Edinburgh Festival 2012: Gráinne Maguire, “Where are all the fun places and are lots of people there having better fun?” ***

Underbelly Bristo Square: Daisy, 4.20pm

Gráinne opens her show with a question: “How do you do it? How do you stay in character for a whole hour?”

For the avoidance of doubt, she’s not grilling the audience; this is a query commonly directed at her and she seems a little put out by it. “This is the real me,” she explains, “I’m not a crazy character invented for comedy. I actually live this way.”

Well, dear reader, that’s fine – because an hour in Gráinne’s company is more rewarding than one spent with many of the ‘hilarious’ caricatures which populate the smaller venues of the Edinburgh Festival.

Ms Maguire’s material starts out a little shaky, but perhaps that’s a function of playing in Daisy, one of the most intimidating rooms on the fringe.

There is, if my experience playing music is anything to go by, a kind of inverse relationship between the size of crowd one has to perform for and the difficulty of doing so. In a huge, packed venue, the faces of the audience become a blur and simply their presence in numbers becomes a reassuring endorsement of what you’re doing on stage; in a tiny venue, each individual is terribly close and distinct, their facial expressions communicating in real time how well (or otherwise) you’re doing.

In this kind of venue, a performer has to work hard to get the laugh engine kick-started, to build some atmosphere, or that tiny audience will start to feel as if someone has barged into their living room asserting loudly that they’re great and everyone should watch them. That’s not a comfortable spot to be in.

That being the case, Gráinne must have been pretty pleased at the escalating level of response she extracted from an initially slow crowd. After introducing herself to the subdued group packed into this claustrophobic room, she pushed gamely through the undergrowth of their scepticism to establish her theme. Then, with a flourish, she flipped the balance of their mood with a quirkily-delivered pastiche of Coyote Ugly; hammering home her advantage, she pulled out a perfectly-pitched character assassination of the nation’s sweethearts before ending on some superb material about her visit to the Labour Party conference (no, honestly. The actual Labour conference. And it was excellent).

A show founded on the idea that we spend life worrying about missing out on experiences, whilst failing to appreciate those we’re already living, could not have unfolded more poetically. While this crowd might have spent the first 10 minutes asking themselves if better shows were playing in parallel at other venues, they warmed up, as Gráinne has, to the idea of living in the moment.

There are other places, yes, but perhaps the people there are faking those smiles and secretly regretting their attendance. In Gráinne’s show, we discover the ‘girl next door’ cliche in comedy form: what we were watching was great fun all along.

Edinburgh Festival 2012: Mark Watson’s ‘Edinborolympics’ ***

Pleasance Courtyard: Beyond, 11.00pm

Let’s be clear from the outset: this is not a comedy show.

It’s fronted by a well-known comedian, features a rotating cast of other international comedians and is staged in a renowned comedy venue.

But it’s not comedy. Really, it’s just a bit of a lark.

The premise is simple if bizarre: in honour of the recently completed London 2012 Olympic Games, Mark Watson invites 3 comedians to each show to represent their countries in a series of arbitrary and nonsensical events. At the conclusion of each event, the participants are awarded a Gold, Silver or Bronze medal (worth 3, 2 and 1 points respectively); at the end of the show, the competitor with the highest points total wins the day for their countrymen, to a rousing rendition of their national anthem.

If it sounds structured, don’t be fooled. It’s shambolic in execution, albeit charmingly so.

I’m no fan of Mark Watson under normal circumstances. His rambling delivery tends to irritate me, but here it seems ideally suited to proceedings. Where his nervous excitement can feel artificial in a stand-up performance, it’s all too believable as he watches his guest performers risk life, limb and Pleasance’s Health & Safety record time and again for the glory of Gold… or at least a crude yellowy icon on the PowerPoint slide which forms the evening’s centrepiece.

And the risks are real, let me assure you. After the first event, a 100m crawl (on hands and knees across the stage and back) I was expecting a range of sedate events; just a few minutes later, I watched agape as the contestants hurled apples toward an audience member on stage from near the back of the room.

