Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
At the Fringe, I make an effort to find shows that are something other than the one-man-and-a-microphone stand-up norm. Apart from the pleasure of seeing an unusual idea succeeding, it can be just as interesting to see how such shows fail to fully realise the ideas they set out with or perhaps should have taken up. I should point out that I enjoyed each of these shows, and they were by no means failures – it’s just that in each case, it was possible to see what (I think) was being aimed at, and how the show fell short of achieving it.
David Trent’s selling point is his heavy interaction with video and music recordings. Save for a couple of stand-out sections where the footage speaks for itself (notably his ruthlessly edited version of John Bishop’s set) this technology is used to illustrate Trent’s riffs on the inanity of popular culture. Advertising, certain popular bands and a well-known internet search engine each receive a kicking. The mode of attack is broadly similar in each case – describe some irritating feature of the target, exaggerate or parody it, and point out its stupidity. This has the odd effect of making Trent’s show feel much more like a traditional stand-up railing at tiny problems in modern life. There’s nothing wrong with this per se – indeed, one of the best sections of the show was his sustained assault on a brand of energy drink called Pussy – but it did feel more like a straightforward stand-up set with a technological gloss than a new vehicle for telling jokes.
Thrice sees Sarah and Lizzie Daykin from Toby, Fringe stand-outs from a couple of years ago, teaming up with Nathan Dean Williams, who wrote the show and acts alongside them. It is pitched as dark and twisted, and at times it was (particularly the final sketch, which saw Santa Claus having to choose between a mother and her daughter). However, the dominant tone was better described as grotesque. This marked an important different from Toby, where the plot and characters were much more carefully worked out, giving the comedy a real darkness that comes from pathos. Here, wigs and broad accents dominated, and the characterisation was played for laughs rather than used to bring out what is funny in a situation. This was true even of the scenes which did involve pathos, such as the pair of lonely strangers telling each other what they didn’t like; the characters were so thin that pathos was all they had. Some of the ideas, such as the monstrous ‘baby’ foisted upon a lesbian couple, were wonderfully bizarre but produced less emotional impact than more carefully crafted situations might have.
Nadia Kamil has frequently collaborated with John-LukeRoberts, and their writing shares a love of organised silliness and an unusual precision in their jokes (Kamil has a lovely line about the best and worst forms of cleansing which is very similar in its construction to certain jokes by Roberts). This show is loosely themed around feminism, which means that quite a few of the set-pieces come with a heavily-signposted political point. I found these pieces less convincing than the free-floating absurdity on display elsewhere. Partly this is because fitting discussions of feminism into a comedy routine runs the risk of sloganeering, a trap into which some of Kamil’s pieces fall. More specifically, I felt that in only one of these set-pieces, a feminist burlesque dance, was the political point successfully underlined by the self-consciously absurd humour. Elsewhere, as in the reworking of ‘212’ into a rap promoting smear testing, the effect was strained, closer to the kind of generic ‘crazy juxtaposition’ comedy which is generic on the Fringe. There is obviously a market for feminist comedy, in particular mixed with a style of comedy that might vaguely be called surreal, but making a feminist point (or any political point worth making) in the context of this kind of comedy remains elusive.