Reviewed today: Alexis Dubus Verses The World, Daniel Kitson Presents An Insufficient Number Of Undeveloped Ideas Over Ninety Testing Minutes Starting At Noon, How Cybercrime Benefits Society, Mark Watson's Edinborolympics, UTO.
In a Festival that thrives on Ronseal titles, you'd imagine that audiences would be going into Daniel Kitson Presents An Insufficient Number Of Undeveloped Ideas Over Ninety Testing Minutes Starting At Noon knowing what to expect. But apparently not. When Kitson first announced these fast-selling, low-priced work in progress shows, he was preparing material for a big London event this autumn: that show's now been cancelled, “which makes this little more than a contractual obligation.” Still, he presses on regardless.
A Kitson work in progress isn't really like anyone else's. He has a few pre-prepared routines on a sheaf of papers he regularly refers to: but if he ever gets distracted by a small thing in the audience, he'll immediately switch his full attention to that and try to follow it up. The last time The Belated Birthday Girl and I went to one of these, she was traumatised for months afterwards by his obsessive reaction to an audible wince she made to a story about slipping on ice, refusing to go any further in the set until she'd admitted that she'd made the noise. Thankfully, there's an old duffer at today's show who's successfully drawing attention away from her. He's the sort of heckler who's noisy enough to complain when he doesn't understand Kitson's reference to Variety packs, but backs down immediately when Kitson challenges him to work it out from first principles via a game of 20 Questions.
The show see-saws between these extremes throughout - obviously scripted sequences like his closing routine on the benefits of altruism, and digressions triggered by audience reaction. But amazingly, he still remains in control of the material throughout. At one point he's got five or six half-completed stories on the go, but still feels the need to bring up the house lights so a woman can read out the ingredients on the bag of crisps he's heard her eating. Ridiculously good value for a fiver, I'd say.
Over in the Stand On The Square, they've been running a series of events over the past few years entitled The Cabaret Of Dangerous Ideas. For those of you who remember Lee and Herring's Fist Of Fun, it's a bit like their magazine The Ironic Review in lecture form, all about telling how things you thought were bad are actually good, aaaaahhhh. Today, for example, it's professor Angus Bancroft from Edinburgh University giving a talk entitled How Cybercrime Benefits Society. He's been studying the dark net, the secret bit of the internet where all transactions are anonymised at both ends by browsers like Tor. “But aren't my transactions anonymised already?” asks Bancroft rhetorically, nevertheless giving a hollow laugh in reply. In order for us to be able to do what we want to do online, we've traded privacy for convenience: maybe it would be better if the tools used by the people working on the underside of the internet were available to all of us? Particularly as governments seem determined to destroy the small amount of encryption that the internet already has.
It's a splendidly interactive session, with Susan Morrison sort of acting as chair: Bancroft's talk lasts no more than 10 minutes, and the rest of the hour is taken up with a long Q&A. We discuss the sort of people who are working on the dark web: the drug trade uses it in conjunction with Bitcoin to allow deals to be performed untraceably, while terrorists tend to eschew any technological communications as they prefer more secure methods like paper. But just shutting the dark web down isn't an option, because it's not only the bad guys who are using it. Communications within totalitarian regimes who block internet access, newspaper dropboxes set up for use by whistleblowers, security services who want to monitor the baddies without being detected – they're all using these tools. (The latter leads to the hilarious possibility that large parts of the dark net consist of government spies all setting honeytraps for each other.)
The questions coming out of the session suggest that many people regard the dark web with suspicion, because they're not aware of the good uses it can be put to. There's a natural assumption that anyone using a Tor browser has something dodgy to hide, rather than a desire not to be spied on. The more of us who start using these methods, the more the stigma associated with them will be reduced. It's all fascinating stuff, with the Q&A proving surprisingly sensible. Nevertheless, given the umbrella title of the lectures, it's hilarious that as soon as an audience member suggests a dangerous idea – that maybe we should consider going the other way and making all information completely open – he's shut down instantly. Morrison makes a couple of cheap gags about her clap clinic results going public, and they move on without giving it a further thought. Mind you, maybe they're saving that for a separate talk next year...
Ominously, we can hear rain bouncing off the roof of the St Andrew Square yurt all through the talk, and getting heavier all the time. By the time we have to leave, it's torrential. Remember those factor 50 suncream bottles they were giving away with the Scotsman at the start of the week? The vendors on Princes Street are now using those bottles to hold down the plastic sheeting keeping their papers dry. We have to spend the next hour running between several venues to pick up our final sets of tickets, and this is the point where I discover that my shoes have sprung a leak. Still, out of this wet-footed water torture comes a little burst of good luck, as we find out about a sure-fire way to finish off the day with a burst of fun. More on that later, obviously.
