Reviewed today: Carl Sagan Is My God Oh And Richard Feynman Too, Free Jewish Comedy, Fringe Film Festival, Helen Keen's Spacetacular!, Oklahomophobia!, Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians, Tony Bournemouth, Wireless Mystery Theatre Presents...
"FREE!" The battle cry of William Wallace (well, nearly) has become the major buzzword of the Fringe over the last few years. As us audience members struggle to pay for all the shows we want to see, and artistes struggle to cope with the massive overheads associated with putting those shows on, an alternative economic model for performers has evolved alongside the traditional one of "setting fire to several grand while getting the gardening correspondent of The Scotsman to write two ill-informed paragraphs about you." You put on a show in a bar, under the auspices of one of the two rival organisations, Laughing Horse or PBH's Free Fringe. The bar gets to keep the takings: the audience gets to pay what they think the show's worth via a bucketular donation at the end: the performer gets to keep more of what's in the bucket. Everyone's happy.
For the last couple of festivals, The BBG and I have dedicated a full day to just seeing free stuff (although last year, logistical problems turned that into a 24 hour period split over two days). We dive into the day with a shortlist drawn from the events labelled 'free, non-ticketed' in the Fringe programme, and see how it turns out. So, how did it turn out this year?
Initially, it seemed like the answer was going to be 'badly'. The first item on our list was Carl Sagan Is My God, Oh And Richard Feynman Too, one of comedian Robin Ince's science-based shows. Ince has made scientific, rationalist comedy his niche over the past few years, and given the popularity of events like Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People we knew we'd need to get there a little bit early. When we turned up at the Canons' Gait, though, it turned out that the 'free, non-ticketed' note in the programme was a filthy lie in this case. Ince is so popular, they've started handing out 'queueing tokens' for the show from 10am, over two hours before it starts. Technically, the show had already sold out while we were still in bed, even though there was no indication in the programme or at the venue that we'd have to get a ticket well in advance. So, y'know, screw that guy.
We got over our grumpiness with a nice lunch at Spoon, and then headed down the road to C SoCo Urban Garden, the outdoor venue built on the smouldering ruins of the old Gilded Balloon. It's been there for a few years now, and I've somehow never got around to going there: it's a fascinating collection of bars, pop-up diners that have popped up from Edinburgh restaurants (another new trend), and a couple of performance spaces. Discreetly hidden inside a shipping container is one of those spaces, hosting the Fringe Film Festival.
It's surprising that nobody's ever thought of the idea before: in the middle of Edinburgh's August celebration of the arts, why not have a celebration of cinema as part of it? Some sort of film festival, with an international collection of movies? Well, that's what they've done here, albeit on a shoestring. That shipping container contains an unattended video projection and a grand total of two armchairs, meaning that it was a sold out event as soon as we walked in. You'd think that the plan would be to have a variety of short films to allow people to dip in and out as they please, but our 15 minute visit only gets us a chunk of a lengthy documentary about cancer treatment in Malawi, and the clash between Western medical aid and the conmen offering 'traditional' cures. Sadly, there's no information on the website or at the venue to tell you any more details about the films themselves.
We dip out roughly around the occurrence of the line "sadly, as you can see, we've not been able to save the eye" - ewwwwwww - and head off to something a little more conventionally entertaining. Wireless Mystery Theatre Presents... is one of those neat cost-cutting ideas that makes you wonder why more people on the Fringe aren't doing it: an on-stage re-enactment of a radio play. We subsequently find out that yes, other people are doing the same thing, notably The Fitzrovia Radio Hour. The latter group are sending up the starched attitudes of 1940s Britain: WMT, on the other hand, seem to be going for a more affectionate recreation of the American thriller serials of the same period.
Going into a performance moderately cold has both advantages and disadvantages. I didn't realise until it started that we'd get two short plays back-to-back, separated by a charming set of adverts for Ex-Lax and the like. The first play is one we all know, an adaptation of Freaks - but based on the original story rather than the infamous movie. The second one is a creepy Irish tale, The Song. Both of them are lovingly performed by a cast of eight crammed into one end of a tiny bar at the Globe Tavern. There seemed to be a few fluffs in the line readings here and there, but considering the ticket price I couldn't really complain, and threw a few quid into their bucket at the end.
And then I picked up their flyer at the door. Which is the point where I found out that WMT are doing a different pair of plays every day of their run. With that sort of turnaround, you can easily excuse a few mistakes - they're more or less sightreading the script as they go. I really wanted to turn back and give them more money. Instead, I'll just suggest to you lot that you should catch one of their remaining shows Wednesday-Friday this week.
Pull yourself up a Google Map and picture the logistics. We step out of the Globe Tavern on Niddry Street a little after 4.20pm. We have a show pencilled in at 5.50pm, and wonder out loud what we could do to fill in the gap. A man approaches us with a flier, picturing someone who looks suspiciously like him. He suggests there's a 4.30pm show we could go to that would fill that very gap, and it's in The Hive next door. It's only a half hour show, so we throw aside all caution and decide to join him.
Bugger me, it's terrible. The man in question is Tony Bournemouth, the self-styled "all-time second greatest comedian from Bournemouth". He's performing in what's certainly the smelliest room I've encountered so far in Fringe 2011, to an audience of twenty or so that have all been dragged in off the street like we were. For half an hour, we get atrocious puns, jokes that die in mid-telling, and the sense of a man who can't control his audience (most of the heckles he gets are from people trying to help him rather than berate him).
