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.

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