Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Yesterday I touched on a genre, or perhaps a sub-genre, that has become prominent on the Fringe in recent years: narratives delivered using many of the tropes of stand-up. A somewhat different genre, though again one that has flourished recently, is a particular take on character comedy which might be termed the one-man sketch show: one performer presenting a rapid-fire succession of different characters in different situations.[i]
Of the examples of this genre which I have seen, Charles Booth’s is the closest to an acting showcase. His characterisation is very precise, the scenes are clearly demarcated (perhaps too clearly – the transitions took some of the energy out of the show), and the writing is aimed squarely at the character in each case. He is careful to vary the style of the comedy: apart from the straightforward monologues, we also have a character delivering a string of one-liners and a scene involving dance and a recorded voice. However, the show lacked variety in a different way, in what might be termed the tone. Booth is a naturally measured performer, and every scene felt controlled, even calm. There was never any sense of threat or even uncertainty as to what would happen next, and over the course of an hour the scenes started to sag slightly. The show could have done with a sharp increase in energy, or perhaps a sudden change in the style of writing, to provide the contrast required.
Joseph Morpurgo’s Truthmouth feels in some ways like a sharper version of Booth’s show: its pace is higher and the feel of scenes differs wildly, but with the same clear characterisation and writing. The gimmick used to sell the show is inspired (it is presented as a piece of verbatim theatre based on the real-life testimony of the characters portrayed), but this is not important as regards the content of the piece. What matters is Morpurgo’s incredible inventiveness is taking a familiar type (a doddering ex-military man, a lonely schoolboy, a researcher conducting an inane interview) and adding enough of a twist to make them fresh in each case. In addition to this, there are three sketches that are completely different again: suffice to say that they involve respectively the show’s technician, the star of a mobile phone game, and a being from the lower depths of hell. Without these scenes, Truthmouth would be a very accomplished offering; with them, it is a delight.
While Morpurgo offers a number of innovative ideas, his approach is in the tradition of creating recognisable characters in recognisable situations. Jamie Demetriou strays as far from this path as I have seen. Unlike Booth or Morpurgo, he presents four extended scenes. Each character has some familiar traits, but in each case the humour comes from elsewhere, though identifying exactly where is (interestingly) different. There are few jokes, little by way of physical comedy, and not much that would qualify as outright silliness, though there is quite a lot here that makes little sense. Saying that he does it by way of facial expressions, body language and the precise wording of the monologues is true, but not very helpful. Perhaps the key to his characters is the voice he gives to each. To take the example of the bullied schoolboy, much of the humour comes from his unusual sentence construction and lexicon; the latter is old-fashioned, the former baroque, and the effect is very precisely that of a child who has grown up largely in isolation from the real world. The final character, Michael, is a smooth-talking longue act, but Demetriou is careful to have him cling to his patter and rhythm even as his plight becomes more evident.