day 6: what’s real and what’s not

Yesterday was my first night off from running the showcase, so I went to see two shows: Holly Burn’s show ‘Living and Dying’ and Emo Philips.

Emo Philips is a legend, of course; but apart from his unique way of speaking into a microphone, there is very little that is especially original or creative about his act. He’s an absolute master of delivering one-liners, of course; but most people know a guy in the pub who can do that too.

But nobody knows anybody else that is quite like Holly Burn. The absolute worst that anyone could say of her show is that she is totally unique. If they were being more generous, they might also say she is some kind of maverick genius, because that’s what I suspect she is.

When I was recommending her show to people afterwards, they asked what it’s about. And I had to say at first that I have no idea. Then I thought for a moment, and said it’s about blurring the lines between imagination and reality.

Credo quia absurdum est – I believe it because it is absurd,’ says the sign above the stage; and that pretty much sums up the thing. If there is a theme in the show, it’s a theme of playing with what is believable and what isn’t. In one throwaway moment with an audience member, she says, “I don’t really know what’s real and what’s not, to be honest with you.” And you get the terrifying but exhilarating impression that maybe she actually doesn’t.

There’s a suggestion for a moment that she might introduce Death into the show as a character; but that wouldn’t do for this show; Death is too certain and not imaginative enough. Instead (and I don’t want to give too much of this away) she introduces Custard Flanagan, a character whose role is ‘to introduce an element of uncertainty into the proceedings’. I won’t say what Custard Flanagan actually does – and I have a hunch that it’s the kind of risky idea that must go badly wrong occasionally. But yesterday it was genuinely brilliant because Holly is Custard, the whole show is Custard Flanagan, and you leave with a vague sense that what you saw might not have actually happened at all…

Holly’s only trouble, perhaps, is that she is so much more imaginative than her audience. There are times when people clearly don’t get it, and I can see why she might have trouble getting gigs at stand-up clubs; she’s much too creative for stand-up. But over an hour she comes across as, well, probably quite mad; possibly a genius; and certainly worth going to see.

The Flashback show, in comparison, is one that most people ought to be able to engage with. Or at least, most people who know the films of the 1980s ought to be able to, anyway. We’ve been trying to explain away some of the bad performances by saying it’s not a mainstream show and that a lot of people don’t ‘get it’, and there’s an extent to which this is true. But it can’t be used as an excuse. I think if a joke is genuinely funny and well-delivered then the majority of people will receive it well. Last night’s little audience got the joke, I think – and despite everything going against us in terms of the lateness of the show, the darkness and weirdness of the venue, and the stinkiness of performing in a non-ventilated cave right after Dr. Brown’s show, we put on a really good show last night, and the little audience went for it.

When things go like this, Edinburgh is a lot of fun…even if it’s not quite real.

Showcase: (night off)

Flashback: Best yet. Audience small but generous, and a solid performance.

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