Poppy Day/Brian Appleton's History Of Rock'n'Roll/Otis Lee Crenshaw/Dave Gorman's Better World/2:18 Underground/Wreck The Airline Barrier/Gentlemen Volunteers/Women Of Troy: 2099
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 1999

As Antony Thorncroft has noted on these pages, straight stand-up comedy is now firmly in eclipse on the Edinburgh Fringe. Ben Moor has for a few years been performing scripted narrative pieces, of which his current Poppy Day is the most accomplished and charming. Graham Fellows came to attention in the early Nineties with his John Shuttleworth character (it is mere coincidence that I have long sung his praises), and has now created a follow-up in "musicologist and part-time lecturer in Media Studies" Brian Appleton; Appleton's History of Rock'n'Roll consists of amusingly bitter tirades as to how he unwittingly created some of rock's greatest moments, from inspiring Rod Stewart to write "Maggie May" to causing David Bowie's notorious 1976 fascist salute at Victoria station. Rich Hall, too, performs this year not in propria persona but as Country & Western-singing jailbird Otis Lee Crenshaw; behind the mask of Crenshaw, Hall can not only sing a series of scabrous ditties with lyrics such as "Do you remember...?/Well, I don't/'Cause I was drunk", but can also get away with the kind of amiable shambles which always seemed rather more awkward when he was simply Rich Hall.

Dave Gorman's Better World takes the concept of thematic comedy even further. Earlier this year, Gorman sent a pseudonymous letter to every local newspaper in the UK asking for suggestions as to what one man could do to improve the world for the millennium; his show recounts both the more barking suggestions he received and his attempts to execute some of the more plausible proposals, from an improved postal system to the public shaming of minor criminal offenders Gorman made up a placard about his speeding offence and displayed it and himself at Piccadilly Circus. (All the above shows are at the Pleasance.)

Simultaneously, Fringe theatre is becoming more and more dissatisfied with straightforward narrative. The more interesting of the National Youth Theatre's two shows is the devised piece 2:18 Underground (Chaplaincy Centre), an affecting series of vignettes about passengers in a Tube carriage. The Riot Group's remarkable Wreck The Airline Barrier (Garage Theatre) is a loud, rapid-fire dialogue piece centring on three plane passengers, which manages to shoehorn in Hitler, bizarre religious concepts, marketing and self-improving in-flight videos among a host of other topics; it is an intelligent, provoking piece, but noteworthy also in that it draws more and faster laughs than most comedy shows I have seen this year, and keeps the audience thoroughly engaged in what must be one of the most uncomfortable, airless venues on the current Fringe. This American student company will undoubtedly go places, although possibly not by air.

Gentlemen Volunteers, at the Gilded Balloon, tells the story of a couple of Yale men who enlist to do Red Cross work on the French front before America has entered World War I. It uses simple, stark lighting, makes maximum use of the promenade style of presentation and occasionally enlists audience members for thankfully un-cringeworthy cameos (one unsuspecting punter finds himself briefly playing a young Ernest Hemingway). The international company of five (including a musician/sound-effects man) cleverly concentrate on a light, diverting human-interest tone, drawing the audience in emotionally as well as physically until the inevitably downbeat closing moments. Similarly, Women Of Troy: 2099 (Pleasance) begins in an informal, poor-theatre style then shifts powerfully into full tragic mode with the arrival of Charlotte Woolford's impressive Hecuba. I am normally extremely wary of texts rewritten on modern colonialist lines, but Courttia Newland's adaptation, in which the Trojans are principally Afro-Caribbean and the conquering Greeks become English, largely succeeds in creating a futuristic picture of race war.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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