Monday, 25 August 2008

Edinburgh Fringe - Day Three

Sunday lunchtime epitomised what I loved about my first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe. When I roused from my blissful slumber that morning, I had no idea that within a few brief hours I’d be watching a six-foot transvestite singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the style of Bernard Manning. But lo – such a thing came to pass. And not only that, but it came to pass during Jim Bowen’s Let's See What You Would Have Won show. As I say to Janie – and anyone else who’ll sit still long enough – that’s the beauty of life; you never know what’s going to happen next.

Jim’s show followed a similar format to that of Nicholas Parsons a couple of days earlier; an opening routine – delivered in his characteristic miserablist style – followed by guest appearances from another couple of fringe acts – drag queen and impressionist Lavinia Slutford and Polish acrobats the Cesar Twins. Like a lot of comedians of his era, Jim veers a bit close for comfort towards moaning about the 'PC brigade' (who would have had him down as a Mac user?) However, the dry wit and old-fashioned craft of his jokes just about kept him afloat. The show then moved on to an abbreviated version of Bullseye; members of the audience linked up with the guests for the 'pounds for points' game, with the winners – the Cesar Twins and young Esme from Derby – going through to Bully's prize board! After only winning one fairly meagre prize, it was an easy decision for Esme to make during the time it took the board to revolve (ie, the time it took for Jim's producer to hump it around): GAMBLE!!! Sadly for Esme, the gamble didn't come off, but – in time-honoured fashion – Jim revealed the special prize that was hiding behind Bully – a (toy) speedboat, containing a hotel voucher.

It's hard for you young 'uns to appreciate what Bullseye means to gents of a certain generation. For know this, gentle reader, there was once a time when the pubs shut on Sunday afternoon. And most other places hadn't even opened in the first place. And verily was there fuck-all to do. Amid this desolation, Bullseye – at 5pm – stood out like an oasis, its cheery music like the mesmerising chimes of a resplendent golden carousel amid an otherwise abandoned and derelict fun fair. The gig was made complete when Jim announced that he'd be signing copies of his autobiography outside afterwards. As I shook his hand, I felt a profound sense of connection – a sense that only came to an end three minutes later, when a grizzly security guard prized my fingers apart and released Jim from my grip.

The nostalgia trip continued a bit later with Roy Walker's Goodbye Mr Chips. Roy – 'the Perry Como of comedy' – started with a much more personal slide-show of his showbiz career, from his early days as a boy soprano singer, through the difficulties of being a comedian in Belfast during the Troubles, to his big breakthrough on Catchphrase. He then revved up the show with a few energetic rounds of the game, before wrapping up with that clip of Mr Chips. While his show wasn't a laugh-a-minute (he's had a bit of personal tragedy along the way), he's got such natural charm and a sense of gratitude for his success that it's impossible not to feel a lot of affection for him. His laconic deadpan delivery also suits his material perfectly – he's fond of the 'slow burner' that only gets the 'big woof' a couple of seconds later.

Early evening, and a quick whizz across town to see Jeff Green's Life-Ache. I'd never come across Jeff before, though the friends we were in Edinburgh with had seen a couple of his shows down the years. I think this was our only view of what the hard side of Fringe life could be like – the (smallish) auditorium was only about half-full, and Jeff said that he'd had some harsh reviews. His show mostly revolved around the changes that had taken place in his life since he'd got married and had a kid, so we had tales of his honeymoon and the strangeness of finding himself as a 'grown-up', as epitomised by his becoming a caravanner. The routine was generally funny, though Jeff seemed a bit strained at times and struggled to get his thread back after a few late arrivals in the audience.

No such concerns for Ed Byrne, whose Different Class was apparently one of the hottest tickets of the Fringe. Ed is a very polished performer, showing the confidence of someone who knows they're at the top of their game. The theme of his show was his discomfort at not knowing quite what class he was supposed to be, though he soon veered off onto other topics – most successfully, the traumatic experience of organising his recent wedding. It seemed a strangely fitting show to finish our weekend on, as it was definitely the Premiership end of the festival; the Assembly Hall is the largest venue on the Fringe, and while Ed's show was funny throughout, there was absolutely nothing risky or out of the mainstream about it. In addition, the size of the venue – I'd guess about 1,000 seats – meant that there wasn't the interaction between performer and audience that made a lot of the other shows so vibrant. All of which is nit-picking really; Ed Byrne matches his material and his delivery perfectly, and gave the crowd exactly what they wanted.

Which just left one more overwrought performance to see out the weekend – me slipping into full King Lear mode when I found out at about 11.50pm that I'd lost the key to the guesthouse. Janie tells me that I get too cross with myself for doing stupid and utterly avoidable things; 'catastrophising', her calls it. Anyway, after a great deal of over-apologising and much psychic self-flagellation, there was a happy ending – the Assembly Hall, where we saw Ed Byrne, rang a few days later to say that they'd found the key. A satisfying epilogue to a very stimulating and highly enjoyable first trip to the Fringe.

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