I have a tendency to adopt acts at the fringe.
Rather than throw myself full-pelt into an entirely different tasting platter of shows each year, I’ll revisit some of those performers who pleased me the most during festivals past. I think it’s understandable – humans generally like to repeat rewarding experiences.
However, in trying to do so, we will occasionally tarnish the memory of what has gone before; this was the tragic outcome of my trip to see musical comedy performers The Axis of Awesome in the Pleasance Grand last week.
Last year, in the Gilded Balloon, The Axis had it all to prove to me. I wanted to see if they were more than just the 4 chords song which had blazed its way around the internet: they were happy to reassure me with a succession of polished numbers which amused the whole of our large group. The secret? Their tunes were witty and well performed, but crucially they were accessible – they worked for a wide audience with a range of ages and pop-culture awareness.
This year’s show began with a reference to HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation. I laughed, because I could relate directly to the theme of the song, but others around me sat silent, having never watched the show or read the books. As the show developed, more references were thrown in which clearly limited the number people equipped to enjoy the songs in which they appeared. Dubstep, Hipster clothing and various other tropes familiar only to those of my generation and younger peppered the material.
The show was very clearly saying: if you’re older than 35, we really haven’t thought about you.
Now, let me pause a moment and be clear about something: I am not the guy who judges every comedian or troupe on the broadness of their appeal. Far from it, in fact – my pet hate is comedy designed to be ‘safe’ and ‘suitable for family viewing’.
However, in this case I think it’s a relevant criticism. All of The Axis’ songs which have had the biggest impact on me have been almost magical in their universality: 4 chords particularly works so well because it simultaneously references songs as old as I am and tunes released last week. When I laughed last year at ‘Floppy Guy’ and ‘Can you hear the f**king music coming out of my car” it was because the experience they drew on was one I had in common with the rest of the audience – we all laughed together and the atmosphere was vibrant and bouncy as a result. At this show, laughter broke out in pockets which chunks of the audience sat silent… a classic indicator that a performance is of the hit and miss variety.
I can sum up my frustration in one sentence: If you want to grow your audience, don’t make it harder to be one of them.
Moving into a much bigger venue, to a 6pm timeslot… these are indicators that you want to attract more people. To then present a show noticeably more niche than last year sends the message that you’re unsure, or conflicted, about what you are doing.
I would definitely see The Axis of Awesome again. However, I’ll only do it if time allows and if early reviews are good. They had my confidence and they squandered it; it will take a while – and a solid show – to rebuild.