Postscript: TVO at the Fringe 2016

The Edinburgh Fringe is now officially over for another year, and as the city cleans away the chaos that millions of flyers and hundreds of shows leave behind, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on TVO related involvement in an epic Fringe run.

Our editor in chief, Paul Holmes, reports…

© STV

© STV

Working on The Velvet Onion can, at times, feel a little strange. And not just because you might find yourself in unusual situations like pointing a camera at someone wearing nothing but briefs, a Hawaian shirt, a swimming cap covered in dots and a pair of bright blue prosthetic breasts… though that particular memory does perhaps remain the oddest moment of the last six years or so.

What really makes it unusual is the symbiotic nature of our relationship with the majority of artists we feature on our pages. We are, in part, a news outlet: a place designed to report the general goings-on of this weird and wonderful crowd of regularly collaborating comic talents that make up ‘New Wave Comedy’. But it’s fair to say that, to some extent, we are also a promotional tool – willing, able and frequently deployed as a collaborative platform that allows these creatives a place to demonstrate their work directly to their fan-base, and to those of a similar mindset who will be likely to appreciate the results.

As such, TVO decided that running reviews of this year’s Fringe shows (and indeed, previous years for that matter) was at odds with the reality of our situation. We (okay, the two of us who managed to get up there this year) did our best to cram in as many TVO related shows as possible during our short 4.5 day stay in Edinburgh this year. But we were there to offer moral support, not critique. If we liked the shows, then whatever praise we gave would only be furthering the promotional nature of our pre-Fringe interviews and preview pieces. And if we didn’t like them for any reason – well, we’d be doing the shows, and their creators, a disservice. And deep down, for all our previews and reviews over the years, we feel it is always better for our readers to see the shows themselves and make up their own minds.

Now that the Fringe is over for another year, we couldn’t help but reflect on what has been a critically acclaimed run for just about all of our regulars who took a show to Edinburgh in 2016. Rave reviews came flooding in for Katy BrandSarah KendallColin HoultAdam Kay and Lou Sanders in particular, while established big-hitters Tony Law and Paul Foot also won over critics and audiences alike once more.

© Karla Gowlett

© Karla Gowlett

For many, this was a year of reflection. Katy Brand was back at the Fringe for the first time in more than a decade with a starkly confessional show, I Was a Teenage Christian, in which she explained ‘what a dick’ she was as a God-bothering teenage Evangelist. Audiences were more used to seeing Brand hide behind dozens of exaggerated characters, but here they were faced with (at least a version of) the real Katy: and understandably liked what they saw.

The most surprising aspect of Brand’s show, perhaps, was that actual full-blown written gags in a traditional sense were few and far between. Instead the humour – and there was lots of it – came from the absurdity of her real experiences, and Brand’s charming acceptance that she’d made a series of terrible mistakes. That these mistakes only got worse until she made the inevitable decision to get out of an insane situation was something a lot of audience members could easily identify with, and the sheer chaos that unfolded around her was understandably hilarious in retrospect.

Every day, Katy walked out in front of that audience in a packed out, sweat-filled room atop Pleasance Courtyard, and engaged the crowd with a natural charisma that would win over (almost) everyone. At times, there were a few moments which were a little rough around the edges, but these only served to enhance, rather than detract from, the general warmth in the room, and TVO can’t wait to see what Katy does next.

© Sarah Kendall / Rosalind Furlong

© Sarah Kendall / Rosalind Furlong

Perhaps she’ll follow in the footsteps of Sarah Kendall, whose new hour Shaken was the third and final part of a confessional series of live shows soon to be adapted for BBC Radio 4. Like Brand this year, Kendall returned to Edinburgh three years ago following a lengthy absence, and via a complete revamp of her comedic output. One trilogy later, she’s firing on all cylinders with arguably her finest work yet.

