The Girl with the Edinburgh Tattoo

Enjoy yourself – it's later than you think!

Spencer Jones is The Herbert in Proper Job

In the queue for Spencer Jones – with Richard Osman also waiting to get in – I couldn’t help thinking ‘please don’t sit in front of me’.  I was also thinking if the show’s good enough for Mr Osman… That coupled with the excited buzz being generated by the waiting audience gave me the feeling I was in for something special.

Please don’t think me a deliberate late-comer to the Spencer Jones party – I was all set to see The Herbert in Proper Job last year at The Hive but it was cancelled on the night I went due to technical problems. I’m getting my disclaimer in early because reviewing the show a year on from the awards and the rave reviews what’s there left to say? I could say Spencer Jones is the new Tommy Cooper with shades of Mr Bean – but that’s all been said already. Those comparisons are completely valid – the collection of daft props; the mastery of nonverbal communication. I’ll throw in a few other references if I may though – Max Wall (the outfit); Moe from The Three Stooges (the hair) and Frank Spencer (the storyline). The last one definitely as the Herbert man-child has to face up to family responsibilities and find a job (in a nuclear power plant so a bit like Homer Simpson?).

As I’ve demonstrated there – there’s nothing new under the sun. See any comedian and you can say ‘isn’t he/she a bit like… ?’ It can be downright plagiarism masquerading as a ‘tribute’ or it can be a lovingly crafted act informed by a deep love for what went before. Of course he/she could be in either camp and the audience could still be left cold. People like Tommy Cooper didn’t debut on telly as fully formed national-treasures. They worked the Variety circuit and faced the tough audiences who more often than not would respond with ‘What the hell is he meant to be doing?’ Cut to the pinnacle of a career and that same comedian can faff about and the audience will love it. It’s all about currency. So does Spencer Jones have comedy currency? Judging by the joyous reaction of the audience he’s well on the way to building up a healthy balance.

The show itself is unbridled silliness with Spencer displaying impeccable clowning technique. However there are vivid streaks of poignancy and almost macabre surrealism (due to the job at the power plant his baby is born with a the head of a fox) which makes you think you’ve wandered into experimental theatre as performed by an existentialist company from Chernobyl. The next minute we’re snapped out of the mood with a cheery ‘He’s my boy, I love him all the same’.

The big question is can Spencer take the Herbert to the mainstream? He’s already made it to the BBC in other guises and Harry Hill has proved that silly surrealism does get a chance on prime-time TV. The bigger question is however does Spencer want to take the Herbert to the mainstream? The show is very much a theatrical experience and so much would be lost in the confines of a TV studio with the audience possibly asking: ‘What the hell is he meant to be doing?’.

My guess is Spencer Jones is going to do very well – in whatever guise. Meaning that the Herbert may remain a rare live treat. That could be enough to prompt you to go along but you’d also get to see the work of a great natural clown and be imbued with the classic existentialist message of always looking on the bright side of life – however dark things get. More simply you will just have a great time.

(Review for 24 Aug)

Dominic Frisby: Let’s Talk About Tax

Here’s a tip for appearing younger. Join the queue for a show that’s all about tax. Of course this theory may not stand up to statistical or empirical scrutiny but it was anecdotally and personally true when I went along to see Dominic Frisby’s Let’s Talk About Tax yesterday. Dominic asks for a show of hands when he asks if most people think they are in for a masterclass on being creative with their tax returns. And the majority of the mainly unfair-to-say-but-I-would guess-they’re-retired audience raise their hands. Also – sorry to make assumptions again – but most of them also look pretty well-to-do.

Dominic ponders on how he can make tax sexy. More to the point – can he make tax funny?  The stage is set with colourful home-made pie-charts, graphs and tax quotes. His visual image is somewhere between Hector the Tax Inspector and Laurence Olivier’s The Entertainer. But like the latter is there something behind the flashy suit and the ready grin? To give us some idea Dominic – after asking us to guess his political persuasion – reveals he spoiled his ballot paper at the last general election. So disillusioned lefty or complete anarchist then? Well neither actually. He also reveals he’s the voice of Werther’s Originals – which creates a little frisson of excitement – and has been involved in the making of two successful films. At this point we’d have every right in expecting expert advice on canny investing.

