Reviewed today: Brendon Burns & Colt Cabana, Bridget Christie: A Bic For Her, Devon Sproule, I’m With The Band, We Will Be Free!, Zapp And Dembina: Comedy After Lunch.
It may be because in the last year or so, Christie has had her own Radio 4 series. That would explain the jump in audience size, but also maybe the change in her approach to show construction. Most of her previous shows opened with her performing as a character, be it an ant, a donkey or King Charles II: but A Bic For Her is just Christie as herself from start to finish. So it’s possible that the discipline of writing two hours of radio around her stand-up persona has helped her become more comfortable in it, not needing the animal costumes or wigs to hide behind.
Bic is still thematically a show of two halves, though, like her earlier work. The first part is a rapidly paced, massively extended riff on a recent news story in which Stirling Moss claimed that women didn’t have the mental capacity to race cars, shortly before falling down a lift shaft. “Maybe men don’t have the mental capacity to use lifts,” says Christie, and most other comics would leave it there: but she takes that basic premise and runs with it in half a dozen unexpected directions. By comparison, the second half is much quieter and less gag-driven, but focuses on practical ways in which the precepts of feminism can be brought back into the mainstream. It’s only after the fact that you realise what a significant gear change has taken place: Christie’s gift here is to make the transition seem utterly natural, leading the audience gently towards a quite serious conclusion but still keeping the laughs coming.
One month ago, The Belated Birthday Girl and I were at another arts festival, the biennial shindig up in Manchester. And it seems like no festival is complete these days without a theatrical piece about the history of the British labour movement. In Manchester, it was Maxine Peake’s impassioned reading of The Masque Of Anarchy: here at the Fringe, it’s We Will Be Free!, Neil Gore and Elizabeth Eves’ retelling of the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It focuses on George Loveless, who in the 19th century organized a small group of farm workers to protest against their low wages, and ended up being threatened with transportation as a result.
Neil Gore’s script takes the historical facts and mangles them into a mummers’ play, with two people taking on the roles of everyone in the story. As if to emphasise what a stripped-down production this is, the actors even provide their own lighting changes, surreptitiously prodding buttons on an on-stage lighting desk in between scenes. The mummers’ style – panto-like overacting from the villains, lots of fourth wall breaking – takes a little getting used to at the start, but John Kirkpatrick’s excellent musical arrangements give a firm emotional base for all the foolery on stage. It’s curious, and a little bit sad, to note that this show has the highest average audience age of anything I’ve seen all week: it’s an important part of our history, and presented in an entertaining way that younger audiences should enjoy too.
The youngest people in the room for Andy Zapp & Ivor Dembina’s Comedy After Lunch run away after twenty minutes or so, apparently deeply confused by what they were seeing. It’s not that difficult, really. Dembina, one of the legends of alternative comedy since the very beginning, comperes with his usual flair for audience baiting and terrible jokes. He introduces short slots by half a dozen or so acts from around the Fringe circuit, cheerfully boasting that no real quality control has been exercised in their selection. There are a few bearpit gigs out there where performers suffer at the hands of the audience: this is possibly the only one where the performers are heckled by the compere, or interrupted by musician/sound effects guy Andy Zapp.
One consequence of the ramshackle nature of Comedy After Lunch is that the acts are hurled on and off stage with such speed, I haven’t got full details of everyone who performed there. I know that one of the most confident comics in the show – certainly the only one capable of giving Dembina as much of a mouthful as he gives her – has the first name Kate, but that’s all I know. Astonishingly, she’s just bumming around between guest slots and doesn’t have a show of her own this year: hopefully that will change.
Of the rest, Becky Fury suffers from Dembina’s insistence that the poetry slot in the show is the ideal time to go to the bar, and gets horribly sidetracked as the audience decides they like her rude poems better than her political material. Maxine Jones and Winter Foenander largely play to awkward silences with the occasional chuckle: Damian Clark and Rory O’Hanlon get much better results by pumping up the energy in the room. The latter two acts, plus Kate Something, are the final performers on today’s bill as well as the best – I honestly can’t tell whether the bill has genuinely been sorted by performer quality, or if Dembina’s just performed some sort of comedy equivalent of grooming and our standards have been carefully lowered over the hour. Possibly it’s a bit of both. Either way, an Ivor Dembina show is always alternative in the best sense, particularly when it’s a free show like this one. I just hope we didn’t mess things up by having lunch after it, instead of before.
Our final visit to the Traverse Theatre at this year’s Fringe is for Tim Price’s new play I’m With The Band. Here’s the synopsis from the Fringe programme. “An Englishman, a Northern Irishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman walked into a recording studio, creating The Union. When financial disaster strikes and Scottish guitarist Barry leaves the band, can The Union survive?” Presumably, if they’d had a few more words available, they would have pointed out that the Irishman has a violent on-off relationship with the girlfriend he shares a house with. Or they could have just finished off the synopsis with “DO YOU SEE WHAT WE DID THERE? EH? EH? THE UNION? DO YOU SEE?” Or something like that.
