Reviewed today: Doug Anthony All Stars, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, Project Flavour Behaviour, Radio Active.
As for the show, it's the usual mixture of comedy, music and theatre, with Stutter continuing to insist that it's his focus on theatre that sets his selections package apart from others out there. Skin Of The Teeth is an interesting sounding contemporary rewrite of the old Grimm fairy tale about a boy who couldn't feel fear: but Twist's Macbeth is an even more interesting mix of the old and the new, taking Shakespeare's tale of ambition and transplanting it into the R&B branch of the modern music industry a la Empire. That one's definitely on our list following the clip we see today: some of the gear changes between the original text and the new material seem a little grindy, but that may just be a consequence of seeing a single scene taken out of context and I'm prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Musically, the clip from Canta Napoli makes for a splendid opening to Pick Of The Fringe, with Philip Contini and band celebrating the music of Renato Carosone (if nothing else, you know this one of his) and spending an amusingly large proportion of their slot talking about the dining options at their venue, Valvona and Crolla. (No Fringe act ever went broke offering food alongside art.) The other musical selection at the end of the show comes from Raunch, a bit of Wild West themed burlesque which seems to give you a useful opportunity to look at some bare arses but not much else.
As for the comedy, we get three very contrasting examples. Matt Forde's incredibly slick political standup is very welcome at this time in our history, but he seems just that little bit too slick for this compilation, as if he's a level or so above the other acts and just slumming it. (Or, as The BBG generously suggests, using this as an extra chance to let people see him without necessarily being fussed about plugging his own show.) Clare Plested's Flock Up is the sort of character comedy that we get a lot of on the Fringe, and it's a genre that generally makes me as nervous as 'student revue' - her children's entertainer dressed as Rapunzel and hammering home gender stereotypes starts off a little on the nose, but by the end she's stuck the landing and managed to get a sneakily great punchline out of it. But the best standup in this collection, for my money, is gloriously daft Swede Olaf Falafel, whose terrible puns and goofy surrealism mean he also goes on our list. Two out of seven acts marked for future investigation: that counts as a good Stutter. Long may he continue to Pick.
We eat a rather lovely lunch at Mother India Cafe, which is followed up by me eating my words from the previous paragraph: specifically, the bit about how terrible student revues can be. That's not always the case, of course - once in a while, a revue hits the big time at Edinburgh and goes on to greater things from there. That was certainly the case for Radio Active, the 1979 show by the Oxford Revue based around a wildly incompetent local radio station. It spawned a long-running Radio 4 series, which led to a TV spinoff that did the same thing to tiny satellite channels (KY TV), and it launched the showbiz careers of the team who wrote and performed it: Helen Atkinson-Wood, Angus Deayton, Michael Fenton-Stevens, Geoffrey Perkins and Philip Pope.
You know how it is when the members of an old pop group are all entering their sixties, and they suddenly have to reform to plug up the holes in their pension pot? Well, it's possible that this may be what's happening here. Because three full decades after Radio Active was broadcast on the wireless, the original team has reformed to do some script readings at the Fringe, effectively taking the show back to where it all started. They've taken two complete episodes of the show, bridged with a little bit of archive audio to mark the passing of Geoffrey Perkins in 2008. The first episode is the better one, based as it is around the performance of a radio play by a cast of idiots. There's precisely one gag to the whole thing - whenever a line in the script has two possible readings, they always, always take the wrong one - but writers Deayton and Perkins manage to wring so many variations out of it that the audience reaches a pitch of total hysteria. By comparison, the second episode they've recreated - a kind of Pick Of The Week show - isn't as good, but gives them the chance to play around with multiple genres.
It's a show heavily aimed at the people who heard it first time round, no question. No attempt's been made to update the scripts - at one point, there's a sketch that's only funny if you recognise the format of Call My Bluff, a cultural reference that was already getting dated back in the eighties. But the sheer fun that this team is having working together again carries the show across any archaic or dodgy interludes that may still be lurking in the script. The cast all look good - that diet of coke and hookers appears to have worked wonders for Deayton (whose Mike Channel character is the basis for every TV presenting job he's taken since), while Helen Atkinson-Wood surprises you simply because she's spent most of the intervening playing old crones in things like Blackadder, and it's a shock to see her at her real age. And Philip Pope gets to take lead vocals on a couple of the wicked song pastiches that set Radio Active above other comedies of the time, and still hold up today. Lord knows what the young people will make of it, but who cares what they think?
I've been coming up to Edinburgh with Spank's Pals since 1998, fallow years notwithstanding. If there was a pair of words that could sum up that first festival we attended as a team, it would have to be 'tisky wasting', the phrase Sylvia allegedly used when asked what she'd been doing that afternoon. For many years now, organisations such as the Scotch Malt Whisky Society have been trying to find new ways to promote their fine Scottish wares to the influx of visitors that come to Edinburgh for the Festival every year. With Project Flavour Behaviour, they've come up with a spectacular idea, although on this particular day it doesn't go quite to plan. Still, if you're looking for a conversation-stopping answer to the question "seen anything good at the Fringe?", then "we've been to a combined psychometric test and whisky tasting" seems as good as any.
