My #edfringe Diary; or, The Trick is to Keep Drinking

Having missed the whole of the 2014 and 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, I recently returned to the magical atmosphere of my favourite city at my favourite time of year, or “the place where art meets piss and vomit” as Heath McIvor’s Randy character likes to say.

I managed to see 15 shows during my week there, just over 2 per day, which isn’t that bad. I also read an entire book, so hooray for culture.

I also had the joy of not reviewing. Reviewing is tiring and requires you to stand a little back from shows, trying to watch how the whole thing functions. You also get shouted at on the street (and email and Twitter) for not giving loads of stars to everyone.

So, with apologies to Ben Venables, who has done another amazing job this year apportioning stars from The Skinny in a dilligent and objective manner, I am about to go full-FringeDog and award FIVE STARS for all of these briliant shows o boy o boy!!:

Juliette Burton — Decision Time, Gilded Balloon

★★★★★

Of course this was the show I started with. I spent a lot of time talking to my wonderful friend Juliette about her script for this show from when it was just notes until she started doing full previews. One of our conversations is mentioned in the show and even ended up being commemorated in badge form…

You need to see the show for full context

…which obviously made me happy, because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to actually being in a show.

Watching Decision Time was for me, then, watching something come to fruition after months of hard work, and I can’t express how much I loved it or how proud I am of Juliette. She is a delightful, fluid, charming presence on stage, the show flows really well and it’s just funny and lovely and moving. Director Kevin Shepherd deserves applause too — having seen the show grow from its inchoate form, I can see where he’s worked with Juliette to create something slick and sophisticated with an excellent structure. It’s the first time I’ve followed the evolution of a show this closely and I now totally understand why performers think of their shows as their babies and get annoyed when you give them bad reviews.

I tried to talk to Juliette after the show and had to wait a while, as there was another audience member in tears and in need of Burton hugs. Every time during the week that I tried to catch Juliette after her show, the same thing would happen. It’s a hilarious show and I laughed all the way through, but it’s also deeply moving and thought-provoking. A great piece of art, basically.

Doug Segal — I Can Make You Feel Good, Voodoo Rooms

★★★★★

People cry at the end of Doug’s show too, but for different reasons, mainly sheer terror at having spent an hour in a room with a guy who’s clearly a witch. What if he uses his powers for evil? What if he becomes a Deatheater and turns on us muggles? We wouldn’t stand a chance.

I’ve seen Doug do stuff on stage and I’ve seen Doug do stuff close-up and I’ve had Doug do stuff to me. He swears that it’s all just lies and manipulation — I am not so sure. I think the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing people that he’s quite a lovely former advertising exec who livesNorwich.

It’s hard to talk about the show without spoiling the mind-bending tricks, solet me say that the thing with the phones was total :mouth open emoji: and the thing with the thing in the bottle was :Munch’s The Scream emoji: and the audience participation bit at the end was :happy face emoji: :party hat emoji:.

Doug promised to make us feel good, and did he ever. Around a hundred of us spent an hour whooping and cheering and gasping, so the show absolutely lives up to the title. Still a warlock though.

Iraq Out & Loud, Bob’s Blundabus

I can’t think of anything more Fringe than sitting in a shed at 6am with a can of Red Stripe and reading quite dense legal documents to strangers. That is where I found myself at the end of my first night, on the late/early shift on Bob Slayer’s nutty project to have a non-stop public reading of the Chilcott report.

It took 284 hours to read in total. In practice this meant that you go into the shed for an hour with whoever else is around. I was with four others and we did the 6am-7am slot on Day 10, each of us reading for 12 minutes and listening for the other 48. We were not allowed to stop reading (I got barked at when I stopped to pick up something from the floor) and we had to seamlessly transition between readers.

Having grown up Catholic, I found the whole experience strangely like a mass. It was solemn and rhythmic, more about the shape of the words than the content. I don’t really know what we read, but I can remember quite clearly the pattern and intonation of the voices of my fellow readers.

And it was very moving. There was a sense of doing something important, a public act of remembrance, a refusal to forget. I’m not sure that Bob and Boothby knew it work out that way, but that’s what happened. It felt important. It won the Panel Prize, which we all expected, but I think if was hosted at the Tate Modern instead of a shed by a bus run by a drunk, it would be hailed as one of the great art projects of our time. A very special experience.

