Reviewed today: Bang Out Of Order, The Gospel At Colonus, Kevin Eldon Is Titting About, Michael Fabbri, The Night Heron, Stewart Lee, Under Milk Wood.
"I'm holding you personally accountable for this one," says The Belated Birthday Girl on the way into Under Milk Wood.
That's hardly fair, is it? This is me, taking her along to a show I've already seen before, because I thought she'd like it: and all of a sudden I'm under all this pressure. Or more accurately, Guy Masterson is. Since The BBG started accompanying me on these trips to Edinburgh, she's seen a number of plays here that Masterson has directed for his Theatre Tours International company, and generally enjoyed them a lot. But it struck me as unusual that she'd never seen him performing in anything, especially in the one-man show that made him a Fringe legend back in the 1990s. So when a one-off performance of Under Milk Wood was announced this year, I dragged her along specially.
You may be familiar with Dylan Thomas' play for voices: written specifically for the radio, any staged performance will generally be no more than a simple reading of the text. I was even involved with a production myself when I was at school. (Inevitably, the ruder bits were cut, but the fact that I can remember those rude bits verbatim suggests that we had access to the full text throughout, and that the cuts were made to protect the sensitivities of the audience rather than those of the teenagers performing it.) Guy Masterson's version differs from our school performance in one other spectacular aspect: he performs every single one of its sixty-odd speaking roles entirely from memory. Suddenly, Richard Herring learning the first page of the New Testament by heart doesn't seem anything like as impressive.
With the simplest of theatrical means - a wooden chair and a pair of sunglasses as props, a few lights and Matt Clifford's musical score - Masterson tells the story of one day in the lives of the inhabitants of the Welsh village of Llareggub. It requires one hell of a performer to pull this off, and Masterson's certainly one of those: aside from the gigantic feat of memory involved, he's got to flip between all of these characters and make them all different with a gesture or change of voice. But you don't really think about all of this till after the show's over. Masterson's key aim is to deliver the text to the best of his ability - telling the tiny stories of all these people, and allowing us to revel in Thomas' astonishing use of language. He never allows the sheer impossibility of his performance to get in the way of the play, and that's possibly his most astonishing achievement.
It turns out that the rest of our day is also devoted to solo performances, but stand-up comedy rather than dramatic readings. The contrasts between the three comedy shows we end up seeing are very interesting indeed. To start off with, we head off to the Stand to catch Stewart Lee off of the telly, playing to a packed house (we end up having to stand up ourselves). That 'off of the telly' is important to his current show, because he admits in the publicity that Vegetable Stew's main function is to allow him to work up material for the upcoming second series of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. It frees him from the responsibility of having to decide an overall theme for his set like every other comedian up here has to. It also gives him the excuse for re-using some material from earlier live performances, notably an estate agent routine near the top of the show which turns into one of those bits where he berates the audience for being too stupid to laugh at his jokes.
Each episode of Comedy Vehicle has a defined theme, so from this evidence it looks like Charity and Politics will be two of the six episodes we'll be seeing on BBC2 in 2011. Lee looks at the way in which celebrities get involved in charity shows, and has hard numerical evidence showing how he, Adrian Chiles and Russell Howard all rate against each other. From there, it's a slightly bumpy segue into a look at the new coalition government from his own personal perspective. There aren't any real surprises here - in fact, the climax of this show feels very much like a variation on a story he told in last year's show, tweaked a little to make it more acceptable for a telly audience. But his technique is still a joy to behold, especially in those deconstructive segments that have become his trademark. (Are we really the worst audience he's had in this run, or does he say that every night?)
We search the surrounding blocks for somewhere for dinner, and end up at Chez Jules on Hanover Street. It's a perfectly fine little French bistro of the old school, but it has to be said that the service is a bit slow. As a result, we end up having to throw out a couple of plans for our evening show and make a hasty decision on a replacement. So we dash across the road to the Jekyll & Hyde pub, which is one of the Laughing Horse Free Fringe venues, and decide to catch whatever's on stage right then.
It turns out that we've arrived just a few minutes into Bang Out Of Order, a showcase for half a dozen or so London stand-up comics. Which is handy - it's just the sort of show where it doesn't matter if you've missed the start, as it's a whole series of very short sets. The show's compere keeps it moving at one hell of a lick, keeping each act down to a seven-minute set, and whipping the audience into a frenzy as each one comes on stage. Which makes for a terrific atmosphere, but leaves me with a problem: with one exception, I have no idea who any of these people are. So, if any of the following recognise themselves, please drop me a line and I'll give you the namecheck you deserve. [I've got all the names now: see comments at bottom of page.]
