Reviewed today: Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide To Consciousness, Ben van der Velde: Sidekick, An Evening With An Immigrant, Michael Legge: Jerk, Sara Pascoe.
Last night's overrun at Political Animal meant that we didn't get to bed till around three in the morning. There's probably a time early on in my getting-on-for-thirty-years Edinburgh career when I would have laughed off a late night like that, and gone straight to some sort of breakfast show the next morning. But not any more. So, reluctantly, we start the day by cancelling our plans to see Phill Jupitus: Sketch Comic. It's a shame, because it's an intriguing concept for a show: for the past few weeks, Jupitus has been spending each morning visiting one of the city's art galleries, getting out his iPad and sketching one of the pictures in there, while a non-paying audience gets to look over this shoulder. Today, he's at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, and thanks to the wonders of social media we can at least experience the show vicariously: this is the picture he chooses for today, and this is what his version of it looks like. He's not bad, is he?
Instead, we get a bit more sleep, and our festival day properly starts at 1.20pm with Michael Legge: Jerk. It suddenly strikes me that I've never seen a full hour of Legge on his own before: it's only been short slots, or collaborations with his old mate Robin Ince (who's at least here in spirit thanks to Legge's impersonation of him). His reputation as a misanthrope does give you cause for concern as you settle into your seat, but there's no cause for alarm at all: he opens by bemoaning the lack of whimsical comedy on the Fringe this year, and reassures us that he'll be driving the Whimsy Bus for the next hour. It's all going to be lovely.
Well, of course it isn't, and thank God for that. There's still plenty around to enrage Legge, particularly as he hits the age of 49 and has noticed, like Richard Herring, how he's beginning to fall apart. (Unlike Herring, he sees his lack of children as a personal triumph.) If there's an overriding theme to the show, it's the idea of shame, and how worrying it is that nobody seems to feel it any more. He identifies several people who should be ashamed, notably a UKIP supporter he became friends with surprisingly late in life. I was expecting the razor-sharp one-liners, but what I didn't expect what the terrific head of comic steam that Legge builds up over an hour, keeping the laughs coming at a rate of knots. Having said that, the most memorable part of the show is the finale, a sort of double obituary for David Bowie and Legge's dog Jerk which culminates in a way that will persuade you that you have to buy a seven inch vinyl single on the way out. I certainly did, anyway. If you left Andrew O'Neill's show curious about what vegans feed their pets, you'll know for certain by the end of Jerk.
Lunch at Chez Jules is, as ever, the exception to the 'fast, cheap and good' rule: people insist that something can only have two of those qualities if you sacrifice the third, but Jules continues to be all three without apparently breaking a sweat. (Delightful sight of the meal: two young people holding their phone to the restaurant's ceiling speaker, desperately trying to Shazam the French language song that's coming out of it. If they'd asked, we could have told them.)
It seems a bit iffy, though, that I'm taking advantage of Jules' dirt cheap steak frites in the gap between two of the most prominent vegan comedians on the circuit. Although in this case, we're not actually seeing the second one do comedy. Sara Pascoe is one of several Fringe comedians this year who's doing both a daily standup set and a one-off Book Festival event to plug something they've written. (See also: Limmy, Andrew O'Neill.) In one of the cruellest ironies of this year's Festival, she takes to the Book Festival stage at around the same time that it's announced that John Robins has been nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy Award for a show in which he describes what it's like to break up with her. (Her show does the same thing but from her perspective. Now that's a double bill to see, but we can't fit it into the schedule. Sorry.)
Unlike O'Neill and Limmy's books, Pascoe's is comparatively serious: Animal is a study of the female body and feminine sexuality, drawing on the research she's done for her stand-up material on these topics but building on it enormously. There are direct tie-ins with her work as a comedian: she discusses issues of consent in terms of how your contributions to a panel show are edited down without any input from you, and also looks at attitudes to women across the comedy circuit. It's a frustrating hour, though, as it's very much geared towards people who've already read the book - topics are introduced and ditched again quickly, interwoven with tantalising hints about how her follow-up will try to cover male sexuality in a similar way. When the interviewer says at the end that the discussion could have gone on for much longer, it's actually true for once. I certainly wish it had.
We move over to the Assembly George Square Studios, the little clump of venues that are quite obviously repurposed university lecture theatres - the perfect location, really, to see Baba Brinkman. It was Tomas who first picked up on Brinkman back in 2009 (dring one of my years off), raving about his use of rap music to get across complex ideas - in that particular case, the theory of evolution. Since then, Brinkman has flitted between hard science and literary adaptation, in each case using beats and rhymes to break them down into a form that's easily digestible without being patronising.
