Reviewed today: Dave Fulton, Dave Gorman's Powerpoint Presentation, Last Orders, Oklahomaphobia!, Richard Herring's Edinburgh Fringe Podcast, Simon Munnery.
It was Rhian who spotted it first: our choices at the Traverse Theatre this year have all been about death, the plague, or cannibalism. We ticked off the first two on Sunday, and now it's the turn of David Hughes Dance with their new piece Last Orders, loosely inspired by the legend of Scottish cannibal clan leader Sawney Bean. It seems appropriate on a day where I'm hitting the red meat more often than is good for me: sausage and egg roll at the Traverse's own cafe bar, steak at Chez Jules, mutton pie at Pink Olive. Sadly, all of those were more satisfying than the dancing.
This being dance, Last Orders doesn't have a great deal of explicit flesh-eating action. But in its early stages, there's enough creepiness to hold your interest. The opening is terrific - a symbolic birth for the five dancers in the piece, vaguely like a quintuplet version of the beginning of Danny Boyle's recent Frankenstein adaptation, except by the end of this sequence 80% of the newborns have been killed by the other one. The survivor presumably grows up to become the adult Sawney Bean - the song that accompanies his first appearance on stage is easily the funniest moment in the piece. Alex Rigg makes Bean a fabulously menacing presence throughout the first half of the show, his sinister look only slightly undone by his uncanny resemblance to that Tony Bournemouth guy we saw on Monday.
But as the show progresses, it falls apart more and more, as if Hughes is struggling to get a full 55 minutes out of this story. The last two sections more or less kill it stone dead: an extended piece of the sort of cheesy slapstick that passes for humour in the dance world, and a verbal epilogue that really doesn't add anything at all. It's a shame, because there's probably a great 30 minute performance buried in here somewhere.
Moving on to comedy, and there's bad news for those of you waiting for the traditional Stewart Lee vs Richard Herring death match that we traditionally have each year in these Edinburgh reviews: it's not going to be happening this year. Lee's show sold out weeks before the festival started, and Herring's main show is on at a time where we simply can't fit it in into our schedule (there are just too many things happening between 8pm and 9pm). But Herring's doing a second podcast show on the side, and we can make that. Richard Herring's Edinburgh Fringe Podcast - or as the cool kids are calling it, RHEFP (rhefp!) - is a daily series of shows in which Herring interviews a major comic from the Fringe, offers a five minute guest slot to a minor comic, and generally mucks about in an improvised fashion. The resulting unedited podcast is available for free download on the internet by the end of the day: here's a link to today's one (it's a 55MB MP3 file).
If you trawl through all the other podcasts in the series - this one is the 21st, there are still four more to go - you'll quickly discover that they stand or fall by the quality of their guests. Today's is a good one: the US comic Paul Provenza, probably best known over here for directing the movie The Aristocrats. He's the impetus for a fascinating discussion on the mechanics and the business of comedy. Herring and Provenza talk about the different ways American and British standup have developed over the last thirty years: the transition to alternative comedy was like the flick of a switch in the UK, whereas in the US it was much more of a slow evolution. And Provenza has a nice line on the role of the audience in all of this: "you sit there in your comedy club seats, always judging, judging. You have no idea how mutual it is."
But there are tons of jokes too, and it fascinates me just how much Herring has evolved as an improvisational comedian over the last five years - to the extent that these off-the-cuff shows just might be more interesting than the full scripted hour he does later in the day. Aside from his banter with Provenza, he also introduces a short set from relative newcomer Joe Lycett - some of the new comics in this slot have been crippled with nerves, but Lycett turns in a charming, confident five minutes.
And then to finish off the show, there's the audience true-or-false quiz, which starts 52 minutes into the podcast if you're listening at home. Regular readers will know that in 1994, I took part in a similar quiz in a Lee and Herring show, and just missed out on winning a car. So would you believe me if I told you that The Belated Birthday Girl was the winner of today's quiz, walking away with £36 worth of show tickets, £15 worth of DVD and a £20 note? No?
Flushed with our success - yes, I'm calling it our success, she wouldn't have got that far if I hadn't got the second question wrong - we stay in the Stand to watch Simon Munnery doing his traditional Simon Munnery thing. It's a similarly structured show to last year's, in that it opens with an extended sketch before going into more freeform territory. Last year's opening sketch involved a conceptual restaurant called La Concepta, which worked so well that it's back at the Fringe this year in a more site-specific form. By comparison, the opening sketch here - a rock musical called Hats Off To The 101ers, based on the R101 airship disaster - may be a little more conventional, but it still works as a crash course in the way Munnery's mind works, for anyone who hasn't seen him before.
For the rest of the hour, we get a mixture of old favourites (like the supermarket terrace chants) and new bits of silliness. As ever, his one-liners are second to none: during an appallingly sexist lecture on women's studies, he casually asks "does pornography degrade women, or does it merely raise the standard by which they are judged?" His make-do-and-mend aesthetic just makes him even more of a joy to watch - when technical problems stop him from using a complex visual aid to accompany a short play about the other two thieves at the Crucifixion, he just goes ahead and does it anyway, and hopes we'll keep up. And we do, because he's Simon Munnery: always different, always the same.
