Should Scotland’s famous arts fest join the independence debate?

August in Edinburgh in synonymous with the arts. This August over 25,000 performers have descended on the Scottish capital, offering everything from stand-up comedy and one-act plays to jazz, opera, and poetry readings as part of several separate festivals that are collectively known as the “Edinburgh festival.”

But while the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town will be littered with flyers and street performers until the end of this month, the program for next year’s festival is already causing a stir.

The 2014 Edinburgh festival – which bills itself as the largest arts festival in the world – is scheduled to end just weeks before Scotland goes to the polls in a historic referendum on independence.

But the Scots’ historic constitutional choice won’t be on agenda at the oldest of the festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), according to its director, Sir Jonathan Mills.

Mr. Mills told a Scottish newspaper earlier this month that he was “not anticipating anything in the [program] at all” next year about the independence debate. The program will concentrate on the Commonwealth Games – due to take place in Glasgow next summer – and the centenary of the start of World War I.

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with The Scotsman.

Founded in 1947, the EIF has a budget of £10 million ($15 million), around half of which comes from public funds.fringe

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts are “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina told the Sunday Herald, a popular Scottish newspaper. “The discussion has become really narrow and people are stating their positions. Nobody is really listening to each other and the festival would have been a great opportunity to listen.”

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful,” Ms. Mina added.

But the director of another of the festivals, the Edinburgh Book Festival, has said that independence will be a part of the conversation at his event in 2014. “Our job is to discuss things that matter, and for me to ignore the referendum would be the wrong thing to do. We want the book festival to be a safe and fair and unthreatening environment to discuss ideas and debates,”Nick Barley told The Guardian.

By far the largest slice of the Edinburgh festival pie belongs to the Fringe. It was inaugurated in 1947 when eight theater companies who were not invited to the International Festival decided to perform regardless, and has grown into one of the most recognizable arts festivals in the world, with a reputation for being more spontaneous and edgy than its more formal sibling. The Fringe has no selection committee and invites all types of performers and materials.

Despite this, Scottish independence remained a rather marginal theme in this year’s Fringe, says Ben Judge, editor of Fest magazine, a publication appearing each August about the city’s festivals. “You can count the number of independence-minded productions this year on the fingers of one hand. So why is it that Scottish artists, comedians and playwrights seem so disengaged – at least creatively – from the debate?”

Not everyone agrees, however, that Scotland’s creative community are disconnected from next year’s referendum. Artists are struggling to find an outlet in mainstream Scottish cultural forums, says playwright and novelist Alan Bissett.

“You have to find your own space – put on a show [and] take it to the Edinburgh Fringe or put it on YouTube,” Mr. Bissett says.

Bissett believes that the arts have a particularly important role to play in the lead-up to next September’s vote. ‘‘Because [independence] is so complex, the arts is the ideal place to have that discussion,” he says. “Artists aren’t beholden to ‘the truth.’ We are much more about exploring the emotional complexities. People who experience a play, or a poem, or a novel about nationalism recognize more of it because it’s not black and white.”

As well as providing a forum for debate beyond the febrile, often partisan, atmosphere of the official “yes” and “no” campaigns, the arts can also act as an alternative record of next year’s vote, Bissett says.

“When we look back at the Treaty of Union [the agreement which led to the creation of Great Britain in 1707], one of the first things we think of is Robert Burns and his angry poem ‘[Such a] Parcel o’ Rogues [in a Nation].’ So now we can look back and see, ‘ah, not everyone was happy about the Treaty of Union.'”

Posterity is not the only aspect of the independence debate engaging Scottish artists. Many artists will also be actively fighting for a “yes” in the referendum in 2014.

“What artists sense with independence is that it can revitalize not just Scotland but the rest of the UK as well,” Bissett says.

On the Money

This feature on Irish comics and the recession appeared in Fest magazine ahead of this year’s Fringe.

“Why have estate agents stopped looking out the window in the morning?” begins a gag that has been doing the rounds in Dublin for the last 18 months or so. “Otherwise they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.”

In Ireland, a wry, gallows humour about the nation’s financial misfortunes permeates. Across the country people exchange increasingly bizarre real-life tales: the estate where one woman lives surrounded by hundreds of empty houses; the train station in a derelict field near Dublin Airport, built to service a massive development that never happened; the former property magnate who now cleans windows on O’Connell Street.