Instead Dominic wrong-foots us again. After presenting the stats he presents the big theory: that we have to re-think tax completely. No tax on work or endeavour or goods but instead there should be a tax on land. Of course as The Queen and the landed gentry own most of Britain land-wise and therefore would be getting clobbered the most tax-wise – this is a pretty radical notion. And one where you could almost hear the heads of some audience members being turned inside-out.

Dominic’s strength is that he’s the polar opposite to your shouty lefty comedian or plastic anarchist (as in Russell Brand who gets short shrift) and can deliver a radical message with polite charm. The jokes are delivered in a knowingly awkward signposted way which is fine for a show about an awkward subject. With his other interests he possibly doesn’t have to fret too much about his stand-up career but a big question would be what does he do next and will the subject matter capture the imagination of an audience as (err) tax does? Dominic did make a casual comment about how he’d voted for Brexit and that did make me prick up my ears. With so many of this year’s Fringe shows rife with lazy assumptions about the Brexit vote this was a truly radical statement and made me want to know more. Maybe next time?

(Review for 24 Aug)


Helping Aamer

How can anyone not like a show where tea, coffee, biscuits and boiled eggs are on offer? Not only that but our host, motivational speaker and performer – Dr Mark Silcox – prepares the refreshments for us. Actually – scrub the word ‘performer’ because at no time does this feel like a performance.

Polite, softly-spoken, older Indian gentleman invites us into the cool downstairs room at Ciao Roma. On the one of two baking-hot days in Edinburgh this respite from the heat would have been enough to get the audience on his side. But there are also the aforementioned refreshments – too nice really! I have to admit I become a little obsessed with the practical concerns when bits of business like this are carried out. Are the eggs going to be properly cooked? Will there be enough water in the kettle to make tea for everyone? Where’s the milk kept? As a detail-obsessed person I’m getting the vibe our host is like that too – so we’re going to get along just fine.

In fact getting – or more accurately sending – ‘the vibe’ is a major part of the fifty minute experience. To explain – Mark Silcox’s mission during the time is to send love to the very angry ‘reverse-racist’ comedian Aamer Rahman with the hope of making him a little less angry. There’s a motivational-tool recording of Kipling’s If played at the start followed by compare and contrast biographies (his and Rahman’s) presented in an attempt to ascertain the reverse-racist’s anger source. There is also much scrutiny of Rahman’s Twitter account with ridiculous, pompous (and of course angry) tweets defused with perfect little put-downs which are a mix of naivety and sharp wit.

By this stage of the Fringe – actually at anytime – I get pretty fed-up with ‘comedy categorisation’. The idea of ‘well, I didn’t find it that funny or engaging but it’s meant to be anti-comedy so that’s alright’. What a lot of (Free) Fringe shows have to remember is most audiences will wander in just wanting to be entertained and engaged. If a show can deliver that – great. If it can inspire and actually make you feel good about yourself and the world for a while – even better. If it can be subtly done and make you suspend disbelief for the best part of an hour – that’s pretty special.

A lovely little gem of a show. (And by the way – the eggs were cooked to perfection!)

(Review for 24 Aug)


Joz Norris: Hello, Goodbye

Man in a box with only head visible inviting audience to come in and sit down. Now that’s what I call absurdist silly comedy.

What follows is a quick visual introduction to the man via family album photos spilling out of the box fax-machine like. The last one is of an elderly gent. The man breaks free of the box – changes his clothes with donations from the audience. A balloon with a drawn-on face and Princess Merida auburn wig takes the man’s place in the box. The elderly gent is the grandfather; the balloon is the girlfriend and the man is Joz Norris.

There is a story involving all three with much stopping and starting, false jeopardy and going off at tangents. The story itself is not so much shaggy dog but woolly mammoth and tangents include stopping off at the Beatrix Potter museum; allowing a tiny man hand-puppet to try stand-up and getting audience ideas for a – very structured – improvisation. But somewhere within all the mayhem there’s a fragile little tale of love and loss.

There’s quite a bit of absurdist silly comedy out there – especially on The Fringe – and if it’s done with a lack of conviction you’re going to be sussed. What joy then that Joz Norris seems like the real deal. Bags of energy with a madcap style reminiscent of a young Jim Carrey – his interplay with the audience is genuine and warm. In fact – you can almost feel everyone relax as we realise Joz is a nice guy whose main aim is to give us forty-five fun-packed minutes (many shows have the intention but can’t deliver).

By the end the fragile little story – more or less – is told and Joz hands back the borrowed shirt now covered in sweat. The owner could be keeping it as a souvenir in anticipation of Joz Norris making it big. Who knows? It could very well happen.

