This article was originally published on Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 in Culture Bomb ~

By Robert Bayley

It’s something amusing itself, that the biggest comedy festival in the world began on the fringe of the world’s biggest arts festival.

But it’s a long time since those unwelcomed but enterprising performers set up their own festival at the edges of the still simultaneously running Edinburgh International Festival. Since then it’s ballooned into a citywide month of fun and chaos run by many different companies, small and massive (a fact which Stewart Lee decries, despite still finding it in himself to play the Assembly Rooms, one of the biggest venues there is) vying for your attention.

After virtually unstoppable growth however, the recession’s finally hit over half a decade late. As Richard Herring himself put it “everyone is having a hard time”.

However that didn’t stop any of the fun and the situation seemed to allow the locals to make their presence felt more than in 2011. Being one of them, this reviewer managed to get more than a fair share of the acts in and as ever, they were mostly top quality.

Matt Forde was an easy early choice. While a cult figure in radio for some years now, last year his debut show Dishonourable Member was a comic tour de force worthy of those who have been in the biz years. New show Eyes to the Right, Nose to the Left was another well crafted performance, less reliant on media  and even more confident. It’s great to see him build on his initial success with another assured, funny, clever show that merges Blairite politics with football fanaticism.At the opposite end of the spectrum are true cult-comedy figures, Peacock and Gamble.

Boiling the dynamic down Ray Peacock is a mad, hyperactive toddler-man, a beserk Bobby Ball prone to bouts of political incorrectness under the supervision of bemused and increasingly emotional Ed Gamble. But this would not do justice to the sublime silliness of their set. Structured around their determination to show how desperately they don’t want to be on tele , interspersed with the finest deconstruction of the modern comedy set, inspired slapstick and the ultimate anti-ventriloquist puppet, Naughty Keith (catchphrase “PISS”), who has to be seen to be believed,  Don’t Even Want to be on Tele Anyway is absurdity at its finest.

Equally absurd was the Vaudeville Nouveau group Sound and Fury‘s Doc Faustus. They managed todeliver an engaging show with some solid laughs and superb improvisation. Unfortunately the clear moments of improv were so funny that scripted punch-lines often fell a little short of the through-lines.One of the performers doing well was Nina Conti and her show Dolly Mixtures, selling out enough times for her to put on an additional show. While there was less of Monk than usual, Conti chose not to play the safe card and sidelined her depressed monkey as a compere allowing her other characters, Gran and the Polish Builder, to shine in particular. It was an expectedly classily vulgar and professional show.

Over in the Assembly Rooms Music Hall, Stewart Lee’s Carpet Remnant Worlddemonstrated just why this man has such a following without ever having appeared on panel shows. It was a magnificently well judged show that managed to incorporate the actual physical space he was using and demographics of audience that would fill it while fitting in his brand of biting comedic reconstruction and arch subversion of viewpoints. Everyone should see Stewart Lee once.

Another comic everyone should see and, happily enough, the other half of the former Lee & Herring, Richard Herring upsized to play the New Temple of the Fringe, the Udderbelly. Popularly known as ‘The King of Edinburgh’ this time of year, Herring rejigged his old show into Talking Cock: The Second Coming, a discussion of all things penis. Despite not being nearly as good as his show last year, through crudity, bad puns and an unmatched machinegun rate of jokes Herring managed to make some clever, thoughtful and astute points on masculinity and sexual equality.Similar in style to Stewart Lee, Mary Bourke presented an enjoyably subversive set, vicious and acidic monologues playing against her appearance and mannerisms. So confusing was this mismatch it was almost unsettling and by the end one couldn’t help but wonder if she really is a little bit psycho.

Altogether more warm and welcoming however was a truly brilliant set from Bec Hill. A fabulously spritely and mirthsome show from the quirky Australian had the crowd quickly warm to her infectious personality. It was also a set packed with great media and some truly creative and brilliant flipcharts that, again, have to be seen to be believed. With some of the best audience participation I have seen, Bec Hill and her show Bec Hill is More Afraid of You than You are of Her are to be kept an eye on.

Bec Hill’s rejected tampon advertIt seemed 2012 really was the year of media at the fringe. Steve N Allen was reliant on it when performing his constantly mutating Some New,s taking news stories that couldn’t have been written pre-fringe and weaving them into his relaxed, down-to-earth show. No shocked gasps or screaming laughter, but that wasn’t the point. A thoroughly enjoyable hour delivered with warmth.

The same can’t be said of Richard Coughlan. Every proper fringe experience should include some gambles and the Free Fringe is often the best bet to indulge this. This reviewer hadn’t heard of Richard Coughlan before and was intrigued by his show’s name Eat a Queer Foetus for Jesus. The ploy certainly worked but it’s not comedy for the faint of heart. There were plenty of walkouts and it did what it said on the tin. While some of the early material is staid and it does have the tendancy to topple into preachiness, it is a mildly rewarding show about his struggles with abortion and drugs.

But for every good gamble there is a bad one. Staggering into something staggeringly awful is part of a true Fringe experience and Back to the Future: The Pantomime was just that. Dreck that trades entirely off hijacking the good name of a classic film, it’s a horribly misjudged show from start to finish. With embarrassing sets, saggy acting, no timing at all, zero internal logic and terribly misjudged humour which thrusts a dildo into a family orientated show, literally. This is why copyright enforcement is a good thing. Atrocious.

Luckily other gambles paid off nicely, with a Monkey Toast being a gently enjoyable, if not as astute and cutting as it could be a chat show. The conceit is that improv players create sketches based on guest’s (usually comedian’s) answers. It’s a pleasant alternative to the usual late shows.

2012 was though a confirmation in the change of power in late shows. Former reigning champion Late N’ Live seemed to be a victim of its own success, drawing in crowds intrigued by this raucous  institution and thus leaving a mostly tame crowd with subpar acts. The real fun is now to be had at The Late Show where a decent amount of the crazier late night crowds have moved, and showcasing more of the quality acts in Edinburgh.

The height of improv this year was from Austentatious, an improvised Jane Austen novel based entirely on audience suggestions. Complete with cello accompaniment the cast were nothing short of flawless and this is something TV producers would do well to watch. Banter was tighter than some scripted shows and the comedic acting was top notch.The highlight of the Fringe however? For me it was joint between Peacock and Gamble and the meteoric Seann Walsh. Already on his way to being a major name , in a year where media-centric acts dominated it was great to see someone  take something as traditional as physical comedy and as fashionable-to-dismiss as observational material and show why they are such cornerstones of the format. Faultless, self effacing manner and perfect timing make Walsh someone to see before you need to sit in front of your TV to do so. Wonderful, rapturous stuff.

So, what was Edinburgh 2012? It was the year media-based acts really shone and demonstrated this subgenre has grown beyond being a crutch for average comedy.  But it’s also the year where ‘old hat’ comedy was brusquely span about and made fresh and funny. But its mainly the year where we learned that if you make an iconic movie, you should keep a very close eye on who uses its name.

By RJ Bayley

What are you favourite Fringes? Let me know in the comments below!
You can follow RJ Bayley on Twitter: @RJBayley
and for more articles follow Goats In The Machine on Twitter: @GoatsInMachine
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Greg Davis the back of my mum's head

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  1. vikingpip says:

    Was such a fun adventure 🙂

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