, gave me a flyer and said "Please come and see my show, you were the best person in the audience". Oh, and he also pointed me out, observing "This guy has a head of hair, glasses, a beard and a moustache. That's a man who has gone to every effort to stop people scribbling on his photo." Droll. The other acts were never less than funny, and it was a great way to round off my Edinburgh experience.
So that was Edinburgh 2009, my seventh consecutive Fringe. I have to admit that I can't wait for the 8th; this is still one of the highlights of my year.
And in my next post, I'll tell you all about Berlin.