AS audiences get wise to inflated ratings and overpriced shows play to empty seats, don’t fret. A leaner, meaner Fringe will give true talents the whip hand
Chris Dangerfield: Sex Tourist / Alan Francis Expands / Milo McCabe: Kenny Moon This Is Your Life / Mike Workman: Mercy / Al Pitcher: Tiny Triumphs / Wil Hodgson’s Kidnapped By Catwoman / Will Franken: Things We Did Before Reality
REVIEWS are funny old things. Everyone wants them. Producers and PRs in August are like star vampires, they are nourished by them and they live for the day when their artists’ faces cannot be seen behind rows of them. The air is thick with the PR’s wail “It read like a five…” and posters bristle with rows of stars actually given when the Queen Mother still had her own hips.
But is there a change coming? I was queuing (three might not be exactly a crowd but it is a queue) to see Alan Francis and was watching his flyerer try to drum up some last business. “Five star show!” he yelled enthusiastically, waving the ever limper photocopied proof in the rain. “Ach,” I heard a voice, “they’re aw five star shows noo”. The man may have a point. I was alerted to the fact that there is a beautiful show down at the Stand – Boy In A Dress – which now has garnered no less than nine four and five star reviews. Bouquets are being delivered to the stage to La JohnJoseph ((s)he being the eponymous Boy in a Dress) by adoring audience members and yet their ticket sales are barely in double figures. It seems ridiculous. Unbelievable
But as the great satirist WS Gilbert once wrote, “When everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody”.
There has been much written over the past week about falling audiences for big name comics with vast posters and spurious “Star of…” straplines. Well boo hoo. Maybe this year the ticket buying worm has, if not turned, certainly wised up. Yes we have a recession and yes, top end ticket prices are high. But just maybe the Big Boys have slathered one too many grandiose claims over one too many tenement-sized posters for so-so comics doing forgettable shows in venues too big for their talents. Maybe we have finally discovered that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Take a trip to the Free Fringe. Generally speaking, it is hoaching. And I see £20 notes in buckets all over the place. The sheer spread of audiences there is exciting. It takes us back to the Good Old Days where you would see a title and think… “I’ll give that a go!” I went to The Hive (a positive treasure trove of the strange and the hilarious) and went from an enthusiastic crowd playing for their freedom from John Robertson’s ridiculously entertaining Dark Room to standing room only in The Bunka for Chris Dangerfield’s account of his time as a Sex Tourist. This show is awesomely full on. Not a body fluid is without its own hideously hilarious moment in the eloquently told tale. And Dangerfield’s audience ranges from the young and the inexperienced, squeaking with vicarious laughter at his appalling antics, to a couple in their late sixties, rocking in their seats and hooting with hilarity. Lach – the New York legend who came to the Fringe a couple of years ago and loved it so much he now lives here – has taken the Anti-Hoot to the Free side and is cramming them into the Counting House.
Back where you pay money up-front, some shows are admittedly harder to sell than others. Whatever the climate.
Alan Francis certainly deserves better than the five of us who pass a great, thought-provoking, eloquent, entertaining hour with him. Francis bemoans the 21st century’s urge to violence, he worries that we, the outgoing generation, have “squandered the Golden Age” fought for by our grandparents. Having said which, he also gives us Alexander Graham Bell attempting the first ever sex-line call and the concept of the spam telegram. But generally this is proper, intelligent political stuff. Well worth your time. And he has amazing hair.
Many shows that deserve better start to fall through the spaces between the stars now in the sheer enormity of what is on offer. Milo McCabe is a ridiculously talented young man. This year, his show is no mere showcase for his brilliance as a creator of outrageous, but diamond-cut characters, it has a real heart. On stage with him is his father (yes, oh you cynical lot) his real father – comedian Mike McCabe – who got famous, got caught using someone else’s material, and got lost. A hilarious comedy version of his story is told with Mike himself as his son’s straight man. This show is several layers of lovely. And comedy insiders will adore the portrayal of a certain cigar-chomping, wide-boy comedy agent. Not quite off the wall. More off the kerb. A delightful, funny, sweet hour with a neat twist in its tail.
Michael Workman’s show is a strangely delightful little oasis of calm in the comedy thrash of week three. Somehow his stars haven’t brought the crowds to his door either. Workman tells us a tale of a star-crossed couple in 1960s Cuba. It is beautiful and rather sad, punctuated with hand-drawn illustrations and occasionally floating on a raft of original music. Yes you laugh, you smile, but most of all you are captivated and touched by this sweet little piece of tragic-comedy. Lovers of Peter Gabriel and cabbage will particularly enjoy this show.
Not enough people seem to be noticing that genial northerner gone Kiwi, and more recently Swedish, Al Pitcher is taking observational comedy to places it has never been, both literally and metaphorically, while anyone who ever got goosebumps (and other fleshly swellings) reading Wonder Woman or longed to be led astray by a bad girl like Rizzo will find their spiritual home and a glorious celebration of big and/or bad women with Wil Hodgson’s Kidnapped By Catwoman.
Amidst the anodyne wannabe TV comics who are 40% hair product, 40% ego and 20% talent there is still plenty of the real thing to be found, comedically. Will Franken at The Caves is absolutely brilliant. Iron satire in a velvet glove. Clever, creative comedy. These are just a few great, proper Fringe shows which have dropped through the cracks in the Fringe System.
But maybe they can’t complain when a genuine comedy legend, a comic we are getting the opportunity to see for the first time ever in the UK, let alone on the Fringe, a man who is giving an absolute masterclass in the art and craft of comedy every night down in the basement of the Tron – just about my favourite late night comedy venue – is playing to half full houses and empty seats. We should be queuing around Hunter Square and down the Mile to see Eddie Pepitone. There is no accounting for something like that. All you can do is buy a ticket and congratulate yourself on doing so.
And if you see a great show, do tell your friends. And if you see a dreadful show, do tell your friends. Ultimately – and especially in a buyer’s market – the production potentates and management mafias will have to listen. At the start of the Fringe I thought that audiences might be like sheep, driven by the loudest voices barking at them. It seems not, this year. Bloody well done you. Keep up the good work and next year we might get a different looking Fringe. Even in the comedy section.
• Chris Dangerfield: Sex Tourist, Alternative Fringe @The Hive; Alan Francis Expands, Gilded Balloon at Third Door; Milo McCabe: Kenny Moon This Is Your Life, Mike Workman: Mercy, Al Pitcher: Tiny Triumphs, all Gilded Balloon Teviot; Wil Hodgson’s Kidnapped By Catwoman, The Stand Comedy Club III & IV; Will Franken: Things We Did Before Reality, Just The Tonic At The Caves, all shows run until 26 August