TVO was lucky enough to catch an early preview of Shaken in Manchester back in June, and while most of the major beats were in place at that point, the finished show at the Fringe had been dramatically overhauled to be smoother, more involving, and altogether less esoteric and fantastical than it was before.

By telling a tale of her time as an awkward teen desperate for friendship, Kendall has tapped into a theme of isolated youth that so many of us face at some point in our early lives, and the resulting tale of one-up-man-ship expands time and time again towards an ending that is both deeply rewarding, and surprisingly emotional.

© Adam Kay

© Adam Kay

That’s a feeling that also extended to Adam Kay‘s new show, even with its puntastic (and potentially offputting) title Fingering A Minor on the Piano. Another confessional piece, Kay’s new hour draws upon his real life experiences as a young doctor prior to his career in comedy, which ended dramatically just over six years ago.

For a solid fifty minutes or so, Kay fuses (we hope ‘heightened’) extracts from his diary of the time with a series of original ditties and musical parodies with medical themes. As to be expected from a man who wrote for Mongrels, and as anyone who is familiar with Kay’s Twitter feed will attest to, the gags are both savagely witty and wittily savage. At times, he pushes the absolute boundaries of what society deems ‘acceptable’ to say, and then brings the room back with a round of ‘Guess the ailment’ to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

But as bitingly brilliant as his comedy is, it’s the final ten minutes of the show – in which Adam explains the horrendous events which led to his departure from practising medicine – which stick in the mind, and reduced many an audience member to tears. It would have been interesting to drop a pin during this stark climax every night, because there’s almost certainly a guarantee everyone in the room would have heard it. And that’s a testament to the brilliance of Adam’s show. He can get away with the sudden switch and still have audiences on his side at the end of it all.

© Colin Hoult

© Colin Hoult

Another show fusing serious themes with comedy was Colin Hoult‘s new hour – A Sketch Show for Depressives. And with his previous work being so phenomenal, the bar is set incredibly high for what turns out to be a rather an unusual beast that, if we’re brutally honest, doesn’t quite live up to the standards Hoult has previously set, albeit only by a whisker.

In the past, Colin’s Fringe shows have been fronted by a version of himself, quite often a sinister ringmaster type who introduces a variety of ghastly grotesques for an audiences edification. This year Hoult has focused the show primarily around his popular character Anna Mann: a spinster actress whose resume is principally made up of obscure theatre pieces and cult horror films. To this extent, perhaps Anna is another extension of the man himself – but the choice to focus so much time on one character means that the handful of new faces that we see (all, bizarrely ‘played’ by Anna, not Colin), are fewer in number than ever before, and don’t quite register to the same extent as they perhaps could have.

That’s not to say the show isn’t a hoot, however – far from it. Colin is a master of his craft, and his gag rate is phenomenal. As with previous works, his interactions with the crowd are a joy to behold – pulling the audience into the show rather than humiliating them from on-high, and there’s absolutely no doubting his ability to work every nook and cranny of the room. There’s also a huge amount of pleasure to be had from watching him develop Anna Mann into a more three-dimensional portrait, and ‘her’ interactions with the supporting cast (fellow comics Tom Greaves and Andrew Bridge) are deliciously naughty. The show may not quite be as ‘perfect’ as we’re used to from Colin, but there’s no denying this is still a treat that’s miles ahead of the pack. As the great Anna Mann herself would say: ‘Fuck off, we love you’.

© Lou Sanders

© Lou Sanders

With so many of Edinburgh’s big shows this year tackling serious themes, there’s something incredibly refreshing about Lou Sanders barely contained chaos. A force to be reckoned with, Lou’s latest show, What’s That Lady Doing? at times feels like Sanders is barely in control of events, and is making it up as she goes along. But make no mistake of it: that’s all part of the illusion. Like Eddie Izzard before her, and, dare we say it, the Boosh – Sanders works best when she’s allowed to seemingly “run free”, and when her audience goes with her, the flights of fancy she’ll take them on are like nobody else on the circuit.

