Reviewed today: The Blue Blazer, Classic Entertainment, Home Bistro, John Bishop, Kohl Bar, Mervyn Stutter (including Luke Wright, Mitch Benn, Orkestra Del Sol, The Racket, The Solomon Sisters, Tommy And The Weeks), Simon Munnery, Skolka, Stewart Lee, Woody Sez.
Breakfast and free wi-fi leeching at All Good, a local cafe with the advertising slogan "your property may be at risk if you do not keep up the repayments on a Pret sandwich." And then, because he was good enough to give us two-for-one vouchers yesterday, we make a second visit to Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe. Merv's opening survey (this time we're early enough to catch it) includes a quick analysis of how many people had come to one of the weekend shows and then returned for this one. "So you enjoyed it so much, you came back for more?" he asks one person. Good job he didn't ask me, or I'd have said "well, we were a little disappointed because there were a couple of acts we've seen before, so it's more like we're giving you a second chance really. Besides, it's cheap."
It would have been horrible if I'd said that, because yesterday's show was pretty damn good, just a little familiar in parts. Today's, however, is even better. It appears that as in previous years, Stutter himself has two complete sets of introductory songs that he uses on alternate days, so even his material is fresh, including a James Blunt/Bernard Matthews crossover song that you could probably write for yourself if you put your mind to it. The rest of the show turns out to be heavy on the comedy: as it turns out, that'll be the case with the day as a whole. Of the non-comic segments, Richard Walker's one-man play The Racket probably comes off best, despite losing some intimacy in the cavernous Teviot hall. It consists of two linked monologues, one by a war correspondent, one by a backpacker: the small segment of the correspondent's tale we hear isn't quite substantial enough in its own right, but in his interview afterwards Walker intriguingly fills in enough of the gaps in the narrative to interest me more.
We also get two straight musical acts, both with a similar klezmerish feel to them. The Solomon Sisters present full-on Jewish cabaret, with songs, dancing and character comedy. Unfortunately, the character comedy (presumably used as the introduction to their full show) is somewhat lame, and takes up far too much of the slot they have here. Once the music kicks in properly, it's entertaining enough, though a little ramshackle, as if the whole thing could fall apart at any second. (Which may possibly be part of their charm, but again doesn't quite work when you've only got a few minutes to convince people.) Local band Orkestra Del Sol pull it off much more convincingly, owing to their sheer numbers and well-drilled precision, giving the audience the much-needed opportunity to yell "oi!" at the end of every four bars. As we discover an hour after the show, they work just as well when crammed into one of those tiny bandstands on the Royal Mile.
The rest of the show consists of three comedy acts, the biggest one taking up two of the show's seven guest slots. This is because Mitch Benn's first set finishes with him taking half a dozen random words from the audience, and his second set (twenty minutes later) starts with him performing a song he's just written using those words. It makes for a rather confusing tale of the dangers of eating radioactive sausages, but it works just fine: though his boy band parody works even better, getting a huge laugh with a yell of "OFF THE STOOLS!" at the final chorus key change. Tommy And The Weeks are a newish double act consisting of standup Tom Bell and sketch comedian Ed Weeks - even though the idea of a Shakespeare play being updated for today's modern yoof is an old cliche, they manage to find some new laughs within it. ("I've never been more serious in my life!" insists Shakespeare at one point. "And I wrote Macbeth!") If today's Stutter has a winner, though, it's poet Luke Wright: he starts with an entertaining rant about his home town of Braintree ("the most ironically named town in England"), and follows it up with a rather touching ode to the pleasures of settling down and staying in, I Bet That You Look Good On The Sofa. He's only 25 years old, which makes for an interesting contrast with Richard Herring yesterday.
Simon Munnery's AGM at the Stand - well, starting off at the Stand - is a strange one. I've always found Munnery to be a curious bloke: never quite sure whether he wants to work in character comedy (such as the great Alan Parker Urban Warrior, or the more recent Buckethead), or use his own slightly scatty persona to present more off-the-wall ideas. For the past few years, his Annual General Meetings in Edinburgh have primarily been "and this is me" shows. Accompanied by Mac on drums, he rambles on with anecdotes about his life in South Tottenham: playing pool in the local pubs, visiting schools to pick one for his kids, killing mice with his bare hands. Every so often, he'll fly off in a totally unexpected direction: leaving the stage at half-time to get the audience to review the show so far, or singing a medley of terrace chants about Sainsbury's. There are moments of brilliance (particularly in his character of a scientific researcher who gradually reveals his utter hatred of women), but it's all a little too fragmented to be comfortably entertaining.
