This started as some notes that would serve as a reminder of what I’d seen across 10 days at this years Edinburgh Fringe as you no longer have ticket stubs to remind you, and I thought I might as well fill it out a little and post it here. It’s something of a mammoth post – apologies if it’s too much but I thought it better to be a single review rather than split across several. I had a great time there, I hope some of the following is of interest to someone.
Ahir Shah – Ends : a few weeks before the festival Shah offered ticket holders a 1/3rd refund because he thought the show wasn’t fully ready. And then went on to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award with it. Inspired by watching “Goodness Gracious Me” with his grandparents, he packs an enormous amount into an hour. He weaves between the changing face of multiculturalism in the UK – “thrilled” that Sunak has become PM whilst being “politically furious”, and straight forward observational gags like discovering what his name means in Arabic. His reflections on the sacrifices made by his grandparents are sobering, his grandfather wouldn’t recognize the UK of today, but lest it get a bit heavy builds in gags about his granddad’s Islamophobia and how old the racists Shah encounters today are always so old. He runs seamlessly from the horror of the Amritsar massacre to jokes about how Latin classes got him out of a beating. Truly memorable and more than a little inspirational.
John Kearns – The Vanishing Days : despite being the only comic to ever win best newcomer and the best show is successive years Kearns had remained under the radar until a seat on Taskmaster gave him the TV exposure that really sells tickets albeit from appearing as himself rather than his stage persona. Kearns takes the stage and gets into character (a monks tonsure wig and buck teeth) addressing what this mismatch with his opening volley “ticket sales go up, but the laughs go down”, imploring the audience to “just give him 20 minutes”. It proves unnecessary as over the next hour he performs a masterful set that encompasses Van Gogh, Jermain Jenas, Marco Pierre White, aftershave, Harry Kane and bin bags and some of the most finely crafted calls backs I’ve ever seen. There are flights of fancy, imagining himself and his wife as trapeze artists which morph into acidic takedowns of the One Show and Sunday Brunch. The tone is whimsically aggressive, with the pathos of a modern day Tony Hancock. Simply amazing.
Ed Byrne – Tragedy Plus Time : an astounding show that addresses the death in Feb 2022 of his brother Paul, a comedy writer and director. To call it a rollercoaster ride barely does justice to the monologue that Ed delivers. There are gags a plenty; duff customer service, his wife’s love of tennis and the “moon faced” comedians that get finals day tickets every year, conspiracy theorists. His delivery is so rapid I don’t catch everything. This sits alongside an unflinching explanation of his falling out (and reconciliation) with Paul, only for Paul’s alcoholism to prove fatal when Covid strikes and his support network shuts down. There’s the pathos of having to sit with him as his life support is turned off, and the black humour that comes with it – humour that Paul would have loved.
As Seen On TV
Mark Watson – Search : delayed by an overrunning Rosie Jones, Mark emerges in the auditorium, mingling with punters looking for seats, before kicking off a manic set that incorporates jokes about metallurgy, parent teacher conferences and his son’s first Google search. Anyone going out for a wee is mocked and occasionally chased but Mark manages to make it playful rather than spiteful. Doesn’t mention once that he’s just had a book published (his eighth).
Frankie Boyle – Lap of Shame : anyone enticed into attending by the giggling and occasionally cuddly man that recently appeared on Taskmaster were quickly disabused. Jokes about cancer – “if you are unnerved by the early mention of cancer, you’ve bought the wrong ticket. This is a cancer-heavy, some would say cancer-themed, sixty minutes”, politicians and pedophiles abound. Attempts to heckle or slip out unnoticed are dealt with mercilessly. Laughs were interspersed with an occasional sharp intake of breath. He’s dialed down the gratuitous digs, and makes himself the target of some of his dystopia.
Paul Merton’s Improv Chums : Merton’s celeb status has been cemented by his 30 year stint on “Have I Got News For You”, as their 10 day run in the 750 seat Pleasance Grand illustrates. Merton is joined by familiar faces from the London Comedy Store in Mike McShane and Richard Vranch, plus wife Suki Webster and multi instrumentalist Kirst Newton. It’s a bit like putting on an old pair of slippers – familiar and comfortable, the end product funny if rarely laugh out loud. It strikes me that improv scenarios are aging out; will styles like Gilbert and Sullivan mean much to future audiences?