The allegory at the heart of I’m In The Band is so baldly stated in those few dozen words, I was mainly curious to see what else Price could do with it. Unfortunately, the answer is bugger all. The metaphor can only stretch so far before it breaks down: the Scot leaving a guitar band to muck around with music on his laptop doesn’t really work in either a real world or a political context. When the Englishman predictably goes nuts and tries to take over the band completely, the production breaks down into unwatchable farce. The central conceit is solid enough to work as the basis of a political cartoon, but becomes tedious when stretched over seventy minutes of theatre.
Let’s talk about taxis. When I started going to Edinburgh in the late eighties, taxis were my secret weapon. Found yourself with fifteen minutes to get between two venues on opposite sides of town? No problem – flag down a cab, and they’ll get you there in no time. When I saw that bit in Trainspotting where Renton overdoses, and his mates dump him in a taxi to the hospital because it’s quicker than waiting for an ambulance, it made absolute perfect sense to me.
These days, maybe not so much. Over the years, I’ve tended to plan my gaps between shows better, and do a lot more walking than I used to. But the big change is that Edinburgh is all too often a city in gridlock these days: you may be inside a taxi, but there’s no guarantee that the taxi will get above more than a crawl as it sits behind miles of stationary traffic. These thoughts cross my mind as it takes much longer than planned to get from the Traverse to our main location for the evening – but happily, the cab eventually pulls up outside the Douglas Robertson Studio with a few minutes to go before the start of our show.
Douglas Robertson has become a local legend/bête noire (delete as appropriate) over the last few years. Fed up with the lack of year-round small Edinburgh venues for the sort of music he likes, he took to inviting artists over to his Holyrood studio flat to perform, inviting members of the public to join him for a small donation. He’s been doing this without the benefit of any sort of venue licence, insisting it’s just a private arrangement between him and the performers, which has been a source of controversy over the years.
Having seen his studio, I’m all for it. A former Co-Op store, his split-level Royal Park Terrace studio has room for a stage and seventy or so people in the top, and a kitchen in the bottom – you can look over a rail and see Devon Sproule and the evening’s other performers chilling out around the kitchen table before the show starts. Sproule’s best known as a country-style singer songwriter, but has always shown willingness to branch out into other areas. Her support act for the evening, loungey jazzy duo Tom and Bernice, ask her up to do backing vocals for a couple of tunes, and it’s fascinating to watch her physical reaction to the music as she performs – it’s totally different to the sort of thing she normally does. At least, that’s what I think during the first half of the show.
When Sproule appears for her own set, largely taken from forthcoming album Colours, it transpires that Tom and Bernice are a fundamental part of her backing band for the new songs. They take her music into unexpected areas, adding a degree of lush sophistication to the arrangements that’s not what I’d normally expect from her. The directness of her lyrics and the purity of her voice are still the same as ever, though. In the delightful atmosphere of Douglas Robertson’s upstairs room, it all becomes an utterly lovely experience, only marred slightly by two pissed and chatty women at the back who eventually drink themselves into some sort of gratifying coma.
Approaching the end of our 2013 Fringe experience, The BBG and I realise that although we’ve had quite a few late nights out this year, they’ve mainly involved drinking (BrewDog Edinburgh, The Hanging Bat, The Potting Shed and Brauhaus being the main organizations we’re blaming for our hangovers the next day). We haven’t done a big stupid late night comedy show yet. If we go to a show with the title Brendon Burns And Colt Cabana Sit In A Fifty-Seater Around Midnight And Provide The Commentary To Bad Wrestling Matches, will it be big and stupid enough for our needs? Happily, the answer is yes.
The title is exactly as Ronseal as you think it is: comedian Burns and wrestler Cobana (joined tonight by guest comic Glenn Wool) fire up grainy clips of wrestling bouts and promos on a laptop wired to a plasma telly, and take the piss out of them. The relationship between the two hosts is fun: Cabana plays it self-deprecatingly dumb, describing someone as a “wordsman” and asking who Pavarotti is, while Burns delights in the opportunity to bully someone who in any other context would probably kick his head off. “Tell me what tautology is!” he yells at Cabana at one point, presumably a callback to a verbal slip he made earlier in the run.
The audience for the show is largely made up of wrestling fans, as there are lots of cheers of recognition when particular people appear on screen. The wonder of this show is that you don’t need to know the people involved to find it funny – the sort of things Burns and Cabana find hilarious, from simple verbal idiocy to the sight of a wrestler using a fat audience member’s stomach as a launchpad for a jump, are universally hilarious. Of the clips we see tonight, an inexplicable Japanese fight where the wrestlers are trying to eat loaves hanging from the ceiling on strings is the highlight. Or, at least, it is until you see the clip they save up for the end every night, in which a dwarf gets used as a weapon. How can anything else in the festival follow that?