day 24: the last night of the fringe is always weird

By early Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in an empty flat.

Rik and Fraser and Rachel had all left (after doing lots of cleaning, which was very lovely of them), but I was still there. Like an idiot, I had booked the showcase for one last Sunday night show.

Last year, when we did the Scurvy Stand-up Showcase, Tony and I decided not to bother with the showcase on the final night. I went out in the dark drizzle, drank too much and had some conversations that don’t need repeating here but which have never dislodged themselves from my head and probably never will.

The year before that I ended up in an argument that I didn’t want to get into.

The year before that, I ended my last night in Edinburgh sitting in Waverley Station at 5.30am trying to get a train to a remote rural farmhouse, wondering why I had been such an idiot to quit stand-up and realising that the months I’d taken away from it had set me back further than I had thought.

What I’m saying is that the last night of the Edinburgh Fringe is always weird.

I spent the day wandering around the city – which had, as it always has towards the end, the feeling of a carnival being gradually taken down while people are still trying to go on the rides – looking for things to do. The best thing I did was to go and watch Eric do his Laws Of The Land show. This was good, not just because it’s a really good show, but also because, totally by surprise, I was in it.

I knew Eric had asked to use a few of the e-petitions I sometimes read out when I do the closing section of the Comedy Manifesto; I had said of course he could, and when he asked if I’d make him a video of me doing it, I said I certainly would. Then, Edinburgh being Edinburgh, I didn’t get round to making the video. But I wanted to see the show anyway, and so there I was, quite happily watching the show, when a big picture of my face appeared on the screen – and a very generous plug for the Showcase. Then Eric asked if I’d like to come up and do the bit myself since I was there. I was so flattered that I didn’t need asking twice.

After that, though, it got to the showcase itself. I was a bit unsure about doing it, but Timmy really wanted to. So we did a bit of flyering (Timmy more enthusiastically than me), but didn’t book any acts because we didn’t think anyone would come.

What we didn’t factor in is that so many other shows were cancelled on the last night. So five minutes before the show was due to begin, and 50-odd people turned up, I grabbed Jonathan Prager off the street, and Timmy grabbed Doctor Brown.

Both were greeted with stony silence by an audience who were basically just a bunch of dicks. In the end, Phil (Doctor Brown) just told the audience to ‘go home and take a good hard look at themselves in the mirror’. Then he walked off. It was horrible.

Then I told one particularly twatty-looking guy in the front row called ‘Dean’, who had shouted a heckle about tumbleweed earlier on, that if he thought he could do any better than one of the most brilliant clowns I’ve ever seen then perhaps he should come up and try it. I was thinking that at worst, it would make the show a bit more interesting, and at best it would fill some of the cavernous expanse of time we’d left ourselves by not booking anyone. And as expected, at that point the audience came alive – the first sign of cooperation or engagement from them at all – and started shouting for ‘Dean’ to get up.

So he did. And he did five minutes of horrible, shit pub jokes. And the audience went wild for it.

He even closed with a ‘Paddy and Mick’ joke. To rapturous applause. To his credit, he had pretty good stage presence and he did at least give that bunch of bastards in the audience what they wanted. But they wanted Paddy and fucking Mick jokes.

As we stood in the Hive’s sick-smelling backstage tunnel, Timmy turned to me and said, “You know what we’ve done? We’ve broken comedy. Broken and defiled comedy.”

And he was right. Unfortunately he wasn’t quite able to recreate that kind of witty insight on stage, and he headlined to ten minutes of silence. But maybe that’s because none of his material is the kind of racist crap that the audience wanted.

Anyway, we got about £8 in the bucket at the end, (and a painful chat with some people who’d sat at the back and were insistent that ‘Dean’ had been a set-up, hadn’t he? No, he really wasn’t, I said), and then decided to go to the so Just The Tonic end-of-festival party. Where there was a free bar. And we got drunk enough to forget what had just happened and to try and remember that – weird final night aside – it had been a good last few days.

And so ended the festival for another year.

LOSE.

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day 23: a triumph

Saturday is easy to describe. The previous night had been so good that I slept more or less quite happily until 3.30pm. Then, by the time I’d got up and had coffee, it was time to go and flyer for the showcase.