Nick Mohammed – The Very Best & Worst of Mr Swallow : Arguable the most well known person at the Fringe, Mohammed briefly acknowledges this in his first line. “Here ‘cos of Ted Lasso? Very different show, this”. Swallow is a northern, bombastic, clueless megalomanic, according to Mohammed. He cruises round the stage on roller skates, suffering one seemingly unplanned fall, performing memory and mathematical tricks, and an overlong section de-constructing Les Mis. An encore where he conducts an orchestra of sound effects was a comedic clowning at its best.
Stewart Lee – Basic Lee : “I know what you’re thinking – Willam Shatner’s let himself go” kicks things off with a belly laugh, and Lee’s away lamenting how disappointed he is with his lunchtime audience – “Don’t come and see me if you don’t know anything”. It’s not his fault if we don’t get it. Part of the artifice is Lee’s pitch that this is “basic” comedy but then deconstructing it, getting laughs from the explanation of how he gets laughs. There are a few digs – pointedly at Richard Herring, and a section where he pretends to read a critique of the government from cards, as “there’s no point in learning it”. It all gets funnier the more you think about it.
David O’Doherty – Tiny Piano Man : O’Doherty starts by deadpanning acknowledgements to various parts of the audience (his fan club, his parents) before launching into a sequence of observational gags that range from cycle theft to vapes that smell of fruit and climate change. They keyboard is abandoned a few times and he stalks the stage, a few shouty chair kicking sections that contrast the more twee gags that are delivered over the his keyboard tinkering. The best section is discovering he has an online impersonator, and throughout he’s very deft at making himself the butt of the gags. I’d actually prefer to see him just deliver the material without music, but what for me is a distraction is for him his USP.
Frank Skinner – 30 Years of Dirt : from the minute he takes the stage Skinner couldn’t look more relaxed and in his element. A Friday night crowd that in places were very well refreshed provided plenty of opportunities, and Skinner worked the front row relentlessly – in all fairness, Skinner should have slipped them £20 given how much they featured. He jokes about being unable to resist knob gags, and pretends to warn those of a sensitive nature – “If you’re vegan, don’t go to the fucking butcher” but having already seen Nick Helm and Frankie Boyle, Skinner’s occasional C bomb barely registers. A joke about Kate Midleton gave me the biggest laugh of the week although it upset the Metro newspaper. According to them it plays well to people of my age. An unintentional juxtaposition of body shaming and agism.
First show of my visit was Glenn Moore, a late morning Work in Progress show that was trying out two half hour sets that will become episodes of a BBC R4 series to be recorded later in the year. It was a tour de force, the jokes arriving thick and fast, including one that linked Fred West to Fred Durst and another that managed the phrase “Clapham Junction Luncheon Function”. It’s also left me unable to look at a lasagna the same way ever again (hopefully the gag will make the final show).
Nick Helm booked just two nights, playing his “Hot and Heavy” album on the 10th anniversary of it’s release. The self described “human car crash of light entertainment” continues to abuse his audience extensively. Being in the second row didn’t save me, but on the night crowd work takes second place to the songs, performed with some verve by a tight band that included fellow comedians Sooze Kemper and Huge Davies. It’s heavy on comic braggadocio reprising the skimpy glitter shorts I last sawn in 2019, the cock rock presentation undermined by daft lyrics and Helm’s professed disgust at the lack of audience appreciation.
Marcus Brigstocke, a regular on prime time TV at the moment via Masterchef, presented an hour where he collected irritations and whines from his audience and paired them with cheeses that he offers to the originator. I know, but it works when you are in the room. A truly cheesy sounding premise in itself that thrives on Brigstocke’s skill with improvised work.
Robin Ince’s Melons (stop it) is an exposition of his love of comedy as an art form and his first full run in 12 years. It’s manic and occasionally hard to follow given how much Ince tries to pack in. A scrapbook of a show packed full of anecdotes, revealing Ince not just to be a top class mimic (mint impersonations of Stweart Lee and Alexi Sayle) but a former gag writer for Brian “It’s A Puppet” Connelly and someone made up to have a signed Goodies book.
