98% of the people I work with have never heard of the Edinburgh festival, much less the Fringe. The remaining 2% have heard of the Edinburgh Festival, but think it is formed entirely of kilted soldiers playing bagpipes at the Queen. Most of my colleagues have never been to Scotland, and some have the same attitude as the staff member at Dalston Jobcentre, who once berated me for "going on holiday to"* what he seemed to believe was a mythical country. It is a mystery, then, why most of the population of the world is clogging the Royal Mile when we arrive. They've never heard of the Fringe, but they know a 2-for-1 ticket offer when they see it.
Our Travelodge doesn't have a working lift, but does offer 24-hour porridge service (just-add-boiling-water stuff in pots; like wallpaper paste but without the appetite appeal). It is magnificently cheap and outrageously central though, and much better than any of the performers get, if one goes by each year's many hollow-eyed routines about vermin and the vomit of strangers.
We didn't veer off into uncharted territory much this year. Even acts we'd never seen before (specifically Robin Ince and John Lloyd) were chosen because of our absolute certainty we'd get good comedy value with something genuinely new and interesting to think about thrown in.
Arthur Smith was even doing a sequel to a show I'd already seen. It could have been repetitive, but the subject matter (loosely connected by the themes of personality and aging) and the framework (the songs of Leonard Cohen) in the hands of someone like Smith could never really have been boring. Reliably unreliable, Smith is able to engage conversationally with an audience to the extent that we think we're listening to a friend - till he tips us into a place we weren't expecting and laughs at our confusion. Never maliciously, though, and always entertaining, whether serenading us, sharing with us or surprising us. The Lovely Paul didn't enjoy it as much as I, but then he doesn't really care for Leonard Cohen, does he? Knowing the songs does enhance the show nicely. And as a little bonus, with a trilby garnish, Arthur Smith not only sings but also spookily resembles Leonard Cohen.
Susan Calman is funny whatever she does, and though her current show is a work in progress, it's a show to relax into, knowing you're in safe hands. I was briefly dubious when she whipped out a guitar, but at least one of her songs was a highlight and a delight - outlining the differences and worrying similarities between her Radio 4 fans and those who see her at late-night club gigs. Observations about relationships can be tiresome in the wrong hands, but Calman truly makes me giggle and cringe as I recognise myself and the other half in her caricatures. Whether that's because discussing a same-sex partner frees her from the creaky "differences between men and women" format or it's simply down to skill is not terribly relevant. The Venn diagram of "people who are great" and "people who refer to themselves as their cats' parents" contains just one person at its intersection, and it is Susan Calman.
Jon Bennett is the "Pretending Things are a Cock" guy, this year doing a show called "My Dad's Deaths". Last year's was a powerpoint presentation about pretend cocks, coming of age and the search for self. This year's is a powerpoint presentation about the many eccentricities of his father, coming of age, and the search for self. We fell in love with him last year because he is simply extremely likeable, as well as being an excellent storyteller. And the story is a great one, universal enough to be recognised (all dads can be pompous, ubiquitious and strangely vulnerable), odd enough to be worth telling (very few dads shout words describing their emotions in lieu of swearing, or manhandle pregnant wives onto roofs). Because of Bennett's empathy and likeability, this really does feel like an hour in the pub with a favourite friend (I will even let him off the unnecessary and rather shoehorned-in audience participation bit, purely because of the delightful costume).
Normally, I avoid improvisational comedy. If I am paying money for something, I want it to be properly thought out, professionally written, and rehearsed. Having been to Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza's Set List (twice) I now have to take issue with myself over this prejudiced and thoughtless attitude. The beauty of it - and what makes the difference - between this and other improv formats - is the nicely-crafted setlist of subjects created for each performer. "I give weapons to blind children" "Masturbation Pride" "I covet moths". Some, like Susan Calman, manage to bind these surprises into parts of their existing sets. Others, like Tim Fitzhigham and Robin Ince, spin off into whole new worlds of humour. The unsinkable Mitch Benn actually creates a new little song for each subject, people are so impressed they almost forget to laugh. It was a great way to discover new (to us) enjoyments like Yannis Pappas and Graham Clark (I can't find his website, but here's one for his beard), and a huge privilege to see stars like Dylan Moran at their on-edge best.