It’s often said that comedy does well in a recession – and the big ‘R’ is firmly in the sights of a host of Irish comics at this year’s Fringe. “I call this my bailout tour. Last year, I was in Greece, this year I was in Portugal. I pity wherever I go next year,” says Keith Farnan, whose fourth Edinburgh outing Money, Money, Money is billed as an exploration of “Ireland’s brief love affair with vast amounts of money and fiscal meltdown.”

Mementos of this failed romance with global capitalism lie dotted around the country’s capital: ubiquitous for sale signs, unfinished apartment blocks, grandiose pieces of public art. Dublin, of course, is not all Rome after the fall. There are still plenty of salubrious city centre hotels, the kind of places where you find piped jazz music, chintz sofas, ladies who lunch… and, er, amiable Irish comics who bear a passing resemblance to Zach Galifianakis.

“I didn’t realise this place was so fancy,” Keith Farnan admits when we meet, on his suggestion, in Dublin’s upmarket Westin Hotel. In front of him, on a glass-topped table, sit a pair of sunglasses, a plate of biscuits and the business section of The Irish Times. Since he started writing Money, Money, Money back in January, the financial pages have become required reading – and have led the hirsute funnyman to some sobering conclusions. “This is the worst recession we’ve ever had. We’ve been poor in the past, but we’ve never been stressed and poor before. It’s not a good combination.”

Farnan himself is no stranger to straitened circumstances. Back in 2006, at the zenith of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger frenzy, the Cork native swapped a comfortable life as a lawyer for the vagaries of full-time standup. “I went from a secure, well-paid job to literally nothing. While my friends were buying second homes, I was investing in loaves of bread and buying shares in ham and cheese. Making a new company – the sandwich.”

With three successful Fringe shows and a star turn on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow behind him, Farnan is now well-established on the circuit, but he found writing about Ireland’s economic travails an unexpected challenge. “Last year’s show [Sex Traffic] was about prostitution and rape. After that I thought Money, Money, Money would be easy – but it’s been anything but. It’s been a struggle at times,” he remarks ruefully.

Farnan describes the crash—which began with the global credit crunch in September 2008—as “Ireland’s 9/11”. That might sound a tad melodramatic but the effect on the national psyche of 1,000 people emigrating every week, unemployment at 14 per cent and a whopping $85 billion in bad debts has been catastrophic.

Ireland’s writers, poets and playwrights have struggled to make sense of the desolate, post-collapse landscape. Indeed the task of reflecting the nation back to itself, warts and all, has largely been ceded to comedians, at least temporarily.

“Comedy is the most immediate medium. What’s in the news will often influence your act,” suggests Farnan. “You can also gauge where something sits with people. If you stand up and make a gag that’s too close to the bone, that hits too hard, you’ll get boos. A novelist can’t get that kind of immediate feedback.”

Another Irish comedian with the financial meltdown firmly in his sights, Abie Philbin Bowman, agrees: “In comedy you know if something is shit or self-indulgent pretty much immediately. If you become preachy or start lecturing, people switch off, they stop laughing.”

Philbin Bowman, a garrulous, fresh-faced Dubliner on the “geeky, philosophical end of comedy”, caused a minor sensation at his first Fringe, in 2006, with his sell-out show Jesus: The Guantanamo Years. He returns to Edinburgh this year with Pope Benedict: Bond Villain, an extended riff on why the Protestant countries of northern Europe are bailing out their Catholic neighbours – with Ireland as Exhibit A.

Sitting in the verdant grounds of his alma mater Trinity College—once a seat of Protestant power in Ireland—Philbin Bowman sketches out the rationale behind his latest offering: “In Protestant countries, you get into heaven by reading the Bible, following your conscience and asking questions. In Catholic countries, you get into heaven by feeling guilty, following orders, and repeating the magic words. Once, powerful people bullied us in the name of ‘God’. Today, they bully us in the name of ‘The Economy’.”

Credit default swaps, sub-prime mortgages, asset-backed securities: hardly the argot of comedy gold. Is it difficult to get a laugh out of a financial crash? “Absolutely. It’s horrible – it’s much easier to do jokes about sex,” laughs Philbin Bowman.

