[ 5 Dec 03] Eric Idle is three quarters of the way through a North American tour and keeping an extensive online diary as he goes. "I would never be sitting at home writing my memoirs like this. There's just something about the time available and the different places we visit that invites introspection." Tuesday's show sounds like it was a belter. [Via Digital Trickery.]


[29 Aug 03] James wrote a few months ago about the experience of recording a new Radio 4 sketch comedy, That Mitchell and Webb Sound, and you can now hear the results online on this RealAudio stream (which will change every Thursday, so check in each week for new episodes). The first episode is very entertaining, with a great sketch about hairdresser aid-workers, and some nice takes on relationships and Scooby Doo.



[25 Aug 03] A last night or two of Fringeness, and a last chance to catch up with some friends, who've been getting such amazing reviews that it's only a matter of time before I'll have to pass through a security cordon just to buy them a pint. Couldn't stay chatting into the small hours, sadly, because we had to dash across town for Best of the Fest, which we were seeing with another bunch of friends. The show was a parade of the top names of the Fringe—Ross Noble, Adam Hills, Rich Hall, Boothby Graffoe, Phil Nichol—doing ten or twenty minutes each, some of it improvised and a bit shambolic, and some (Phil Nichol's songs, for example) a bit too familiar if you'd seen them before. But it was good to hear more from Demetri Martin, and great to see Flight of the Conchords, the "folk parody duo" who were much, much better than that sounds. Acoustic hip-hop, rejected soundtracks to Lord of the Rings, a fairy tale about a dragon who cried jelly-beans, and a knock-out encore about "angels doin' it in the clouds" (excerpts here). Wish I'd heard about them when there was still a chance to get tickets to their show; still, it was good to have seen this much.

(Another comedy fillip: a Radio 4 retrospective about Blackadder, available online via RealAudio.)


Winners and Losers

[24 Aug 03]

Bruntsfield Links, Edinburgh, 23.8.2003So the first act I saw at this year's Fringe won the Perrier, which seems right to me—nobody I've seen since has topped Demetri Martin. And Gary le Strange took out best newcomer, which, as Jane said, means that lots of people my age were on the judging panel; but still a reasonable choice.

The Guardian ran an article just before the Fringe by former Perrier judge William Cook, bemoaning Edinburgh's high ticket prices and increasing feel of "a corporate trade fair, with a shrinking band of paying punters subsidising a growing army of liggers (apt acronym—least important guests)". Ticket prices certainly can be high—even the 2-for-1 deals don't make much difference when you go to twenty shows—but the band of paying punters, far from shrinking, turned out in record numbers this year. And it's those numbers that make the Fringe worth the price of a weekend getaway to the continent: for a few weeks, Edinburgh feels like the centre of the world, and everyone you pass in the street seems to be doing what you're doing—wandering from one show to the next. It's the highest concentration of shows around, every one of them hungry for your presence, which is a bit more exciting than a random night out at Jongleurs.

The other spectacle of this year's Fringe has been the story of Aaron Barschak, comedy terrorist, which intrigued me for more than its amusing poster potential; the notion of an unknown comedian performing outrageous stunts to get (inter-)national attention is, well, a little familiar. Jon Ronson's excellent article on the man hinted that his show would be ropey, and the first reviews seemed to bear that out; but since then he seems to have found his feet, and the press have warmed to him again. Other comedians have grumbled about Barschak stealing all the column inches, but when you're confronted by dodgy acts desperately publicising their shows whenever you walk down the street, he starts to look like the essence of the Fringe, bad reviews and all. But whether we'll be talking about him in a year's time is the real test.

(Yesterday's Guardian also had a couple of good articles on comedy, non-Fringe-related: an interview with ex-Mary Whitehouse Experience star Rob Newman, and a dissection of the comic novel by Adam Thirlwell.)


