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.

Katie Hopkins: A Life in Comedy (Selected Highlights)

The news that professional controversialist Katie Hopkins has managed to tweet her way into insolvency is hardly a surprise. Given her track record of vitriolic nonsense and lost libel cases, it was only a matter of time before her ego wrote a check that her faltering media career couldn`t cash.

More importantly, her latest misadventure provides an excuse to review Ms. Hopkins`s contributions to comedy. We could pore over innumerable tweets about women in burqas using iPhone Face ID, Scottish life expectancy and (edgiest of all) ginger babies, but in the spirit of Ms. Hopkins`s journalistic career, let`s not get bogged down in petty details, or any details for that matter. Let`s cut straight to the chase – the time Katie provided the set-up for perhaps the greatest tweet ever:


Further comment is superfluous.[1]

[1] A possible mantra for Katie to live by.

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.