Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary

After a two-year hiatus, I found myself back in Edinburgh, notebook cocked and on the hunt for blog-worthy material.  As in previous years, what follows is not any kind of summary of comedy on the Fringe but impressions inspired by a fairly random selection of shows, with a bias towards sketch/character comedy.

Sunday 12th

One of the trickiest (and most pleasurable) facets of writing about live comedy is trying to convey how the specific performances, staging and so on contributed to the show, beyond the writing style or content.

Consider I Spy With My Little Eye Something Beginning With Why Have You Been Sleeping With My Wife: A Play by Christopher Bliss, which is very funny despite being based on the well-established, dare I say hackneyed, ideas of deliberately awful writing and acting. Why does it work so well?[1]

Bliss`s character has no great depth but a distinctive comic voice. There are strong touches of Alan Partridge, but Bliss is a more innocent individual. Like Partridge, he strives to come across as a suave man of action, and as with Partridge the lines he intends to convey this persona will often misfire. You can kill my best friend or sleep with my wife, he growls at his antagonist, but you can`t do both.

What is at least as important for the success of this show is the balance between the three actors, none of whom perform in the same style or are looking for the same kind of laughs. Rob Carter, who wrote the script and created the character of Bliss, has the misguided confidence and childish charm down pat. Ryan Lane is delightfully stiff as his son and his love rival (these being separate characters). Jo Griffin as Sarah, Bliss`s best friend who has been roped into playing his wife and other minor roles, plays each part with a faux-timidity which steals the show. She is crucial to getting the audience onside – we cheer, gasp in horror (`Ruddy hell!` is about as blue as Bliss gets) and urge Sarah on. It feels like a pantomime, but with enough intelligence to poke fun at the mechanics of audience interaction by getting the audience to act out a comically over-complicated routine.[2]

John Henry Falle is best known as one of the Beta Males (link), a prominent Fringe sketch troupe from a few years back. The Story Beast is the perfect vehicle for his force-of-nature personality: ramshackle, excessive, and often grotesque. As we enter Falle is lying under a pile of leaves; by the end the stage is strewn with detritus, spilled beer and dripped sweat. Context is everything: in a late-night show playing to a boisterous crowd, this is exactly the right approach.

But the Story Beast does not only bottle the spirit of late-night Fringe comedy. The show is festooned with beautiful touches which transcend this grubby reality: banter with a talking tree, a delightful Shakespearean rendering of Die Hard, and abortive homicidal audience interaction. The character`s volatility allows for wild swings in tone from jolly nostalgia to self-pitying despair, always with the feeling that the Story Beast is on the edge of a nervous breakdown.  These outsized emotions favour a larger-than-life performer, albeit one who can avoid simply mugging. The Story Beast may lack all discipline, but as a performer Falle has enough to control the character without neutering him.

I caught John Kearns on the final night of a brief reprise of last year`s show, Don`t Worry They`re Here. His material eludes summary: there are few orthodox jokes, and the odd observations which slip in tend to come at an unexpected tangent, such as his comment on a masseur rationing his handshakes. The show consists of a series of seemingly unrelated stories which are tied together beautifully at the end, but that description underplays to what degree each story feels like a non sequitur (and indeed inconsequential), and the degree to which Kearns avoids creating a unified fictional world.[3]

For much of the show the only unifying factor is Kearns himself, not only in that he tells and features in each story, but in that they seem to reflect his personality. I say `seem to` as it is not obvious how the material connects to Kearns`s persona, but there does seem to be such a connection.

Kearns relies to an unusual degree on his delivery to extract the humour from the seemingly mundane. Mimed or acted touches (scanning a Crème Egg at a checkout machine, or bending down to address a recurring group of triplets) colour his slightly disconcerting outbursts of enthusiasm or irritation and random details of life or how the show is going. Most striking of all, Kearns possesses an uncanny ability to generate dramatic tension simply by how he describes a scene.  It is hard to understand what makes him tick, or why he is exercised by what does, but that he is exercised is evident, and he makes this very fact compelling.

[1] Not everyone thinks it does, mind. But the audience the day I went loved it.

[2] John Henry Falle (see below) uses a very similar trick.

[3] In this respect he differs from someone like Daniel Kitson.

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