So, I had a day by myself at the Fringe the other day, a blank slate to fill with anything I fancied and, after an hour’s consultation with the Huge and Bewildering Fringe programme, I came up with a pot luck itinerary. Six shows, with a break for dinner at Brewdog on Cowgate, would not exactly be pushing it (my record for one day is eight musicals and a pantomime…) but it was enough for a good day out.
Let’s wind back though to those words: “Huge and Bewildering”. The Fringe programme is traditionally the size of a telephone directory. There’s something like 2500 shows in there, all of them begging for your bum on their seat. Fortunately, it’s possibly to whittle down the options by choosing to ignore whole sections of the thing. I’ll happily watch almost anything at the Fringe at the instigation of others, but for a day dedicated to my own enjoyment, my preference is to head in the first instance for Musicals & Opera, Theatre and the new (yay!) Cabaret section, completely disregarding Children’s, Dance and…Comedy.
I know, how dare I? A lot of people think of the Fringe as basically a stand-up festival with some other stuff on the side. It’s where they can see established comedians and next years BBC3 newcomers alike, and they happily spend entire days just watching comedy. All of which is well and good if that’s what you like, but it’s not for me. I was actually thinking about this as I passed the walls plastered with comedians’ faces on my way to my first show of the day: what’s the big deal about stand-up and why don’t I get it? I spent the day intermittently mulling this over, and several of the shows I encountered during the day contributed to those thoughts.
Take Punch, for example. A brutally funny two-handed play, astutely delivered by Kirsty Mann and Matthew “Mannish” Jones, which invokes the spirit of that original bad-mouthed stand-up comic, Mr Punch himself, to expose society’s attitude to things it’s okay to joke about. Punch doesn’t tell jokes any more because jokes upset people (particularly the one he tweeted recently). Instead, his increasingly beyond-the-pale one liners are delivered with leering seriousness. At the same time, his social worker tries, and ultimately fails, to get to the bottom of what’s real (could there really have been a crocodile in his flat?) and what’s a joke. Punch is a clever, ultra-contemporary piece that reminded me that one of the things I dislike about many stand-ups is their challenging arrogance to general public taste which, even if done with the intent to shake the jar and make people think and question, more often than not comes across as unpleasant wankery.
In The Creative Martyrs’ An Hour Long Sinister Wink, a character is incarcerated for telling jokes. The point being made is similar to that at the heart of Punch, but it’s not itself delivered as a punch line. Instead, it’s offered up in the form of a silly, satirical song. The Martyrs are experts in using humour to insinuate their caustic observations on the darker aspects of an increasingly controlling society, but humour is only one of the tools in their kit. Too often with stand-ups, it’s the only tool and a blunt one at that.
I tell joke. You laugh now!
Okay, so far I’ve been disingenuous. I don’t hate stand-up comedians. Not all of them anyway. There are many among their number whose world I’ve been delighted to enter. From Connelly to Stewart Lee, Ross Noble to Josie Long, clever writers with unique ways of looking at the world and personalities that charm and engage. But these guys are the exceptions that prove the rule. They used to say that comedy was the new rock and roll, and too many of the comedians took that to heart. Too few them have the insight and writing talent to warrant their strutting sense of status (in exactly the same way as most rock stars, I suppose). Going back to that wall plastered with posters: hundreds of them, stand-up show after stand-up show: can anyone really tell me they’re all insightful geniuses and not simply spotlight-whoring narcissists?
Mention of spotlight-whoring, narcissists brings me to Dusty Limits: Post Mortem, except…no. No, because Limits its a consummate, multi-skilled performer: storyteller, singer and satirist with a depth of intelligence and wit that only reveals itself in razor sharp winks against a dark backdrop, and you need a spotlight for that. No, because, while you spend much of this analytically introspective retrospective (the show is meant to be a post mortem after all) laughing, he grounds his performance with mordant moments played absolutely straight. No, because, well, this is cabaret, not comedy. It’s like comedy. It contains comedy. But it’s so much more.
And I think that’s the answer to my question. When I go and see stand up, even if the performer is engaging, non-aggressive, naturally witty and actually possesses something interesting to say, my reaction is too often: is that all there is?
So, that’s me and comedy. It would be remiss though not to mention the other shows I took in. All of them had something to recommend them. None of them were intended to be especially funny. But they warrant a mention anyway.
As Ye Sow was billed as “Hitchcockian psychodrama meets the supernatural tradition of MR James”, but it failed to match up to either of those comparisons. The more than able cast, particularly the two leads, conjured a group of believable characters, but the mystery developed lumpily and the story had little to offer that could not have been guessed in the first ten minutes by anyone who has read any modern horror. And the direction seemed to be more about providing cheap shocks than developing a genuine sense of dread, complete with an ending that literally came out of nowhere. Disappointing.
I strolled over to the New Town to catch Crab House because it claimed to be “a bloody cabaret” (I assumed as in a cabaret with blood, not as in another bloody cabaret). First off, it wasn’t a cabaret at all. It was a musical, even if it was performed in a bar with no sets and minimal props. Great! I love musicals, and had been slightly peeved to have dropped Company from my original schedule in favour of eating. Before I go on though, a note: it’s kinda hard to criticise musicals at the Fringe because – let’s face it – no one every writes a 50 minute musical, so very often a serious amount of brutal abridgement is undertaken if a show is to be performed in a slot that lasts an hour. Crab House began promisingly with some nice multimedia projection and opening numbers that introduced us to a very talented cast. And then…well, it just went on and then it finished. Even allowing for the limitations of time and performance space, there just wasn’t enough in a story that borrowed heavily from Sweeny Todd and Little Shop Of Horrors (to the extent of almost wholesale importing the character of Seymour Krelborn) to retain interest. For me the story lacked focus on the titular crabs, making them into something genuinely monstrous. And the golden rule of musicals, even bloody cabaret musicals – especially bloody cabaret musicals – is that if you leave the theatre without being able to hum at least one of the tunes, it’s failed in its purpose. For me the songwriting was too fond of clever intra-line modulations at the expense of strong melodies. Promising wee company though, I’ll look out for them next year.
After As Ye Sow’s failure to meet the expectations set by its comparison to Hitchcock and James, I felt a little nervous going into The Lonely One which was not only influenced by Ray Bradbury, but was actually an excerpted adaptation from Dandelion Wine. Thankfully, for once, the show lived up to its billing, and then some. Simply presented by four actors with the aid of light boxes and shadow puppets and other performer-driven lighting effects, the story evoked Bradbury’s dreamlike Americana beautifully. The text retained much of the author’s trademark lyricism and the endlessly inventive use of shadow and light proved to be a brilliant way to encapsulate the darkness and light that dwell side by side in the heart of any small town, and in the heart of every one of its residents in his stories. That the cast managed to pull this off while the shouty comedian in the venue below was at his shoutiest was hugely impressive. A really lovely piece of work.