Having seen only one of the acts nominated for any of the Foster's Comedy Award – the musical talent who turned 20 during the festival, Bo Burnham – I am not, I think it’s safe to say, much of a barometer for what’s been “hot” at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. But such is the scope and scale of the Fringe nowadays, there were of course dozens if not hundreds of outstanding acts which did not make the shortlists, and it’s a pleasure to have the chance to celebrate just a few of them here.
Sketch comedy may not have featured on either of those lists this year, but three sketch acts – all very different - were real highlights of my time in the Scottish capital. First up were the oddly-named Delete The Banjax, a four-man (well, three-man-and-one-woman) troupe who are simply fun incarnate. Great songs, a winning mix of personas, an abundance of silly ideas and an excess of charm, their show is lo-fi joy, and I’ve no doubt they’ll come back with something even stronger next year.
The Penny Dreadfuls –David Reed, Thom Tuck and Humphrey Ker - have been around rather longer, to the extent that they have undergone a major, Madonna-esque reinvention for this year’s show. Their Victorian garb and sketches gone, they’re now decked out all in yellow and black, and have allowed themselves the freedom to write sketches on any topic their imaginations can muster – anything from backstreet wrestling broadcast live on the net to the Twilight saga, as it turns out. These extended skits are brilliantly written but it’s the performances – proper acting chops combined with perfect timing and a lovely rapport – that really put them at the very top of the sketch comedy game.
The three gents also put in scene-stealing turns in Martin White and Danielle Ward’s excellent new musical Gutted – which was no mean feat, considering they were having to do the stealing away from this year’s stand-out character comedian Colin Hoult.
Diane Morgan and Joe Wilkinson meanwhile are excellent stand-up comics in their own right, but come together as Two Episodes of MASH to deliver sketches which they say ‘tend to peter out’. They do themselves a disservice, however; this show is actually packed full of “proper” set-up and punchline jokes. Unusually for a sketch show, however, this is understated, quiet stuff – a real change of pace and hugely appealing.
Away from the sketch comedy, there are several one-man performances that have emerged from the pack when asked – as I have been dozens of times since returning from Scotland – which was the ‘best’ show I saw. Just like last year, David O’Doherty’s metamorphosis as a performer continues to astound and delight. Now playing in the proper theatre surroundings of Pleasance One – and not, as he says at the top of the show, some STD clinic commandeered by the Fringe – he, Boyle’s Law- like, has grown to fill his surroundings, and elicited the best audience reaction I experienced on the Fringe this year with his songs about Shakira, animal facts and the offer of practical help on bicycle maintenance.
In complete opposite to David O’Doherty’s shaggy dog stories but just as wonderful, another of my favourite shows featured ream upon ream of stunning one-liners. John-Luke Roberts Distracts You From A Murder sees Roberts attempt to keep our mind off the blood-curdling screams emanating from the wings by insulting every member of the audience with pre-written insults which range from “your hair looks like you borrowed it” to my personal favourite “you laugh at adverts in the places they want you to laugh.” A creative concept, genius writing and spot-on delivery means Roberts will have gained legions of fans with this debut solo show – oh, and he certainly wins the as yet non-existent award for best flyer.
Another show I have found myself recommending to anyone expressing even the slightest interest is Terry Saunders’ Six and a Half Loves, a story of perfect and imperfect love between three couples, accompanied by Saunders’ own animations. Simply performed and with some wonderful throwaway lines, this is an engrossing and intelligently written show. Aussie Claudia O’Doherty meanwhile (no relation, although she did co-write 100 Facts About Pandas with David) brought her award-winning show Monster Of The Deep 3D to the Fringe, and what a magical and very funny show it is. She tells the tale of a now-defunct underwater community ‘Aquaplex’ through flashcards, Blue Peter models and verbatim theatre, and there is a lovely twist at the end of the show which kept me beaming for days.
Let's return to those Comedy Awards, won - many would argue deservedly - by Russell Kane after three nominations in a row, while Best Newcomer went to the endearing Roisin Conaty for her meandering but likeable and astute set. Ironically her material hangs around the fact that she felt she wasn't sufficiently successful in life to give advice to anyone younger than herself; now that she's an award winner that will be a harder case to make.
There have been rumblings that Bo Burnham, while unarguably prodigiously talented, did not really do anything beyond the call of duty, as you might expect of the recipient of the Panel Prize for someone who captures the spirit of the Fringe. Personally my opinions on this are mixed with the fact that (whisper it) I didn’t actually enjoy his show that much, despite being hugely impressed by his songwriting, but as an alternative, may I offer comedy production and publishing company The Invisible Dot. As well as bringing several regular shows, they also took around 400 audience members on a magical mystery tour for a show by the sea, hosted an album launch for Tim Key at Avalanche Records, arranged the wonderful ‘Inaugural 3-Sided Football Tournament’ on the Meadows and placed four specially-adapted telephone boxes around Edinburgh in which you could listen to short stories by the likes of DBC Pierre, Will Self and Mark Watson, for free. Beyond the call of duty, I’d say.