Here's the theory. Dr Adam Moore of the University of Edinburgh has come up with an online 35-question personality test. Note that you'll be required to complete this on your own phone or other internet-enabled device at the start of the session, which isn't made clear in the publicity: the luddite BBG has to borrow an iPad off the barman, while I have to reconfigure the crappy old browser on my ancient Symbian S60 phone to get the test to display properly. At the end of the test, a short crude analysis of your personality type will be displayed on screen, based on your answers: and using that information, the barman will come up with a set of three malt whiskies that best match the shape of your brain. (Despite our initial worries about the whole concept, nobody ever asks us if we've ever read Dianetics, which is a relief.)
That's the theory. Here's the practice. After the initial hassle of changing my phone settings, I work my way through the 35 questions. On a surface level, they seem to me like those personality quizzes you see parodied in Viz, where the answers a) to e) represent a sliding scale going from one extreme response to the other, and you find yourself not so much paying strict attention to the words of the answers as deciding where on the scale you fit. Anyway, the final result comes in, and it claims that "you are The Perfect Norm and your perfect whisky is juicy, oak & vanilla; you have a very moderate character with no one clear dominant personality trait, so this balanced whisky flavour is sure to float your boat." This all seems pleasant enough. But then The BBG gets the same result, huffily complaining that it's the first time anyone's ever accused her of having a very moderate character. And then Nick gets exactly the same thing. Ultimately, to the confusion of the SMWS host, ten of the twelve people attending get the exact same Perfect Norm analysis, either through a technical glitch or some sort of bizarre coincidence. (Meanwhile, an eleventh attendee is allocated an entirely different personality type, while Alan manages to crash the test three times on two separate machines and has to be analysed by hand.)
Still, it's all a bit of fun, and nobody here is really taking it seriously. The important thing is that at the end of the analysis, we each get three different malts to try for ourselves based on the results. For my money, the 11-year-old Balmenach that was my top recommendation (and, yes, pretty much everyone else's) didn't impress me as much as their second choice, a 12-year-old Mannochmore. The host holds the whole event beautifully: after a couple of years of us hanging out with craft beer geeks, it's fun to encounter a whisky geek, giving lots of deep background information on the whiskies being dispensed as well as useful tips of when and how to mix with water.
Like any other whisky tasting I've ever been involved in, there may be an upper limit of three glasses set at the start, but that all goes out the window by the end - anyone who complains that their selections aren't to their personal taste tends to get an extra glass of something alternative. The sixty minute session overruns delightfully to 100 minutes, and Nick has to duck out early to get to something else, meaning that he misses out on the perfect capper to the event - on the way out, a couple of Asian guys who were at the tasting cautiously ask me, "was that Rick Stein sitting with you?" (He won't believe that happened, obviously, but it did.)
The debut of Spank's Pals at Edinburgh (and the tisky wasting) may have been in 1998, but I'd been coming to the Festival on my own for a few years before that. My first visit was in 1989, and it feels somewhat predictable that I saw the Doug Anthony All Stars then - by that year, they'd firmly established themselves as an anarchic presence on the London comedy circuit. They carried on for a few more years after that, fizzled out in the mid-90s, and that seemed to be that. But, erm, you know how it is when the members of an old pop group are all entering their sixties, and they suddenly have to reform to plug up the holes in their pension pot? This reunion's a little more complex than the Radio Active one, however. Of the original trio of All Stars, one of them's retired from comedy to work in talk radio, one of them's in a wheelchair, and the third one remains Paul McDermott. Can they still tear a new arsehole out of the Fringe the way they did in the 80s and 90s?
They have to do it a lot more slowly than they used to, but happily the answer is yes. What makes the reformed DAAS work is the recognition that it was the power relationships within the trio that made it so compelling. In the old days, guitarist Richard Fidler was the butt of the jokes for the other two, and used to get real sympathy from the audience whenever McDermott or Tim Ferguson bullied him. Fidler's now been replaced by regular DAAS support act Paul 'Flacco' Livingston on guitar, but he's a silent presence at the side of the stage refusing to engage in any of the banter. So the focus of that banter is now Ferguson, who gets bullied by McDermott for carelessly contracting multiple sclerosis ("because one wasn't enough"). It's knife-edge stuff, which could easily topple over into gratuitous offensiveness - but that knife-edge was always where DAAS found their best comedy, and that's how it works here. The key to it is that it's quickly made clear that Ferguson is still in control of the gags involving him, even when McDermott is pushing his head back to the vertical or patronisingly patting his shoulder after every half-successful gag.
It's an extraordinary premise for 90 minutes of comedy - and they've only got a limited amount of time before it really stops being funny - but for now it's a delight to watch DAAS skirt the boundaries of good taste with all the aplomb of their heyday. We get old songs, new songs, and helpful tips on getting through airport security quickly. Sadly, we only get one of their serious songs right at the end of the set, but it's a perfectly pitched tribute to the way they used to be and the way they are now. And to add a cyclical touch to our Fringe day, Mervyn Stutter makes a final appearance in the closing minutes to give the All Stars one of his Spirit Of The Fringe awards. Right now, I can't think of any people who deserve one more.