Edinburgh Fringe 2013 – The Cream of the Crop

Richard Herring
Blue Herring

Mildly delayed due to other writing commitments, better late than never, here we go with a round up of my top picks from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe!

NB – I’ll try not to give away too much in these summaries as each show will probably tour later in the year or in 2014, so feel free to read away spoiler-free.

Round the horn.

Knightmare Live

One show that I knew I had to get locked in before I even hit the country was Knightmare Live. The legendary children’s show that ran from 1987-1994 is one of my all-time favourites and I still remember having the show’s address written down on a piece of paper in a drawer in the living room table ready for mine and my brother’s application to take on the dungeon.

Grinning like an idiot, we queued up in the Gilded Balloon and took central third row seats for this live re-imagining. Hosted by nu-Treguard (Paul Flannery) the show obviously does away with the technical wizardry of the show (look, it was the early 90s, it looked like ACTUAL magic) and instead uses simple screens and ingenious props to recreate the dungeon feel. Flannery is an excellent dungeon master, slotting in all of Hugo Myatt’s catchphrases and ad-libbing brilliantly when things can and do go slightly wrong, never once breaking character.

Meanwhile, Tom Bell’s authentically-helmed Lord Fear is a delight, quipping his way through the show with lines that ooze with sinister sarcasm. Throughout the absolutely hilarious hour there’s no pause for breath as a dungeoneer is navigated by two comedians through doors, around obstacles and past a rogues gallery of supporting players. Faithful to the original but also brilliantly bonkers in its own right, you could watch this show every night and never have quite the same experience twice. An absolute joy.

Tim Key
The Masterslut

Tim Key

I’ve seen Tim Key twice before and was utterly blown away by how madcap but likeable the guy is, so it was a no-brainer to go and check out his ‘Work In Slutgress’ .

Entering the Pleasance Dome venue, Key is up to his usual trick of being there already, acknowledging the audience as they walk in with THAT cheeky grin and naughty wink. And this time, he’s lying on a bed in the middle of the stage, casually sipping a beer…

What then ensues is an absolutely hilarious, surreal show that combines Key’s trademark poetry, tales of bizarre experiences in the movie industry, audience interaction and even contemporary dance. This show really sees Key take it up a notch and is mesmerizing in both its material and its execution. One thing’s for sure, when it ends, we’re all left gasping for more.

Tony Law

The law (no pun intended) of the Edinburgh queue is an odd one. many people seem to get down to the venues super early and then pick not the front row, but maybe seats in the second or third section. Being perennial mid-queue people this suited us as it meant that the front was often free and for Canadian madman Tony Law we were literally in spitting distance. A regular on shows such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Law is another comedian who plays with surrealism, riffing off stories that begin based in reality before veering into utterly insane territory. Law is a whirl of wordplay, and to some may seem intimidating as he rants right into your face. But underneath it all there’s the grin of a true tease and Law is utterly infectious as he draws you into his darkly comic world.

Marcus Brigstocke

A regular on radio and TV, it’s not that I don’t find Marcus Brigstocke funny, it’s just that he appears on the sorts of programmes I tend not to go out of my way to watch or listen to. Fortunately, at Edinburgh he had a couple of shows to pick from and on our very first night we went to see his ‘Je m’accuse – I Am Marcus’ outing. I probably wasn’t quite prepared for just how physical a comedian Brigstocke is, so seeing him hobble around following a recent foot injury, he initially appears a little frustrated before the adrenaline takes over. Telling hilarious stories about his life, from growing up in Devon to the bizarre jobs he’s taken on until now, Brigstocke is utterly engaging, brilliantly vulgar, honest and tear-inducingly funny. This is simply some great material performed brilliantly, but you can tell what a master Brigstocke is at doing just that.

Josh Widdicombe

A relative newcomer but one whose star is rising fast, Widdicombe is one of those comedians who can have you in stitches with the most basic of concepts. Taking a look into his seemingly banal home life, it’s when he hits that high-pitched incredulity that things become totally infectious and you’ll struggle to see a sombre face in the vicinity.

Love Hearts, Super Noodles and The Snowman are some of his targets as he meanders through old-school observational comedy that is delivered with so much warmth that it becomes bizarrely obvious, yet charming, despite some choice language that even your Mum would excuse him of spouting as she ruffled his curly hair. Belly laughs aplenty from the

Max and Ivan

The Wrestling II
Max and Ivan. Wrestling with comedy.