“Essentially what happened [in Ireland] is a really boring story. This is a bunch of bald, white, middle-aged bankers making terrible financial decisions. They didn’t even shag their secretaries! So it’s not a natural subject for comedy. But it’s something we urgently need to talk—and joke—about.”

Philbin Bowman has strong words too for the IMF, which led last autumn’s bailout of Ireland’s toxic banking system. “The whole Dominique Strauss-Kahn thing tells you so much about the culture of the IMF,” he says, referring to the allegations that its former director sexually assaulted a chambermaid in his $3,000-a-night hotel suite.

“If you think about it, he could have stayed in a Holiday Inn, paid for a really expensive call-girl and still saved money. This is the guy who was lecturing us on ‘austerity’, ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘painful economic choices’.”

The Irish public aren’t the only ones facing up to “austerity” and “painful economic choices” in the wake of the downturn. Like many on the country’s comedy circuit, Colm O’Regan has found it increasingly difficult to sell shows to cash-strapped punters. “Now if people are going to spend money on comedy it’s on the big names that they absolutely trust like Tommy Tiernan and Des Bishop,” says O’Regan, whose second Fringe effort, Dislike: A Facebook Guide to Crisis, has received critical acclaim since debuting in Ireland earlier this year.

Speaking from his Dublin home, now worth half of what he paid for it a few years ago, O’Regan complains that the “arse has fallen out” of the corporate market, once a serious money-spinner for Irish comics. But the recession isn’t all doom and gloom. After years of demanding safe, cheap thrills, audiences are becoming increasingly open to topical, edgy gags.

“For years all most people wanted to hear were jokes about, ‘isn’t it funny how the light switches off in the fridge when you close the door’,” recalls Colm O’Regan. “Now there’s a lot more interest in topical comedy, not just being ranty for the sake of it but proper, measured political satire. That’s making a big comeback.”

Fringe-goers are perfectly placed to profit from Ireland’s boom in recession humour. With so many quality comics in the market, don’t be surprised if there’s a run on sharply observed jokes about macroeconomics, the IMF and idle Irish estate agents, in Edinburgh this August.

Football, Football, Football

Last week I played in Amnesty international’s annual Edinburgh critics versus comics football match. Not only was a chance for comics to get their own back for those one-star reviews but it was all for a good cause – to highlight the terrible treatment of Burmese comic Zarganar by his country’s military junta.

The Guardian cameras were there, and even managed to capture a rare goal by yours truly (it’s 3.10 in, but who’s counting…).

We lost 3-2 in the end, we’ll have our revenge next year. Or in print even sooner.

Edinburgh Festival Reviews

I’ve been in Edinburgh on and off during August, doing some reviews for a couple of local magazines, The List and Fest. It’s been great fun – I’ve seen some great stuff as well as the inevitable dross – but rather post all my reviews here I’ll paste a couple of samples with links to the rest of them.

Winner By Submission
Derek, Winner By Submission’s odious protagonist, lives by the snappy motto: “Life is a cage fight.” It’s an apt metaphor: sitting through this lopsided new play by American writer William Mastrosimone feels a lot like watching a couple of ring-rusty cage fighters halfheartedly going at each other. There’s a decent move or two at the start, then lots of heavy-handed rushing about, before someone (in this case the audience) is finally pounded into surrender.

Greasy, lank-haired Derek is the friend from hell: he lives in his parent’s basement, dreams of being a pro fighter, drinks copious amounts of Budweiser, and generally acts like a spoiled brat. The latter mainly involves bullying his putative friends, geeky Kelly and preppy Jared (or is that Jerry? The carbon-copy nasally American accents are difficult to decipher).

So far, so “suburban America.” However, when Derek introduces date-rape drug GHB into the equation (and into coquettish schoolgirl Shannon’s drink) the lines between fantasy and reality become hideously blurred.

At least that’s the intention. But while Derek’s dark fantasies of gang-raping Shannon and broadcasting the event live on the internet are real—and scary—enough, Jared’s sudden change of heart is not only out of character, it destroys any dramatic potential (though it ultimately saves Shannon).

In the end, Winner by Submission lacks the courage of its own convictions. Mastrosimone purports to shine a light into the dark hearts of men but shies away from revealing what lurks within. This play wants to be nasty, LaBute-ish and short – but in the end it’s just short.

