Two weeks into the Fringe and I've got a large pile of used tickets and a blister. I've also got a large pile of notes written on separate pieces of paper. I know journalists are supposed to carry notebooks wherever they go, but let me explain. I used to be one of those journalists who carried a notebook wherever they went, but a couple of years ago I left an almost full notebook in the Pleasance Courtyard. Like a nervous spy I was terrified it would fall into enemy hands. Richard Herring might finally find out what I really thought of him. Amazingly I went to the box office the following day and it had been handed in. Someone had clearly read it because a note was stuck on the front: "Looks like some kind of journalist." If I ever write my autobiography that would make a good title. Some kind of journalist.
Anyway, there is not enough room in the paper to review all the shows I've seen so I wanted to do a whirlwind write-up of the rest. Some deserve more space, of course, and, hopefully when they transfer to London I will expand on what I've written. Some, however, I may not mention. Please don't take it personally. It probably either means you don't follow me on Twitter so I'm sulking, have forgotten I saw you (let me know if this is the case and I'll try to rectify the situation) or I left my notes in the theatre. In fact I saw a great show at the Underbelly yesterday afternoon, John Osborne's John Peel's Shed, and did just that. By a bizarre coincidence I found myself booked into the same room at the end of the evening to see a double act, Dregs, and when I arrived there was only one seat left. It was the same seat I'd sat in earlier and sure enough my notes were still there on the floor. Coincidences like that do tend to happen on the Fringe. I heartily recommend John Peel's Shed. It is a gentle tale of one man's passion for obscure music and the radio which has been compared to the work of Daniel Kitson (who was in the audience for the same performance, checking out the competition). It is not as good as Kitson, but then few storytellers are. As for Dregs, they are asking for trouble with a name like that, but they were nowhere near as bad as expected. They've got a weird older guy who looks like Kevin Eldon's dad as their stooge and they've got a pretty rib-tickling oddball finish. Catch them in a few years and the rest of the show might be pretty rib-tickling too.
Another show left its mark for the wrong reason. On a horrible wet day I went to see Josh Howie at The Stand. There were seven people in the audience and only two had paid. Howie noticed me and I thought of offering to move to the very back of the room so that he couldn't see me scribbling, but I thought that might make things worse. They got worse anyway. The two people who had paid were a Scottish long-term married couple who did not get Howie's north London neurotic schtick. The concept of the show was Howie trying to establish that he might be a dick but at least he wasn't an arsehole. The theory was promptly torpedoed by Mrs Scottish when she said that dick was worse than arsehole. Howie never quite recovered from this, though it might be harsh to criticise him for being self-obsessed as that comes with the stand-up comedy job description. There were a few droll lines, but the show seemed to rely too much on his obsession with posteriors. A little too bottom-heavy.
Just browsing through my ticket stubs there are lots of shows that have had their moments, but didn't quite have that Fringe X Factor. When I first saw Henry Paker a few years ago he reminded me of Leonard Rossiter. Then he seemed to be developing a surreal side and turning into Harry Hill. Now he has found his voice. Well, actually he has found another voice. In Cabin Fever Paker seems to be turning into Eddie Izzard, complete with ums, aahs and lengthy digressions. When I came out of the gig I was standing by the wall saying this to a friend and when I turned the corner Paker was there having a crafty fag, so he probably knows what I think already. He has a lot of promise and I shall definitely be seeing him again next year. Mainly to see if he has morphed into Ross Noble.
Of the big shows I've enjoyed, Tim Vine's Chat Show stood out. The master of the one-liner has always needed something to break up the sheer relentless of his belly laughs and he has found the perfect method here – intersperse them with bits that aren't funny. I'm not saying this show is low budget, but the guests are members of the audience who have paid to be there. On the day I was in a couple of punters were actually amusing while one had such a thick Scottish accent he may have been funnier than Tim Vine but I couldn't tell. I'd also highly recommend Dave Gorman, who is back to doing what he does best – powerpoint presentations. There is no overarching high concept or quest this year, just wall-to-wall jokes. I'll be saying more about Gorman when he hauls his video screen to London in the autumn.
Oh look, here's a theatre ticket. Blind Summit do great things with puppets but their latest show, The Table, is definitely not for children. It is not particularly rude, it just deals with adult issues of existentialism and the abyss of nothingness that we all face in the end. Not exactly Peppa Pig. But as I said, it is very funny and the main puppet, with his big head, hesitations and deliberations made me thing of Tommy Cooper. The puppeteers also do a great trick with picture frames and tell an entire movie in a few minutes with the aid of pictures on card. Still on the puppet front another piece of inspired lunacy came from Australia's Sammy J. His shows are always great and Rickett's Lane has already won an Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Sammy J stars alongside a purple puppet called Randy and despite the fact that Randy has no features apart from eyes and a mouth the puppetry is so slick and quick – respect to Heath McIvor under the table – you almost forget he is not human. Even when Sammy J squashes his face together so that it is the size of a cricket ball. One of the most side-splitting hours of uncomplicated fun on the Fringe.