My surprise hit of the festival has to be Max and Ivan. I fully admit I hadn’t heard of the duo before this year’s shindig but after being advised to go and see them I was in no way disappointed. The pair echo the brilliant, bizarre characterisation of The League of Gentlemen in their latest show ‘The Reunion’ with all manner of wild and wonderful creations coming to vivid life despite being played solely by the energetic two.

Telling the tale of unrequited love re-emerging at, obviously, a school reunion, Max and Ivan throw themselves around an hour-long play that is full of hilarity and yet also utterly engaging. Helped by the relatively small size of the venue, the pair prove to be completely at ease with each other as well as the audience, and you will find yourself rooting for the good guy by the end. This kind of comedy is sorely missed on our screens at the moment and if this lot don’t have their own TV show by this time next year, I’ll eat a not inconsiderably-sized marsupial.

Extra props to the pair for participating in the annual Wrestling-meets-comedy show The Wrestling II where both proved themselves to be decent competitors both in and out of the ring.

The Edinburgh Fringe 2013 – Super Scotland Shines Through

I often used to avoid attending major events as they seemed at odds with my dislike of the vast majority of the population. However, after thoroughly enjoying London during its most busy period, the Olympic Games, I decided this year to take the plunge and immerse myself for a week in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

2013’s Fringe saw around 3,000 shows take place across 300-odd venues all over the city and the first thing that hits a newbie is how well organised everything is. Bearing in mind that the city is also catering for the usual tourists as well as its local population during the Fringe’s run, it’s remarkable that the atmosphere doesn’t degenerate one bit whilst I’m there. Getting around is also made far easier than it has any right to be, thanks to numerous signs and helpful volunteers and even when veering off the beaten track you’ll still bump into something of interest.

Going for full immersion, I had booked some shows before even arriving in the city and each day I pretty much decided my itinerary for the next; an easy system and helped massively by the multitude of box offices spanning the city. For the uninitiated, there are key areas of the city that each hold numerous venues, mainly The Plesance, The Assembly, and The Caves, although the more traditional comedy club, The Stand, also expands out into its surroundings and hosts shows across four venues during the festival.

Udderbelly @ Edinburgh Fringe
The size of a cow – laughs galore in an upside down heifer.

These main venues each have their own set of bars, street food stalls and other entertainment, meaning that whether your wait for a show is ten minutes or an hour, you can quickly grab a beer and enjoy some Scottish sunshine. I was hugely impressed by the fact that I did not have to queue for a pint even once, as the bars are so plentiful and efficient there simply is no slowdown, unlike other large events with which I’m familiar such as the Manchester Christmas Markets, where even getting a half seems a chore to rival two week’s worth of laundry.

Pretty much every square foot of potential show-space is utilised during the festival, and unlike so many other cities where traditional boozers are closing down left, right and centre, here they use each upstairs room and cellar bar for shows of all shapes and sizes, with the artists themselves often running the technical aspects themselves.

The other beauty of this festival is that it is pretty much self-policing. Admittedly there were doormen at the drinking venues, but largely the venues are open, welcoming places with none of the frustrating bag searches that you get at so many other major events. The shows are so tightly packed in that the staff have to be ruthlessly efficient but they do so with a smile each and every time, whilst the comedians keep to schedule (knowing they get fined if they run over). The punters even take their rubbish with them meaning the venue is ready for the next set of show-goers without being deep-cleaned by a team of DustBuster wielding off-duty students. All of these aspects ensure that even the tightest of schedules can be planned and achieved with relative ease.

Something else you’ll see across the city are hordes of flyer-profferers, but unlike Las Vegas where the flick of a titty ad card is almost aggressive in its execution, those offering you one-sheets to shows you may not know about are friendly and are often the artists appearing in said show themselves unafraid of self-promotion.

Something you may be surprised to see is the sheer amount of comedians who potter around, largely unbothered by fans, checking out friend’s shows whether they’re performing at the festival themselves or not. Over the course of the week I ‘bumped into’ Jimmy Carr, Steve Pemberton, Tim Key, Daniel Rigby, Richard Vranch and many, many others, all of whom appeared to be enjoying things just as much as I was.

Is there a downside to the whole experience? Well, it is expensive. Let’s not forget this is a European capital city where the standard £4-a-pint minimum always applies, but there’s so much choice of food that you can pick up tasty bargains or even self-cater with ease. Shows themselves range from free (although a donation is always appreciated) up to about £20, so if you’re packing in a lot it all adds up. You may also struggle to fit in every last show you want to attend, even if going for a week, so be prepared to rank your key events and get them in early.