The hard green projectiles whistled a scant few inches over the heads of the assembled crowd, as each comedian in turn tried to land a direct strike on the head of that poor, centrally-placed unfortunate. Admittedly, he wore a yellow hard hat, but that seemed little comfort as inaccurate attempts rained blows on his abdomen.

Still, it was worth it to hear the explosive roar of the crowd when Des Bishop nailed a direct hit from around 50 yards. We who were there will doubtless recount the story to our children (although likely as a warning about participating in a live performance organised by a group of slightly drunk and/or hysterical men).

This event felt like improv, but without the tightness and polish one might expect from a truly good improv show. It meandered a little, the energy levels dipped and rose in a way that revealed how little effort had gone into managing them… but there was enough spontaneous fun that this lack of cultivation didn’t sink the show.

I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch one of the remaining Edinborolympics performances, but if you were already in Pleasance to see a very good show and wanted to prolong the experience, you could do worse with £7 than check in with Watson and co.

Just a word of advice: if they start chucking apples, be prepared to duck.

Edinburgh Festival 2012: Andrew Lawrence, “Andrew Lawrence is coming to get you” ****

Pleasance Courtyard: One, 8.50pm

Andrew Lawrence’s bilious hatred of humanity and all its tiny component individuals is intense, evergreen and hilarious.

I could probably end my review there and still feel like I’d done enough to convince you to visit Pleasance Courtyard and spend an hour in his company; that would be folly, as every year I shout from the rooftops that the world should go to see him and so far, large swathes of earth’s population have not done so. To make such an omission because you are based on another continent is tragic but understandable; to do so when his show is geographically convenient should be illegal.

This is the fifth consecutive year that Andrew and I have shared a precious hour together. I’ve watched him graduate from venue to larger venue, heard him lament his own lack of career success bitterly even as I prayed that the lightning-strike of mega-fame would not dilute his brilliance and make a Peter Kay of him. Perhaps it should disturb a secular chap like myself, but so far those ‘prayers’ appear to have been answered. Even a burgeoning television career hasn’t changed Andrew: he is as bleak and excoriating as ever. This warms my black, black heart.

In 2012, he has produced yet another show filled with entirely original material, leading me to reflect on his exceptional level of creativity and consistency. There are few performers I would see three times in a row, fewer still whom I could rely upon to be entertaining by the the end of that third visit. Here, by comparison, is a man who continues to delight me after half a decade of repeat viewings.

Under Andrew’s microscope this year are variously:

  • Shop assistants in clothing stores
  • Smug lottery winners
  • Popular platitudes
  • His agents
  • The commissioning Editors of BBC3
  • Various members of his audience
  • Scottish people
  • Himself
  • His mother

…and no-one is spared the rod.

I always try to avoid exposing the material, lest you be minded to actually take my advice and see the show, but when a comedian is prepared to question his audience about their underlying desire to kill themselves, then subsequently exhort them and provide a compelling case to do so, you know you’re in for a dark ride.

One of the people with whom I saw the show rather elegantly summed up why I will never stop recommending Andrew Lawrence. “He was very funny,” she told me, “but some of it was just too much. Much too dark for me.”

Well, not too dark for me, thank you very much. If you don’t like the idea that the face of the Abyss itself is going to stand on stage and laugh blackly at you, don’t watch this show; for my part, I’d book my tickets for next year today if I could.

Bon appetit.

Edinburgh Festival 2012: David O’Doherty, “Seize the David O’Doherty” ****

Pleasance Courtyard: One, 7.20pm

As someone who prides himself on knowing his way around the Festival, it’s a bit embarrassing to make this next admission: until this year, I had never seen David O’Doherty.

That’s a pretty big miss -and it’s not like I have an excuse. Friends far more fringe-savvy than I have, for years, been dropping his name into their lists of must see acts. I, for years, have been contriving to see other people instead.

How frustrating for them. I suppose they must feel just like I do, as less than 100% of the people I speak to each year go on to see Andrew Lawrence. What’s wrong with people?

Well, in this case I was the short-sighted buffoon who had dodged a seriously good performer for something like four years on the trot. In 2012, my guilt overcame me and I booked him, searching for comedy redemption.

