Edinburgh Festival 2011: Sammy J & Randy in Ricketts Lane

Sammy J & Randy in Ricketts Lane ****

Udderbelly’s Pasture, Cowbarn. 6pm

Great dialogue is like stardust. It’s rare and precious; it can do amazing things, even when it’s embedded in a simple or unimpressive plot.

For instance: even today, I can sit through episodes of Friends, despite hating their ubiquity. Blame dialogue, folks. For all their flaws, the people writing Friends knew how to make a conversation go ‘zing’.

Sammy J and Randy are ahead of the game, because they’ve got brilliant, natural, bantering, bitching, buzzy and downright weird dialogue all throughout their show… And they haven’t neglected the other aspects of the production to get there.

The title characters are respectively a ‘shit-kicking tax lawyer’ and an unemployed, divorcee, alcoholic, purple puppet. Yes, puppet. In addition to being a show-piece for fabulous dialogue, this is also a puppet show.

We follow them on their journey through a turbulent time in their friendship – in order to make something of himself in the legal game, Sammy J must prosecute his muppet-like friend for tax fraud – but mostly, we just sit back and enjoy the authentic, funny interactions of two friends and flatmates. I shared a flat happily for years with a good friend; part of my affection for this show is based on the skilful way it captures the joyous and idiosyncratic dynamic that can exist between two guys who spend rather too much time living in each other’s pockets. Well, that and the songs.

Yes, songs. On top of the repartee and puppetry, this show is also a musical. A proper musical, rather than a comedy with songs, because those songs are woven deftly into the experience – rather than dumped in so that an egotistical comedian can show off his additional talents by playing guitar for a spell.

There are great comic ideas throughout and – like the show itself – they become funnier as the performers’ groove becomes more familiar. I doubt I will encounter many more amusing concepts than Barack Obama’s ‘talking book’ tape of his own recipes at this festival: the greatest orator of our age sagely coaches Randy’s culinary efforts throughout the course of the hour.

Ricketts Lane achieves all of these things without ever taking itself too seriously. The primary impression these performers give is of loving their work and loving their working relationship. It comes across in the superb way they paint a friendship between such different characters; it’s evident in the good-humoured way they ad-lib themselves out of technical difficulties; it literally sings from the musical sections.

This production does several things very well, when any one of those things alone could have been the basis of a decent show. The dialogue, music and the puppet show aspect are all a cut above – and this excellent hour of entertainment should certainly make the cut for your Fringe viewing schedule.

Edinburgh Festival 2011: Andrew Bird’s Village Fete

Andrew Bird’s Village Fete ***

Gilded Balloon, Balcony. 7.30pm

It’s a tough old job, writing and performing a festival show; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

To pull together a really good festival show, you need more than the usual handful of pithy observations that a performer might trot out at the Royal Variety Show. You need a theme – and one which is strong enough and relevant enough to your material, that it can transform 60 minutes of jokes into a product worth more than the sum of its parts. By the end of a good festival show, the audience should feel like they’ve completed a journey: one which began with piqued interest, developed with the narrative and ultimately produced a satisfying sense of fulfilment and closure.

That’s not an insignificant artistic bar for a fringe hopeful to conquer… but even if they do so, there are other factors to consider as well. How the performer delivers the material, improvises in response to heckles and reaction, surfs the mood of the crowd and – crucially – handles the atmosphere of the venue will decide whether even the most meticulously planned show lives or dies.

Now that part, as we say in the industry, is really fucking hard.

It’s so hard, in fact, that precisely the same show can be a triumph one evening and a debacle the next. Only the best performers can consistently tease the audience into the right zone, making a show feel spontaneous but producing the same atmosphere night after night.

On one hand, Andrew Bird can certainly tell a joke; he has a likeable manner; he possesses a willingness to engage with the crowd that some performers lack.

On the other hand, the premise of his show is slightly too thin; the material, which is a little patchy, feels as if it’s been forced to fit the theme rather than providing the inspiration for it; and he isn’t quite adept enough to maintain momentum throughout the performance.

This show is themed around the idea that Andrew, having grown up in the country, then escaped in his early twenties to London to evade the clutches of terminal boredom, is beginning to reassess the charms of a traditional English village as he awaits the birth of his first child. To do this,  he has decided to expose us to the unusual perspectives of village-dwellers, by reading out various items which made the front pages of the ‘Farthingstone Newsletter’.

I’ve seen this kind of ‘culture clash humour’ before and enjoyed it, but on this occasion it struggled. Too often, Bird would incredulously exclaim that the Parish Council were seeking a ‘Tree Inspector’, or that residents were worried about cars travelling faster than 20mph through the village, then simply gape at us as if the thing were its own punchline; the trouble was, nothing was quite bonkers enough to really get us guffawing. When confronted with a tepid reaction from the audience, with the realisation that reading out a missive from the Vicar was not going to bring the house down, Bird often looked momentarily stranded – where a more experienced performer might have saved the moment with an ad-lib and whizzed on to the next gag.

This isn’t to say that there was no strong element; in fact, what frustrated me about this show were the flashes of good crowd interaction, the strong stories from Bird’s own childhood and the occasionally excellent improvisations. I laughed frequently, albeit not frequently enough. This guy has ‘it’, he just doesn’t show enough of ‘it’.

If I had an opportunity to see Andrew Bird next year, with a new show and another year’s experience, I think I’d take it. But for now, he’s lacking a little bit of polish – and while he isn’t bad,  if you’ve got a window to go and see a show, there are options with a distinctly brighter sheen.