Oh yeah, totally worth ★★★★★

Puppet Fiction, The Newsroom

★★★★★

Free shows often exist in spite of their venue. In fact, the sign of a true pro is to be in a horrible room behind some pub and still be able to put on a professional gig. I’ve rarely seen anyone struggle with their venue like the Puppet Fiction guys who had two massive issues:

  1. A massive pillar in the centre of the room that blocked the view of half the audience
  2. The fact that they had zero elevation, so only the front row could properly see the puppets

Always a problem reviewing, because you have to try to see the show through the problems, but there’s a point where it becomes ridiculous.

These guys are pros though, and managed to make the show work really well despite the problems and ended up with something like this:

From some guy on Twitter

Yes, that is Pulp Fiction being played out with marionettes. Each day the team do two or three scenes from the movie, all of which are elongated with a ton of ad-libbing, arseing about and untangling of strings, although the quality of the puppetry is actually pretty excellent in general. A very silly, very fun show.

Candy Gigi — If I Had A Rich Man, The Hive

★★★★★

The word “bonkers” gets thrown around a lot these days, but Candy Gigi is genuinely batshit bonkers. This show features raw chicken, Tina Turner impersonators, pegging, the intricacies of the Jewish Dating scene, and the songs from Fiddler On The Roof.

The last bit is what took me most by surprise. I was expecting the DIY surrealism — nobody warned me that tiny wee Candy has this huge, beautiful Broadway voice. I would totally watch her do a straight musical someday, but I’m also glad to have been at the kind of show where someone spits chunks of cucumber at you.

Candy is one of those people I keep hearing so much about and it’s been eating away at me that I haven’t seen her before. I just knew she’d be right up my alley and she absolutely was. I almost hurt myself laughing at times.

The show had walk-outs when I was there. During the run, there was also a quite famous incident where an awards judge stood up to interrupt the show and demand that someone explain why this is supposed to be funny. The worst reviewer at the Fringe gave it a 1-star and said he hated it. All of these, quite frankly, are reasons why it’s a show to be loved and cherished and seen repeatedly.

Matt Winning — Ragnarok, Opium

★★★★★

The Fringe is one of those rare scenarios where you can have your cake and eat it, kind of. At least, you can put together a high-concept show with lots of multimedia, and just do a bit of standup. But you have to make it all work together, which Matt Winning does in quite some style.

The concept of Ragnarok is that Winning’s great³⁰-grandson, Oscar, is in deep space, skint, and alone but for his ship’s computer. He receives a package containing details about his distant Scottish ancestor, whose 2016 Fringe show was somehow responsible for the destruction of Earth. Oscar Winning goes through old tapes of Matt Winning’s show from that year to find out what happened.

It all works brilliantly. The sci-fi scenes are done really well, with some quality dialogue with the ship’s computer, who was voiced live by someone I don’t know, I’m sorry, but who was very good, and dotted with pre-recorded segments featuring Richard Gadd and Josie Long. The “tapes” are actually just Winning changing back into civvies and doing his set, which involves lots of daft dicking such as a bit about racing clay pigeons.

There was a joke about Ludacris in there that I liked so much I applauded, but which got nothing from the rest of the audience. Not a thing. It was a great joke. If I was reviewing, I would have ignored them and said “includes a hilarious joke about Ludacris”.

A question that comes up a lot for reviewers is this: how can you sit in a room full of people laughing and give the show a crappy review? How can you say that an audience was wrong? And my answer has always been: sometimes they just are wrong, and it cuts both ways. Sometimes they laugh their asses off at people who are clearly hacks, and you have to say that they’re wrong. Sometimes they sit stony-face through a terrific joke about Ludacris and you have to say that they’re wrong then too.

Pete Johannson — Good People, The Hive

★★★★★

Standups, the backbone of the comedy industry, often get overlooked in Edinburgh. That is one of the bitter ironies of the Fringe. Guys who just material are three-starred into oblivion unless they are either famous or amazing. Lucky for Pete, he is both.

Pete is also desperately ill, or at least he was when I saw him. You could actually see the flu corroding through his internal organs while he coughed and sneezed and almost drowned in his own sweat. But he powered through it with the energy of a man who wasn’t about to die, and even managed to open by doing some top-flight crowd work.