Fringe Lasts

[21 Aug 03] The cold weather is closing in, and so is the end of the Edinburgh Fringe, which means it's time for the Perrier nominations. Adam Hills is up for the third year running, so must be odds-on favourite. Howard Read was good last year; haven't seen him this year. Or the others, except for Demetri Martin—who would easily win, if I was choosing; a brilliant show. As for the Best Newcomer nominees, Miles Jupp is a strong possibility (haven't seen his show either, but saw him in Glasgow last year); but Alex Horne and Gary le Strange were both good too, so it's hard to pick.

Our own Fringe-going has slowed down in the past few days; might try and get to one or two more before it ends. On Saturday night, while my bro and sister-in-law were still here, we went along to the Camut Band's Life is Rhythm (a musical show for a change), which was very good: tap and drumming in African style by a group of Spaniards. Who'd have thought amplified sand would sound so catchy?

On Monday we went to Big Word, an hour of performance poetry by Rob Gee, Jenny Lindsay and Triple J legend Tug Dumbly. They were all good, but Tug stole the show, at least for the Aussies in the audience; very funny. It was impressive to see the difference the performance made, too, strengthening the impact of the words and bringing out their rhythms. And the "pay what you like as you leave" approach was refreshing.

Then last night we saw a collection of old ads made by UK movie-going institution Pearl and Dean, as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival. Always entertaining to see '50s lingo and '70s fashions held up to ridicule, but at less than 40 minutes of archival material it felt like something you could have watched on TV, especially as they were TV ads in the first place. And the modern movie ads tacked onto the end to bulk it out to an hour felt all too familiar. By the end of them I felt ready to see a main feature, but no, it was time to leave.

I might get to some more shows before it all ends, but the spirit is weakening, and so is the wallet...


Caves and Raves

[16 Aug 03] We've seen another half-dozen shows at the Fringe this week, half of them pretty ordinary—a three-star, a two-star, and a one or two star depending how generous I'm feeling. The venues for a couple of these didn't help, with audience and performers squashed into the dank claustrophobic cellars built under the medieval bridges spanning the Cowgate. You almost felt sorry for the performers—except a couple were so bad you felt sorry for yourself instead.

Even in a big venue like the Pleasance One, Bill Bailey's Part Troll started off deceptively low-key; at first I was thinking we'd paid five-star prices for three-star tickets. But he built up the strangeness and the laughs throughout the hour, until by the end he was soaring, playing messianic, theremin-heavy overdubs over the BBC News theme, and telling increasingly philosophical and absurd "three men walk into a bar" jokes. A four-star show, definitely; you'll never look at a salad crisper in your washing-up the same way again.

Tommy Tiernan, former Perrier winner and, like Bailey, a familiar face on UK television, was more consistent throughout his show, an hour of observations on Irishness, the English language, childhood, and lubricated sex. He paced around and around the arena-like Pod, his voice hoarse from overuse; but never lost the crowd, and never broke his stride when a bladder-challenged punter slipped off for a leak, making a pleasant change from stand-ups who try to turn every walk-out into a routine. By his closing minutes he had us all feeling bladder-challenged; our muscles were too busy laughing to maintain control.

But the best show we've seen in the past few days was neither of these brand-names, but instead a one-woman play set in a New York high school, P.S. 69. Susan Jeremy turned in by far the strongest performance we've seen this Fringe, playing dozens of characters from naïve substitute teacher and grizzled old hands to hip-hop students and their demanding parents; and she did it brilliantly, with a physical and vocal range rarely seen on one stage in one hour. The story and setting were a perfect vehicle for her talents, with a level of character and plot development it was hard to believe fit into sixty minutes; and as well as all that, it was genuinely funny. A real winner—of best comedy at the Montreal Fringe, for a start—and now one of the highlights of the Edinburgh Fringe too.


[11 Aug 03]

Edinburgh Fringe Sunday

A Little Lie Down Have a Cigarbox Fool of Chainsaws Here Comes the Sun King You Give Me the Hump

More glorious weather yesterday for the Fringe freebie on the Meadows. The stand-ups in the comedy tent were highly variable and lowly audible; the queues for ice-creams so long you had to eat six to replenish the sweat you lost standing in line; and while taking a photo of some salsa dancers I was attacked by a wasp. But for once Fringe Sunday really was sunny, and it was fun just to be part of a crowd in Edinburgh that wasn't about shopping.