Edinburgh Festival 2011: Andrew Lawrence: The best-kept secret in comedy

Andrew Lawrence: The best-kept secret in comedy****

Pleasance Courtyard, Cabaret Bar. 8pm

I confess, I’m a slightly picky character when it comes to comedy. I don’t like artists who rehash, in truly uninspiring fashion, comedy memes from decades past. I don’t like performers who are clearly angling, with their festival show, for a 7.30pm slot on Saturday night telly. I don’t like comedians who play safe.

Andrew Lawrence is not safe.

Andrew Lawrence does not fit the profile of a Saturday night family entertainer.

Andrew Lawrence is, instead, the authentic master of the rant. He is the man who can say a dreadful thing, a thing which revels in cruelty and unchecked venom. He is the man who can make that venomous pronouncement not simply funny, but darkly, cacklingly hilarious.

This is the fourth year I’ve been coming to see Mr Lawrence at the Fringe. He’s like an addiction. Darkness will do that to a certain kind of audience – and Lawrence is certainly unrivalled in that respect.

I wept with black laughter as he enacted one of his signature imagined dialogues, in which he speculated on the horrible, horrible things that might happen to people who text during his shows.

Last year, Andrew made his pitch at the big time, trading up to his biggest venue yet and appearing on the infamous Macintyre’s Comedy Roadshow. The show was less edgy than in previous years, but still amongst the very best on offer at the Fringe. I hoped that he would do well for himself, even as I acknowledged that explosive success would probably force him to water down that macabre secret formula which made him so compelling to watch.

This year, Andrew is back in the same venue, Pleasance’s Cabaret Bar. He hasn’t exploded; even a slightly toned down performance was, perhaps, still too much for general audiences. But as uncharitable as it may be to say this, part of me is glad. It means I get to treasure his shadowy delights for one more year.

And trust me, he does delight. In this year’s show, the baby boomer generation are excoriated for destroying our collective futures in the service of their own personal wealth accumulation. Children of Edinburgh are tortured, that they might learn a simple truth: “Life is hard, my friend.” Mr Lawrence righteously exposes the disappointing detail of his own sex life in order to put straight a group of witless, BMX-riding teens. He relates these exchanges in a lightning interchange of impersonated voices, delivering precisely crafted passages of dialogue to our waiting ears as if they had been vomited spontaneously from a simmering vat of rage and misanthropy concealed within his ribcage.

Andrew doesn’t quite hit the extreme heights of his earlier years, which is all that prevents me from giving him top marks. However, I still wholeheartedly recommend him to those of you who prefer your laughs to be of the bleaker, blacker variety. Success could strike a man as talented as this at any time; see him now, while his edge is still sharp.

Edinburgh Festival 2011: Bring me the head of Adam Riches

Bring me the head of Adam Riches *****

Pleasance Courtyard, Upstairs. 4.45pm

I first encountered the force of nature that is Adam Riches 12 months ago, when I discovered, to my horror, that the show I had agreed to book for my first corporate day of the season didn’t start its run until later in August.

“Right!” I exclaimed, entering crisis-management mode. “I need another show at Pleasance Courtyard, around 4pm. Anything. What have you got?” At that moment, I would have taken shadow-puppetry performed by schoolchildren; what I got instead was character-based sketch comedy that didn’t simply involve the audience, but positively wove them into its fabric.

12 months on, Adam has delivered another superb piece of interactive comic theatre. From his opening gambit, a talent manager on steroids, the tone is set: this show is going to be over the top and we, the audience, had better get used to the idea.

We’d also better adjust to the notion that any one of us could be wrenched from our seat to become a supporting character, a human prop, or anything in-between. Riches doesn’t ask us where we come from, or how long we’ve been in our relationship… he forces us to play ‘extreme swingball’ in the dark with a maniacal caricature of Rafa Nadal, or to bodily hurl Daniel Day-Lewis into the front row of the audience.

This trope is fundamental to Riches’ shows. Creating a chain of idiosyncratic personas is something that, in fairness, a number of talented performers could manage. But to oblige us, without warning, to interact with these characters on stage is what makes the experience so involving and hilarious. Riches doesn’t ask permission. He simply drags the terrified denizens of the front row into the glare of the lights, or casually soaks us with a water rifle. We are never in any doubt that, where other performances are confined to the stage, this one is capable, nay likely, to walk up and sit in our lap with a terrifying grin on its face.

Perhaps I’ve made this experience sound somewhat invasive… but if so, I must emphasise this performer is able to get away with a little invasion, simply because the show is such incredibly good fun. The characters are extreme, but delightfully, Riches doesn’t get lost in them; he frequently breaks the fourth wall to criticise his extras, or the sound technician, or to gripe about how much a prop cost him. As a result, we feel that the experience is a one-off, that tomorrow’s show won’t be quite the same as this even if the set pieces are similar. It’s joyous.

If you can get yourself to Pleasance Courtyard this August, try to do so in the late afternoon and squeeze in this superb show. My only advice: if you don’t want to be the one riding a lizard, queue up early and get a seat near the back.

A blogging transplant

Hello folks.

Until recently, I’ve been blogging on the “A Man’s a Man” site, an alternative digital men’s magazine. Since the editor of the site has lassoed a dream job in London, it will unfortunately be closing its virtual doors… but I’ve decided to perform open-blog-surgery and move my historical and future columns to a new home on this page.

I’ll be writing mostly about the critical things in my life:

  • Parenthood, which is currently impending
  • Gaming, which is a lifelong passion
  • Politics and Philosophy, in a ridiculously amateurish way
  • The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which I discovered late in life and now feel terribly involved with

Cool stuff is also likely to make an appearance, as and when it rears its head.

Over the next couple of days, I’ll be posting my historical columns to this blog, then following them up with new material as it surfaces. Hopefully you’ll have some fun reading them – I certainly enjoy it from the other side of the keyboard.