Reviewed today: Andy Zaltzman: Plan Z, Bridget Christie: Mortal, Dumb White Guy With Brendon Burns, Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians: The Final Aardvark, Stewart Lee: Content Provider.
Did you see what I did yesterday? (Apart from gain the approval of music superstar Kid Carpet, obviously.) I reviewed two shows back to back - The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones who played the first woman president in 24, and Mary Lynn Rajskub's standup set, featuring the actress who played Chloe in 24. I do this sort of stuff all the time, and nobody ever notices. The most frustrating example was almost exactly two years ago today: in the space of a single day, I reviewed former comedy partners Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, plus both of their wives (Bridget Christie and Catie Wilkins respectively), to the total indifference of absolutely everybody. Sadly, it's not a feat I can repeat this year, as Herring and Wilkins are selfishly staying in London to raise their child. But Lee and Christie have obligingly booked adjacent slots in the same venue, so it would seem rude not to do them back to back.
Bridget Christie's slot this year has a useful press-friendly story attached to it. In the Fringe programme, the listings claim she'll be performing Mortal, a show about death, because apparently that's what associating with Stewart Lee inspires people to do. But in late June the result of the EU referendum came in, and she realised she'd have to shred the entire set and write a new one about Brexit instead. It's an added hassle on top of her interesting change in direction - after three years of being a feminist comedian, she's decided she now hates women and will only tell jokes about gardening instead.
Christie's a comic who's matured extraordinarily over the decade or so we've been watching her, and Mortal (or whatever it's really called now) is another huge step forward. This is a brilliantly constructed hour, taking in several deft analogies for the mess we're currently in, an analysis of the mindset of Leave voters (including her own personal experience of the gullibility of Daily Mail readers), and a breakdown of the political wrangles behind Brexit presented in a form she can share with her children. For all of her pleading that she doesn't want to alienate 52% of her audience at this late stage in her career, this is an unapologetically pro-Remain show, and its cheerful ferocity is a welcome antidote to the blandness of a lot of current standup. For those of you who've been with her since the beginning, you'll be pleased to hear that this show brings back the tradition of one humorous costume change, and it's a corker.
Shortly after this, Stewart Lee is boasting with a cackle that his new show, Content Provider, has been advertised in the Fringe programme as a work in progress, which means he can read half-formed gags off sheets of paper and there's nothing we can do about it. To be fair, his last few Edinburgh shows have all been WIP affairs too, but this is a bit different. Those earlier shows all had the same structure, made up of two unconnected half-hour sets, each one a largely complete version of the standup material for a single episode of his TV show. But not this time: as he reveals near the start of this set, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle was recently cancelled by the BBC for winning too many awards. exceeding ratings expectations and being cheap. So what we're getting here is the raw material for a forthcoming UK tour, in which he tries to work out what the show is, and maybe tries to work out what he is along the way, as you do when you've just lost a job.
Having just come away from his wife's show, it's slightly alarming that Lee starts off by tackling Brexit, admittedly from a different angle to Christie. But he doesn't spend too much time doing that, as the show he's preparing for isn't likely to happen until 2017-2018, and there are inherent problems in writing topical material for two years in the future. So he sticks with the timeless stuff: the state of his career and whether he'll ever get to work on the ground floor of a venue again, the low quality of his contemporaries, the even lower quality of his audiences (we're terrible at spotting references, apparently), ultimately leading to a convincing argument about who to blame for everything that's wrong with the world right now. He uses his typical technique of building to a series of escalating variations on the same punchline, but here it feels like he hasn't decided exactly which order of those variations is best, and is trying them all out on us to work that out. We're happy to oblige, as ever, even if he does feel the need to remove one whole section from the performance to punish us. (Replace 'even' with 'because' if you like, it probably works just as well.) It's still a very enjoyable hour, but it'll be great when it's finished.
I suppose that if we were really trying to avoid seeing even more comedy about Brexit, we shouldn't have gone to Andy Zaltzman, who was one of the Fringe's most vocally political comedians long before it was fashionable. Our third Brexit analysis of the day is different from the other two, though, because Zaltzman's using technology, or at least a couple of mysterious wooden boxes with fruit and veg on top. On one side of the stage he has a unit into which he can feed the statements of the key movers and shakers from the referendum, and it will electronically extract the hidden subtext from them. Over on the other side, his second machine - powered by a butternut squash rather than a pineapple - will take our responses to Zaltman's assorted gags and convert them into Plan Z, a democratically agreed method for dragging the UK out of the mire it's just dragged itself into.