(Review for 21 Aug)

Joz Norris: Hello, Goodbye


The blurb for Ben Van der Velde’s show starts like this – ‘Thanks to Genghis Khan’s friskiness we’re all 8% barbarian’. The flyers and the poster have Ben suited-up and wielding an axe. So far so interesting.

To kick off there’s a quick scan of the audience with assumptions made. There’s a big bloke who must be tough; a wee woman who’s probably feisty and a couple who look as if they may be pot-heads. Tricky that last one – especially when said couple were asked how they enjoyed getting high and the guy replied ‘eating a lot of food and watching shit TV’. Back to the big bloke sitting with his mates at the back of the room who give a collective cheer when the question ‘is anyone Jewish?’ is asked. Ben looks momentarily stunned but recovers quickly with some neat ad-libs re the subversion of stereotypes.

This leads into the main part of the set which is about Ben and his being Jewish but he’s non practising and not religious at all. This brings a whoop of delight from an audience member who gets a bit of a counter-Dawkins/Hitchins put-down. But this part of the set is more about Ben with tales of doing a disastrous gig for kids at his local synagogue and whether he should get his son circumcised. Generally all good stuff – but I wasn’t sure about a throwaway line relating to FGM.

After this bit Ben tackles the thorny subject of Brexit – but not as I’ve seen a few comedians do it at this year’s Fringe: ‘What was that about, eh?’ and move swiftly on. He asks for a show of hands and of course being a ‘lefty liberal audience’ we all stick our mitts up to indicate we did ‘the right thing’. All except for one person at the back – what ensued was quite a confused/confusing exchange with Ben back-peddling a bit down the road of ‘some of my best friends are… ‘

The show ends with a story involving a backpack-carrying Muslim where the message is ‘don’t make assumptions’ but as there are so many confused assumptions already in the room the message gets a bit lost. It’s a shame as the whole idea of shared DNA suggests inclusiveness which is always good for coaxing an audience on board. As it was there was more of a pervading air of disengagement when we should have been getting gee’d up for the big finish. Ben is undoubtedly a very accomplished comedian and he proves he can think on his feet when a curveball is thrown at him. Maybe he shouldn’t invite too many to be thrown at him in the space of one show though.

(Review for 21 Aug)

Harriet Braine: Art History Songs

First off – the show has to be up for ‘the most inappropriate venue for the subject matter’ award. The whole beer-soaked sports-mad Dante’s Inferno (not even ironically arty) that is the Sportsters Bar totally at odds with the more esoteric offering of a collection of songs about art history (or ‘performance essays’ as the blurb describes).

Happily once past the Inferno entrance the Sportsters back room is quite a cosy little space well suited to a low-key laid-back show about a potentially niche subject. The show is one woman (Harriet Braine), her guitar and a set of art prints. Her first song involves a fair bit of lip-trumpeting which made me think I was in for an Earl Okin (remember him?) tribute act. In fact the trumpeting only appears in one other song so all you Fringe veterans can relax.

So is the subject of art history too niche? Well, not according to the relatively substantial audience who must have made a determined and informed decision in making their way to that back room. Accepting that – the choice of subject matter was far from niche with artists like Picasso, Leonardo, Bosch and Cezanne being name-checked. There are also nods to female artists – Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe and Marina Abramovic – which is commendable but they are possibly the least effective songs because of the niche interest (hey, I don’t make the rules!).

The music itself is a straight lift from songs that fall in the period between classic(al) and modern. So we get Wuthering Heights, Roxanne, Abracadabra, 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up? and Blondie’s Maria. Original tunes with some subtle musical referencing might have been good but probably too much of a rod for the back when a quick recognisable reference is needed to get the audience engaged in two minutes bursts.

Entertaining, educational and all in all not a bad way to spend forty-five minutes.

(Review for 21 Aug)


Desiree Burch: This is Evolution

I’m going to share with you a fantasy I had forgotten about until the other night. It’s fifties New York or maybe downtown Los Angeles. I slip into an exclusive little club and watch the latest hot-ticket doing this new hip happening called stand-up comedy. It could be Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor. All I know is I’m there and I’m loving it. I pretty much had that experience the other night. Did I take a time machine? No – all I did was go along to the Blundabus and saw Desiree Burch in her show This is Evolution.