Since it was the final night of the Flashback being in town, the lineup for the show was:

MC – Timmy Manners

1. Rik Moore

2. Charlie Duncan

3. Fraser

4. Rachel Anderson

We filled the room, and everyone had a good gig. Rachel in particular absolutely rocked, and to see a hundred-odd people of all ages singing her closing song and waving their arms at a gig that I’d arranged felt really very special.

Then the Flashback show was great again. It was a sell-out; like the previous night, though, we had lots of friends in, and while the performances might have lacked a little of the previous night’s killer accuracy with timing, it was, if anything, even more fun.

It felt like a triumphant end to a pretty great festival.

Then we went out drinking. We went to the loft bar and saw other friends who have had a great festival too. By five in the morning, the four of us were back sitting around the kitchen table, still laughing.

And by six, I found myself sitting with Fraser on the windowledge outside his room looking at the daylight. He asked if I’m happy to be counted as a fully-fledged member of the Flashback. I am.

It’s strange to think: a few months ago, I was all set to just see out this Edinburgh run and then quit comedy altogether. I thought I’d failed.

But this has been the best Edinburgh yet. I’m not worried about my compering anymore since I’ve been doing it most nights; I’m also getting to think I might have something of a talent for directing; I’ve done gigs I’ve loved; and most importantly, I’ve spent an awful lot of the festival just being really happy to be here.

Perhaps that makes it a good time to quit.

But perhaps not. After all, I’m still here for at least one more day, yet…

WIN

day 22: friends in edinburgh

After the early night, it was fairly easy to drag myself out of bed on Friday morning to meet Mum and Nick, who have come back into town for today. We went to the Mussel Inn, which is one of my favourite places to eat in the whole of Edinburgh.

After that I went to meet Steve Bloomfield (whose talk about his book I saw yesterday), and some others – including the flashback – in the Just The Tonic bar.

Well – at least, I’d like to say ‘friend’ because I always liked him tremendously. But as my boy Aristotle says, you can only truly be friends with your equals, and back in my immature undergraduate days I was probably too envious of him for being so incredibly brilliant and high-achieving while I was stuck in my room trying to record crap songs. He was the star reporter of the Liverpool Student; he had a really lovely and very gorgeous girlfriend (he still does); he wrote and directed a play; and in my final year he was elected President of the Guild of Students.

In some ways, when I got to Warwick and realised I had a second chance at doing University properly, I probably subconsciously tried to model myself on his renaissance-man brilliance.

Anyway, these days he’s still frighteningly high-achieving. He’s had a pretty spectacular journalistic career so far covering Africa and global politics, and he recently published his book about football in Africa (which I’d like to say more about but unfortunately haven’t read).

But more importantly, he is still an extremely nice, witty, quietly confident chap, and it was lovely to see him. And hey – I might not have published any books about Africa, but I’ve got quite a good blog, I get a few paid stand-up gigs now and again and I hang out with the cast of the 80’s Movie Flashback, so I reckon that makes us equal enough nowadays to be friends. And it was really nice to see him after so long.

The day’s biggest downside was the dropouts we had from the showcase. I thought I’d booked a really fantastic lineup for a big Friday night crowd: Julian Deane to open, Patch Hyde and Timmy in the middle and James Sherwood to close. But then Julian sent a very polite text to say he couldn’t make it, and Patch let me know that he would have to drop out too because Tony Dunn needed him for his gig (which was annoying for the gig, but as friend of both of them, I knew was totally the right thing – I get the impression that Tony has been horribly unlucky with people dropping out of his show, and I don’t begrudge Patch being there to help fix that at all).

Then when the show got going, the audience seemed small and unresponsive. Even James couldn’t get much life out of them and by the end of his set looked just about ready to go home. I think he’s probably not the only one. The showcase has generally been a lot less fun this week than it was in the first half of the festival, and I think numbers have dropped as the people of Edinburgh have got increasingly fed up with us.

But then the Flashback was just amazing. We knew there were likely to be TV people in, as well as Fraser’s boss, so we packed the audience with our friends.

And it absolutely rocked. The others were hitting all the right notes in all the right places, adlibs were getting good laughs and everything went right. It was as good a performance of the show as there is ever likely to be.

Annoyingly, it was the only show we forgot to get on video.

