My 2011 Fringe was of necessity a truncated affair. A half-fringe. Not the full Bieber. Life, in various guises and brandishing various errands, kept me away from the majority of the festivities. Nonetheless, somewhere between work and sleep I did get to a few little titbits—and now the fringe is over, I present them sliced, diced and analysed for your cultural immersion.
The first show I got around to, long after the fest had begun, was Andrew Lawrence (**). I’d never heard of him before, but Gareth showed me a YouTube selection, which revealed a dichotomy—his earlier work was a kind of grotesque absurdism channeling darkness, confusion and fear, while the later shows were by comparison so observationally banal that they included an appearance on Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow. Sadly this year’s Fringe show was almost entirely the latter. Here and there a shocking moment pierced my expectations enough to draw a laugh, but only in the Frankie Boyle style obscene-punchline style; the overall feel was conventional, bread-and-butter stand-up. Not that it was badly done, or failed to excite the crowd—but coming from a man who apparently has much more unique things to say, it was sad to see such mainstream fare. (**)
Puppetry of the Penis: 3D was the first of two shows that I managed to swag free tickets to by virtue of selling soft drinks and cigarettes to people involved in the show. Unlike the masterful Glenn Wool, this one wasn’t really worth the money. Even though there was no money. Essentially, “puppetry of the penis” is exactly that; two nude male performers manipulating their John Thomases into funny shapes over and over again. Look, it’s the Loch Ness Monster. Look, now it’s the Eiffel Tower. If this sounds risque and obscene, it wasn’t. Any notion of affront lasted for about twenty seconds, after which it was just slightly sad. Two men, squidging their dicks about, for 50 minutes. Apparently some people paid 14 quid for that. (*)
And now, the good free show. The delightful Glenn Wool and/or his delightful girlfriend would drop into my shop at 9pm daily for an Aloe Vera drink and a Lucozade, and during one chat Glenn said that if I ever got a night off, he’d be happy to usher me into the venue FOC. So, when I got a night off…I fell asleep. But when I got another one I went along, and was thoroughly glad I did
Wool’s show No Land’s Man was structured around an anecdote of being cavity searched at an Indonesian airport, but within this loose frame the material ricocheted joyously: from missed Iron Maiden shows to the superiority of Wendell, messiah of all the beavers. Impressively, Wool managed to display a breadth of atypical themes and astute politics without ever becoming arch or preachy. Lightly surreal in places, deftly anecdotal in others, and consistently managing big laughs without sacrificing the show’s intelligence, Glenn Wool left me delighted. (****)
Batman the Musical on the other hand was definitely a 2-star show, but so happily and knowingly a two-star show that it was still completely loveable. Based around the campery of the old Batman TV series, this never came across as anything more than an amateur production by a competent company – but with decent songs, silly jokes, and a constant sense of fun, it still managed to entertain. Nanananananana nananananana, etc. And of course Kapow! (**)
Steve Pretty’s Mixtape was, fittingly, an odd mix. At times, it was a stumbling, amateurish mesh of too many ideas with too few punchlines, kept afloat only by Pretty’s surging likeability. Other moments were enthralling, as he used loop pedals, trumpet playing and a host of impromptu musical instruments to create a delightfully off-kilter blend of music and chatter. Duff moments included a strung-out attempt to demonstrate the power of singing circus music in your head when faced with an intimidating adversary – good ones included beatboxing through a snorkel, a poignant experience of the 2004 tsunami, and his strong central premise of taking the audience, track-by-track, through a mixtape which a friend made for his ‘wake’ when he was mistakenly assumed deceased. Overall the jolly, chaotic improvisation outweighed its slightly fumbly execution—and every audience member left with a complimentary kazoo. (***)
Which brings me, finally if not strictly chronologically, to Andrew O’Neill, and his new show Alternative. I’ve loved Andrew’s work ever since first stumbling across him at his 2009 character comedy show, but having seen him slightly too many times since, I was looking forward to seeing a few new jokes. Thankfully, he had them. Alternative was an obvious step up from his Occult Comedian show, more refined and better paced. Though he still brings his most obvious subject matter into play—his transvestism (“though I prefer ‘clothes weirdo’”), veganism and love of heavy metal, these subjects were mined playfully for their comic value, rather than overplayed in self-justification. The result was plenty of room for high-calibre wit, lightning wordplay and constant hazardous veering into the surreal.
This willingness to mine the depths of oddness is my favourite trait of O’Neill’s (his willingness to discuss Metallica’s Wherever I May Roam with me mid-set is a close second), and he does it with constant dexterity. At times, it treads a brilliantly self-aware line between comedy and dadaist nonsense; even if the rest of the crowd weren’t quite feeling the “ultraviolet Maori” song, I was. In more coherent moments, he evokes Python with his tendency to smash apart expected structures to dive for an unexpected punchline, or purposefully kill off a predictable gag with subsequent over-intellectual analysis, such as when a cheap pull-back-and-reveal gag was followed up by a lengthy and articulate deconstruction of the merits of, well, the pull-back-and-reveal gag. While dancing a music-hall cockney jig, natch.
At the same time, this wasn’t purely comedy for its own sake. Another vital string to O’Neill’s bow is that however silly and abstract he may go, he never seems completely removed from reality. There’s politics in here, and a celebration of alternative life, and all that that may mean. While his closing message to go and do something wonderful was a little tacked-on, and there were times where he left half the crowd behind, for the most part this was comedy exactly, succintly, bizarrely as I want it. (****)