Indeed, in a year when so many comics have become confessional, or taken a serious topic as the basis for their shows, there’s something really refreshing about watching an off-kilter comic waving around shonkily made props, singing daft little songs, and failing to put on a pair of tights. The Boosh – or perhaps more specifically, the early works of Julian Barratt – echoe through Sanders stand-up, keeping her audience simultaneously in on the joke, yet slightly on edge in mild fear of what delicious oddity will pop out of her head next. The result feels very special, indeed.

© Mark Dawson / Marny Godden

© Mark Dawson / Marny Godden

A similar vibe can be found with Marny Godden‘s new show, Where’s John’s Porridge Bowl, which combines that Boosh-esque mania of barely held-together props and energetic audience interaction, with a level of madcap whimsy that seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years. Godden has undergone clowning training in the past, been part of a cult sketch trio, and worked with improv master Phil Whelan, and these experiences combine to make Where’s John’s Porridge Bowl a gloriously silly, and highly engaging hour of utter nonsense.

Audiences may have been small at times (the room booked as part of the Free Fringe, was perhaps too big for a show with no advertising budget), but those who came along were each made to feel part of the show. In some instances, this is because Marny’s style is – much like Rich Fulcher before her – to wear the audience down into submission, drip-feeding setups to the crowd and making them feel slightly uncomfortable as each new character brought them into proceedings in increasingly oddball ways. As such, the show’s vibe does depend on the audience ‘getting it’, and it doesn’t always pay off for Godden on the night… but when it works, there’s something gloriously nutty about the results.

© Anna Soderblom

© Anna Soderblom

And part of the joy of the Fringe at its best is that it allows performers the chance to take risks. Jonny and the Baptists new hour Eat the Poor, for example, is an interesting extension of their previous endeavours in which the duo – Jonny Donahoe and Paddy Gervers – fuse their sociopolitical comedic protest songs and biting commentary on the ridiculousness of British life today, with an odd twist into a dystopian alternate-reality future in which Paddy is abandoned by Jonny in favour of a cushy deal writing musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and finds himself on the streets with almost everyone else.

Indeed, most of the second half of the show is now a full blown narrative, taking place in this new world, as Jonny becomes increasingly selfish and Paddy gets to meet a former Prime Minister with some sage advice. Gervers also has lots of fun pretending to be (a surprisingly tall and handsome) Lloyd Webber, punning the musical megastar’s name in increasingly inventive ways.

The tiny downside to this new approach is that, as standalone comedy songs (as found on the demo cd sold after the show, and no doubt on Bandcamp soon), the musical numbers are not as dynamic as some of their previous material which anyone could get on board with even if they hadn’t seen the show itself. But within the context of Eat The Poor, with its Les Mis inspired mini-revolution and some truly disgusting cake based antics from Donahoe, they shine brighter than ever before.

© Bronwen Shar

© Bronwen Shar

Less risky, perhaps, was Talking to Strangers – the limited run hour from Sally Phillips and Lily Bevan. Based on the Radio 4 show of the same name, the show was touted as Phillips big return to the Fringe after almost two decades away, but the end result felt oddly frustrating.

It’s not that Talking to Strangers didn’t have laughs: there were many, and both Bevan and Phillips – who had potentially broken her foot dicking about jumping over chairs in the auditorium before the show began – ably demonstrated their talents as character comedians. The pair are amazing on stage, holding the audience in the palm of their hands, and Bevan does equally well as the more experienced Phillips, who – let’s be fair, here – has a much larger cult following.

But by focusing on monologues, the show never puts the duo on stage together until the final bows, and naturally that made TVO yearn for some interaction between the two of them. Why have two admittedly very good half-shows, when just a couple of two-handers would have tied everything together into a unified, and potentially even better whole?