The man they call Zaltor The Merciless is in fine form - he's not the first person to point out that the Leave result has given political comics potential decades of material to work with. With The Bugle podcast currently on temporary hiatus, it also means that this is largely material we haven't heard him do before, apart from his enjoyable rant about people who hate cricket. ("It's SUPPOSED to be boring!") As ever, his political gags are sharp, while his analogies and metaphors are massively tortured: his best example of the latter compares Syria to the discovery of a lion turd at a children's party, in that while it's already unpleasant, it's a symptom of something potentially even worse. Zaltzman's jokes may vary a bit in quality, but the sheer volume of them batters you into submission by the end.
We've still got a couple of days to go here, but I think Brendon Burns will be responsible for the single best bit of comic improvisation I'll see this Fringe. Because everyone in the venue knows what a dangerous shouty man he is, the front row of stacker chairs is entirely empty - the audience are all sitting in the second row and beyond. Burns comes on stage, sees what's happened, grabs the entire front row of chairs and physically hurls it off to the side of the auditorium. "You're the front row now, cunts," he says affectionately.
For the last couple of years, Burns has been dedicating a lot of his time to Dumb White Guy, a weekly podcast that largely focusses on the topic of race and the buttons it presses. His Edinburgh show this year is largely inspired by a sequence in the series called Closing The Chasm: listen to it after the show if you want more background to the story, or instead of the show if you can't make it here. Briefly, it goes like this: earlier this year, Burns was asked to write about his attitude to the national holiday of Australia Day, and he wasn't too complimentary: "South Africa has a holiday celebrating the end of apartheid: even they didn't think it was a good idea to celebrate the start." This causes a bit of a stink back home, and leads Burns to look into the state of the relationship between white Australians and Aboriginals, and if there's any way that the chasm between them can be closed.
Cards on the table: I'm not sure yet if Burns destroying the front row of his own venue really is the best bit of improv I'll see this Festival, but I'm pretty certain that Dumb White Guy will be the best standup I'll see this year. It's an explosively funny hour, driven by Burns' Monster-fuelled manic intensity: prodding at the sort of topics nobody wants to talk about, but doing it because he wants to talk about them, not just for cheap shock effect. The show never feels preachy, because his primary aim is always to make people laugh: and all too frequently, he's the target of his own jokes anyway. Best of all, he complains about not having a proper ending to the show, and immediately follows that statement up with the best ending possible. Go to the Liquid Rooms, see the show, laugh your arse off, and give him lots of money at the end: he's got plans for Dumb White Guy, and I'd love to see if he can pull them off.
Having just come out of possibly the best comedy performance we'll see all year, the rest of the evening takes an odd turn. We grab a rather lovely dinner at old favourite Spoon, and then stroll over to La Belle Angele, the venue for our final show. When we checked it out earlier on that day, it looked quite fun, with a buzzy courtyard bar that seemed worth checking out before the show. When we return in the evening, though, the courtyard's empty, which means that the only way to get a drink is to enter the auditorium and accidentally watch the tail end of magician Paul Dabek's show. La Belle Angele turns out to be massive, and totally unsuitable for a close-up magic show: his climactic hand shadow puppetry works much better in a venue of this scale.
Dabek's audience scurries off at the end of his show, leaving a disappointing few dozen people spread across several hundred seats for Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians. It's the first of several disappointments. PBH himself has been struck with the Fringe Flu, and is obviously not firing on all cylinders, though he performs all his usual terrible old songs to the best of his ability. The show that launched the idea of the Free Fringe (as he boasts in the publicity) has had the same format for 21 years: PBH introducing four comedians doing 20 minute sets, with payment to be hurled into a big bucket at the end of the show. This format is broken a little this evening when PBH finds out far too late that one of his comics hasn't turned up.
Of the three that do make it there, Davey Reilly - a Morrissey lookalike in a Smiths t-shirt - makes for a charming opening act, nattering about his life experiences in both Dublin and New York. He's followed by Kane Brown, who completely misjudges the tone of the room and hits us with what can only be described as a dirty set, personally targeting the oldest and youngest members of the audience with speculation about their sexual habits. He gets a huge number of walkouts at the end, decimating an already tiny audience, much to the disappointment of nominal headliner Stuart Goldsmith. He ploughs on through some improvised material based around the detritus left on stage by Paul Dabek's magic act earlier: he has a decent go at turning around the broken mood of the room, but can't really manage it in the time he's got.
It's been widely reported that Peter Buckley Hill is retiring after this Festival - fair play to him, he's an old man now, and he'll be leaving behind a splendid legacy in terms of the way that the Fringe is financed. It's just a shame that the last thing of his we'll see is this rather disappointing show. Unless someone puts on a nice retirement gig for him in London. Can someone do that, please?