Once again, in the Edinburgh Fringe "supervenues" – the Scotsman Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon – it's almost impossible to find a play on in the evening. Even the Traverse Theatre, which traditionally schedules its plays in rotation, at different slots each day, has now programmed a consistent late-night comedy strand.
But that's not to say that all the evening's comedy offerings are in conventional stand-up or sketch formats. At the Pleasance (venue 33), Andrew Clover's Birthday Party continues Clover's inspired self-reinvention from actor to comic by creating the kind of sixth birthday party we all wish we had had, with games, points awarded, and toys and sweeties for the audience. At least half the material is ad-libbed, but the impish Clover moves too fast for many of his mistakes to catch up with him. It ends with a massive food and water fight, and big grins all round except for the poor venue staff who only have the Pleasance's standard fifteen-minute turn-around to clean up before the following show.
Goodbye Seattle Coffee Company (Pleasance) continues Julian Fox's defiantly odd blend of banality and bizarrerie, high-concept art and cheap tat, as Fox reviews various coffee chains, speaks about his job as the Barbican's stage door keeper and tries to sketch Simon le Bon. He is so gifted at deadpanning that many of the laughs are tinged with uneasiness, especially when he mentions his therapist, but he's listed in the programme under Comedy so it must be all right. Well, I'm almost sure...
Similarly deadpan is Stewart Lee at the Traverse (venue 15) this week. His Pea Green Boat subjects Edward Lear's nonsense poem The Owl And The Pussycat to his trademark of scathing literal analysis applied to irrational material to make it even funnier. An owl shares a boat with a cat, its natural predator: "Why was this allowed to happen?" How do they open the jar of honey when neither has opposable thumbs? What chords can the owl manage on its small guitar? ...that sort of thing. There's a hint of Ken Campbell about the fantastical-autobiographical strand also present, but Lee brings a darker intelligence to bear on it.
Even within the realm of theatre offerings, there is a vein of high-speed, high-octane, often low-taste humour in the shows directed by John Clancy, the man behind 2000's Fringe First-winning Americana Absurdum. In Goner, FBI procedural meets hospital drama as an assassination attempt leaves the president with a "bullet stuck in his brain like a bad Elton John song". The title tells you pretty much all you need to know about The Complete Lost Works Of Samuel Beckett As Found In An Envelope (Partially Burned) In A Dustbin In Paris Marked "Never To Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER. Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!"
The joke at the core of drag acts is not that they are obvious grotesques, but that at the same time they are in some way disconcertingly plausible. Madame Galina: Ballet Star Galactica (Pleasance Dome; venue 23) may in fact be Iestyn Edwards, a burly Welsh bloke in a tutu, but he/she takes the mickey out of ballet so successfully because he operates from what is clearly a position of detailed knowledge. Good comic audience work meets a performance of the mad scene from Giselle which is more than skilful in the circumstances, even with those thighs.
And the evening is rounded off at the Dome by the most unusual musical tribute act you're likely to see. The Gonzo Dog-Do Bar Band play tribute to Neil Innes and the late Vivian Stanshall's Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in suitably ramshackle but gloriously enjoyable style. On Monday night, Innes himself dropped by and paid them the ultimate accolade: "You guys are as awful as we were!"
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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