I came to O’Doherty cold, without any real idea of his modus operandi. That was fortuitous, because it allowed me to emerge from his show like a critic who has seen an unheralded film and, unencumbered by preconceptions, found it to be excellent.

(Except, of course, that he was heralded. I was just being an idiot for 48 months.)

This show wove together a number of individually impressive elements, to create a charming, even touching aggregate experience. O’Doherty is a poetic soul, wounded by a failed relationship and intermittently singing us his wistful lament with the aid of a keyboard and some expertly pitched stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Between those musical interludes, he chats to us in a good natured way about the disappointments of his last year and the defining incident of domestic terror which inspired him to get back on the road.

I won’t spoil the show for anyone by exposing the substance of the anecdotes, but suffice to say I was wowed.

O’Doherty’s performance, for all the ‘impressive elements’ I mentioned earlier, is welded together by his personality: charming, melancholy and singularly lovable. I felt like I was watching the Adam Duritz of stand-up comedy, all perfectly chosen words, raw emotional wounds and frank honesty, delivered in such a way that you are willing him to the end and some enormous sing-along coda which heralds his resurgence.

A brief aside: It was very interesting for me to make comparisons between O’Doherty and the aforementioned Andrew Lawrence, whom I saw just 30 minutes later. Both are depressive comedians, but the Irishman is of the nostalgic and tender school where Lawrence is bleak and malevolent; if you have the time and the readies, I think that seeing them as a double-whammy is likely even more rewarding than either are alone.

Don’t make the same mistake I have, folks. Don’t ignore the chuckling, enthusiastic friends who tell you than David O’Doherty is more than worth the entry price, or the work colleague who raves on Monday morning about the feel-good show that made his weekend. Just short-circuit the whole, long-winded process and see the man before the festival ends in a week’s time.

Edinburgh Festival 2012: The Axis of Awesome, “Cry yourself a river” **

Pleasance Courtyard: Grand, 6pm

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.

Edinburgh Festival 2011: Rich Hall

Rich Hall ****

Pleasance Courtyard, Grand. 9.40pm

At last!

I’ve waited a very, very long time for this. I’ve suffered years of disappointment and heartache, wading through turgid, recycled humour from the likes of Stephen K Amos and Mark Watson, but I’ve finally reached the promised land.

I’ve seen a comedian in the Plesance Grand who was actually worth the money.

For those of you unfamiliar with the festival, let me appraise you of a depressing pattern which has emerged throughout all the Augusts past: when an act plays the biggest venues, that act is invariably rubbish. They’ve made it, we’ve already paid for our tickets… they don’t have to try anymore. The audience wants to be entertained? Fuck ‘em. They have can have some material Lenny Henry was doing word-for-word in 1986.

To Mr Rich Hall, I owe a debt of gratitude. Consider this an open letter.

Dear Sir,

You’ve broken my bad run, mate; smashed it, actually.

I had no real expectations for your show, but you started strong and deployed material that wasn’t simply fresh, but tailored specifically to Edinburgh. You still have the gift for delivering a wry, sadistically funny turn of phrase – a quality which was missing when I saw you last year – and you intertwined it with topical items about coalition politics, London Riots and Eton students killed by Polar Bears.

I enjoyed your celebration of all things Scottish – predictable, given my heritage – but was happy that it didn’t go too far and become a ‘sugar-blowing’ exercise. I was impressed by the natural, unfazed way in which you reacted to audience events (the mark of a true professional) and even if your ad libs are pre-worked, they don’t come across that way, which is a big plus.

Most of all, though, I enjoyed your decision to close with a ‘human shield’, making a momentary star of an otherwise ordinary man named John.

My seat was literally the most uncomfortable I have encountered all festival, but hey, I’m not blaming you for that. Maybe you could consider the Speigeltent next year, that’s all I’m saying.

Yours appreciatively,

Dave Shedden

In short, big names are almost obliged to disappoint. Rich Hall doesn’t give a toss for such sacred cows of tradition: instead, he puts on a good show and doesn’t leave us bitter about paying the big bucks. This is a banker, folks – and a good end to any night of Fringe revelry.