Now that was fun. Breaking my Edinburgh Fringe virginity at the age of 42 with a short sharp weekend of comedy, haggis, Elvis and an octogenarian light entertainment legend. This is just a few notes on what I saw and given I can’t resist it, some advice for my home city.
[From the outset, it’s worth noting that Matthew Somerville is blogging his long stay at the fringe and he’s doing mini-reviews as he goes along. It’s a great read.]
Who I saw, in the order I saw them:
Nicholas Parsons Happy Hour – It was only afterwards I realised he was 86. That’ll explain both the slight forgetfulness but also the immense warmth that the audience showed towards him. Happy Hour is Parson’s talk show that he’s done for the last 10 years on the fringe. Guests this time around included Nina Conti (a ventriloquist, amusing when her puppet spoke, nervous as herself) and Jason Byrne (very funny, seemed to be able to spark off anything). Overall a lovely introduction to the fringe in the Caberet Bar at The Pleasance.
Reginald D Hunter – Always funny when I see him in brief spurts on TV but for a full hour his material seemed light on big laughs. He was totally thrown when some members of the audience left early and one went for a pee. He chided them for their bad timing but then couldn’t get back on track. He’d lost us by then anyway. He had a general theme about how a bit of bullying in childhood keeps you on your toes in adulthood.
Mark Watson – I knew little about Watson yet he was playing in one of the bigger venues. Reviews suggested he was good so we booked him as a safe bet and indeed he was very good. Full of nervous energy, playful with the audience and reflective about the nature of his comedy (he was a bit ‘meta’, talking about which jokes were working with which parts of the audience). His themes, about being someone people vaguely know and about needing to change direction now he’s a new dad, worked well enough. Big laughs throughout.
Long Live the King – the only bit of theatre I saw (sorry other art forms but I love comedy too much). But wow, this was superb. A one-woman play about Elvis, emigration, family, motherhood and lots more besides. This was actually what I thought the fringe would be like. Small room, few people, Asian woman dressed as Elvis. I think half the audience was in tears by the end as writer-performer Ansuya Nathan switched between various characters from her family and The King himself. I think it’s because theatre done this well packs such an emotional punch that in general I’m a bit scared of it.
Stewart Lee – best of them all. I’d never seen Lee live though always admired him. This show was in a tiny comedy club and was billed as him prepping new material for a future TV show. That material was in two sections, some about charity and some about politics. The former worked best and saw him produce very funny attacks on Adrian Chiles and Russell Howard. Lee has this was of stretching a routine almost to breaking point yet it still working. His imagining of an episode of Antiques Roadshow in which a piss-filled Toby Jug (representing Adrian Chiles) sells for £6million (Chiles current salary) was inspired.
Doc Brown – he has a rap about an O.H.P. projector, who can beat that. Very funny former British rapper who has produced something that’s more of a one-man theatre show than pure stand-up. He’s relaxed and would be hard to dislike. It’s autobiographical stuff, with pictures, and even when he’s light on the laughs towards the end we’ve so warmed to him that we’re hanging on every word.
Grainne Maguire – an hour in which Grainne takes a not uninteresting idea (why can’t life be like C19 novels) and does nothing interesting with it. It had one promising section in which she plays out a scene in the style of a Victorian melodrama but the rest was short on laughs and high on cringe. The damp-smelling venue and sparse audience (real authentic fringe feel then) didn’t help but neither did her inability to be funny.
Other Fringe Virgins note:
I haven’t too much to say about how to ‘do’ the Fringe. All I’d say is a certain amount of planning helped as you can then leave gaps for food or the off-chance someone thrusts a flyer into your hand for a show you actually might go and see. It also avoids box-office queues. We tried to arrive early at venues so we could get our bearings – our tickets would say ‘Pleasence Courtyard‘ but there’s about 15 venues in that one place so it’s worth talking time to find exactly where you are meant to be. You can bring beer into the venues and some queuing a little ahead of time (about 15 max) helps you get a decent seat. We stayed in a booked-very-very-far-in-advance hotel.
Some thoughts for my home city:
Birmingham will never have an Edinburgh of course but we do have lots of events that together, aren’t far off the ingredients for a whopper of a festival experience. Trouble is we spread them out presuming we’d never gain an audience for them if they ran concurrently. I say to hell with that. For one year let’s put the whole lot on at the same time and see what happens; see how much of a buzz it creates. Give it some vague branding if we must but give it a central booking portal for sure.
I realise that Marketing Birmingham are obsessed with the ‘Business Visitor’ but for one year we should ask that it lays off the marketing it does for that (they’ll still come I bet) and instead focuses on getting as many people to Brum for a one-month Brum-fest.
Next year I say we put all these on at the same time:
- Birmingham Book Festival
- Birmingham Comedy Festival
- Hello Digital
- Flatpack Film Festival
- International Dance Festival Birmingham
- Gigbeth (dormant I know but time for a return)
Any more? No doubt some stuff will end up with an audience of one man and a dog. So what? That was actually the ‘authentic’ fringe experience I was after (and almost got at the Grainne Maguire show).
And when to have it? March. So that in the middle of it we can have a great big parade.