Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary 2019

Wednesday 14th & Thursday 15th

(Warning: some spoilers)

You may have read my previous musings on the microgenre of one-person character/sketch comedy. I’m pleased to report that the genre is alive and well and still allowing for subtle shadings in presentation and structure. Offerings by Frank Foucault and The Death Hilarious illustrate different ways of approaching shows of this kind.

Frank Foucault’s Desk is anchored in a main character, the eponymous low status performer who has to be persuaded by a bullying inner voice to read his ‘novel’. The most enjoyable aspects of this show are the set pieces which establish and develop the Foucault persona in oblique ways. To take one example: at the start of the show and periodically thereafter, he repeats the word ‘Smart’ in his nasal voice, over and over, while nervously flicking at his jacket. This routine is developed over a few minutes as he plays the audience’s anticipation of a pay-off, moving to a different position on the stage, breaking character to remark on how this bit has gone previously, checking his watch and informing us that we have fifty-eight minutes of the show left, and so on. This stretching out of repetition until it become funny is nothing new, but here, like a recurring nervous tic, it conveys a lot about Foucault in a delightfully minimalist way.

The Death Hilarious, in Razer, has a much broader variety of characters – our host channels various spirits and depicts sundry inhabitants and other citizens concerned about a grotty tower block. While his characterisations aren’t particularly subtle, their range is impressive, particularly since these variations all fit the consistently creepy atmosphere. Where the show really excels is in a number of truly inventive set pieces. One had an audience member being brought onstage and asked to train a gun on the door; through judicious use of a gunfire sound effect, she shot a character in the back, just when said character was about to escape with her life. Another depicted an urban fox learning to speak a beautifully mangled form of English, before assuming a more distinctly human form.

While the shows differed in important respects, they shared what I would regard as a common weak spot. Too often (for my tastes at least) each opted for fairly crude sexual material. I have no principled objection to comics discussing That Sort Of Thing, but in each case it felt lazy, and the attempted shock value wore off pretty quickly. In the case of The Death Hilarious, this was compounded by the fact that more or less every character was grotesque in some way or another. Frank Foucault’s main character was more sympathetic and thus allowed for a little more emotional depth, but I felt that his novel, while authentically awful, could have served as a vehicle for a more creative brand of humour. To be fair, this weakness is not a problem for the genre but is probably more to do with each of these shows being staged fairly late and playing to crowds who expect more raucous entertainment.[i]

[i] It is also fair to mention that the other audience members for these shows seemed to enjoy the cruder material, especially the audience for The Death Hilarious.

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