Thursday, August 25, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Casual Violence - Choose Death

Stark strip lighting, the head of a mannequin spinning on a record player pumping out the Bee Gees on repeat and a clown nursing a bottle of vodka. It's an utterly disorienting sight to be greeted with on entering the venue for Choose Death, but it certainly sets the tone.

Sometimes, a show delivers precisely what its title suggests and - as you might have gathered - the rather macabre-sounding Casual Violence's Choose Death is certainly one of them. If you've come looking for the twisted side of life, you've got it in one; this is dark, weird and bold stuff that, brilliantly, doesn't forget to be funny.

At the top of the show, we are informed by our host - who also offers several musical interludes - that we will bear witness to six grisly deaths over the course of the night, so while there's no real narrative, we follow a small set of characters as they hurtle towards their fate. Big on neat writing and excellent comic acting, we're closer to the off-beat world of character comedian Colin Hoult here than most of the knockabout sketch troupes to be found on the Fringe.

Casual Violence's 'comedy collective' sensibility means this is great ensemble work, and each performer treats the audience to a stand-out moment somewhere along the way, while providing assured support when it's someone else's turn in the spotlight.

Greg Cranness, for example, displays heart-breaking sincerity as that poor clown who wordlessly tells us that he has lost his sweetheart, and James Hamilton offers some of the biggest laughs as a crotchety, creepy old man obsessed with taking his final breaths in the perfect death bed. Luke Booys's main character Bad Legs - an armless criminal with a penchant for knocking off dear old ladies - is as funny as he is terrifying.

The only slight problem with all of this is that there is no let up. It's very tightly choreographed and the performances are incredibly intense, to the extent that when the audience caught the glimmer of a corpse from one of the actors, their laughter had something of relief about it. Perhaps a chink of light might be good to counter the darkness then, but in the main, this is massively enjoyable comedy - twisted, smart and unique.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Nadia Kamil and John-Luke Roberts - The Behemoth

On leaving this show, I doubt it's unusual for audience members to find themselves considering the following: just what is The Behemoth? Cerebral and high-brow? Unadulterated silliness? It's certainly not bland enough to be considered something in-between... so it must be all these things.

In the nicest possible way, Nadia Kamil and John-Luke Roberts do have wonderfully warped minds. Their sketches are bizarre, but this certainly isn't just weirdness for its sake - in fact, there's often an odd sort of logic going on in the background. The shorter sketches in particular go some way to reconciling that clever/silly dichotomy, as what ends up being utterly odd often has a single genius concept at its heart.

'Party bee' encapsulates this - though to explain any further would ruin the joke - and stool rodeo (yup, bucking bronco on a motionless stool) is just an inherently funny idea. I also loved the dour horse sparring with a sparkly unicorn, and the robots who aren't finding robo-revolutionary Earth quite as technologically advanced as they'd hoped.

We only really see any classic 'straight-man vs class clown' action when we get glimpses of what appears to be the real Nadia and John-Luke, as they read out an exchange of letters between a Victorian gent and the lady he intends to marry. Nadia keeps adding little ad-libbed embellishments onto the end of hers, while an increasingly exasperated John-Luke frets about the next act needing the room. They're canny comedy performers, these two, so whether this is actually just another layer of their on-stage personas, we don't know. But as it's funny it hardly matters.

Some rather long sketches unbalance things a tad, but there are some lovely touches that keep the energy up and the show moving along - slides in the background, songs, even fully choreographed inter-sketch dance routines. What is the Behemoth? It's certainly clever, and it's certainly absurd, but it's also a whole heap of fun.

Written for British Comedy Guide

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Jigsaw

If a jigsaw is put together with painstaking care, the result (hopefully) is something sigh-enducingly satisfying. This sketch act is well-named, then, as that description could also be accurately ascribed to this hugely enjoyable show from three great stand-up comics in their own right - Nat Luurtsema, Dan Antopolski and Tom Craine. A whole lot of work has been put into creating dozens of stand-alone sketches, and it pays off in the form of a very funny and consistently high-quality show.