As we leave the Stand, we examine The BBG's prize haul from Herring. The £20 note is very welcome, of course: the As It Occurs To Me DVD less so, as I'm probably one of the few people who bought it as soon as it was released. Of the complimentary tickets, we can't use the ones for Josh Howie that evening, and none of the Pals are available at that time either. We discuss the ethics of just handing them out to a homeless person we pass on the street, and wonder why the Free Fringe shows aren't full of homeless people trying to get out of the Edinburgh rain. If they were, it might explain the smell at Tony Bournemouth.
Free shows are at the forefront of our minds at this point, because our next port of call is the basement of Ciao Roma, for a second attempt at trying to see Oklahomophobia! Those of you who were here on Monday will remember that this was the show which simply refused to happen, even though there were forty or so people in the room waiting for it. A subsequent Twitter conversation with compere Abie Philbin Bowman has revealed that owing to an admin cock-up, the show flier makes it clear that Monday 22nd was his day off, but that information never made it to the Fringe programme or the Free Fringe catalogue. He's been incredibly apologetic about the whole thing, and I'm therefore happy to retract my earlier statement of "so, y'know, screw that guy." Robin Ince, however, has yet to respond.
As for the show itself, it's basically 20 minutes of Bowman plus 20 minutes each of two other comics - a change from the standard hour-long showcase format on the Fringe, which normally tries to squeeze half a dozen or more acts into that space. Here, they're given a bit more room to breathe and stretch out. In today's show, Kate Lucas storms the place with her combination of winsome charm and gloriously offensive songs: meanwhile, Aidan Bishop has some smart observational material, but gets curiously defensive when a couple of his gags don't make quite the impact he's expecting. Bowman ties the whole thing together with some cunningly extended links - his strong point is taking a simple analogy and stretching it to breaking point. "Well, we could allow homophobes to get married, but..."
I've been carrying around this concept of Fringe Karma for several years now: the idea that going to small, independent venues is better for you than going to the huge networks that have gathered around Bristo Square. So it's a hell of a jump to go from Oklahomophobia! - a Free Fringe event held in the basement of an Italian restaurant curiously decorated with actual quotes from Benito Mussolini - to Dave Gorman's Powerpoint Presentation at the Assembly, where the guy behind us in the queue is explaining to the staff that he's here on a corporate entertainment ticket.
Gorman's playing one of the biggest venues on the Fringe, and selling it out. No surprises there: he's gathered a lot of goodwill here over the years with his shows. The title of this one is a little misleading: yes, he's got a big screen and slides, but he used similar visual aids in his last few shows (including Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure back in 2003, which is the last time I saw him). The use of Powerpoint isn't the theme of the show, it's just a method of better illustrating the stories Gorman is telling - about the mystery of his perceived Judaism, or the secrets of mobile phone advertising, or his adventures on the wilder shores of social networking.
One of my fondest comic memories comes from the performance of Googlewhack I caught at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and one gag in particular which was so unexpected that I nearly hurt myself laughing. After this show, I now know the two reasons why that happened. Firstly, Gorman is a charming and reasonable man, and it's incredibly funny to see the change that occurs when something happens that angers him. There wasn't much cause for anger in Googlewhack, but there's a fair bit that riles him in Powerpoint - regardless, it's still hysterical to hear him overreacting to a petty injustice.
And then there's the other thing. Gorman knew that gag was the best thing in Googlewhack, and made us all swear that we wouldn't tell anyone else about it, so it still remained a surprise for anyone who saw the show. Some of the best comedy comes out of conspiracies between the performer and the audience, I've found. And Powerpoint has another great example of that type of gag - a lovely thing which provides some of the most hilarious moments of the show, and will have an active comic life long after this Festival has finished. But I can't tell you anything about it. Just see the show, okay?
Finally, to wrap the day up, we go to see Dave Fulton at the Stand, and it strikes me how rare it is these days that I watch an hour-long comedy set by someone who's completely new to me. I'm prepared to take risks on other types of entertainment, but for comedy I'll only go with old favourites from previous Fringes, or people who I've seen doing short sets in showcase gigs. Funny, isn't it? The only reason why we're at this show is - you've guessed it - because The BBG won tickets for it as part of her prize from Richard Herring.
I'm assuming that when Herring gives away tickets for Stand shows as prizes, they're ones which aren't selling very well - I don't believe he's given away any for Stewart Lee, for example. And there seem to be a lot of people at the box office queue clutching two-for-one voucher deals. Which is a shame, because Fulton deserves as large an audience as he can get. In this show, entitled ...Based On A True Story, he's simply talking about some of the most outrageous things that have happened in his life: having a friend stab him with an icepick, a series of nasty motorbike crashes, his adventures climbing frozen waterfalls, and a deranged tale of what happens when you mix cocaine paranoia with firearms.
"You drug-dealing bastard," someone jokingly says to Fulton in the foyer afterwards. "Drug-dealing, wife-beating bastard," says Fulton as a correction. There's no denying he doesn't always come well out of these stories. What makes them work is his charm, and his personality - he's presenting these tales as a look back on his more reckless years, with the hindsight that allows him to recognise that he's sometimes made bad life choices. He carefully structures the hour to lead us along with him - if he'd opened with the jaw-dropping confession he makes about a particularly macabre bit of horseplay, rather than revealing it at the three-quarter mark as he does here, he would have lost the audience completely. Again, it's the idea of a conspiracy that's brewed up between us and Fulton that makes this work so well.