Another show that was great but wasn't exactly comedy was the immensely amiable beatboxing maestro Shlomo's Mouthtronica. This is a man that can do things with his mouth that defy logic. Computer samples and loops help, but give this man a microphone and he could put whole bands on the dole. It was also a perverse pleasure to see middle-aged men standing up and dancing to his D-I-Y dubstep. Not me, of course, I was the coolest guy in the room, hiding at the back taking my notes while Shlomo rattled off his notes onstage.
I also loved Isy Suttie's show Pearl and Dave, a tale of two soulmates rediscovering each other years later via Facebook, juxtaposed with Suttie's musing on her own relationship history. It's a lovely, warm, intimate show but with its songs and narrative it feels a little like a work-in-progress for a musical she would like to write. I've said it before and other critics are saying it now, wit her quirky songs and penchant for the eccentric underdog, Suttie is like a young Victoria Wood, which is no bad thing at all. She used to do a very good routine featuring Amy Winehouse stuck down a well. Not tasteless, just odd, but she probably won't be doing that one in the future.
To be continued.....
Alex Horne always sets himself huge challenges when he does an Edinburgh show and he has surpassed himself this year by cramming an entire lifetime into an hour for 7 Years in the Bathroom. In fact it is may be too much of a challenge. He has to cram so many ideas in – apparently we spend 7 years of our life doing what the title says, for instance – that some gags get lost in the mix. But along the way he strips off (close your eyes), has his portrait painted and gets married. And he also cooks and eats an entire microwaved Rustler burger in front of a live audience. Now that really is an achievement. By the way, Horne's old mucker Tim Key, who won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2009, also has a brilliant new show in the same room later in the evening. I'll be saying more about Masterslut later in the week and when it comes to London later in the year. Needless to say it's a hot ticket. The spoof poet with knobs on is easily making one of this year's biggest splashes.
Another comedian who is partial to a highish concept is Richard Herring. His latest show, What Is Love Anyway? explores the nature of love and was prompted by a remark suggesting that a belief in love is just as irrational as a belief in God. Like Alex Horne but without the gimmicks or burgers, Herring also squeezes a lot into his hour. So much so that he sometimes gets breathless and can make it hard for the audience to keep up. But it is worth the effort. There are some inspired callbacks here and proceedings build to a climax that is comic, moving and, for me, surprising (being a fan of his daily blog I could see some gags coming, but not all of them). If this isn't Herring's best show yet that's only because his show a couple of years ago was magnificent and set a very high benchmark. But as that one isn't on go and see What Is Love Anyway? Don't be put off by the rather naff heart surgery poster – I presume it's ironic but I'm not absolutely sure...
Herring has beeen coming to Edinburgh for well over two decades now, but he is no showbiz veteran compared to Paul Daniels, who is doing a show in a lecture theatre at the Assembly Rooms. It feels like a bit of an odd career move for the former TV superstar, but maybe it is a canny attempt to get some credibility and a younger following and it is certainly a jolly show that should appeal to all ages. As one would expect the magic tricks are excellent, but I have to add that Daniels was the first performer I saw who made a topical gag about the riots, commenting than in American cop shows veteran police officers say "have you been in 'Nam?" Maybe soon they will be doing it in English crime dramas too – "Have you been in 'Nam? Tottenham?"
Terry Alderton is another veteran, albeit not of the same vintage as Paul Daniels. Alderton was nominated for a Perrier Award in the nineties, landed a mainstream job presenting the Lottery Show then disappeared back into the clubs. In recent years he has re-emerged with a distinctive act which involves turning his back on his audience and talking to his invisible alter ego. It can be disturbing, scary and inventive, but on the night I was in it did not quite come alive. And most of his act did not seem that different from his nineties set. No Chris Eubank impression, maybe, but his rave dancing felt familiar and a lot of his audience interaction would have worked as well on a stag night as a Fringe show. His miming to an old Hazel O'Connor hit – you can probably guess the one – was a little too similar to Lee Evans' Bohemian Rhapsody routine for me, but the audience loved it. A true crowdpleaser, but in a full-length show not quite as reinvented as I'd hoped.
Sometimes comedy is simply subjective. You love something while others hate it. I suspect Shooting Stars scorer Angelos Epithemiou divides the nation, but his fans at the Pleasance could not get enough of him. I don't know which came first, Angelos having a Vic & Bob sensibility and thus landing the job or landing the job and developing a Vic & Bob sensibility, but his show was very much in their spirt, from the cheap props to the beyond surreal humour. I can't say what's waggish about the priceless way he hits the bongos or does his DJ interlude, it is just stupidly waggish. And as for the end in which he mimes to an old Sweet hit, it is everything that Terry Alderton's Hazel O'Connor send-up isn't – disturbing and hilarious at precisely the same time.