Didn't go to many shows last week, but the couple we saw were good. The first, Gary le Strange, has been getting rave reviews for his pisstake of assorted New Romantics. They're all there—Adam Ant, Duran Duran, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Gary Numan—and the costumes and songs are well-observed and sometimes inspired, with lines about Xerox machines photocopying the universe, and the colour grey being like lava-covered people in the ruins of Pompeii. If you grew up in the early '80s, it's a four-star show; if not, a three.

Wednesday was a show we'd really been looking forward to, Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure. The audience was ten times what it was in Melbourne in 2001, thanks to the intervening book and TV series. Dave's energetic enough to fill the bigger venue, though, and this true tale of obsession was just as funny as that one, if a little more familiar (especially if you're a webhead). Plenty of outrageous coincidences, and a big finish, made Googlewhack one of the best of the Fringe so far.

Photos 3 and 4 by Jane; others by me.


Highs and Lows and Highs

[ 4 Aug 03] I wasn't planning on doing Fringe reviews this year, but after seeing nine shows in one weekend feel compelled to plug a few. Yes, it's that time of year again, when Edinburgh's streets fill up with strolling players and wandering punters. Of course, if you're in town you'll already have more reliable sources of reviews than me, and if you're not you won't care anyway. But if by any chance you're planning to visit the Fringe, haven't read any reviews or bought any tickets yet, and are looking at this very page right now, read on.

We were lucky with our first outing—Demetri Martin on Friday night at the Assembly—because his show was about as good as it gets. An account of nerdish obsessions to rival Dave Gorman's, If I... was every bit as good as you'd expect from a regular performer on Letterman and Conan O'Brien, instantly vaulting its performer from who-he-ness to must-see-everything-he-ever-does-ness in my own almost-as-obsessive brain. If this isn't one of the hits of the Fringe, there is no justice.

Sunday night also went well, in the form of an hour of Sarah Kendall. I was curious to see how far she'd come from the 1998 Raw Comedy final, and she didn't disappoint—my favourite kind of stand-up, weaving a thread of weirdness through her show, and revisiting early gags later on to tie it all together.

Others ranged from the good—Making Fish Laugh and Live Ghost Hunt—to the absolutely awful, mercifully unnamed here on the principle that if you can't say something nice, burn that pile of putrescence from your memory so that you might never think of it again, and for God's sake don't name it on your website where the performers will Google their way to it and sign you up for rhinoceros-porn spam in retribution.

Let's just say that the first of these started badly, stayed bad throughout, and didn't finish well; halfway through I was thinking to myself, "We were actually laughing more just sitting around talking at home." When your scripted and rehearsed act gets less laughs than four friends shooting the breeze, you're in big trouble. Another just ran out of steam, and its leads were too derivative of the high-profile duo with whom they were compared on their flier. And the last was even worse, reeking of self-indulgence and an elitist attitude towards the audience's plebian desire for jokes; anti-comedy of the most painfully unfunny kind.

But let us lobotomize those braincells and turn to the real reason for this entry, which is to plug my friends' show.

Okay, so there's a glaring conflict of interest here; I'm interested in seeing The Wicker Woman get full houses for the rest of its entire run, and if you don't agree there'll be conflict.

All I can say is, between this year, last year, and the year before, I've seen a hell of a lot of shows at the Fringe, and this is among the best. Their first outing together, Gladiatrix, was good stuff, but this is a real improvement: bigger and better props, a cracking script, and even more comedy value from three excellent performers. Where Gladiatrix had one strong lead and two supporting roles, The Wicker Woman has three strong leads, and is all the funnier for it.

Dare I say Perrier? Better not push my luck. But The Wicker Woman is just as funny as the show that won a couple of years ago, and given that the Perrier went to a stand-up last year just might get a look-in. It certainly deserves a nomination; and it definitely deserves full houses.


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