This year, Brinkman's presenting The Rap Guide To Consciousness, taking on a pretty enormous topic - what does it mean to be us? "Conscious hip-hop, what a fine concept / But I’m tryin’ to discover how I’m conscious," as he says in his opening number. As ever, he's done the hard research into what they call The Hard Problem - he admits that there's no definite answer, and explains Bayesian theory to us to show that we're trying to establish the probability of the various solutions, based on the information currently available. He's also not above using his infant son Dylan as an example, trying to imagine what a baby's consciousness is like. (There's another overlap with Richard Herring's show here - Herring observes at one point that little Phoebe didn't see her parents as separate entities to her, rather as extensions to her own limbs that brought her food when she wanted it.)
If you've seen a Brinkman show before, then you'll know what to expect: big ideas wittily condensed into rhyming couplets, and performed flawlessly over slamming tunes. This time around, though, there are also smart visuals to go along with the music: a series of video projections that neatly illustrate some of the most terrifyingly huge concepts. It's possibly his most entertaining show yet. If you're curious to hear more, the show's soundtrack album is currently available on Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-want deal: unlike Michael Legge's Jerk, it isn't necessary to have seen the show to enjoy the record. But if you can see it, you really should.
After dinner at Checkpoint, it's off to see a familiar face in unfamiliar surroundings. For the last couple of years, we've been irregular visitors to the Good Ship Comedy Club, a weekly showcase of ultra-cheap standup on Kilburn High Road. It's hosted by the genial Dutch hobbit Ben van der Velde (his words, not mine), and we've come to admire his skills at creating comedy spontaneously from banter with the audience. When we found out he'd got an hour-long slot at the Fringe entitled Sidekick, in which - to quote from the programme - he "salutes the Barney Rubbles, Boo-Boos and Dr Watsons of the world," it seemed like the ideal opportunity to find out what he sounded like after a bit of preparation.
Well, that didn't happen. I've seen a review of the show that describes the topics it covers: when Ben walks on stage at the start of the show, you can see a set list scrawled on the back of his hand. But as he starts chatting to the audience at the beginning, it's a prelude to all those plans being chucked out of the window, as the show turns into a 55 minute version of one of his compere slots. Within minutes he's categorised the front couple of rows of punters (with very little evidence) as three white supremacists, two Wiccans, a pair of Satanist brothers, a wholesome family of five survivalists, and a couple who have completely opposing views about the merits of Les Miserables. That's not to mention the couple of audience members he couldn't ignore, a pair of arseholes who talk amongst themselves for the first fifteen minutes before walking out to the carefully-delayed derision of everybody else. Throughout it all, van der Velde is his usual charming self (although he comes close to snapping once or twice), demonstrating his supernatural improv and crowd control skills for an hour. It's just a little frustrating that we could literally get all of that at home.
We wrap up the day with our first - and presumably only - visit to the Traverse Theatre this year. Usually we keep a close eye on the reviews coming out of the theatre to see what's been generating buzz. This year, though, nothing's particularly leapt out of the programme, and we end up choosing a show based almost entirely on its timeslot and availability. Still, the quality threshold at the Traverse is always high, so that's not as much of a risk as it would be at other theatres.
The immigrant at the centre of An Evening With An Immigrant is Inua Ellams, a poet who was originally born in Nigeria but now lives in England. The story he tells is basically the story of that relocation: his childhood in Nigeria, how things there turned nasty, and his migration to England with his family at the age of twelve. The process of making that migration legal will take well over a decade, and will involve a couple more relocations and a series of administrative setbacks. But during that time, Ellams discovers the joy of writing poetry. It'll have a much bigger impact on his life that he can possibly imagine.
Unlike most productions at the Traverse, which slide across timeslots day by day from early morning to late night, An Evening With An Immigrant is showing at 11pm every night. I guess there's a clue in the title. Still, it's hard to imagine this show as anything other than a late night performance: there's a beautifully relaxed vibe to its minimalist approach to storytelling, as Ellams sits alone on stage and interweaves the story of his journey with examples of his poetry. It's a very laid-back way to finish the day, up until the point where you start getting angry at the nonsense that immigrants to this country have to encounter, and the revelation that even now he's still not entirely safe. Ellams is naturally nervous that the Home Secretary who made the final years of his migration process so painful is now running the country. At a time when immigrants are being dehumanised as the enemy of this country, it's good to have a calm quiet voice explaining why that's not true.