This act's chosen name lends itself to analogies so hopefully you'll allow me one more, in pointing out how perfectly these three performers fit together. Their rapport is natural and infectious, and an hour spent in their company is a properly cockle-warming one.

But just as important as being utterly lovely, this show is also packed with gags. We get straight into the jokes without intructions or set-up and, with sketches lasting more than a minute a rarity, the pace rarely lets up. Considering this show is such fun, there's a distinct lack of messing around here - props, costume changes, audience-work, corpsing and even running gags are all kept to a minimum in the name of cramming in more quick-fire sketches. If anything, it might be nice for one or two to be left to develop.

Perhaps reflecting the three different comedy minds that make up this new act, the sketches display lots of different types of comedy too. Some are visual one-liners, some showcase great physical humour, some rely on clever word-play, (and some on stupid word-play), some are all about the absurdity of the idea. My favourites included a terrible hostage negotiator, a woman engineering unusual situations in which to find love, and the corny-as-hell punchline to a wandering minstrel sketch. It's often silly, but the writing is very smart indeed.

Written for British Comedy Guide

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Sheeps

Three-man sketch group Sheeps has come to Edinburgh with a show which has lots of lovely ideas, and which is performed with a huge amount of energy and a heck of a lot of acting nous, but which varies in quality quite considerably.

My favourite sketch by some way is one in which an incredibly creepy lighthouse keeper decides to build his son a friend using the slowly decomposing body parts of dead people... if anything, it's even darker than that makes it sound, but it's also really funny and brilliantly performed.

The longer sketches like this which rely on great dialogue are the ones which tend to work well overall, in fact, so these three gents are clearly talented writers. I also really enjoyed a sketch involving two lesser-known members of the Black Eyed Peas complaining about Fergie, and just listening to them give out about her in a highly passive-aggressive way is a lot of fun.

But then at the other end of the spectrum there are one or two notable mis-steps, particularly a sketch about the cliches that footballers use, which seems a bit of an easy laugh. Plus, there are a couple of sketch group 'conventions' used here - there's the suggestion that one of the guys is meant to be the 'dumb' one, and another leaves the group temporarily for a glamorous life on the French Riviera - and I just don't think Sheeps need to stay so safe; in fact, they're at their strongest the odder they go.

Then again, another of the really enjoyable sketches is simply a pitch-perfect parody of inane television game shows... So perhaps the key word here is just 'potential'. There's bucket-loads on show, in both writing and performing, and there's little doubt over time Sheeps will get better and better as they really focus in on what they do well.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Henry Paker - Cabin Fever

Following on from his great turn in the hugely charming and very funny sketch group Superclump (along with the likes of Elis James and Nat Luurtsema) in 2009, and his other great turn in the inventive and, well, again, very funny play The Golden Lizard (with the fab Mike Wozniak) last year, we've finally got a full hour of non-stop, solo Henry Paker. And you know what? Turns out he's charming, inventive and very funny all on his own too.

For his show Cabin Fever he's holed up in the Pleasance's rather cramped and hot Hut venue - "should have called it 'Portacabin Fever'" he half-quips, half-sighs - and frankly, the small space barely holds him. He's a tall man and he loves to fill the room, striding up and down to act out his stories.

But the room does fit with the Cabin Fever theme which, however loosely, ties together his anecdotes and observations under the umbrella of 'things we would talk about if we were stuck halfway up a mountain.'

Turns out we would talk about pretty day-to-day stuff like technology gripes and dating, and there are moments when you worry we're heading into prosaic comedy territory - in particular one section about the pointlessness of the 'Insert' key on your keyboard. Needn't have worried. What's great about Paker is that he can push seemingly everyday observations into bizarre and unexpected places, and it's that creativity and slight oddness that makes this show so enjoyable.

