Stand up comedian - improviser - writer
  • Report From The Edinburgh Fringe 2015

    Thu 03 Sep 2015  ·  3:42AM

    I’ve not been to the Edinburgh Fringe since 2011 – a trip I funded by burning through the last £300 of my uni savings, having just graduated that summer. The last few years have been a financial struggle that have kept me away from one of my favourite places in the world, but – finally – this year I was back!

    For the first time, I didn’t go alone. Mike & Allan (my cohorts from The Same Faces) were with me, and this was a genuine delight (even if they did immediately abandon me upon arrival in order to go to a rave. Yes, a rave. Apparently the 90s have only just reached them...).

    Previously, my Fringe trips have been a week long and solitary, which has allowed me to see 22 shows (in 2010) and 26 (in 2011); this time, however, with only a weekend and company to keep, I had to be more selective.

    There was only one show I knew I wanted to see (Aisling Bea’s Plan Bea – more on this later), so with our train tickets finally booked, I finally went searching through the Festival brochure a mere 36 hours before we departed. For anyone going to the Fringe with specific shows in mind – this is NOT a good strategy.

    One name leapt out at me, and was the first one I booked – Ed Byrne.

    I’ve been a fan of Ed’s for a very long time, and hadn’t seen him live since the Different Class tour. His latest show, Outside Looking In is another good one, and I can already sense where certain parts of it will expand when he goes off on tour and is no longer tethered to the Edinburgh-hour. Byrne has been a major influence on my own style, so it was amusing to see him do something I’ve done before, which is to turn his own reviews into material. This is all preamble though, as Byrne really gets cooking when he’s got an argument to win, and the routines about his son’s new trainers and “the moment you mess up a date without knowing it” are vintage Ed – funny, insightful, and with a point to make.

    While I say that was the first show I booked, it was actually the penultimate show I saw (on the Sunday night).

    The next show I booked was for a friend of mine, Jim Smallman, and was the first one I saw – I’d barely been in Edinburgh for 90 minutes by the time I sat down to watch it!

    Jim’s show this year was called My Girls and was my favourite of the three shows I’ve seen Jim do. It’s a really positive show about his wife and daughter, and it was really nice to see comedy about love. It’s a rare topic for the art form, because being happy doesn’t tend to provide the conflict required for jokes. Jim is such an able storyteller, though, that he can tell stories about his two girls in which they are the hero, rather than the cause of the conflict, and you’re cheering them on with him. I’m a big fan of this approach, as I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate with a friend of mine for a few years now – “can you do comedy about things that you like?” I say yes; he says no. Jim appears to have taken my side.

    Over the weekend, I wound up seeing Set List twice. The reason for this leads me into Aisling Bea’s show; as I say, I knew I wanted to see her show, but it was sold out – this is what happens when you book two days before you leave. I’d already booked to see Set List on the Saturday, but then saw a tweet stating that Aisling would be doing Set List on the Friday. Working on the assumption of “if I can’t see her show, at least I’ll be able to see her there”, I booked for a second time. This was in no way a waste, as Set List is a great format, and I was happy to see ten comedians play the game rather than just five. Well, call it nine. Tony Law was very, very drunk...

    If you’re unfamiliar with Set List, it’s improvised stand up. A comedian takes to the stage with no idea what they’re going to say, and are presented with five randomly chosen set list headings that they have to create comedy gold from. It really separates the comedians from the acts, as some performers who aren’t as strong off the cuff really struggle. Paul Foot & Simon Munnery, for example, each had a rough ride of things, whereas Mitch Benn and Ahir Shah breezed through the experience. Aside from Aisling, who – again – I will come back to, the stand out amongst the ten was another friend of mine, Milo McCabe. I didn’t know he was going to be on the bill, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see him – in character – take to the stage, and continue to provide evidence that he’s one of the best improvisers on the circuit. If you’ve never seen Milo, he does a lot of characters (one of his shows this year had 25 in it), and one of them – Philberto – remains the title holder of “best opening 20 minute set I’ve ever seen.” He’s well worth going to see if you ever get a chance.

    On the Saturday, myself, Mike & Allan went to see The Maydays at The Nursery Theatre’s venue. The Nursery was a great enterprise that was new this year – they’d teamed up with Freestival to host a venue programmed with nothing but improvisation. It was really nice, as it meant the King James hotel became a base for most of the city’s improvisers, and provided somewhere for us all to socialise. Hopefully this will continue to grow in years to come, as it’s a really great idea.

    The Maydays show was enjoyable. They were performing the long form format known as Armando, in which a word from the audience prompts a story from a performer, which prompts several scenes from the players. I’d been keen to see The Maydays, as I’d performed with one of their members – Heather Urquhart – at Improv Smackdown in Birmingham back in April. The Maydays are one of the most successful regional improv groups in the country (based in Brighton), so –as the director of The Same Faces – it was reassuring for me to watch their show and think, “yeah, we could mix it with them.” One of the issues with improv is it’s unlike stand up – you tend to be very isolated in your regional area, and often don’t have a sense of how good your group is in comparison to all of the others. I’ve been making an effort this year to meet as many new improvisers as possible, and gain a larger presence in Britain’s improv community – it’s a gradual process, but more on this later (full of delayed gratification, this post, isn’t it?).