I watched shows from Chloe Petts and Matt Forde back to back. I regret to say that the total lack of leg room in the Pleasance Above meant that as chucklesome as Chloe was, I recall very little as I was certain I’d contracted deep vein thrombosis. Fortunately my circulation had been restored by the time I watched Forde. An hour of political gags made a welcome change form the diet of observational comedy that I’d been on for a couple of days. Forde is an excellent mimic, his bumbling Johnson spot on followed by a gauche Rees Moog, topped by a bouncing relentlessly perky Sunak. His robotic, monosyllabic Starmer is equally spot on, and it’s all delivered without malice.
Huge Davies (his real name is Hugh but he chose Huge to be anonymous) does an hour of deadpan gags whilst wearing a full size synth keyboard that unintentionally provides comic relief when the batteries fail not once but twice, and gives him a chance to improvise some deliberately inept crowd work. The show is a Whodunit but it’s the jokes about Nando’s and Phil Wang that get the biggest laughs and Davies joke about sending the show title in before he’d written seems quite possible.
Ivo Graham was another comic riding the wave created on Taskmaster, milking his inept responses to the tasks given for all it’s worth. It’s hard not to be beguiled by his posh but hopeless persona and whilst his interactions with the audience are sharp, his anecdotes about playing Traitors and Top Trumps are uneven and the final Trumps style set piece with the crowd is a bit hit or miss despite a top quality bit of ball bouncing from me. Props though for asking everyone for a £2.40 (a call back to an early joke about his daughters love of Baby Bel cheese) donation to the Trussell trust
The Doctor Will See You Now
It’s no surprise you can’t get an appointment for weeks. Edinburgh is awash with doctors doing standup at the Fringe. Adam Kay sold out the Pleasance Grand multiple times, reading from his books and playing a few songs. He was at his best ad-libbing with a filthy joke about Chris Hemsworth.
Paul Sinha, former GP and best known for being on “The Chase”, is a Fringe veteran on his 11th and possibly final visit as his Parkinson’s beomes more restrictive. His uncertain future gives him a certain disregard for repercussions and has some strong words for Ade Edmonson and GB News / Mark Dolan based on previous encounters. There are some great gags which mingle with musical numbers where he accompanies himself on piano. Fingers crossed for a return again next year.
Simon Brodkin (once a doctor in Manchester) has previously done character comedy in the guise of the chavy Lee Nelson, as well as stunts like handing Teresa May her P45 or handing out nazi golf balls at a Trump press conference. Here, doing standup as himself he talks about his ADHD, gets a honking laugh describing his frustrations with parenting his daughter and takes pot shots at politicians, greedy companies, the royal family and even pedophile hunters. Not highbrow, very funny.
Ed Patrick (anesthetist) and Benji Waterstone (psychiatrist) could be dismissed as Adam Kay wannabes although Patrick’s comedic efforts predate Kay. Partick (author of “Catch Your Breath”) mixes gags with anecdotes, with the latter much stronger than the former. His story of spotting his mother’s Parkinson’s is strong stuff and the best bit of the set. Waterstone has a book out next year and there’s dark comedy mixed with more sensitive material on the stress and strains of an having the power to section people amid an underfunded service. Delivered as stand up, it’s a bit static until the explosive finale but on a par with Kay’s delivery.
And whilst none of them are actually doctors, the St Doctor’s improv troupe delivered plenty of laughs basing everything around a short conversation with one of the audience. A different show every day, guaranteed
Stage & Screen
And This Is My Friend Mr Laurel – Jeffrey Holland. This one man play first toured back in 2013, set in the bedroom of a sick Oliver Hardy. Holland does a great job of representing Laurel, cutting from conversation in the room to snippets of film dialogue where he dons the hat and impersonates both with great accuracy. It’s a gentle melancholic hour and a long way from Holland’s time as Spike in “Hi-Di-Hi”.
Three Men In A Boat – a play often seen at the Fringe, this version from Not Cricket Productions features an all female cast and a real dog in the role of Montmorency. Well executed if a little ordinary it struck me this was quintessential Fringe – four actors giving it al to a crowd barely into double figures above a pub on a boiling hot day.