Henry Paker’s 3-D Bugle
“I’m Henry Paker and I approached Nick Faldo in an airport when I was 12.” For most comedians, writing for Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats would rank higher in their career achievements than a chance encounter with the 1996 Masters Champion – but then Henry Paker isn’t your average comedian.

Paker’s standup mixes off-the-wall observations about conventional subjects (mobile phones, clothes, toasters) with wild, anarchic flights of fancy. In lesser hands this would be a surefire recipe for comic disaster but the tall, shaven-headed Englishman’s commanding presence and chaotic wit has the audience rolling in the aisles for vast majority of an action-packed hour.

There is a script—or it least there seems to be—but Paker is at his gleefully misanthropic best when throwing it out the window. The discovery that an audience member is reading “The Taxidermist’s Book of Recipes” (or The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, as its author calls it) leads to an extended, inspired riff about a Swiss doctor stuffing foxes with beef to present to the King of France.

Although his humour is mostly observational, Paker has no fear of throwing physicality into the mix. He bounds excitedly about the stage, jumping onto empty front rows and using his not insubstantial frame to great comic effect.

Paker is a riotous, iconoclastic star in the making. On current form, bumping into former golf icons in departure lounges won’t be his main claim to fame for much longer.

The rest of my Fest reviews are available here and my reviews for The List can be seen here.

If You Can't Stand the Heat…

Picture the scene: You’re a comedian on your first run in Edinburgh. It’s not going so well. Most shows are made up of mates on comps and the odd, stray lunchtime punter. One day you have a solitary paying customer (and no mates). You have to cancel that show.

You are not getting reviewed – cause you’re a nobody in a town of 3,000 performers. Finally you get a review in a popular Edinburgh publication, it’s a not a good review but it’s not a bad one. A bog-standard, two-star review, because you’re a bog-standard, two-star comic.

mike bubbinsWhat do you do: (a) read the review, heed the advice (and the lack of customers) and decide to rethink your act (or maybe you career) or do you (b) scrawl a nonsensical, error-strewn rant at the journo who wrote the review telling all about your pitiful Fringe run…..well if your name is the unfortunate Mike Bubbins you choose the latter…

For anyone who wants to read Mike’s rant about my review of his show (from last week’s the List) in its foaming entirety check it out here http://blogs.walesonline.co.uk/mikebubbins/2009/08/amixed-bag.html

The condensed version goes something like this: ‘If the author, Peter Geogehan(sic), had said that to me during one of the hundred plus hours I have spent writing and re-writing my set since Christmas, he would find out fairly quickly that, compared to the bespectacled, emaciated, pasty Mr Geogehan (And he is. I Googled him. For ages) I am very much not lacking in the punch department. After wishing a fatal industrial accident on my old mate Pete, I consoled myself with the knowledge that all reviewers are sad wannabes, without the courage, or talent to actually do what it is they are giving their ‘expert’ opinions on.’

Poor Mike, if you can’t stand the heat mate I really would get out of the kitchen…googling your reviewers (would help if you got my name right) and then mocking them as ‘pasty’ and ‘bespectacled’ is not big, hard…or funny…as for the threat to punch me, well Mr B that’s just very juvenile, isn’t it?

And his barely legible ramblings don’t get much better: ‘There is a lot of competition in Edinburgh. A LOT of competition. Over 2000 shows this year. But that includes a LOT of rubbish, and my show isn’t.’ (All correct…and if he had read my review I didn’t say it was rubbish…’under-written’ and ‘lacking punch’ are not the same thing).

‘Settle down Geogehan, or I will smash your glasses.’ Well done Mike, another schoolyard threat and still making spelling mistakes (the piece is littered with them – learn to spell check B-man).

‘But nobody knows me up here….You have never seen a more pitiful sight that grown men and women poring through a paper, desperate to find out what some unknown person’s opinion of them is.’

Yes, Mike the problem is yours not mine. I’m doing my job – if you did yours better you wouldn’t be getting your knickers in such a twist. But just when it looks like Mike is smelling the coffee he loses the rag again:

‘The fact that no-one outside of Edinburgh has even heard of Three Weeks or downmarket, lying, hack-written rag The List, means nothin’….