Still, it had been a good day; and it got even better when we went to the Library Bar and Robert White showed us the Malcolm Hardee award he had just been given. That, on top of Imran’s Best Newcomer nomination earlier in the week, made it really felt like a really bloody good festival. And we went and danced and laughed and were happy in a way that I have never been in the last week of an Edinburgh Festival before.

One strange thing about Edinburgh is the strange things it does to your idea of friendship: last week I got annoyed at having friends and family in town because it took me away from the festival. But Aristotle is right: a sense of commonality and shared experiences is a necessary condition of friendship. And so immersive and intense is the Edinburgh experience that friends in Edinburgh can only really be your friends if they are doing shows too. Those people who have those same nerves, those same crushing, humiliating defeats, that same sense of exaltation when things go well. These are the only people I can relate to while I’m here.

Which would be depressing, if it weren’t for how much affection I feel for the rest of the flashback, for other performers who I like, how incredibly proud that makes me when they do well. In Edinburgh, these people are my best friends. They are the only people who could be.

WIN.

day 21: too tired to be that great

It’s getting near the end of the run, and I’m so tired.

I drank nothing more than orange juice the night before, so I felt pretty good but still exhausted when it came time to go and see Dave Gibson’s early afternoon ‘Ray Green’ show. Now, Dave is a man with a great comedy face. His expressions are just so good and his show, while perhaps a little over-reliant on video clips, is superb. No doubt I’d rave about it more if I hadn’t seen Eric and Sanderson the previous day, but hey – context is everything. Still, Dave is brilliant and his show is an absolute cracker. Particularly the puppet bit at the end.

Then, after Fraser took Rik and I for lunch, I went off to the book festival to see my old university friend Steve Bloomfield talk about his book.

Annoyingly I couldn’t hang around because I had to go and flyer for the showcase, even though I wasn’t intending to perform in it. I had a show to go and see – more on that in a minute – and I thought that if I flyered enough to get a good audience in, booked Mark Restuccia to open, and left the rest with Timmy then everything would be fine.

It wasn’t. The few audience who turned up were idiots, and in particular there were some drunk mouthy scots at the back who kept shouting abuse at the stage. When I left, Timmy was into his tenth minute of valiantly trying to MC some life into a cold, hostile room, and Stooch was quite reasonably looking concerned.

I heard later that after the hecklers left, things were better, and that David Mulholland had actually had a pretty good headlining slot.

Still, at the time I had other things to concern me – namely, going to see Lady C at the GRV.

There is at least one adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the Fringe pretty much every year, and I have a personal tradition of trying to see them if I can. Not even for simply pervy reasons, either – surprisingly few adaptations contain anything close to explicit sex scenes or nudity, and the ones that do are generally either repulsive or hilarious or both. But I do really like the book, and seeing amateur adaptations of it has become a kind of weird hobby, like a collection. But Lady C wasn’t really an adaptation of the book; more a discussion of its publishing history and its effect on modern sexuality, done by three actors, often in the nude. It was also without doubt the most deliberately erotic Chatterley play I’ve seen, which made it a successful production, but only to the extent that that kind of thing can be. And I am led to understand that there are cheaper places to watch people stripping in Edinburgh, if that’s all people were there for. I was a bit disappointed that when one of the performers asked for a show of hands for who had actually read it, very few of us put our hands up. And the social politics of the book – without which the sex doesn’t really make much sense – was swept over a little too quickly. And sex without a wider politics attached to it is not really that sexy at all.

Still, it was at least more entertaining than watching my friends die onstage at the showcase.

I came out of Lady C with just enough to time to grab some chips and get down to meet the rest of the Flashback at the caves to finally see Doctor Brown’s show Because.

And what a show it is. I’d seen the end of it so many times but you need to see it from the start. It is really a work of genius. Everything I was saying about surprise and confidence the other day is played out so beautifully – the show is full of surprises. His tech, Jon, is also some kind of magician (he gets a lot of laughs just from his lighting and sound before anyone even appears onstage). By the end, I’d enjoyed the show so much that I didn’t even care that it had overrun or that I’d just found out how many laughs are gained from the bit that created the branflake-sweat-spore pond. In fact, it was a pleasure finally watching the mess get made at last…

In fact, I think we’d all enjoyed it a little too much. The Flashback show was fine, and the audience were a lot more generous than they had been the previous night; but it was possibly the least sharp performance for a while.