Watch out for the great set piece, too, in which Paker demonstrates how he can pretend to have read a potential lady-friend's favourite book in order to impress her. To see him hanging onto every word to gather crumbs of information that will help the charade, with ever-increasing desperation, is a real treat.

Cabin Fever does get off to a rather sedate start, but for the most part this is a hugely entertaining show with just the right level of silly, delivered by a confident and engaging comic.

Written for British Comedy Guide

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Tom Bell Forever

The small Leicestershire village of Kegworth may not seem like the natural breeding ground of comic book heroes, but in this funny, lo-fi show at the Tron, we discover that it was indeed the birthplace of one such Dark Knight: Tom Bell, the indier half of ace sketch double act Tommy and the Weeks, who here offers us a "gritty" retelling of his life. Think Christian Bale, not Adam West.
Well, maybe. In reality, Bell is an endearing, upbeat sort of comic, and the Hollywood reboot simply a nice peg on which to hang true stories from his life, via the odd (in both senses) character and even a song or two.

There's a 'one that got away' theme running through the show, too. Whether he's taking on his Batman persona and discussing a childhood sweetheart (who's supposed to be being played by Jennifer Aniston if she'd ever turn up) or performing in the guise of a misogynistic Aussie comic, the heartbreak of having loved-and-lost is never far away...

And between the backstory and character skits - look out for a serious message about the dangers of over-fishing delivered direct from Neptune himself - we get little glimpses into the world of Love It! magazine. This is a rag which features such exclamation-marked coverlines as "Raped by an evil clown!", and with which Bell has become somewhat obsessed.

The magazine could, you suspect, provide a whole hour's worth of material in itself, such is the absurd delight it apparently takes in horrific tales of unusual illness and domestic abuse, but Bell doesn't lean too heavily on it and neither does he need to. He has a great, off-beat turn of phrase and this show may be on the shambolic side, but it's also endlessly inventive, with a really sweet ending.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Tony Law - Go, Mr Tony, Go!

To start a review with the line: "Tony Law's show is a painful experience" would be hugely dangerous. In fact, this show is so brilliant I fear I'll run out of superlatives for it before I finish, but - in my case at least - the cheek-and-stomach ache induced by laughing at Law's comedy does make the line completely true, if rather recklessly misleading. But then, in going for the dangerous option I am only following Law's own lead.

For one, Go, Mr Tony, Go! is taking place at The Stand 2, away from the main Assembly-Pleasance hub of the comedy Fringe, and at midday - dangerously early for the notoriously tardy Fringe-going public. "What are you all doing here?" Law asks his sell-out audience at the top of the show.

But more than that, a large portion of the show concentrates on Law demonstrating just how dangerous a character he is with examples of the low-level hazardous situations he knowingly puts himself in. This is such a feature of the show that in one of the many instances of Law vocalising what he imagines is going on in his audience members' heads he says: "we get it Tone, you're dangerous, that's probably enough examples." In a super-rare case of Law being off the mark, that certainly wasn't what I was thinking. I could listen all day.

Silliness abounds then - an imagined encounter with a panda bear prostitute certainly falls under that category - but a lot of this show is actually about comedy itself, with Law often referencing the fact that he has taken a rather different path from those comics that "notice things". And he's constantly self-analysing, reacting out loud to whether a line has gone down well or not - you can often hear the cogs in that comedy brain of his whirring away.

On one level, Go, Mr Tony, Go! is a an hour-long stream of joyous nonsense - and that would probably be sufficient. But in fact the show is a whole lot more; a little chinese puzzle waiting to be unpacked, full of lengthy surreal digressions, throwaway lines that other comics would kill for, and subtle little callbacks that it takes the audience a couple of moments to dredge up from their memory banks.