Assuming we didn't miss an entire act at the start, we kick off with a guy from Oldham who has fun dressing up a German audience member as a pirate for a musical number. The next person on stage could possibly be considered as a black Tim Vine, with a similar ear for a groanworthy one-liner. ("I lost my job this week because I'm dyslexic. The good news is, they're going to give me 45p.") After the woman who's dismissed in my post-show notes as Unmemorable Female Comic, we have a damn good set from Abie Philbin Bowman: the only one of the group who hands out fliers at the end, and so the only one I have a name for. ("I'm a terrible Catholic: I don't drink and I'm gluten intolerant.") Some guy from Walthamstow manages to extract several minutes out of the top half of his head looking like Ant, and the bottom half looking like Dec. And the whole shebang's wrapped up by a cheeky woman from Blackpool, a former children's entertainer who does rude things with balloon animals and threatens one man with "I'd ride you like the Postman Pat van outside Sainsbury's."
There was a compere too, but I've got no idea of who he was at all. None of the names on the official show page ring any bells, and it looks like the bill changes on a daily basis anyway. But for an hour's worth of free fun (barring whatever you decide to put in the collection bucket at the end), Bang Out Of Order is definitely worth a visit. And in case you're wondering, yes, we do have more plans for the Free Fringe later in the week.
Here's something I only found out yesterday: comedians at the Fringe have a minimum audience size defined as part of their contract. Generally speaking, it's around five people. If the audience is smaller than that, they can cancel the show and give everyone their money back. It was Bridget Christie who revealed this yesterday, pointing out that she's one of the few comics out there with a minimum audience of one. (Which can sometimes make for an awkward situation when she drags one punter on stage for the amusement of everyone else in the room.) Why am I mentioning this in the runup to my review of Michael Fabbri? Yes. Well. Um.
Fabbri was the compere at Sunday's Late Show at the Stand. He was pretty damn good: even Brendon Burns said so. We picked up his flier on the way out, and it offered a two-for-one deal on tickets up till Tuesday night: so we decide to take advantage of the offer tonight. We're waiting in the bar with another couple, when the barman discreetly mentions that between us, we're the whole audience for the night. If nobody else comes along in the next few minutes, the show will be cancelled. Almost on cue, a group of four women - apparently a couple of generations of one family, celebrating a 20th birthday - walk through the door of the bar, and are bemused when everyone else starts cheering.
I know that tiny audiences are one of the traditional Fringe cliches, but I tend not to encounter them that much - just lucky, I guess. So watching a stand-up show with an audience of eight is a new experience for me. It's made even more surreal by two of the older members of the family party getting bored partway through and starting a conversation between themselves. Fabbri handles this as politely as he can - "thanks for coming to see me, but I'm trying to talk here" - but you can tell he's a bit rattled by them.
Fabbri does his best, and still manages to get a few decent laughs from the four of us who aren't celebrating a birthday. The second self-proclaimed dyslexic we've seen today ("you're really clever, but can't demonstrate that in any way shape or form"), his show - Fabbrications - is a way of loosely tying together stories about both making things and making things up. The climax is a true story that doesn't quite work, mainly because it's based heavily around some video footage that appears to be projected from a fourth generation Eastern European pirate DVD. But a lot of his more traditional gags hit the mark, even though they obviously played a lot better to a room with a couple of hundred people in it. There are comics out there on the Fringe who deserve microscopic audiences, but Michael Fabbri isn't one of them - so go along to his show at the Stand, and make both him and yourself a lot happier.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Jan - The Gospel At Colonus is fabulous, beautiful, delightful. If you like soulful gospel music, full volume perfect harmonies and glittering costumes, this is the show for you. You may even find yourself carried away, clapping in time to the finale and joining the standing ovation.
Nick - Smoke And Mirrors is the followup show from the same producers as La Clique. This show doesn't quite reach the same heights. The talented house band play a mixture of styles from heavy rock through to country, and is used as a continuously playing soundtrack to the variety acts playing on stage, in much the same way that Cirque du Soleil have a band playing porn jazz throughout the entire show. This works really well in the first half, but then it becomes clear that the second half is a reprise of the performers we saw in the first. And the show really needs an amazing final act to send us on our way happy. Unfortunately, it doesn't arrive. The Master of Ceremonies does another instantly forgettable song, and all the acts trundle on stage to take a bow. We were robbed of a final act, is my assessment.
Jan - Kevin Eldon is funny. In fact he is very funny, and often hilarious, as he weaves between character comedy and chit chat. He begins his gig with the poems of an alter-ego which are laugh out loud genius. Kevin keeps you chuckling and roaring with hilarity till the end. A must-see.
Jan - What is the relationship between the two main characters in The Night Heron? Is their lodger capable of the atrocities she speaks of, or has she really turned over a new leaf? Who is the naked man? (Yes he really is naked - full frontal at the Surgeon's Hall!) This well-executed brooding story will keep you absorbed and not disappoint. A very worthwhile ticket.