Ah well. I knew we’d pick it up for Friday. As long as we got enough sleep…

DRAW

day 20: bravery and bravado

There are different kinds of bravery.

I thought I was feeling brave by starting the day by going to see a play based on Tenessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. It was called ‘Laura’, it was on in the Hive (so was free), and it had got a four-star review from the New Current.

As it turns out, all you need to do to get four stars from the New Current is just have so many looooooong silences while two pretty young actors look around at the room and each other, that it’s a relief when they finally break into a dance routine at the end because at least it means something has happened. And I don’t even like dance. The acting was perfectly competent (I saw worse in the Old Vic’s production of The Tempest last month), but it took an hour for them to tell a story that could have been told in ten minutes. Dull.

Feeling like I needed some guaranteed quality, I went from there to watch Eric’s show Tales Of The Sea. I’ve been meaning to see it for years – and I’m so glad I finally did. It’s such a brilliant show and a story of bravery in so many different ways; not least because of the charm with which Eric underplays his own courage by talking quite humbly about what he perceives to be his lack of it. The stories about his submarine training and his fear of sharks are so endearing because the tales he presents as attempts at overcoming his own nerves are stories of things that the typical Edinburgh festival type wouldn’t go near in a million years.

There’s also a warning in it – one that might have come straight out of Plato or Aristotle, if they had ever been on a submarine – about the dangers of excessive, hubristic bravado.

But what is also brave is that Eric was prepared to spend so much time and effort on a show which, considering that he is a stand-up comedian, quite often goes for long periods without laughs. He says openly to the audience that a lot of his comedy show won’t be funny, but the unfunny bits are worth telling. That, too, takes balls.

And on the subject of having balls – massive, massive balls – Sanderson Jones is about as cojone-tastic as it gets. I went with the Flashback to see his show, Taking Liberties; and I think it might be the best thing I’ve seen this festival. I don’t want to say too much about the show, partly in case he tours it (in which case you HAVE TO SEE IT) and partly because it is now the subject of a police enquiry. That’s how ballsy it is. But for me it is an absolute masterclass in intelligent taboo-busting with moral purpose. He goes so far over the line of what would be acceptable for many comics that he gets away with it; I guess he’s like Chris Morris, only taller and beardier and very very charming. If there is one show I wish I could have done but couldn’t (partly because it would cost me my day job), it’s this one.

And on the subject of police enquiries (another pretty slick link, huh?), I also ran into David Whitney on my way home. I hadn’t really had a chance to chat to him at the previous night’s gig, but in the absence of a showcase that night I was very pleased to see him. He also explained to me his point of view of the ‘headbutting’ incident – and while I think he knows that nutting a heckler possibly wasn’t the bravest thing to do (however much of a prick the heckler was no doubt being) I could see how it happened and it really is a pity that the whole thing was reported on Chortle in such a public way. He’s one of the most genuine honest chaps in comedy, I hope nothing too bad comes of it, and I think he is showing courage by seeing out the run and not just going back to London. I think that’s what I’d do.

Perhaps the problem is that justice has been accidentally unjust. By which I mean, if there was any just injustice here, Dave Whitney’s arrest would have gone unreported and Sanderson Jones’ show would have been on the front page of Chortle so that perhaps more people would go and see it.

Anyway. For normal people, perhaps, bravery at a comedy show is nothing more than sitting on the front row where you might get picked on. Most nights when the Flashback show is not sold out, I have to try and hustle people down to the front. So was impressed – at least at first – by two teenage girls who seemed to be really keen to sit at the front.

It turned out they were just drunk. And stupid.

Now, in fairness it should be pointed out that not only is our timeslot (the last slot of the night) a prime horrible time for drunk people, it is also very hot and humid in the room, because it is a cave with no air conditioning or ventilation and it has been full of audiences and performers under hot stage lights for twelve hours straight. Unspecified liquids dribble down the walls regardless of whether or not it has rained outside, so I suspect the dripping is mostly condensation formed from the sweat of hundreds of audience members and performers. We are also, of course, following Doctor Brown, who (because he is lovely) no longer overruns very much, but whose show does still involve quite a wide distribution of foodstuffs around the room. There is a growing pool of damp congealed branflakes in one corner that has not been cleaned throughout the entire run, and is now probably on its way to becoming a protected habitat for all the festering species that have evolved in it.