But after an hour, things get interesting. At the interval, motions for the AGM are collected from the audience: at the end of the show, Munnery leads everyone off to another venue so that we can discuss those motions. That venue turns out to be the Queen Street gallery where Arthur Smith has set up an exhibition of his own artwork, Arturart: what we see as we pass through is entertaining enough for me to want to make a return visit. We then spend another hour or so sat on the floor of one of the gallery rooms, drinking Sainsbury's soave out of plastic cups as Munnery and Mac play a simultaneous pool and chess match while we discuss the motions at hand. Could the recent floods have been prevented by dumping huge quantities of cous cous into them? Should comedians be given free harmonica lessons (which Munnery takes as a thinly-veiled personal insult)? Did you know that in the event of a fire at the Traverse Theatre, all disabled patrons will be locked in an underground box with a five hour supply of air? Nothing gets resolved, not even the pool/chess match, but the show has turned into the tail end of a rather relaxed and fun party full of people you've never met before. Munnery does an entertaining bit based on a review which claimed he was "the closest that comedy gets to modern art": stay around after the end of the official AGM show and you may well believe that yourself.
More comedy follows from Munnery's old mate Stewart Lee, performing in the Udderbelly: a huge tent in Bristo Square shaped like an upside-down purple cow. I'll try and get a picture of it up here later in the week in case you don't believe me. Lee's show this year is called 41st Best Stand-Up Ever!, an accolade he picked up from one of those Channel 4 100 Best list shows "where Stuart Maconie remembers things for money." Inevitably, he spends much of the show trying to work out what this actually means for his career, particularly when even his own mother refuses to believe it, insisting that Tom O'Connor was much better. Along the way, he reflects on the evil of Channel 4 (who are sponsoring the venue he's performing in), the futility of getting the public to vote on the best of anything, and how difficult it is to do comedy in an insect costume.
Everything Lee does has a strong vein of scrupulous self-analysis running through it, and at one point he talks about how his career has followed regular six-year cycles - "the 2005 show was really good, but I'm kind of going downhill now." And, regrettably, I have to say he's right. His previous show, 90s Comedian, worked well because his astonishing technical ability as a comic was married with a strong set of jokes driven by a palpable sense of outrage at the things he'd had to suffer over the past year or two. There are some similar flourishes of technique in this set - you notice the way Lee does anything possible to stop the show just being one man standing in front of a microphone for an hour, including performing for about five minutes lying down. And there's the way he lays bare the whole process of performing comedy, including describing the use of "callbacks" - referring back to something said earlier for an easy laugh - and then referring back to that later on.
But eventually you come to realise that it's all technique in this set, and not much else. The Belated Birthday Girl has suggested that marriage and childbirth has dulled Lee's comic edge - again, compare and contrast with his former double act partner Richard Herring. I suspect she's mainly objecting to the final joke of the set, which personally I admired as an incredibly audacious thing to do at the climax of a stand-up act. But again, there's the problem - you don't go to stand-up comedy to admire it. He's right that there's pleasure to be had in structure and seeing how the diverse elements of the set eventually fit together, but this time round the structure isn't as ingenious as it has been in the past. Lee's technical proficiency is undoubted, but he's much better when he's actually got something to say, and I hope he finds something soon.
It's one of the age-old problems of performing comedy, of course - the dividing line observed by Spike Milligan, when he said he'd rather see funny people than hear funny lines. And a late-night visit to John Bishop (who Old Lag entertainingly keeps calling Ed Bishop by mistake) shows you how much better comedy can be when you've got a naturally funny person on the mike. Bishop, of course, was the highlight of yesterday's Mervyn Stutter, and it's good to see that he wasn't lying about his Manchester 10K story not being in this set - it's all entirely new material to us.
The official title of the show is Stick Your Job Up Your Arse, and it's a 60 minute narrative - so much so that the Pleasance are warning people that anyone who leaves part way through for a wee or a drink won't be allowed back in, as they'll have literally lost the plot by then. That plot goes as follows: Bishop was a sales manager for a pharmaceutical company, doing lots of foreign travel and generally living it up. Eventually, he came to realise that he was spending so much time away from his wife and kids, he was starting to lose them. It was about this time that he wandered into a Manchester comedy club's open mic night, and started to discover an alternative career as a comic. For the last few years, he's been running the sales and comedy jobs side by side: this year, as the title suggests, he's finally chosen to move into comedy full time.