Good People is just material, which is one of those weird things you say at the Fringe. “Saw that comedian, he was okay, just did material”. It’s pretty amazing material though, with a very strong feminist bent, including a quite surprising take on the concept of tight vaginas.

Amazingly, this material prompted walkouts. Like, even more walkouts than Candy Gigi’s show and she throws raw chicken at her audience. One guy shouted “I’m leaving, I haven’t got my money’s worth” (LOL cause it’s a free show, geddit??). All of the walkouts were men, and they all walked out during bits when Pete was doing “feminist” stuff about treating women like human beings. Interpret that how you will.

The Glass Menagerie, King’s Theatre

★★★★★ for the play, ★ for the audience.

Menagerie is amazing. I spoke to a few people afterwards who tried to be cool and pretend that Tennessee Williams is overrated, but they’re wrong. The writing is pure electricty, and this production was stunning, with an award-winning cast who made the most of the material. The staging was also quite incredible, with the whole set surrounded by water. During quiet moments in the play, the lights would drop and stars would come out above, reflected in the water around the stage, and it looked like the characters were isolated in deep space.

But.

A weird thing happened this performance. It was a Saturday night and everyone was happy to be having a fancy night out, and the first act of Menagerie has some quite funny lines. So the audience got into the rhythm of laughing. The play gets more serious, and becomes intensely sad and serious. And… the audience kept laughing. They laughed at every break in the dialogue, not because it was funny, but because they had picked up the rhythm of a comedy show. They followed the rhythm of the dialogue and laughed at the places where they expected laughter to fit, even when the actual words being said were heartbreaking.

Again, going back to that point about “how come sometimes a reviewer will give a bad review when the whole room was laughing?”, that’s another reason why. Laughing is actually a kind of social reaction, or at least it is in normal people. People laugh to build rapport and establish trust. They often laugh just because other people are laughing (and vice versa). Only truly weird people insist on restricting laughter to thing that are actually funny. And those people are the people who end up reviewing comedy.

Rik Carranza — Star Wars vs Star Trek, Banana Skin

★★★★★

Man hath no greater love than to go see his friends show that is about a thing he doesn’t like and a thing he genuinely can’t stand, but I actually had a great time at Rik’s show.

Despite having given a lengthy lecture to Rik in the pub a few days previously about how I find Rodenberry’s universe dramatically unsatisfying (there’s no conflict!), I found myself voting for Star Trek during this debate. That’s a testament to the fluid format of this show, which is geeky enough to engage people who know what species Neelix is, but also loose enough to entertain people like me who think that Darth Vader was Wesley Crusher’s father or something.

Rik’s at the top of his game at the moment, a really endearing host with slick patter. In the end I was quite sad that Star Trek won, mainly because I had forgotten that I quite like Khan and Voyage Home, although that doesn’t mean that I don’t hate DS9. Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce working together couldn’t make me like DS9.

Beth Vyse (and pals) — Olive Hands To The Pumps, The Hive

★★★★★

It’s been a week since I saw this show and I still have “Hands Up” by Ottawan stuck in my head. Beth Vyse is another person I’ve been desperate to see in the flesh, and this time I got free Ali Brice into the mix, plus some other people who I don’t know, I’m sorry, but they were great.

Olive Hands is a sassy, brassy Northern entertainer with a huge following in North Korea and we’re all passengers on her cruise ship, until disaster strikes! I forget the exact nature of the disaster, to be honest, because it’s a pretty chaotic show, but the entire audience had to abandon ship. The route to safety involved dancing through The Hive while singing “We all live in a leopardprint submarine” before arriving in said submarine, which then carried us on a mission to find Marilyn Monroe’s vagina.

Yeah, it’s a Weirdoes show, basically, or a Hive Bunka show, so it’s all quite surreal with lots of audience participation and general nuttiness. It perhaps has a little more of a nod towards telling actual jokes and making the audience feel welcome than you may find in similar shows (zero walkouts!), but only a little, and was generally barking mad and lots of fun.

CHUNKS — My Dead Ex-Girlfriend’s Dad (A Coming of Age Show) & Other Potentially Award-Winning Fringe ClichesSabor

★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★ (I’m giving this 17 stars because so many people were involved and they’ll need them to go around. Actually only about half a star per person. Sorry guys, I’m not made of stars, regardless of what Carl Sagan says.)