Basically, the place is a hot, damp, stinking tunnel.

It takes real courage to stay there and stay focussed on the show; Rachel gets a good laugh early on by apologising for the fact that it’s like watching a comedy show in a fully functioning anus, and after that then most people seem to manage it. But it turned out those teenage girls didn’t have that courage. They didn’t even laugh at the anus joke. They just complained. Loudly and obtrusively. Until eventually, having completely disrupted the show, they left.

Even after that, it still felt like a weak performance. There hasn’t been much rehearsing in the last few days and there isn’t the sharpness that was there last week.

Still, there isn’t long to go now…and as with all tests of bravery, it’s really just a question of keeping going until it’s done.

Flashback: 4/10, but it can’t be a losing day when I saw those other shows…

DRAW

day 19: what a clichéd difference a year makes

At last year’s Edinburgh festival, the Tuesday of the last week was my darkest day of the festival.

In late August in Edinburgh, it starts getting dark and drizzly unnervingly early in the evenings; you start seeing kids that have gone back to school. To add to that, last year I was tired, I missed Loz and the Flashback who had left a few days previously, and then I suddenly made and then (or so I thought) managed to idiotically lose a friend.

I hated myself, I hated Edinburgh, and I wanted to it all to stop.

This year was just fine.

I spent most of the day with the Flashback, stapling bits of paper to flyers (because during the final week you have to staple reviews to flyers otherwise people think you haven’t had any good ones).

I compered the showcase, and did it pretty well; Timmy is still struggling to find his voice at the showcase gigs but seems confident that he’ll get there by the end of the run; David Whitney was a good closer, and seems to be in pretty high spirits considering the fact that he’s been all over the comedy-world news this week for headbutting a heckler and getting arrested.

For the Flashback, Beetlejuice went well on its second outing; I really enjoyed it and the audience, despite being small, were really up for the show.

I celebrated by going out, back to The Hive and then to Opium, with some of the guys who are teching and involved in shows at The Hive; and the next morning I hardly even had a hangover at all.

A year ago, the most played song on my ipod was ‘Heartbeats’ by Jose Gonzales. At the moment it’s ‘The Power of Love’ by Huey Lewis and the News.

WIN.

day 18: it’s supposed to be bloody fun

I woke up on Monday in the little village of East Linton, where I had stayed in the cottage my Mum and Nick have rented. My back hurt. The bed was very comfortable but very single, and I’d fallen out in the night.

Apart from that, it was lovely to be there.

We went to the seaside for lunch, and that was lovely too. But unfortunately, we hadn’t actually booked any acts for the Showcase. So I got back just in time for me and Timmy to cobble together a makeshift lineup. We were quite lucky that James Acaster came back to close the show again. I like his act so much – he just speaks in a way that makes me feel calm enough to laugh a lot – that I wanted him to have a better gig the second time round; and I think it was a little better. Timmy compered, which was good because for some reason his material isn’t hitting at the moment, but he’s pretty adept at warming the room up.

If only we could get more people in there – it’s such a big room that even when we get 30-odd people in (as we generally do, even on the quiet nights) – it feels half-empty.

We also had a very small pre-booked audience for the Flashback, but that meant less fear. And less fear meant one thing. It was time to bring back Beetlejuice.

I did my best with it, but I think the audience was too small to really tell whether it had gone well or not. The best (and possibly worst) thing about it was that as I hit the bit where the first magic trick doesn’t work and Beetlejuice goes straight into ‘Magic number two!’, I heard a badly-concealed snort of laughter. It had obviously come from behind Fraser’s side of the screens which we optimistically call ‘backstage’, but it set me off giggling and I really struggled to get through the rest of the scene without completely cracking up.

Which was good – as Timmy pointed out a few nights ago, it doesn’t always look like we’re really having fun ourselves, and in all our attempts to get the show tight and professional we might have lost some of that sense that at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of idiots pissing about in silly costumes for a laugh.

But on Monday, in front of those sixteen people, it felt like we were making a realisation that we need to really be enjoying it, and enjoying it infectiously.

And also, of course – in front of those sixteen people – a realisation that we probably need to flyer a bit more.

Showcase: 5/10 (the audience was too small to get much atmosphere)

Flashback: 6/10

Overall: DRAW