The Islanders feels like a much bigger idea than a 50-minute 2-person musical. A touchingly honest account of a weekend away from the differing viewpoints of both people involved. It's lived, written and acted by the gorgeously charming Amy Mason, who is soundtracked and contradicted by Art Brut's Eddie Argos, deftly trampling the line between showing off and showmanship. What he finds funny, she finds sad, and the whole thing will resonate with anyone who suffers from depression and anxiety - when they go away it's too close to home. The "postcard" props for telling the story are a perfect idea, but they mean Amy's story ends when she says goodbye to Eddie, and the show might have gained an extra dimension with a little more about what she did next and how she became the person who's telling us the story now.
Comedy about bereavement and anorexia? Big tick. A fabulous way of making something positive from overwhelming great negatives, while giving the audience new perspective on issues that are too often hidden away.
Over It is two shows that happen to sit perfectly together - two nice, funny and interesting people (Dave Chawner and Robyn Perkins) who have had terrible things happen to them (anorexia and death of a partner, respectively). This is not self-help comedy - rather it's helping the rest of us. We don't know what to say to people who are suffering, so they say it for us. No-one knows what to do with the lingerie they bought with their beloved in mind once he's gone. This must happen all the time, but no-one but Robyn Perkins talks about it. There must be a lingerie mountain somewhere. Handing someone a packet of crisps will not cure an eating disorder (my actual GP once suggested I "go on a nice holiday" as a substitute for taking medication for severe and lifelong depression, so I, for one, am convinced that this sort of thing does need saying aloud as much as possible, however obvious it seems). I'm glad these two people are working together, their heartbreaking stories and upbeat styles really complement each other well and remind us that while illness and death are always among us, so is friendship, ridiculousness and laughter.
Yay, more death, this time with Richard Herring. It's sort of incongruous, because while previous shows have played on Herring's persona as rather an overgrown schoolboy (penises, Hitler, Jesus, not uncommon pre-adolescent obsessions), death is contrastingly... grown up. In his awkward suit, standing amid dry-ice-swirled prop gravestones, he looks like the cover of a quietly-forgotten Jennings Fears the Reaper or Just William's Grieving Relatives. It's a funny and thoughtful show though, not academically researched like some of his others, but pulled out from a dark place, carefully examined, and then laughed at.
Robin Ince is another one who gives good powerpoint. I was hoping for some Infinite-Monkeys-style science for the tired of brain, but of course Ince is more than that. His claim that he is trying to fit a two hour show into fifty minutes sounds at first like comedy hyperbole, but as the facts and diagrams skitter past, we see that he really is trying to give us the full value of the longer show, condensed. Of course there are tangents, that is half the fun, after all science is literally about everything. Sometimes I wonder if it's him who's the star, or the information he's presenting, but really who else could hold the Assembly Rooms Music Hall enthralled with anecdotes about Darwin's worms, or a rant at people who aren't looking at a rhino properly?
John Lloyd is like the after-dinner speaker who would rescue the dullest corporate event in the whole field of toothpaste technology or soil science. Presumably he is here to sell the book Afterliff (and does), but apart from giving us moments of deliciousness from the book and telling us a little about the original Meaning of Liff and Douglas Adams, he is charming and twinkly, laughing at his own jokes, and dropping in lots of fun gossip about all the much-loved and hugely influential British comedy he's been part of, from Blackadder to Spitting Image to QI. As we leave, I hear a small boy tell his dad off for laughing at the swearing.
I've only talked about stuff we liked, so if you're in Edinburgh, or you get a chance to see these shows somewhere else, I promise they are good. Here are links from the online programme - (Over It is a free show where you put some cash in at the end if you like it, a bit like church, only you come out feeling better, so you can't actually buy tickets).
*= attending a funeral in