Lena – starring Erin Armstrong in the title role with Jon Culshaw as Hughie Green, this is a touring musical that’s been edited down from 2 hours to fit the 60 minute Fringe template. Armstrong is hugely impressive with a powerful voice, convincing as Zavaroni from her days as a little girl singing in her parents chip shop to her death at age 35. The bulk of the show rests on how Lena’s rapid ascent to stardom robs her of her childhood and health but has possibly suffered in being cut down as it dwells heavily on her illness and separation from her family, giving little insight to her successes in the US. Her marriage isn’t mentioned at all and her decline into living on benefits in a council house seems to descend somewhat suddenly. Nonetheless it’s powerful stuff, all the more relevant today.
There are numerous tribute shows to choose from. “The Fleetwood Mac Story” was a blast, with an hour given over to the early days (Black Magic Woman, Albatross) as well as Rumours and Tusk with some story telling between each song. A top notch band who close on a storming version of “The Chain”. The same company also present “The Blondie Story” which is almost as good. The Beached Boys cover all the hits, the harmonies were spot on but without drums or keyboards they fall well short of the standard of the Mac and Blondie shows.
Guitarist Aki Remally did 90 minutes of funked up Hendrix at the Jazz Bar but it turned out that a “partially seated” gig actually meant “if seated you’ll see fuck all” which ruined it for me. Robin Boot’s “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” proved rock riffs can be married to laughs. Musical gags like turning Thin Lizzy’s “Boys Are Back In Town” into the story of the Toy Story cast on a stag do work better than his more general puns.
Dan Lees clowned his way through impersonations of several totally obscure album covers, and forced me to make my Fringe audience participation debut. Thankfully nearly all the punters were on the stage.
A clash prevented me from seeing Tom Robinson play a solo set but I was able to see him interviewed, and he’s engaging, funny and self effacing. The most memorable revelation is that he wrote “Glad To Be Gay” for a rally, only expecting to ply it once, using Dylan’s “Sarah” as the base until he came up with the music.
Most fun of all was seeing Chris Difford in a pub basement playing a variety of Squeeze hits to an adoring audience whilst making numerous knob gags and pointing out every “wanker” that kept them off the number 1 spot or every support band who went on to go global.
Surely there can’t be more?
Mark Simmons set – helpfully called “New Jokes” – relies on puns that suggest similarities with Tim Vine or Gary Delaney, but Simmons smiley deadpan approach and crowd work create a very different vibe and there are well executed callbacks and a few stories. Simmons was also the one of the comedians behind a daily tribute show to the late Gareth Richards to raise money for Richards family. On my visit the highlight was a brief set from non binary heavy metal loving comic Andrew O’Neil. He started by impersonating a market trader whose line of business was sharpening dogs. The more absurd he got the funnier it became. Honest.
Simmons also popped up during the Duncan and Judy Murray Show, where Andy and Jamie’s mum shares a stage with her “third son” Duncan, who she likes to describe as “an unforced error”, and who is hopeless at sport. And everything else. Whilst the video clips have gone viral and fooled a fair few people, on stage it’s harder to sustain, with Simmons and some cocktail makers drafted in to pad things out.
I saw Anuval Pab in 2019 where he did a great set lampooning the influence of the British on India, but his 2023 show lacked clarity and the bite he’d had 4 years before. Ginny Hogan has some slick jokes – one about not understanding misogyny until a man explained it to her was a cracker – but the delivery seemed a bit too low energy and the graphs (a call back to her job at Google as a data analyst) added little. Steve Bugeja did a solid hour explaining how comics come to Edinburgh for a year or two hoping to win the big TV contract. And then welcomed us to his 6th year at the Fringe.
Ben Hart performed a variety of magic tricks that were impossible to explain, but also inexplicably failed to really engage me. My loss. “Eric” presents a one man show of naval yarns based on his time as a submariner, a show he’s done at the Fringe numerous times since 2008. His style is occasionally awkward but the stories more than compensate. Sully O’Sullivan’s “Idiot’s Guide to New Zealand” uses pictures, graphs and screenshots to burst a few myths – is New Zealand really that close to Australia – and have a few laughs at his home country’s expense. One of the few routines that makes extensive references to “Black Cocks”.
So many people in such small spaces. So much beer.
It made me think..
This was my 5th time there having first attended (by accident) in 1999. It’s physically and financially draining. But I can see myself being tempted back in a few years