Reviewed today: Andy Smart: 40 Years At The Edinburgh Fringe, Eddie Izzard: Expectations Of Great Expectations, Greg Proops: The Smartest Man In The World, Nearly Human, Tracey Thorn.
Perhaps Contraption have been operating as a band for several years now: Nearly Human sees them coming to Edinburgh with something more ambitious than a simple gig. Brass bands are a fashionable idea at the moment - take our longtime favourites Youngblood Brass Band, or the outfit at this year's Fringe performing Beatles classics inna New Orleans stylee. When Perhaps Contraption refer to themselves as 'progressive', they're really just saying 'prog': and again, the likes of Jaga Jazzist have made that less of a dirty word than it used to be. The repetitive rhythms and wonky time signatures of their tunes make for interesting listening, with enough melody to keep the casual listener hooked.
If only it wasn't so... well... hippyish. Before the brass kicks in, there's an introduction featuring choral vocals, xylophone, a small guitar and unreasonably amounts of smiling, which shows you how twee things will occasionally get. As a series of pre-recorded narrators aged from 8 to 80 read out quotes from Carl Sagan's work, you start to realise that the occasional pinpricks of whimsy that lit up his writing (the bit about how we're all 'made of starstuff' being the most famous) become much more cringey when you run an hour's worth of them back to back. But all that has to be balanced against the undeniable positives of the show: imaginative lighting, good use of the limited space in the room, and the sheer power of much of the music. If Nearly Human is guilty of anything, it's overambition, and I'll take that over the alternative any day.
As you must know, it's the thirtieth anniversary of my first Edinburgh. If I'd been coming every year since then, this would be my 31st, though in reality it's actually my 22nd. As the title of his one-man show implies, Andy Smart: 40 Years At The Edinburgh Fringe has been doing this for a lot longer and more consistently than I have. He first came here in 1980, hitchhiking into town and telling stolen gags at the Fringe Club so he didn't have to pay the entrance fee. He was hooked from that point, and he's been coming back in a variety of roles ever since: first as a street performer, then as half of popular double act The Vicious Boys, then as an improviser, a standup comic, an actor, a saver of lives...
I'm here for a number of reasons, one of which is that Smart was there at my first Fringe, as one of the co-writers and stars of the play Twiglet Anyone in 1989. (Apparently it was going to be called Cold Turkey - it's set at a party - but they soon found out what a godsend that title would be to snarky reviewers.) I'm also here because to those of us who've been coming here for at least a couple of years, other people's Edinburgh war stories are fun to hear, and Smart has forty years of them racked up in his head and ready to tell. He's worked with most of the legends of Fringe comedy in one capacity or another, whether it's sharing a bill with them or taking bets on them winning the Perrier, so he's not just dropping names for the sake of it.
It's a terrific hour because Smart is a completely natural storyteller. A lot of the time when you see autobiographical shows on the Fringe, you can normally tell that they're being recited word for word from a carefully prepared script. Here, Smart gives these stories a relaxed delivery like he's just telling them to a few mates in the pub. In fact, if you catch him in the Gilded Balloon bar after the show where he meets punters to flog his new book, he'll be telling them stories in exactly the same style. It's a very entertaining hour, and despite his qualms expressed at the end about the current direction of the Fringe, I hope we see him here for his 50th. (And beyond: you've seen how many people in their seventies are still playing here.)
Spookily, Smart gets a namecheck in our next show of the day, and not just in its title, Greg Proops: The Smartest Man In The World. As you come to the Fringe more and more times, you get to spot the formats people use so they can stage a show on the smallest budget possible. Reading old radio scripts around a microphone has been a mainstay for the last few years, but we also have the modern equivalent: a live podcast recording. You just need one or two people who can talk, and an audience that's prepared to accept that a podcast will be more improvisational and less slick than a radio show. And at the end, you've got a separately marketable byproduct that you can pad out with adverts for mattresses.
When we went to see Collins and Herring insult one of my books at a podcast recording nine years ago, hardly anyone else was doing it: now we're at a point where podcasts could soon end up with their own section in the Fringe programme. Proops' podcast isn't one that's familiar to me, and it's hard to tell if the rest of the audience here knows it either, or are just here because they remember him from the telly. Based on a sample size of one episode, TSMITW is very rambly and freeform, largely consisting of Proops talking about what's happened to him in the past week. Inevitably, this ends up being Edinburgh-heavy: meeting up with his former Whose Line Is It Anyway colleagues for their Fringe show, hanging out at Andy Smart's (hey!) book launch, and finding as many ways as he can to insult Edinburgh's people, cuisine and topography.