    In the evening, I went to see another favourite comedian: Canadian wild-man, Craig Campbell.

    Annoyingly, due to the Assembly Rooms now having three different bases across the city, I managed to go to the wrong place, twice – both times directed there by Assembly Rooms’ employees (I also got shushed at the first wrong venue by Alastair McGowan, who was dressed as Jimmy Savile at the time, so I’m not really sure he had the moral high ground in that moment...).

    Still, when I eventually got there – 15 minutes late – I really enjoyed Craig’s show. The stories just seem to pour out of him so naturally; I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if he did a different show every night. To give you some perspective of how mad his show is, he spent a good 4 minutes (of the 45 I saw) singing R Kelly’s Ignition Remix a-cappella – one of the funniest things I’ve seen, and I’m not even sure why.

    On the Sunday, my evening show was that of the delightful Alun Cochrane.

    His is a much more gentle show than most at the fringe – still very funny, but more like watching cricket than the 100 metres; the pace is far less aggressive. I’ve never been to the Fringe without seeing Cochrane – he’s actually the only comedian to ever put me down after I accidentally heckled him in 2010 (I said a thing under my breath, which he heard because I was sat on the front row – idiot that I am). He’s another real favourite (bit of a theme in this blog, but again, I was only there for the weekend, so I had to see those who I knew I’d enjoy), and his shows are very much about the minutiae of life. He’s constantly analysing the audience reactions to gauge what they were enjoying, which I always find amusing. If you’ve never seen Cochrane, go and do it at your earliest convenience, because it’s always an enjoyable evening.

    Then came Ed Byrne, which would’ve been my final show, had I not seen that there were tickets for Alex Horne & The Horne Section still available as I was leaving the Gilded Balloon – so I went back in and bought one.

    It was a very daft show in which two comedians compete against each other at various tasks and quizzes in order to lift a trophy (before it’s promptly taken off them because they have to hand it out again the following night); all of this, plus the usual musical interludes from the ever-brilliant Horne Section. As it turned out, the comedians competing that evening were Joe Lycett (a delightful man who I know from the circuit, so a pleasure to see him), and – would you believe it – Aisling Bea. Sometimes fate is really determined to do you a favour. Aisling won in the end, but frankly, my highlight of that show was watching Joe perform the KC & The Sunshine Band classic, “That’s the way I like it”, with the revised lyrics “that’s the way Joe Lycett.” Solid punning (and a cunning advert for his own show).

    So, here’s the thing. As it turned out, this was actually the third time I’d seen Aisling perform over the weekend, because I did manage to get a ticket for her solo show in the end. It turns out, if you wander over to the box office about four hours before the show, they’ll tell you what time they’re going to release the unused press tickets. So I went back at that time and was first in the queue – success!

    Before I get into talking about the show, there are two issues I want to mention about the Gilded Balloon as a venue.

    1.         It’s an old building in Edinburgh that was designed to keep the heat in – consequently, it’s one of the hottest venues at the Fringe.

    2.         The seating is not laid out with your average 6’7” giant in mind. This left me essentially stuffed into the rows for Ed Byrne, Alex Horne, and Aisling Bea’s shows (for the latter of which I sat almost sideways in the chair with my legs in the aisle – wildly uncomfortable).

    Still, none of this detracted from my enjoyment of the show. Aisling’s done something with this hour that I’ve been trying to do with my stand up for the last few years – she’s created a piece that is fundamentally optimistic. Much like Jim Smallman’s show, I left full of hope, that even with some of the grosser elements of modern day culture, things are getting better – from Ireland being the first nation in the world where the people voted to legalise Equal Marriage, to growing up and idolising a world that seems bigger than your own (specifically America), to being able to bounce back from being public shamed. Bea illustrates this final point by telling the story of her first acting job out of drama school – playing a serving wench in a pirate rock video (which is alarmingly easy to find on YouTube, by the way). She tells this story in her typical bright and breezy way, which skilfully conceals a layer of pathos that I actually didn’t pick up on until two or three days after the show – what a drama graduate will consider doing for £80 is a hilarious example of what artistic people in desperate need will go through in order to make a living.

    I really enjoyed the show a lot, and it’s probably tied with Ed Byrne for my favourite of the weekend – clearly I have a weakness for the Irish; probably something to do with the Connor side of the family...

    However, my actual viewing highlight of the weekend was Aisling’s performance at Set List on the Friday night. Dear God, it was good. Like, really sensational. She was on third, and the first two acts had done reasonably well, but neither had lit the room on fire. Then Aisling came on and just ripped the place apart. I’ve been involved in improv – both watching and performing – for about 11 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like it. She took the first four topics and tap-danced through them as though she’d pre-written the material; so smooth, so funny, so good. I really can’t over stress that. She was just as skilled with the supposedly random final topic, “why Scotland needs the IRA” – a presumably deliberate hurdle the organisers had laid in her path, but she cleared it with room to spare, even though you could tell she was worried about tripping on it (just to ensure I’ve thoroughly hammered home my clichéd metaphor). I spoke to the compère, Kai Humphries, the following night, and asked him whether anyone had had a better set during the run; he could only site two others: beatbox-comedian Beardyman (who improvises every gig, so fair enough), and Daniel Sloss, who was Kai’s flatmate, so I take that with a slight pinch of salt. “But yeah, I’d say Aisling was top 3,” he said.

