Trying to keep a sharp eye on both theatre and comedy in Edinburgh leads to a crazy squint at the best of times. For me this year, it's even more insane. Literally the moment I got up the stairs of my Edinburgh digs, I received a phone call inviting me on to the panel of the Perrier comedy awards. Now, increasingly on the Fringe, theatre tends towards afternoon slots, comedy towards the evening. But the International Festival continues to be an evening-centred affair, so that I knew most of my prime-time comedy zones this week would be spent in plush upholstery watching Japanese Noh plays or the like. Consequently, we arranged a week-long comedy blitz to get as much Perrier potential as possible under my belt before the schedule grew problematic. A typical day – last Friday, in fact – unfolded as follows:
1045: Phone through verdicts on previous day's shows, receive today's schedule: six shows in eight and a half hours. A relatively late start gives me time to write up some reviews and wrestle once again with my laptop's Internet connection.
1500: Sitting in the bar of the Underbelly, waiting for my first show of the day, I watch comedian Lucy Porter animatedly quizzing a couple of punters about the glittery nail polish they're applying. Lucy's toes need redoing, apparently. The show, Howard Read's The Little Howard Appeal, is a technical marvel in which Read is the straight-man to a computer-animated six-year-old version of himself, but is so tech-reliant that it seems to me to have little to do with live comedy. Walk to Princes Street with Lucy: me to Marks & Spencer to buy socks, she to Superdrug for that glittery nail polish.
1800: Halfway through Dan Tetsell's show Sins Of The Grandfathers, I have a shocking realisation. It's magnificent stuff: Tetsell looks more like a comedy writer (which he is) than a performer, but he has a fine instinct for underplaying, subverting and otherwise torquing his material. This is family-autobiography comedy, and its hook is about as compelling and yet potentially humour-unfriendly as you can get: it's about his grandfather, who served in the Waffen SS. He sets up one gag by remarking, "The Nazis are here with us now"; it suddenly occurs to me that, contrary to the byline picture above this column, I'm wearing my new summer look, and as a result I am a huge, totally shaven-headed man in braces, sitting taking notes enthusiastically throughout a show about Nazism. I'd raise my hand to be excused, but it might well be misinterpreted.
1930: Bilious Celtic one-liner of the day, in Caimh McDonnell's sub-Dave Gorman show Futureshock (take an idea, embark on lots of investigative trips and challenges with a wacky flatmate, and present the results on stage with Microsoft PowerPoint): McDonnell describes someone as so miserly that "he'd blind himself just to get a free dog". In the previous show, Tetsell has also used a projector, but acerbically parodied Gorman by presenting a "Number of graphs used in this show" graph, consisting of a single bar rising from 0 to 1 on the Y-axis.
2110: Am finally able to move again, having sat almost immobile throughout Miles Jupp's show Young Man In A Huff. It took me a while to tune into Jupp's persona of the wealthy young fogey inveighing against "the modern world, this dark abyss full of ready meals and Ant & Dec", but his peculiarly English brand of sarcasm wins me round. However, the 1950s-style tube-steel-and-plywood chair I'm perched on emitted a terrifying crack at the beginning of the show, and I've been frozen ever since for fear it might disintegrate altogether under me. These chairs and I have a history, so I take no chances, and opt to look like an unimpressed git throughout Jupp's set rather than risk going sprawling.
2230: Glad I didn't sit in front for Steve Hughes's show Wake Up, in the Baby Belly Caves further down Cowgate. His pre-show audio mix includes extracts from Apocalypse Now: imagine if he'd walked on to the stage to find himself confronted by the Colonel Kurtz lookalike I currently am. Half an hour later, though, Hughes is wishing he too could terminate with extreme prejudice: his tightly-argued set has gone into meltdown thanks to the interruptions of a couple of cretins who are too drunk to realise when he repeatedly takes the piss out of them. He tries explaining to them in words of one syllable; venue security try sitting with them to keep them quiet; in the end, they're ejected, to applause. Then they try to fight their way back in. Hughes is badly shaken; he gets back on track, more or less, but it would be unfair to judge him solely on the basis of this ordeal. I decide to recommend a second opinion, Perrier-wise.
2330: Hughes' experience could be blamed on particular individuals; much more surreal is this hour with Jason Rouse, a young Canadian whose shtick is extreme bad-taste patter. There are barely 20 of us in the 100-seater Pleasance Upstairs space; Rouse gets nervous and self-conscious, tanks much of his prepared material and just starts working the room, like a bizarre combination of Henry Rollins and Julian Clary. His first audience "mark" is comedy paydirt: a camp, kilt-wearing Portuguese guy who teaches ice-skating in Texas. Then he finds a group of middle-aged men led by a sauna owner who answers questions with the evasive menace of someone who may not, say, be terribly active in the local Rotary Club. Finally, he spots me taking notes: "I'm guessing you're a reviewer? Who do you write for?" It always gets a laugh when I tell them. Through Herculean efforts, Rouse does almost the full scheduled hour, but I've no idea how to mark the show out of ten.
0200: In Brooke's Club for performers and parasites in the Pleasance Dome, I've been unwinding, providing a quote for one comedian to put on her flyers, offering to buy an old prop off another comic, trading memories of 24-hour play The Warp with a third. As I weave unsteadily home, I hear a typical Edinburgh complaint waft out of another club's doorway: "But we got five stars last year!" That's, in the words of Esther Rantzen, life.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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