It meanders on in this sort of vein for an hour, diverting towards the end to take in a failed demonstration of Proops' ringtone and a short eulogy to Peter Fonda. There are plenty of gags along the way, and you can imagine it'll work quite nicely as background burble to your commute or your cooking. But it's a little too unfocussed to succeed as a live event in front of an audience, particularly when you've locked that audience into a small airless room, and they're as sleep-deprived as most Edinburgh audiences tend to be. I'm afraid Blindboy is still the man to beat when it comes to one-person podcasts. Still, you'll be able to hear it online from August 26th if you want to find out for yourself.
After a couple of days of exploring new restaurants, we head to old favourite Fisher's In The City for our dinner, and then it's back to the Book Festival for our second (and, I think, final) visit of the week. Once again, it's to see someone who's better known in non-literary circles, in this case Tracey Thorn, half of the long-running pop duo Everything But The Girl. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, which told the story of her life in music: her new one, Another Planet, puts the music to one side and concentrates on the experience of being an adolescent in suburbia just as punk rock was starting to kick off. The title reflects the alienation that grew between Thorn and her parents - 'it's like Tracey's from another planet,' said her dad once - and isn't a clever reference to The Only Ones like you thought it was.
Thorn has some reference material to work with here: she started keeping a teenage diary back in 1977, and she notices looking back that all of its entries are about a life defined by things she didn't do. She was writing about shopping trips she didn't make and clothes she didn't buy, and saying next to nothing about the stuff that was actually happening at the time. She puts part of it down to a suspicion that her mum might end up reading her diary: ironically, her feelings would eventually come out in a much more public form, as she started putting them into songs and performing them.
It's the classic story from the punk era - a child from the suburbs commuting to the city at night, to escape the dull standardisation of their homelife. It's just a spikier-haired version of the way all of us break away from our parents: physically, intellectually, emotionally, or some combination of the three. For Thorn, it was partly a rejection of her working-class parents' aspiration to be middle-class: "I used to watch The Good Life, terrified that my mum really wanted to be Margo Leadbetter." She doesn't think it was all down to simple teenage rebellion, though: she wanted the acceptance of her parents, and found it disappointing that she didn't get it even in adult life. It's a thoughtful and entertaining session, but the live text subtitles keep threatening to disrupt the show. Yes, increasing accessibility is a great thing, but it's distracting to be told on a screen that Thorn's talking about when her mother 'hit her men or pause'.
A quick swing by The Banging Hat for a schooner of Hale's chocolate lager, which is as utterly wrong and utterly right as you would expect, and then it's off for some late-night fun with Eddie Izzard. Well, sort of: "it's just me reading a book, you know," he warns us at the start. The book in question is Great Expectations, as 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens reading it live on stage at the Assembly Rooms. Izzard has celebrated this anniversary by recording his own reading as an unabridged audiobook that runs to a whacking great 20 hours. But we also get this show, Expectations Of Great Expectations, in which he performs a version that's been hacked down to a mere 80 minutes. The scheduled afternoon performances sold out in no time, so he's added a couple of extra shows, one of which is this 11.10pm slot which we got into purely by being in the right place on the Internet at the right time.
It has to be said, this is not ideal material for a late-night gig, no matter how well Izzard performs it. There are a few people who can be observed doing the Rip van Winkle headsnap at various points, and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm one of them. But there's so much good stuff here, even putting aside the obvious quality of Dickens' original material. First of all, Izzard's brother Mark has done a terrific job in editing the novel down for this reading, getting all the main story beats in without reducing the language to pulp. Then there's Izzard's performance: he's doing it straight, to the extent that he claims to have disappointed a couple of stag parties who've made group bookings during this run. But he can point up the comedy just as you'd expect during the funny bits, while giving the dramatic sections the weight they deserve.
As an extended advert for the audiobook, it does the job, especially as we're given a voucher on the way out that discounts the price of the ticket against the cost of the audio. It all adds up to one of the best value for money work-in-progress shows you'll see in Edinburgh this year: it's labelled as such because he's only (only!) learnt a quarter of it by heart and has to read the rest of it from a book. If he takes this show beyond Edinburgh, presumably by then he'll have learnt the rest of it. Give him a couple of months more and he'll probably be doing it in French, you know what he's like.