© Austentatious

© Austentatious

A much closer bond was on display during Austentatious – a huge crowd pleasure which takes audience suggestions for a Jane Austin novel and then creates it on the spot. The cast varied slightly from day to day, but was principally made up of Rachel Parris, Cariad Lloyd, Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Graham Dickson, Andrew Hunter Murray, Joseph Morpurgo & Charlotte Gittins.

Sadly, Lloyd was absent from the show TVO managed to sneak in – but the rest of the team were on fine form. As to be expected from an improv show, no two performances are the same, and given the randomly chosen audience suggestion was Theresa and Nicola: Clash of the Titans, the cast managed to concoct quite a story. Cross-dressing, churches made of butter and secret vampires all played their part in the end, with Hunter Murray in particular pushing the cast into uncharted territory with increasingly hilarious results.

© Phil Whelans

© Phil Whelans

However, the prize for most enjoyable improv of the festival is certainly a hotly contested one. For our money, TVO would wager that the one-off special edition of Séance Fiction from Phil Whelans and his merry band of comics (David Reed, Alison Thea-Skot, Suki Webster and Michael Orton-Toliver) would take home the biscuit.

In front of a packed out crowd (featuring several TVO regulars for good measure), Whelans introduced proceedings as a mysterious medium, gamely sourcing improv suggestions from members of the audience before introducing, one by one, the participants who each had a connection to a spirit trying to contact our side of the ethereal realm. Mere moments into their routines, the performers would have to read their suggestions, and react accordingly, and together they built up a picture of the tragically short life of a slightly simple soul who had passed onto the next life, with hilarious results. By sheer fluke, this one-off show took place during TVO’s time at the Fringe, and we’re oh so glad we were able to be a part of this very special hour.

Sadly, said Fringe trip was hindered by time constraints this year, and the clashing of schedules meant that we couldn’t squeeze in a visit to see Tony Law or Paul Foot ourselves this time around. But the rave reviews for both performers speak for themselves, and as these two touring titans will be on the road over the coming months, we’ll be sure to catch up with their latest works as soon as we can. Indeed, you can already buy tickets to see Paul Foot across the land over yonder, and while Tony Law’s next tour is yet to be announced, we’re sure it’ll be with us shortly.

Of course, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Fringe, here. With hundreds of shows on offer, it’s impossible to see it all, let alone in a meagre four and a half days as TVO managed to get up there this year. Indeed, we’ve not mentioned the numerous shows we got to see with no connection to TVO, or the art exhibits, spoken word performances and theatre productions that make Edinburgh a really special place to be every August.

© Bottled Spider

© Bottled Spider

But we must make special mention for one final show we managed to sneak into our jam-packed schedule, simply due to a chance meeting with TVO regular Neil Cole. We bumped into Neil completely by accident (the Fringe is one of those places – there’s a big name at every other table in some places!), and met his charming family too… including his son Harrison who was making his Edinburgh debut as part of Bottled Spider Theatre’s production, The Baffling Adventures of Question Mark Man! 

Feeling the dawning realisation that Harrison was perhaps the first member of ‘The Velvet Onion: The Next Generation’, we popped along to see the show, and – with no real foreknowledge of what we’d agreed to come and see – were genuinely enthralled. This superhero spoof was an immensely enjoyable show that was jam-packed with witty puns, deft gags that ranged from subtle meta-referencing to outright camp silliness, and some intriguing fourth-wall breaking. The entire cast – primarily made up of University of East Anglia students – were clearly having a ball, and the warmth between them rippled through the audience and demonstrated that the next crop of young talents are already on their way up, and they’re going to be so much fun.

And so, with the Fringe now over for another year, TVO would love to hear from YOU. The opinions above are not a definitive account of the Fringe this year, but you can help fill in the gaps!

If you made it to the Edinburgh Festival this year, what shows did you get to see? Which shows did you enjoy? Which failed to rev your engine? Who are you gutted you missed, and who are you glad you took a punt on?

Leave your thoughts in the comments, and hopefully we’ll see you up there again in 2017!

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