Okay, so the idea of CHUNKS is that everyone gets up to three minutes, no standup is allowed, and the more you dick around and cause trouble, the better. In practice, this results in absolute chaos on a scale rarely seen before, with basically every Scottish comedian under the age of 30 spending an hour trying to top each other (and, occasionally, themselves).

I can’t remember the last time I actually hurt myself laughing. There was a sketch about The Simpsons in a kind of Don Hertzfeldt style that I wanted to end after about 60 seconds because I really thought I had pulled a muscle in my jaw from laughter (I will be saying “square child died in the fire” for years to come). There were people getting haircuts, and drunk Ben Verth dressed as a banana. And then Bob Graham took the piss out of PBH in a way that means that CHUNKS will never, ever be allowed to play the Free Fringe again.

I always wanted to see comedians in Scotland do something along the lines of Weirdoes, because there’s so much talent in this part of the world. CHUNKS is that and so much more. If I still lived in Scotland, I would never miss a gig. Tenner right now on one of the CHUNKS people winning the big award in the next five years.

Fern Brady — Male Comedienne, The Stand

★★★★★

I hauled myself along to Fern Brady through sheer force of will, who was on at a very hangover-unfriendly time, in one of my least favourite rooms (why do people love Stand 2? I actually prefer Stand 4, and Stand 4 is a photocopier room the rest of the year).

In spite of this, I just about managed to enjoy this show. Fern has two things going for her (this sounds like the leadup to a boob joke; it is not). First of all, she is a terrific writer, with some scalpel-sharp stuff in her set. Great writing is the right word in the right place, and she has riffs that perfectly fill that definition.

Second, she’s got her stage persona absolutely nailed down, being very insightful and articulate, but occasionally just completely radging out in a quite convincing and threatening way. She is someone that you would make time for. You’d go, “oh, Fern Brady’s doing that, let’s go to that”, and that’s actually quite rare these days.

I’d like to say more, but Jesusm that hangover. A nice Canadian guy who looked like Chris Hemsworth was buying me shots until 5am the previous night and then I was back up at 9am to get along to Fern. I was only able to last the hour due to the sheer power of Gregg’s. The Fringe, eh?

F.R.A.N.C., The Stand

★★★★★

I do wish there were more things like this at the Fringe, simply because it makes it easier to catch up with a bunch of people in one go. F.R.A.N.C. is a comedy play written by the excellent Keir McAllister and staring a whole bunch of people I love and admire, including JoJo Sutherland, Robin Grainger, Jay Lafferty, Gus Lymburn, Stu of “…and Garry” fame, Tom Stade (in voice form), and a guy who played the lead role who I don’t know, I’m sorry, but he was very good.

It’s a very funny play, as you might expect with such a crop of talent. The vaguely Frankenstein-themed plot involves an unfunny and egomaniacal open spot who hooks up with a hacker/inventor type and attempts to build the perfect standup. F.R.A.N.C. is a hologram that can scan an audience and immediately adapt itself into the perfect comedian for that room.

The first two acts are about hack comedy in general, before taking a sudden veer at the end and casting a cold eye on comedy audiences. Comedy is a strange artform, y’know. It is an artform, first of all. Every other form has genres and subcategories: theatre, for example, has clear delineations, so the F.R.A.N.C. audience knows not to expect something like The Glass Menagerie, or Equus, or Starlight Express. “Comedy”, however, is an umbrella term used to include everything from pub jokes to Daniel Kitson. Comedy audiences are often quite unpredictable.

It’s interesting to see a piece that turns the gaze back on a comedy audience and asks exactly who they are, and what they want. And I’m glad that there wasn’t an act about reviewers, unless they dropped that act because I was there with others of my kind.

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful, Sweet Venues

★★★★★

Another comedy play, but this time with just Christian Talbot and a bag of KFC chicken dippers alone together on stage for an hour. Talbot plays Malachy, a 40-something sad sack, alone in the world, broke, depressed, and diagnosed with cancer. We are listening to his last words, watching him eat his last meal, before he finally accepts that he’s lost at life and kills himself.

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful explores a theme that I find deeply moving, which is urban loneliness. Malachy is a type of person who exists the whole world over; he is a guy who has taken a few wrong turns in life and ended up with no family, no relationship, no real friends, and at a juncture in life where it’s just too late to do anything about it. There are people like Malachy sitting in bedsits in every city across the world, people who can go a whole day without speaking to another human being, and that’s profoundly tragic.