It's all an act, of course: Bournemouth is really comedian Jimbo, going for that trendy anti-comedy dollar by playing a failing comedian on stage. He throws in a couple of clues to let you know that's what he's doing - when he passes the bucket round at the end, he asks us all to give generously as "I've got a team of writers to pay." But he can't quite get the balance right: to pull of this sort of thing you need great jokes badly delivered, or poor jokes told with supreme self-deluding confidence, and Bournemouth never quite decides which way he wants to go with the performance. It's an uncomfortable half-hour for me, and even more so for The BBG, who discovers the liberating joy of being able to walk out at the end of a 'pay what you think it's worth' performance and paying nothing. (I give him a few bits of loose change in an 'I see what you're doing there' gesture.)
Still, the next scheduled show on our list is one we've been looking forward to: Oklahomophobia!, a showcase of standup compered by Abie Philbin Bowman (or, as he's interestingly called in the official show writeup, @AbiePB). Last year, we saw Bowman in the middle of a similar showcase bill, and were pretty impressed by his work: I've been following his Twatfeed ever since, and been keen to see him performing again in a real room. This performance, however, appears to be cursed.
The show's already been moved from the basement of one restaurant (Iman's Grill, which has changed its name to Mosque Kitchen since the Fringe programme was published) to the basement of another one down the road (Ciao Roma). But we weren't fooled by that, and neither were the few dozen people gathered in the incongruous surrounds of an Italian diner basement, looking at an empty stage and waiting for the show to start. A full fifteen minutes after the scheduled start time, there's no sign of any comedy, or indeed of any staff who might be able to tell you what's going on. So, y'know, screw that guy.
A quick look at our shortlist reveals that we've still got time to catch an alternative: Free Jewish Comedy at the Counting House round the corner. Ivor Dembina sees us as we climb the stairs to the venue. "Which show have you come to see?" he asks. "Yours!", we reply. And like a shot he tells us where the loos are, points us in the direction of the bar, and informs us he'll be on stage in a few minutes. Ivor's been running comedy clubs for decades now, and knows exactly how to make punters feel at home: you wouldn't catch him leaving an audience just sitting in a basement.
There are no real surprises in Free Jewish Comedy, especially after seeing Dembina doing a ten-minute compressed version of the show at Stutter yesterday. It's just him on stage for an hour, dragging out some old Jewish gags, and telling stories about his childhood and his more recent visits to the Holy Land. It's a carefully paced hour, with emotional ebbs and flows to it: when a couple of lads (or as he quaintly refers to them afterwards, "Nazis") start chatting to each other part way through the show, he politely asks them to leave as they're disrupting that flow. There are loads of great one-liners casually tossed away ("I love New York, it's my favourite part of Israel"), but plenty of food for thought as well. Of all the shows we see today, this is the one that I'd happily have seen for a fixed ticket price.
We grab dinner at Pancho Villa's, the Mexican restaurant a couple of doors down from the Canon's Gait, mainly because our last two shows are at that venue, and we want to be sure they don't pull any more of that 'queueing token' shit that they tried first thing this morning. They don't - it looks like only Robin Ince and Norman Lovett are popular enough to warrant that sort of treatment. But Helen Keen's Spacetacular! manages to attract a decent sized queue regardless, which leads to a lovely bit of pre-show entertainment: as the queue stretches its way through the inside of the pub, Keen hands each of us a sheet of tinfoil, and invites us to make "something spacey" out of it. The best effort comes from a man who uses it to construct a spookily good raygun, but The BBG does get a consolation prize for her fetching tinfoil chapeau. (The prize is a lump of tablet wrapped in foil, to make it easier to take into space. The qualifying question that The BBG answered correctly to win it was as follows: "Who likes tablet?"
Helen Keen has done a few space-themed shows at the Fringe over the years: she's carved a niche in that area, rather like Robin Ince has done with science generally. But she's a lot more cheerful and enthusiastic about her subject, to an almost childlike degree. If you can imagine Robin Ince with all his underlying bitterness taken out and replaced with breasts, you've got Helen Keen. (Yeah, that'll get me on the posters next year.) We've managed to miss all of her shows so far, but were determined to see this one: the Spacetacular! is, effectively, the show that made us decide that this year we'd dedicate our Monday to free events.
It turns out to be a good choice: an hour-long variety show in the Incean style, mixing hard science, comedy and music. The hard science comes from an entertaining lecture from a postgrad called Hari Sriskantha on the subject of gamma ray bursts: the music comes from Adam Kay, whose songs are all better than that slightly irritating London Underground thing he's most famous for. And Keen provides the comedy, notably in a fun shadow-puppet presentation about the moon and the various theories about its inhabitants. The hour seems to just fly by in minutes: maybe it's time dilation or something.
By comparison, the room for Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians is less full, but that doesn't stop PBH from being his usual jolly self, although an early outburst of rage at his onstage laptop might suggest otherwise. As he notes, the room is divided between 'virgins' and people who've been coming here long enough to know the 'rituals' - the silly noises, the calls and responses, that bloody aardvark song. Still, the vast majority of free shows we've seen today have come under his banner, so we should bow down and worship him for those, even the two that messed up really badly.
The four comics on tonight's bill aren't show-stoppers, but they're all entertaining in different ways. Matt Tiller provides some cheerful comedy songs: Bennett Arron muses on the problems of being both Welsh and Jewish: Trevor Browne does a couple of musical parodies that are more notable for their pitch-perfect accuracy than any jokes they might contain: and Dave Williams closes with a relaxed and confident set, during which he reveals he's one of the few comics who's been playing the PBH show for the full 15 years of its run. You can see why he'd want to do that - PBH, like Ivor Dembina, has been doing this stuff long enough now to know how to construct a damn good show. And best of all, we manage to get home before midnight, which can only be a good thing at this stage of the proceedings.