    As a result of all this, Aisling has leapt to the head of the queue of “people I’d really love to work with”, be it in a stand up capacity, writing something together, or even with her as a guest player for the Faces (I’m convinced she must have improv training). Hell, I’d happily be her tour support for free. Well, I say “free” – let’s say “for expenses”; I’m a fan, not a lottery winner (that’s a completely serious offer by the way, so if for some mad reason you’re reading this, Aisling, hit me up – which I’m told is how the kids are saying “get in touch” these days...).

    So, that concludes my summary of the shows I saw, but I never go to Edinburgh without trying to pick up some gigs, and this time was no exception. What was different, though, was that this time I had Mike & Allan with me, so rather than looking for stand up spots (which I do actually regret not doing), we looked for improv gigs.

    The first we did was run by an Edinburgh-based group called To Be Continued, and was named “The Improv Games,” in which two teams of three players competed against each other.

    Myself and Mike did this on the Saturday, and Allan did it on the Sunday. I have to say, the boys both did better than me at this one. It was the first show of the day, and I wasn’t really warmed up/awake yet (I was ok, but nothing particularly magical), but I liked the format, and it was great to meet some new improvisers, including players from the Durham & Bristol university teams, as well one of the girls from the latest batch of Oxford Imps.

    Our next stop was the Improvised Improv Show at Dropkick Murphy’s. We had originally planned to only go and do this show on the Saturday, but it was so much fun we went back the following day as well. By this point, we’d had some food and it was a bit later in the afternoon, so I was ready to go. It was really nice for us, because, like I said earlier, you never really know where your group stands on the improv ability-scale. On the Saturday, myself, Mike, and Allan were certainly three of the stronger players (amongst a group of nine), and it’s always fun to be dropped into games you’ve never played before live on stage. It was quite a proud moment for me actually – having taught Mike & Allan when they first joined UFI, and then having founded The Same Faces with them, to see them both performing on someone else’s stage and really making it their own was brilliant.

    Allan was losing his voice on the Sunday, so Mike & I went back to do the show again, and – without wishing to be arrogant – we stole the show. We were definitely two of the strongest players in that days line up (top 3 for definite), and again, it was great to have a moment of “oh, we can do this as well as anyone.” Mike & I played a game of “Next Lines” that was probably one of the funniest things we’ve ever done together. It was also here that we met our new friend, Svavar Svavarsson, for the first time. Svavar is a London-based Icelandic improviser, who is highly skilled, and will be coming to perform with The Same Faces this Saturday, which is going to be fun!

    None of these gigs, though, were our best performance of the weekend – that came later that evening. Svavar joined our group for the afternoon as we wandered around the city (coming with us to see The Maydays), and around 4:30pm, he received a text from Jules at the Nursery Theatre to say they’d had a drop out for The Nursery Presents... show that evening, and could he put a group together to fill in. That group turned out to be the four of us.

    The decision was made to use our ten minute spot to play an old Faces’ favourite, “Rescue Me” – a game created by The Noise Next Door (credit where credit is due) – though there was one problem. The show was at 9:30pm, and I wouldn’t get out of Craig Campbell’s show until 9:45pm. Banking on the assumption that we wouldn’t have to be on stage at 9:30pm precisely, I ran – through pouring rain – from the Assembly Rooms to the King James hotel, and basically walked straight on stage. The boys were already in the second scene of the game as I arrived, with Svavar as the rescuer. What the audience must have thought as they watched a soaking wet, giant-man walk down the aisle, and jump on stage I don’t know – it even took Allan a second to realise who I was and introduce me to the room. While I’d been gone, they’d somehow managed to recruit Yshani Perinpanayagam, the pianist from the London-based group Music Box, to play for us – who, I have to say, was really spectacular. One of the Rescue Me scenes was a musical set on a building site, and she added huge value both there and throughout the game, bringing tone and mood to each scene with just a few chords. Still not sure how we got her, but I’m glad we did.

    Other scenes in the game included the dual-headed, Irish, giant talking aardvark, and the two people at a séance for the first time (we got the whole room to hold hands in a big circle). Yes, I’m biased, but I’d say it was one of the best parts (if not the best) of the showcase that evening. I did also enjoy the jam session that followed, in which I got to do a stake-out scene from a buddy-cop movie, obviously affecting an American accent as I went.

    That pretty much concluded the main parts of the weekend. It was a genuine pleasure to be back in Edinburgh during the festival. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it.

    Mike said to me on Saturday afternoon, “how’re you enjoying Edinburgh?”

    “Oh, dude,” I said – because I’m quite street these days, “it’s one of the few places I really feel at home.”