Bishop is a thoroughly engaging bloke: he doesn't go for a big entrance at the start of his show, he's already on stage as we arrive to greet us. He's genuinely sympathetic when chatting to other audience members who have work/life balance problems similar to his, including one of our own party who would probably prefer to remain anonymous. He's a natural storyteller with a good eye for a telling detail, and turns the story of his mid-life career change into something genuinely inspirational. John Bishop's show leaves you in such a good mood by its end, that I'm not even going to be nasty about how Jimmy Carr was in the back row making notes.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Nick - A little gem of a show, this one. Two seasoned comics, on the slide to obscurity, try to revive their careers with the return of Classic Entertainment! - none of this surreal rubbish. Cue toe-curling Bernard Manning-style jokes and other non-PC material. The cleverness of the show is how they subvert the very premise of the show, and actually deliver a new take on 'classic entertainment'. The audience gets involved in lots of participation, but all the suggestions are ignored to great comic effect as they plough on with their own time-honoured routines. And there is a great denouement at the end which I will not spoil here.
Eve - Woody Sez was a delight from start to finish. A quartet of 2 fiddles, a double bass and guitar, plus other musical instruments - all played by accomplished musicians - did more than justice to Woody Guthrie's music. The story of Guthrie's life was told intersposed with songs, drawing vivid pictures of what life was like in Oklahoma during the early 20th century. The tragedy of Guthrie's mother's illness was movingly told: an illness that resulted in her burning her house down and leading to tragedy. At her death in a mental hospital she was diagnosed as having Huntingdon's chorea - an hereditary illness.
Woody Guthrie travelled all over the USA, playing politically aware songs and championing the cause of the poor, unemployed and underprivileged. As the earliest writer of protest and political songs, he inspired a whole generation of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg.
Woody sadly inherited his mother's illness and finished his life in a mental hospital. He was ably played by David Lutken, who looks remarkably like him. He was marvellously supported by Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell and Andy Teirstein, who all recreated the vigour and liveliness of Guthrie's music, which still sounds fresh and appropriate in today's political climate.
Old Lag - Three actresses, very charismatic, very watchable, with fascinating and slightly different accents, prepare questionnaires to be mail order brides. Skolka is about their growing up in provincial Russia, their dreams and lives, and moving to Moscow. Their relationships with men which are still key. The play is devised - the most worrying word in theatre at Edinburgh. A lot of plays here are written or devised by the actors and it tends not to work, as writing a play is a special thing requiring special skills. This production suffered from that disease.
Nick - Filmhouse Bar R.I.P. Well I guess it had to happen: arriving shortly after midnight, they had called last orders. So it is last orders on the Filmhouse Bar (the EIFF moves to June next year), and we move to the Blue Blazer pub across the road from the Point Hotel. Open to 3am and boasting a magnificent range of Scottish beers and malts. I persuade one of the Muses to try one of the two blonde beers I bring back to the table. Her favourite was the lovely Peroxide Punk from the Dog Brewery, while the other Muse was sipping back the glorious Edward something or other from Pitlochry, the smallest distillery in Scotland.
Old Lag - Our first celebratory night in Edinburgh, and we stumble across the Blue Blazer real ale pub. We leave the women amicably in the posh hotel bar across the road drinking G&Ts, and head for this typical traditional boozer. It is serving Scottish real ales in rotation throughout the festival: we had some lovely Scottish beers including Red Kite and Black Cummin from the Isle of Skye. These are wonderful days for real ale. There is so much good beer in great variety and demand around, as demonstrated by the recent Great British Beer Festival.
The Belated Birthday Girl - It's always nice to make new foody discoveries, and yesterday's was Home Bistro. It's a charming little place, with only about 20 covers, done out to look like your gran's front room, complete with porcelain ducks on the wall. The food is extremely good - I had fish and chips, which consisted of a very nicely cooked piece of battered fish with a stack of large hand-cut chips, and Spank liked his courgette, creme fraiche and almond pasta - and the service is friendly, efficient, attentive and fully appreciative of when you just want time to finish your wine and when you want the dessert menu. Speaking of which, the white chocolate cheesecake was excellent, too. Tucked away down West Nicholson Street and away from the overcrowded main festival drag, this was a lovely little discovery, which was also very good value for money.
Old Lag - It is my contention that Scotland pioneers all the new drinking technology. It was the first with late licensing, the first to ban smoking, the first to turn old bank buildings into bars. Also the vodka bar - I'm told there is one in London, but I have never come across it. Kohl Bar on George IV Bridge serves a wide range of cocktails, but more importantly also a vast selection of flavoured vodkas. You think of it and they have got it. Bubblegum flavour, banana and chocolate, cantaloupe melon and things as simple as strawberry. Lovely, lovely, lovely.