It goes on in this style for a couple of hundred words (including a rather pathetic admission to getting tutorials from comic Rhod Gilbert during the middle of his run) before ending with this corker:

‘I can neither confirm nor deny that this is the same part-time, freelance, ‘writer’ and Milhouse lookalike Peter Geogehan who is notorious for being a persistent bed-wetter and who has an unhealthy interest in farmyard animals.’

ah Mike, Mike, you just can’t leave the schoolyard….lucky I have a full-time job to keep me busy…and by the way it’s GEOGHEGAN

Edinburgh Jumps to the Beat

Top comics make a packet from the Fringe but for lesser lights it’s a real struggle. In this feature from last week’s Sunday Business Post I talked to artists in the black and the red after a month in Edinburgh.

Breaking Edinburgh Can Break the Bank
It is barely midday but already Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Mile is awash with people. A large crowd forms around a man with a bleached mohawk and tattered waistcoat juggling fire. Beneath their feet flyers for everything from one man Lord of the Rings to a stand-up show about Hitler’s moustache lie scattered like confetti on the cobbled stone. This is the fringe festival in full swing – and business has never been brisker.

Edinburgh’s fringe, already the world’s largest arts festival, has just announced a 20% increase on advance sales from 2007, previously considered the event’s most successful year. Some city centre venues have even reported sales up a staggering 38% on last August. And all this in the face of the biggest global recession in living memory.

Shane Langan 1Laughter is a popular escape from economic gloom, judging by the bright yellow ‘sold-out’ stickers emblazoned across promotional posters for established stand-ups such as Rhod Gilbert and David O’Doherty as well as young turks like Kevin Bridges.

Not all comics enjoy such success, however: the average fringe act loses around £6,000 at Edinburgh. Some, like Dubliner Shane Langan, take an even bigger hit in the pocket.

’This year the fringe is costing me something like £8,000, and that’s before living expenses,’ said the star of sketch group Diet of Worms, making his solo debut in Edinburgh this year. ‘That money is gone as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get some of it back through ticket sales but it’s best to just assume that it is all gone. Then anything you do get back is a bonus.’

Expenses and overheads for a standard month-long fringe run are vertiginous, especially for young comics without major backing. Renting a dank, dusty 80-seater room in an established fringe venue like the Gilded Balloon or the Pleasance for an hour a day comes in at upwards on £4,000. Add public relations fees, promotional material and living expenses and costs quickly spiral out of control.

An expensive city by European standards the other eleven months of the year, Edinburgh in August is definitely no place for the thrifty. Many students and residents vacate their tenement flats for the month, preferring to rent them out to fringe performers, often at exuberant rates – as Langan has discovered.

‘I’m paying £1,500 to share a two-bedroom flat with another comic and my girlfriend for the month. Which is obviously way over the odds but you need to have your own space,’ he explained.

So how can a struggling young Irish comic afford to put on a fringe show in the first place? ‘I’ve learned to live on very little at home,’ Langan remarked, slowly sipping a glass of tap water in a city centre bar. ‘I scrimp and save throughout the year. I also set up a separate Edinburgh account and put any extra money and savings into that.’

Eleanor Tiernan, another up and coming Irish act at this year’s fringe, has similar experiences. ‘I wouldn’t have a lot of money but I put as much as I can aside during the year to fund Edinburgh,’ she said.

Eleanor-012 copyBoth Langan and Tiernan are full-time comics, the latter quitting a steady job as a civil service engineer to follow her cousin Tommy into stand-up five years ago. ‘To be honest the thoughts then of how I live now would have frightened the life out of me. Now I don’t know on a Friday how I’ll pay the rent on a Monday morning.’

With cash in short supply the temptation to avoid excess expenses, like professional public relations, is strong, but Tiernan counsels against cutting corners. ‘Last year was my first year on the fringe and I did it all myself to try and save money. I had a double act with an American comic but he didn’t show up. So in the end I had to do the whole show myself, and I was doing my own PR. All told I lost about £9,000 – this year I’m paying for someone to do the promotion for me.’

As well as booking venues and co-ordinating crucial festival press, a dedicated PR assists with another integral part of any profitable Edinburgh run: flyers. With so much choice punters often buy tickets for shows they know next to nothing about – so encticing, preferably laugh-out-loud funny, flyers are vital promotional tools. Well-established fringe turns would not be seen dead flyering, but for emerging acts it remains one of most effective ways to get noticed.