In the meantime, over at the Voodoo Rooms we get in one more bit of Free Fringe action with Alexis Dubus Verses The World. We first discovered Dubus at a PBH And Some Comedians show a few years ago, playing his hilariously snotty French character Marcel Lucont. We were aware that he was really English, but today is the first day we've heard his real voice. His show here's billed in the Spoken Word category rather than Comedy, apparently just because it's safer: people can complain about a comedy show for not being funny, but nobody can deny he's speaking words in this one.
The name suggests that this is a poetry set, but it's actually a bit more diverse than that: it's a mixture of poems, songs, spoken links and actual quotable jokes. “My self-esteem's so low, I go to my local kebab shop just so I can hear someone call me 'boss'.” In an entertaining overlap with Brendon Burns yesterday, he also has his own set of stories about playing the Adelaide Comedy Festival and dealing with racist audiences. It's a right old mishmash of stuff, but Dubus' charm holds it all together as a coherent hour. By the end of it I've almost forgotten that my feet are bloody soaking and will have to remain so for another six hours, and that's pretty impressive.
Yesterday, The BBG and I were walking down the Royal Mile, or more accurately scurrying down it trying to avoid eye contact with flyerers. But then we watched a musical act perform on one of the temporary stages, liked them, and asked for their flyer. And now we're at their show. I think that's the first time in 27 years of Fringeing that a performance on the Royal Mile has actually resulted in me buying a ticket. So, if you're trying to plug your show on the High Street, it's probably not worth your while approaching me now until around 2043.
The show in question? UTO, a performance of Japanese drumming by Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble YUI. Japanese drummers have been ten a penny at the Fringe for decades now, with huge variations in quality. YUI are at the higher end of the spectrum: ten young players from Uto city in Kumamoto, with an unusual 60/40 male/female split, and a keen sense of visual and musical style. They get us on their side from the start when one of the group greets us all individually as we enter, and apologises for any noise that we might hear coming from his baby son, who's sitting with his mother while she's working the lights. That in itself puts them a step above many of the taiko groups playing Edinburgh, because it suggests that their set has quiet bits: a lot of the time, Japanese drumming on the Fringe is an excuse for an hour's worth of nonstop banging at full volume, with no sense of dynamics.
Rhythmically, YUI are tight and ambitious – one of the pieces they play is a tricky one by Kodo called Monochrome, which is all dynamics and virtually no rhythm, and they pull it off beautifully. Like many such bands, the centrepiece of their battery of drums is the huge o-daiko, and they find some new ways to work with that: I've never seen four people playing one of these things at the same time, and it's fascinating to watch. And YUI aren't afraid to ramp up the theatricality of their performance, with costume changes, clever lighting, and the use of a simple screen to make the instrument changes more effective. You could argue that some of their best visual and aural effects are heavily inspired by the work of Kodo, but they've got the technical skill to make those influences pay off.
And so to the final show of the day, as hinted at a few paragraphs back. Back in 2014, we saw Mark Watson's Comedywealth Games, in which three comedians competed in ridiculous events on behalf of their country of origin. Two years later, we have Mark Watson's Edinborolympics, which works to exactly the same structure. A show like this stands or falls on the quality of its guests, and a chance sighting of the bill for this night's performance at the Pleasance box office during our hour-long period of sub-aqua ticket buying was enough to persuade us to book for it then and there. In fact, it gave us no hint of how manic things would get on the night.
Try to keep up with this. Mark Watson hosts, as ever, with Adam Kay providing tasteful musical accompaniment and a tasteless rewrite of Bohemian Rhapsody on the subject of Oscar Pistorius. Of the three comics competing in the games, shouty madman John Robertson is representing Australia, and this is all completely as expected. Shappi Korshandi is supposed to be playing for Iran: however, she has political objections to the version of the Iranian flag that Watson has picked up from his flag supplier, so she's playing for her current home of England instead. To get around this problem, the plan is to do a simple swap so that Nick Helm is now representing Iran. Except he's been held up on his way to the venue, so Iran is now being represented by David O'Doherty doing a crude impersonation of Nick Helm. Helm eventually wanders on stage halfway through the second game, where various people – including the Irishman impersonating him - are sorting bags of frozen mixed vegetables into their constituent parts. "What the fuck is going on here?" he screams.
Whether you're an audience member or a participant, I think the only real answer to that question is to just go with the flow. Helm eventually catches up with the insanity: following a controversial decision against England, Korshandi protests by singing Jerusalem, Robertson responds with Waltzing Matilda, and Helm – trying to come up with an equivalent Iranian song – launches into Robbie Williams' Angels and brings the house down. It's indicative of the level of comedy Watson is trying (and succeeding) to achieve: it's unapologetically post-pub entertainment, where comedians amuse us by creating a gigantic pile of chaos on the stage, and then amuse us even more when they take the results so seriously. (Korshandi's sulk as she realises she's losing is hysterical.) As in the 2014 Comedywealth Games we saw, Australia wins overall: it turns out that John Robertson is just as talented at wearing 25 layers of borrowed clothing as his countrywoman Felicity Ward was back in 2014. It's obviously a genetic thing.