IN THE Fringe-less desert of 2020, Shedinburgh burned like a bright and comforting light. Playwright and performer Gary McNair and producers Francesca Moody and Harriet Bothwell came up with the idea of staging re-runs of Fringe hits streamed live from a shed to raise money for young artists and bring us all a taste of what we were missing.
This year, the sheds are back, broadcasting live from the Traverse and Soho Theatre with a programme of Fringe hits, occasional new work and a “SHEDx” talks programme. Streaming a fresh performance each evening, it’s an easy daily dose of the Fringe already filtered for quality.
While the shows are not available on demand afterwards, there is plenty of interesting work to come, including Simon Callow’s Being An Actor, Robert Softley Gale’s If These Spasms Could Speak and Forgiveness, a new show by Jonny Donahoe (Every Brilliant Thing). However, it does (I’ve discovered) take a special kind of show to shake the strangeness of watching Fringe shows on your laptop.
If anyone can do that, it’s Mark Thomas, who opens the Shedinburgh programme with The Best of the Mark Thomas Comedy Product (****). If Shedinburgh is a recreation of highlights from the Fringe, this show is a meta version of that: a recreation of the highlights of the show Mark Thomas fronted for Channel 4 in the late 1990s. Kept company in the shed by the show’s producer Geoff Atkinson (who doesn’t have to do much other than give Thomas someone to bounce off), Thomas takes us through some of the best of his politically driven pranks, while clips from the show (which was filmed with a live audience) bring something of the buzz of watching a live performance.
The Comedy Product sat somewhere between joyful pranksterism and investigative journalism, between Jeremy Beadle and That’s Life. We see Thomas take a herd of cows through a McDonald’s drive-through at the time of the McLibel case, embarrass politicians, fly a hot-air balloon over a secret listening facility and phone up the president of Ghana from the pub. Then, in his coup de grace, he takes a booth at an international arms fair, offering media training to representatives of some of the world’s most repressive regimes, and gets an Indonesian general to admit to torture on camera.
Some of the causes he addresses are long in the past now, but for those who have enjoyed his more recent shows for the Traverse, this is a reminder of where it all began, and just how much can be achieved with a brass neck, a boatload of charm and a well-placed TV camera.
Harry Hill uses his night in the shed to try something very different: the first visual version of his podcast Harry Hill’s Noise’ (***). Described as a kind of anti-podcast, the series records the ambient noise of Hill carrying out an everyday task, which he punctuates by making a single noise. In the shed, the task of the day is ironing.
Anyone who has ever wrestled with an ironing board will sympathise with Hill as he detaches and reattaches the cover, breaks it, tries to repair it and finally sets about ironing on the floor. It’s slapstick of sorts, ricocheting between ingenuity and a kind of despair; the “noise” when it comes is a kind of exhausted groan. Perhaps what’s missing is the audience. Without the aid of others’ laughter, one can only watch in horrified fascination until things rattle to their inevitable conclusion.
Funeral Flowers (****), a Fringe First winner in 2018 for writer and performer Emma Dennis-Edwards, would benefit from an audience too. Her vivid writing and performance captures the voice of 17-year-old Angelique, a young black woman who has grown up in the care system but has a passion for (and a gift for) floristry.
Her mother might be in jail and her boyfriend casually abusive, but Angelique dares to dream big. The question is whether or not her dreams can survive what life throws at her. It’s the kind of show which would capture hearts at the Fringe (and did), but Dennis-Edwards’ performance is pitched for the stage rather than the subtleties of the small screen.
The protagonist of Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott (*****), brought to storming, vigorous life by Sophie Melville, is not a million miles away from Angelique: a little older, a lot more cynical, a bit further down the road to self-destruction. Effie, who has grown up in poverty in Cardiff, delivers a blistering, clear-eyed monologue nailing the world around her and its shortcomings, and how we - middle-class theatre-goers - are in her debt.
It says much about the power of Owen’s play and Melville’s delivery that we are with her through every beat of her experience (love, loss, anger) while being left in no doubt of our complicity in her downfall (not unlike her Greek tragedy namesake). Effie’s story, first brought to the Fringe in 2015, feels more timely than ever in the wake of the pandemic, with its questions about to whom the resources of society really belong, and whose wellbeing is sacrificed so that those with money and confidence can weather the storms of life.
For those who know and love the Fringe, Shedinburgh is an ideal chance to catch up on things you’ve missed or revisit shows you loved. It reminds us of the importance of the Fringe as a breeding ground for talent but, however well it is done, it can never be more than a substitute for the real thing. While we enjoy the shed, we must all hope for a day when it is no longer necessary, when the Fringe is, once again, in full swing.
Shedinburgh runs until 30 August at www.shedinburgh.com.