‘I’m out on the street literally everyday for two or three hours,’ said Colm O’Regan, a fresh stand-up talent from Dripsey, Co. Cork (‘Famous for having the world’s shortest St Patrick’s day parade.’).

‘I literally approach every stationary human being within walking distance of the box office and try and convince them to come see me. It’s not easy, having to go on about how great you are and why they must come to the show, but you have to do it.’

Unknown fringe acts fact myriad difficulties – from competing with major international names to not getting those all-important early reviews – but the thoughtful O’Regan, bicycle helmet in hand, reckons the biggest challenge is upstairs. ‘It is very easy to get here physically but in your mind it is a much, much bigger leap. You are never really ready, I guess, but in your mind you have to believe you are, that you are someone that people will pay to see,’ he remarked.

Many debutants are disappointed when a show is poorly attended or they lose more money than intended but O’Regan is refreshingly phlegmatic about the whole enterprise. ‘This is basically an investment in a small business. And like any small business in your first year you hope to break even or not to take too big a hosing and then to build on that the next year and the year after.

‘’It is a bit like doing a masters – the benefits aren’t up front and immediate, you just hope that they’ll accrue over time.’

Panel: Jason Byrne’s Tips from the Top

Jason Byrne is the undisputed king of the fringe. Irish audiences might recognise the affable ginger-haired southsider from Anonymous or The Jason Byrne Show but in Edinburgh he is a bona fide stand-up phenomeon. The most successful solo act in festival history – last year he sold in excess of 25,000 tickets and grossed well over £250,000 – he has some sage advice for new Irish comics trying to succeed in the cut-throat fringe world.

‘I’ve worked really hard here and the thing these guys need to understand is that it doesn’t happen overnight,’ explained Byrne, back for his thirteenth consecutive fringe. ‘Over the years I’ve climbed steadily from doing 100 seater venues to 150 to 180 to 360 and now I’m doing 800 seater venues,’ he said after another sold-out night in Edinburgh’s Assembly Hall.

Today’s newcomers might accept losing money at Edinburgh as a fact of life but Byrne has never seen it that way. ‘I’ve never paid to be here. I’ve always had a promoter to cover the costs. I remember getting £500 the first time I played and thinking ‘Oh boy, that’s something’. Though obviously things have moved on a bit since then.’

Along with compatriot Tommy Tiernan, Byrne made his fringe name as a finalist in the 1996 edition of ‘So You Think You’re Funny?’ (he finished runner-up behind the Navan man). He returned the following year as one half of a stand-up double bill – again sharing a stage with Tiernan – waiting until 1998 to make his solo fringe debut.

Byrne believes emerging Irish talents would be wise to follow this gradual route to the top. ‘A lot of people come here and go straight into the one-hour show. They’re not ready, get ripped to shreds in the press and never really recover. Edinburgh is vicious.

‘Also, they are playing a festival with too many acts already,’ he cautioned. ‘The only way to stand out is to do the competitions. That way you’ll build up a following and a name over the years and you’ll be able to get a good agent as well.’

With their onus on quick wit and confident delivery, competitions are an excellent barometer of whether a comic is ready for the fringe: ‘If you’re not getting into the final of one of these things then you shouldn’t be doing the one hour show. It’s a simple as that. You wouldn’t give someone in their first year in college a column in a national newspaper, would you?’

Byrne also suggests that new comics consider looking beyond the fringe proper. With over 460 shows in 33 venues across Edinburgh, the so-called ‘free fringe’ is bigger than ever this year. Here acts pay nothing for the performance space: apart from living expenses, the only cost incurred is a £370 charge for inclusion in the official fringe.

A plastic collection bucket lets audiences reward the comics they find funny – and punish those they don’t. A handful of rusty coppers might be a harsh reality check but it is a lot less painful than a massive fringe debt.

