For many years the Edinburgh Fringe has been becoming more and more corporate, dominated by big name comedians doing £10/£12/£15 shows where the audience queues, gets an hour of entertainment and then is turfed out into the evening. It can be a very expensive business. There have always been free shows, budget shows, two for one offers etc, but they’ve always had to contend with the implication that a cheap show or a non sold-out show is an inferior show. Over the last few years, that’s been slowly changing, but this year there is a very real sense that there is a fringe within a fringe. The big corporate entertainments are still there, but there is definitely more fun to be had away from the giant Assembly / Underbelly / Pleasance axis in various pub back rooms, dank cellars and the like.
Robin Ince is one of the name comedians who used to go on the corporate comedy circuit, but has turned his back on it completely. He’s doing four shows a day – two of pure stand up – and three of them are free, relying entirely on donation buckets. The Free Fringe venues don’t charge, relying on increased bar and food sales for their revenue, so the amount needed to break even or even turn a small profit (something which is an unachievable dream for most performers) becomes a lot more realistic. Ince is an extremely funny comic, but one who finds it very hard to stick to a script, and often ends up trapped in his own mental association games, taking digressions into all sorts of odd areas. He’s intense, fast-paced and politically astute, but also well aware of the ridiculous aspects of his job. The tempo never falters, and yet for all his hyper-activity, he seems a lot more relaxed this year, unburdened by an audience who’ve paid a small fortune to see him, and as a result was probably as funny as I’ve ever seen him.
Other comic highlights I saw in my three and a half day stay in the Scottish capital included the inimitable Stewart Lee (although Robin Ince does do a fine impression of him) at the Stand. It’s good to see him up close and personal in a proper comedy club. Anyone who’s seen him recently or saw his BBC TV series will know that he has the ability to stretch out a gag way beyond its logical limits and yet somehow make it funnier and funnier as it becomes absurder and absurder. The topics are whimsical and yet for all their triviality, lay bare some very astute political and sociological points.
Paul Sinha has an amazing way of telling a story. His mastery of timing and structure, and his way of extracting great comic insights out of situations that, on the surface, are pretty menacing is hugely impressive. On the night we saw him, though, he was quite scarily aggressive towards a couple of ignoramuses who though it was OK to chat through a bit of his act. To be fair, they did shut the fuck up very quickly. But it did create quite a tense atmosphere for a while.
Mark Watson is one person you could never imagine creating an atmosphere of scary tension. He has a bumbling excitable air of a man who is a naturally gifted comic, but has no experience with things like stage craft. He gets away with it by a) being immensely likable and b) being very funny. His Earth Summit show is a comic take on Al Gore’s climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. Indeed, he was trained by Gore in the facts and figures of climate change, and uses many of his slides. Making a comic show out of something as serious as impending environmental catastrophe is a difficult thing to do. This is not a piss-take but, a serious attempt at getting the facts across, but in a light hearted manner. The theory being that people who are turned off by the perceived dryness of hard science are more amenable to it being presented with humour. The show has its flaws. It feels rushed at an hour, and is a little disjointed in parts. It seems very much like a work in progress, but then is only a fiver.
Of course, I couldn’t do an Edinburgh round up without a mention of the esteemed Stuart Murphy and Gary Dobson who do their Free and Easy improv show all year round at the Stand, not just during festival time. It’s a very silly series of sketches and games based on suggestions from the audience, but is seldom less than side splittingly funny. Examples on Saturday lunchtime included saving Edinburgh from a volcanic eruption beneath the castle using only a broom and Mary Queen of Scots’ unneeded hair dryer, and a superhero afraid of walls whose power is the ability to turn himself into a chest of drawers.
On the music side, I caught the brilliant Camille O’Sullivan at the Assembly. She’s an Irish interpretative singer who takes the Sally Bowles, Weimar cabaret model and brings it firmly up to date. She has a raunchy sexuality coupled with a relaxed self-deprecating sense of humour. But she is also a superb singer. The interpretative singer is a fairly rare breed these days. Covers are either bland retreads of big hits by shop girls and air-headed male models, or ironic versions performed by ‘serious artists’ to show the world that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Singers like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee made other people’s songs their own by sheer force of personality, and supreme skill. Ute Lemperer is one of very few contemporary singers who can do this effectively. Camille is another. She uses the material of cabaret and torch song stalwarts like Brecht and Brel, but also writers like David Bowie, Nick Cave, Trent Reznor, Victoria Wood (yes, really – the brilliant “Look Mummy, No Hands”) and even Pink Floyd! She adds the element of theatre, but the songs are always absolutely central. She also has amazing charisma and stage presence.
Fortune saw us popping into the Forest Cafe for a bite just as MM&M favourites Engine7 were taking the stage. Alan McNeill was joined by a singer whose name I didn’t catch for a much more vocal oriented set than recent records, including an excellent cover of “Running Up That Hill”. The instrumentals were more muscular, and it all bodes well for the forthcoming album.
Short shouts to New York comedian Jonathan Prager, AL Kennedy‘s autobiographical theatre piece “Words”, an interesting Book Festival appearance by Nicholas Stern, author of the recent climate change report and last, but by no means least, me, making my Edinburgh Fringe debut playing a doctor in a two hander with comedian Caroline Mabey at Bannerman’s. OK, I was dragged out of the audience, but all careers have to start somewhere!