The beauty of this piece is that they — “they” being Talbot’s warm performance and John Patrick Higgins’ tight, textured writing — bring out the depth of Malachy’s inner life. He’s not some annoying weirdo. He’s a funny and erudite guy, a deep thinker, and a man with a good heart. It makes his isolation almost unbearable, and the whole audience in this small venue wanted to reach through the fourth wall and tell him it’s all going to be okay. As a mercy, Talbot and Higgins included enough good jokes to make this pain bearable.

Richard Gadd — Monkey See, Monkey Do, Banshee Labyrinth

Gadd.

I don’t have anything intelligent to add to discussions of this show. Every reviewer in Edinburgh has raved about it and it went on to win the big award. I agree with all of those things. The show is one of the best things I’ve ever seen, in any form, in any medium.

I keep having conversations, even now, after many years away, about reviewing and reviews. Comedians are fascinated and baffled and appalled by the process of handing out stars. Many of them think that reviewers are bastards; the majority of them think that reviewers should be objective and impartial observers, and can’t work out why they’re not.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I have never been objective or impartial. That’s how you grade a maths paper. Going to see a show is not like grading a maths paper.

Seeing a show is an experience. It is part of your life. It is part of your journey as a human being. Many of them are forgettable, but sometimes you see a great show. A great show is different from a good show. A great show isn’t just good, it changes your idea of what “good” is. A great show changes you. You emerge at the end, transformed.

Being a reviewer at the Fringe is risky, because you don’t know who you’re going to be come September.

But you welcome it. Every time I step through the doors of a venue to watch something, I pray to be changed. I whisper, “God, show me magic” and hope that this, this will be the one, this will be one of those moments in life that’s so seismic that it fractures my life into two parts: Before and After.

It’s rare, but it happens. It happened at Gadd, and many of the people I’ve discussed it with feel the same way about Monkey See, Monkey Do. If you were lucky enough to see it, you’ll maybe understand why.

It’s happened at other shows too in the past. The beauty of the Fringe is that it can happen at any show, and it doesn’t have to be as dark and important and absolutely overwhelming as Gadd’s show. Personally, I’ve been more moved by Kunt and the Gang’s dumb songs about wanking than I have by anything Kitson’s ever done (no offence to Daniel, I just really love Kunt).

And I’ve seen other people moved by other things. I’ve seen the people crying and asking Juliette Burton for a hug; I’ve seen the people conga-ing out of Doug Segal’s show before heading to the bar to try to figure out how the hell he did the mazing thing with that thing.

Art is wonderful. To be a human is to be fundamentally lonely, to be isolated in empty space, struggling to cross the vast distances between you and other people. If you’re lucky, you start with people around you who make you feel less alone. If you’re unlucky, you end up like Malachy, isolated in the darkness forever.

A great work of art is an act of communication in the purest sense. It is incredibly difficult to do, and that’s why we celebrate those who can do it. When we find a work that speaks to us, it is like a hand reaching through the emptiness and touching you on the shoulder, and suddenly the blackness is filled with stars.

This might sound a bit over the top. Most comedians would struggle to accept that reviewers can feel this way, because it would mean admitting that reviewers might have souls. But every time I’ve spoken to a reviewer, — from the crack ninja team at The Skinny, to people at Broadway Baby and ThreeWeeks, to the scouts for the comedy awards, to big-time writers like Claire Smith and Jay Richardon and Brian Logan and Bruce Dessau — they all get that light in their eyes when they’re talking about shows that they love. They get animated talking about shows they hate, sure, but they light up like pinball machines on the bonus ball round when they’re talking about something they really love. And they desperately want to talk about it. That’s why they’re reviewers.

I only got into Gadd because Ben Venables spent over an hour queueing for a ticket, then handed it over to me. Seriously: getting into Gadd’s show is a nightmare. When I came out of Talbot’s play, Ben was standing outside the venue with the ticket in his paw and a big smile on his face. He said he was giving the ticket to me as payment for some donkey work I did for him; I said he was doing it because he is just a nice guy, and I bought him a pint as payment.

But I recognised that glint in his eye when he handed it over. It was the look of the reviewer in their happiest place, at their ultimate evolution, doing the thing that reviewers most love doing. When he handed over the ticket, his eyes were saying:

You gotta see this.

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