Another occasionally disturbing act that has divided the critics is female duo Toby. They are real-life sisters with an onstage rivalry that maybe has its seed in a genuine sibling clash (particularly judging by the home movie footage towards the end). One wants to be a star and plays an egomaniacal character who is clearly unstable, the other plays the more balanced half of the act pushed into the shadows. The sketches aren't always great and the very dark ending does not quite work, but there's a creative energy and inventive spirit here that suggests great things. I also have a soft spot for them because when I arrived at the venue I wasn't sure if I was in the right place and I was able to say to the usher "Toby or not Toby? That is the question."
The sketch shows this year are definitely a mixed bag. Bad Bread, for instance, are three men who are so young they resemble a sperm and two embryos. They've got bags of gusto but not quite as many new ideas. One sketch in which they play three characters of varying ages talking about their respective lives was clever but to me was very derivative of the old John Cleese/Ronnie Barker/Ronnie Corbett "I know my place" sketch. As I wondered if they'd ever seen this they did another sketch which literally was an update/homage to the Cleese/Barker/Corbett classic. Nice to see they know their comedy past, now they have to work out their comedy future.
Fringe regulars Pappy's are absent this year, but bearded Matthew Crosby – forget my quote he is using on the poster that compares him to Woody Allen and Groucho Marx, these days he looks more like a boyish Rolf Harris – is making his solo debut with a cuddly little set, Adventure Party, that is both similar in style to Pappy's and very different. At one early point I feared that it was going to consist of sketches that maybe Pappy's had rejected, but then it quickly got very good indeed as Crosby discussed growing up in Bromley, showed us some hideous old photos of himself and explored the differences between being a nerd and a geek. He also made great use of visuals and had a great quick-witted rapport with his audience. He also had a lovely Nando's story, but blotted his copy book a little for me by admitting that the story didn't have a strong pay-off. A memorable solo debut that shows that he's either the McCartney or Lennon of Pappy's – probably McCartney, given his innate niceness – and certainly not Ringo. Incidentally Holly Walsh – super show, will hopefully say more later this week – also has a Nando's gag and her set, Hollycopter in the same Pleasance Cellar. Maybe they should rename it The Nando's Room.
I expected great things from Brett Goldstein Grew Up in a Strip Club and was impressed, but also a bit disappointed. This is the true story of how the 21-year-old Goldstein found himself running a strip club in Marbella bought by his dad and a friend when they were having a midlife crisis. For a nice lad who had studied feminism this all came as a bit of a shock and when criminals appeared on the scene it was even more shocking. Early in the show he says this experience was going to be his Stand By Me rite of passage, but it soon started to resemble a scene from Scarface. I'd been told the show was powerful, but I actually think he pulled his punches. Some lovely turns of phrase, but somehow you could see how things were going to progress. It needed more of a twist. Maybe his dad coming on at the end as Des Bishop's dad did in last year's show.
Meryl O'Rourke's show is called Bad Mother and I assumed she was describing herself, but she was also describing her own mum, who arrived as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939. There aren't a huge number of giggles in this show but it is a fascinating story. Particularly the way her mother was hideously over-protective and controlling and dragged her teenage daughter on celebrity-spotting trips. The result of this was a meeting with actor Neil Pearson that has a curious echo of a story Richard Herring tells about Julia Sawalha in his show. O'Rourke's show started slowly – 2.45pm is probably not the best slot for Holocaust gags – but by the time it ended I could have done with some more. Not for anyone expecting a Michael McIntyre gagfest, but a journey worth sticking with.
Stuart Goldsmith is currently on ITV1's stand-up search Show Me The Funny and if he survives this week's show he makes it onto the final. You only see small clips of him on ITV1 so his one hour set gives a much better sense of his potential. As a comedian with good looks, slick delivery and an affable, self-mocking OCD-ish persona he sure has plenty of potential. Like O'Rourke's set Goldsmith's show is also about neurosis, in this case how he is paranoid about being involved in a crisis and what he would do if he was in one. There is a nice arc to his story and lots of llustrative detail and banter with the audience. He talks at length about being a compulsive worrier – he recalls one dilemma about buying a mallet that actually reduced him to tears – but with his talent I don't know what he has to worry about.
With so many character comedians, sketch groups and downright weird, in-yer-face shows (my two top tips are the utterly full-on Nick Helm and Adam Riches) Josh Widdecombe's straightforward stand-up show on life's little – and big – irritations felt like a veritable palate-cleansing sorbet. Good, smart, clean fun, plus a witty Laser Quest routine.
And so there is a round-up of nearly all the shows I've seen that haven't been reviewed in their own right. I'll be mopping up the rest by the end of this week. It's a funny Fringe indeed and one that is full of coincidences. Two of the shows I saw today – from Meryl O'Rourke and the hotly-tipped uber-slick sketch group Idiots of Ants – referred to genital blood blisters. Typical. You wait ages for a gag about genital blood blisters and then two come along on the same day...
My blister that I mentioned at the start, in case you'd forgotten, is on my foot.
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