Fringe the Front

You thought it was going to be “Fringe the Furred”, didn’t you. And it was, except that the performers I’m about to review have shaved.

On Thursday night we strode out in the refreshing drizzle to a part of town we hadn’t been to after dark for a while, ever since the Clerk Street Odeon closed last year. Edinburgh’s loss was the Fringe’s gain, because this year it’s being used as a venue, the Pod Deco, with the box office where the ticket booth used to be and a bar where you used to buy popcorn. Whether it’s around next year is in doubt, because the owners want to turn it into flats. (No natural light, but room for the world’s biggest flat-screen TV!) It makes a good venue, though, because unlike the Pleasance it actually has decent air-conditioning.

We were there to see Richard Herring in one of the smaller cinemas, um, venues. Being slightly early, we were shepherded into the front row, a place I normally avoid. You never know what these comedic types might get up to. Particularly when you’ve never seen them perform before. Most of the audience would have remembered Herring from his 1990s TV series, but those never made it to Oz; and I missed his Edinburgh shows in 2001 and 2002. I like his diary, though, so was curious to see how it transferred to the stage.

Pretty well, as it turned out. Herring’s autobiographical show was inspired by a childhood obsession with number-plate spotting which led to an attempt to match the twelve tasks of Hercules. Dave Gorman territory, then, although that’s no slight as far as I’m concerned. Herring brought his own stamp to quest-based comedy, even performing a heroic feat on stage (reciting fifty names and dates from memory, in order), and the gags about Hercules and the King of Argos were fun. At the end of the show he pointed out the essential difference between Hercules’ tasks and his own more modest achievements: Herring is real. To prove it, he reached out his hand for someone in the front row to touch. So I can speak from experience (for yea, it was I): Herring is real. And really very funny.

The next evening I met a friend at the Edinburgh Playhouse—no makeshift venue this time—to see Ricky Gervais’s only night at the Fringe. Another friend had queued for tickets when they went on sale on Monday, and as we made our way into the stalls we realised how early he must have been in line. The “A” seats were in the front row, and 27 and 28 were right in the middle.

So we had some of the best seats in the house to see the man behind the best sitcom for years. Having actually seen this one, I was even more curious to see how Gervais would translate to stage.

We had to wait a while, as his friend and fellow comedian Robin Ince did a half-hour support slot. A difficult gig, being the unknown before the big name, but he handled it well, getting some good laughs.

Then it was the screeching maniac himself, introduced by a short film set outside the Houses of Parliament. “Politics is everywhere...”—cut to a London bus—“Transport...”—cut to an ambulance—“NHS...”—cut to a school—“Education—teachers moaning and that...”

The subject was politics, but nothing as predictable as the Tony and Dubya show. This was the politics of the everyday, with Gervais questioning the morals of fables and fairytales (lazy mouse and industrious mouse; the ridiculousness of sending all the King’s horses to put together an egg, when they don’t even have fine motor skills), and reflecting on his political outlook as a student. We got jokes about mistaking Schindler’s List for a porn video, and leaflets of safe-sex tips that sounded like recipes. Only once did he misstep, to my mind, with a sniggering joke about the gay age of consent.

So, was he funny? Does he cut it as a stand-up? Yes, and yes again. There was a lot of Gervais in David Brent, and those same traits and mannerisms show up (and are just as hilarious) here—but unlike his most famous creation, Gervais’s pretensions to comic greatness are justified. Imagine Brent with self-awareness and good material, and you’re pretty much there. It made for one of the funniest shows of the Fringe so far; and we all got a souvenir DVD instead of a programme. Bonus.

Finally, last night Jane and I queued up on George Street for the returning king of last year’s Fringe, Demetri Martin. We couldn’t repeat the thrill of discovering him before everyone else in Edinburgh, but were looking forward to it just the same. And forward to it, and forward to it, because the show started 25 minutes late. Turns out his plane was delayed.

It didn’t spoil the experience, though. Martin’s show was clever and entertaining, if a little too dependent on its “spiral bound” concept. Its account of the rise and fall of his first marriage actually answered some of the questions we had after last year’s show, which was satisfying. If it didn’t quite match that one for laughs and surprises, maybe it was just that the freshness of discovery was gone.

My only real complaint was feeling that it was too short; when I looked at my watch at the end, only 45 minutes had passed since the lights went down. Perhaps he dropped some of the material because of the late start? Martin apologized afterwards for some of the technical hitches (which weren’t that bad), and said to come back at the end of the run to see it all working better. I’d like to, but it’s not really going to happen. But I don’t doubt that this already good show will be even better once he’s settled into his run.

15-16 August 2004