In this small, circular room, Law's force of character dominates, and he regularly manages to get the punters to that lovely point of still giggling about the previous joke when he's already moved onto the next. With the show starting at noon, you could easily go on to see another five or six shows on the same day, but you're unlikely to see a better one. As clever as it is loud, ridiculous and hilarious, Go, Mr Tony, Go! is, ultimately, a gem.

Written for British Comedy Guide.

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Marcel Lucont etc.

Marcel Lucont, the French laid-back lothario never to be seen without a glass of decent red on the go - and the creation of talented comic Alexis Dubus - would normally come to Edinburgh with his own solo show, ready to wow the crowds with dirty verse and cod-philosophy. This year, though, he's been busy writing a book - "so" he says with a shrug "here we are." And where we are is a chat show format, with two guest comedians taking questions from him about their own shows and whatever else springs to mind.

Josh Howie was the first guest, who gave us a little preview of his show I Am A Dick with stories of his own shambolic - but unintentional - dickishness. For whatever reason, the conversation was a bit stilted - prickly even - but things were definitely livened up by Howie demonstrating his 'party piece' of yo-yoing... with a roll of gaffer tape. Very funny. Zoe Lyons came next and was her usual charming self, veering from angry tirades at motorists that won't let you in, to laughing at how - having met her girlfriend on Lesbos - she feels she's slowly turning into a lesbian stereotype.

The audience were surprisingly subdued audience for a Saturday night - Lucont quickly realised that getting the crowd to ask questions was a bit of a cul de sac - but did provide one of the odder moments of the night. Each guest must undertake a staring content with their host (of course), and when asked how long Howie had managed, a guy on the front row responded with the enigmatic "twenty-two to forty-seven..." The confused ranting this prompted from Lucont was a definite highlight.

The reason the format works, and could get better over the course of the festival, I reckon, is that Dubus has been playing Lucont for so long now that the character is completely fully formed. Dubus knows exactly what Lucont would say in any given situation - something that highlights his own virility, for example, or berates the English.

The fact is, though, while the chats are enjoyable, for me they are far out-stripped by the short snippets of stand-up we get from Marcel. His "50 actual ways to leave your lover" is a truly wonderful set-piece that gets funnier as it gets more absurd, and as for his poetry: pure filth. But great. Did I have fun? Very much so. Would I rather just see a full show from the brilliant Monsieur Lucont? Probably...

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: How To Be Awesome - An Introduction - Lou Sanders

When Lou Sanders tells us early on that the name of her show doesn't necessarily fit the content, she quickly turns that potential disappointment on its head to reveal that it was actually just one of her rather brilliant pranks. In reality, she was probably right the first time, as - self-help fans beware - this show may be a lot of fun, but it certainly doesn't offer too many cast-iron tips on how to be awesome.

But that's no matter. 55 minutes spent with Lou Sanders is 55 minutes ram packed with lovely little ideas and a whole heap of different styles of comedy - a bit of odd whimsy here, and a neat one-liner there.

The only issue with this is that Sanders crams so many ideas into her show that not many have time to really progress. Her new-on-the-comedy-circuit alter ego Kerry P, for instance, with her painfully - and, purposefully on Sanders's part of course - obvious and banal observation comedy is a hoot, and it'd be fun to see more than a couple of minutes from her. And a member of the audience is treated to a This Is Your Life moment complete with lots of wonderful made-up facts ("he likes a bath... he's a bath man!") which I would have happily listened to for much longer.

There are rare moments when Sanders strays into more traditional story-teller mode, but she is absolutely at her best when she's at her most bizarre - talking to a toy pigeon named Doctor Spinky particularly springs to mind, for instance, or predicting audience members' futures with the aid of a flimsy cardboard 'Destiny Wheel'.

The loose theme of the show means Sanders has to act as if she thinks she's thoroughly marvellous - you've got to be an expert in awesomeness to instil it in others of course. It's hard to make arrogance charming, but when it's nicely played with a wink throughout, as it is here, Sanders proves it's possible. A bit haphazard, then, but hugely enjoyably so.