You can also expect to pay through the nose for accommodation, but if you hunt early enough in the year you might drop lucky like I did with a perfectly central, huge apartment that you can share with a few friends to cut down costs.

The city’s layout can also be baffling (especially to pig-headed idiots like myself) with its quite literal underbelly being on a level that often seems impossible to get to, so a day of familiarisation is going to be useful to the first-timer.

And then, what of the shows themselves? Having seen 35 shows over the course of the week, featuring a total of over 70 artists, I thought it would be impossible to write about it all. And with such massive variety within the programme of events I also thought it would be tricky to discuss my top picks. But being the glutton for punishment that I am, I thought I’d give it a go…


The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show, Live! @ Manchester Opera House – 3rd July 2012

In the days before the Internet, when men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri, libraries were the one place for all manner of audio and visual delights. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio show cassettes were always a regularly borrowed item for my household, alongside the accompanying books, whilst our scratchy recording of the 1980s TV show still exists somewhere on a dusty old VHS tape. It was certainly a story that received repeat listening, reading and viewing over long summer holidays, and so it was nearly 30 years later that I finally ventured out to go back to where it all began with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To  The Galaxy Radio Show, Live!

The script is unquestionably one of the finest pieces of comedic science fiction writing that the world has ever witnessed, drawing fans from all walks of life through its playful use of language and brilliantly British take on space and time travel after the seriousness of Star Trek. When the Hitchhiker’s story was further fleshed out in Adams’ series of novels, the whole fictional universe became even more fascinating, no doubt leading to the success of the BBC TV show, and eventually the big budget movie version in 2005.

But this night is about going back to the beginning and seeing once again the cast and crew who helped to create the phenomenon in the first place. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show: Live! features many of the surviving performers from that first radio show, pulled together by Adams’ long-time wingman Dirk Maggs. The production itself covers off much of the first book in its first act, whilst flitting amongst some of the more stand-out scenes from the rest of the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy in its second, with audience participation, songs, and audio and visual effects throughout.

Kicking off with a dressing gown-clad Simon Jones, the unmistakeable voice of Arthur Dent instantly brings a smile to the faces of the entire audience, and even though Geoff McGivern (Ford Prefect) isn’t as visually recognisable, the two entertainingly bounce off each other just as they did all those years ago. Appearances from Mark Wing-Davey as the grinning, double-headed, kilt-wearing Zaphod Beeblebrox and Susan Sheridan as Trillian show chemistry that hasn’t diminished over the past 30 years, and Toby Longworth is a brilliantly bumbling Slartibartfast.

Band leader and composing legend Philip Pope steps in throughout to play various additional characters, just as Maggs takes breaks from his drumkit to perform as a Foley artist in true radio show style. It’s great to see such an old skill hold its own alongside newer technology and the two combine for a show-stealing full-size Marvin the paranoid android puppet, voiced once more by a sadly absent Stephen Moore. There’s even a surprise cameo from Johnny Vegas as the main course at Milliways, which seems fitting in more ways than one.

As for the titular Guide itself, throughout the tour, a series of guest artists are taking up the mantle of Peter Jones who died over 12 years ago, and tonight’s voice of the book is, in many ways, a stroke of genius. Jon Culshaw produces a spookily spot-on impression of Jones, but now and again he does tend to lapse into his Tom Baker shtick which feels a little forced and disrupts the show’s flow. The audience generally seem to appreciate the tangent, as they do his Sir Patrick Moore voice, but I couldn’t help but think the show could have done without the distraction, and it seemed the band thought the same as they had to reset to the start of the piece they were playing each time Culshaw broke away from the script.

Despite this, Culshaw copes brilliantly with the elaborate language and throughout the show you can tell what fun the entire cast, both old and new are having. Despite a few slips of the tongue, the performance is a brilliantly staged, energetic one, and truly brings to life Adams’ eye for the ridiculous. Maybe the show would have benefited a little from more retro Book visuals on the screen, akin to the brilliant animations of the TV show, but this a minor quibble with a superbly entertaining show.

When the performance draws to a close, you can’t help but wonder just what other delights Douglas Adams could have provided us with if he hadn’t passed away at such a young age, but the show isn’t just a nostalgia trip, it’s a celebration of Adams’ timeless writing, and it is fitting that at the show’s close, the legendary author gets as much applause as the cast do.