Some more Edinburgh reviews

I’m still in Edinburgh reviewing away, here’s a couple of other pieces from The List

Phil Nichol

‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Bobby Spade.’ Phil Nichol’s transformation into a white-suited lounge lizard with a sideline in psychopathy, is so complete that all that’s missing is the trademark Stars in Their Eyes dry-ice intro. Accompanied by jazz piano and double-bass, the Canadian comic unfurls his man’s tragic back-story – an abusive mother, a series of ‘uncles’, a string of failed marriages – in hilarious verse, riotous song and priceless one-liners.

philnichol--TLST034895Early offering ‘My Show’ – a paean with enough egomania to fill a clutch of gangsta rap records – is pure Spade: misogynistic, lecherous, unnerving, and deeply, consistently funny. From then on in it’s a rollercoaster ride of black comedy gold with beat poetry about adultery and incest, rockabilly ditties redolent of an incurably demented Johnny Cash and a witty meditation on Helen Keller’s husband. Nichol’s stand-up is certainly an acquired taste but in Spade he has found the perfect vehicle for his substantial lyrical gifts. There is physicality to his humour too. While reciting a punk poem entitled ‘Do Everything You’re Not Supposed To’, he grits his teeth and butts the air like an angsty teenager at a My Chemical Romance gig.

The laughs come thick and fast throughout, aided and abetted by a string of one-liners so depraved Jerry Sadowitz would think twice before using them – but so good he’d never pass them up. Nichol even creates a new literary form in the ‘pong’ (a poem/song hybrid) during which he admits: ‘This show won’t make you think/It’s just something I wrote when I’d too much to drink’. Bobby Spade may not be the most cerebral character on this year’s Fringe, but he could well be the funniest. (Peter Geoghegan)

The Stand II, 558 7272, until 30 Aug, 9pm, £10.

David Longley
Acid-tongued and sharp as a barrelful of tacks, Englishman Longley is a comedian with an axe to grind. His rants on everything from politics to pregnancy don’t always hit the bullseye, but his witty one-liners keep the laughs ticking over.

The Stand III & IV, 558 7272, until 30 Aug (not 17), 8.35pm, £7 (£6).

Mike Bubbins
Stocky Welshman Bubbins is the spit of The King of Queens’ Kevin James and, unfortunately, his Fringe debut is about as adventurous as the tepid US sitcom. The former PE teacher’s tales of daytime TV, smalltown life and material strife are often underwritten and lack punch, but a natural charm and confident delivery just about sees him through.

The GRV, 226 0000, until 30 Aug, 1.40pm, £5.

Janey Godley
godleys-janeygodleyphoto1-cTThis straight-talking Glaswegian is not one to mince her words: so when she tells you about unwittingly smoking crack or catching Mexican swine flu you’re inclined to believe her. Immensely likeable, Godley’s well-crafted anecdotes are sharp and engaging enough to cover an occasional lack of originality.

Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, until 31 Aug, 7pm, £11–£12 (£9.50–£10.50).

Edinburgh Fringe Reviews

At the moment I’m over in Edinburgh covering the fringe. Biggest doesn’t always mean best – I’ve seen plenty of dross already – but it’s still a great festival. Here’s a couple of reviews I’ve done for the popular Scottish arts guide The List

Hannah Gadsby Does Mother Really Know Best?
Hannah Gadsby’s domineering, Catholic mammy has plenty to answer for. She dressed her youngest daughter in beige tracksuits and pleated purple golf shorts, treated serious injuries with Tupperware and spoke in an hannah-gadsby1_thumbunintelligible personal code: you’ll never guess what the show’s rather odd title, Kiss Me Quick I’m Full of Jubes, means in Mrs Gadsby’s world. Those parenting skills may have bordered on negligence but they did gift this amiable Antipodean a rich seam of comic gold, which she mines with aplomb.

With a self-deprecation that borders on flagellation, the chunky, bespectacled Gadsby goes from childhood in Tasmania (‘famous for its frighteningly small gene pool’) to eventually coming out to her stiflingly conventional family. Along the way we hear about a traumatic recent encounter with a personal trainer and the BMI (‘I’m 56% fat-free’ she announces with a mix of pride and weary resignation) and an alarmingly lengthy history of accidents and ailments. A lesser talent might have turned mother into a one-dimensional monster: instead Gatsby, with deadpan delivery and razor-sharp wit, makes her the basis of a minor comic masterpiece.

Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, until 30 Aug (not 17), 7.20pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10).

Socially Retarded
You’d expect plenty of cringing in a sketch show about awkward situations, but too often this fresh-faced, well-spoken duo are the ones left shifting uncomfortably. Even their enthusiastic delivery and game attempts at audience participation can’t lift weak riffs on predictable material: the holy trinity of sex, death and Facebook.
Royal College of Surgeons, 0845 508 8515, until 22 Aug (not 16), 6.10pm, £7 (£5).