I love the top deck of the Blundabus as a venue. It’s a wonderfully intimate space which lends the perfect atmosphere to performances that are all about confessions and being frank (the amazing Luca Cupani taking this to the Catholic confessional extreme in the very same venue). Of course wonderfully intimate can also mean totally embarrassing if the audience ain’t buying it. Glad to say the audience were all on board (I promised myself I wouldn’t use that pun… ) with Desiree’s set.

As a woman the themes – including macho cat-calling; being a fag-hag; the culture shock  quality of going out with an older man (‘waking up in a bed that’s not Ikea’); the pressure for women to shave ‘down there’  – resonated with me. But that’s not to say you have to be a women to appreciate the solid-gold material. Men in the audience were getting it and loving it too. There’s also stuff about being a black American women but Desiree never distances herself as if to say ‘you wouldn’t understand… ‘

Actually that’s the main big beautiful theme of the show – you don’t have to do what’s expected of you; you can be dealt a poor hand at birth but you can rise above it. Desiree speaks from experience – she’s spent a fortune on self-help guides. But instead of a tacked-on uplifting finale filched from one of those guides she does a very clever analogy about electrons behaving differently when they’re not being watched. If that sounds horribly scientific – go with it – it’s boldly and brilliantly original.

Okay, the material is great. But what really makes the show fly is the performance. Desiree has a marvelous physical presence which is both commanding and warm; and she uses the limited space to perfection – for example doing an uncanny impression of a trotting pony or thumping the roof of the bus to punctuate a point. Her delivery is rapid and assured leaving you exhilarated rather than exhausted.

I’m so glad I saw Desiree on the Blundabus but then I’d be glad to see her anywhere. This woman has talent and star quality to spare so intimate venues may soon be a thing of the past.Take the opportunity to see her this way while you can.

(Review for 18 Aug)

Desiree Burch: This is Evolution


Milo McCabe: The Unflappable Troy Hawke

For those who saw Milo McCabe‘s Genesisocide at last year’s Fringe you’ll know what to expect from the man. Excellent characterisation, a range of impeccable accents and a slightly bonkers story-line. Last year there was a lot of Back to the Future obsession on the Fringe and Milo did his own take as a would-be assassin travelling back in time to take out the schoolboy Phil Collins. It was breakneck funny with a big physical performance and a range of characters using up every inch of the Counting House big stage. Cut to this year and the more intimate surroundings of the City Cafe downstairs. There is only one main character – the unflappable Troy Hawke.

Troy Hawke is a distillation of every mustachioed matinee idol from Ronald Colman to Douglas Fairbanks (Errol Flynn is named as the preferred blueprint). But there’s also shades of the classic comedy cad (Terry Thomas to Leslie Phillips) with a purred catchphrase (‘oh, stop it’) punctuated with a saucy little shimmy. So far – so impeccable. So what’s the big bonkers twist? Well Troy Hawke isn’t actually a film star or any kind of star. He was home-schooled by his mother and fed on a diet of Errol Flynn movies (see above). He is what you might term ‘special’. Casting off the cotton wool chrysalis he goes on an eye-opening journey of Weatherspoons bars and encounters with bampots (his Scottish bampot/ned/radge voice is irreproachable).

The whole fish-out-of-water story-line is always a winner. There’s a little bit of it in most British situation comedy with social anxiety and getting it wrong (from Tony Hancock to David Brent). And when it’s opened up and the main protagonist is plunged into an alien landscape (as in Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg movies) it can be hilarious. And so it is with Troy Hawke, There are some marvelously funny lines and routines (the whole idea of Hawke becoming the ‘Weatherspoons’ Nutter’ after discovering ‘the wonderful place’ is inspired). Another essential element of this kind of situation is the hero becomes just that and triumphs at the end of the day. Does that happen here? Go and see!

I loved the show but if I was to have one teensy gripe I would cite the very end just before the bucket speech where Milo brings in a bit of political commentary. Now, I totally agree with his views (beware the Eton educated Tories) and they are delivered as Troy Hawke but for me it jarred a bit and broke the perfectly pitched spell he’d cast over the preceding forty-five minutes. A bit like Charlie Chaplin at the end of The Great Dictator – maybe that was the intention!

All in all though – an excellent show.

Punel Show

There’s always going to be potential for a very diverse – and possibly sparse – audience when performers decide to slip in an extra show  when it’s meant to be their day off. The two extremes are: the super keen Twitter users only too glad to hot-foot it along to a Free Fringe hot-ticket and those who haven’t heard of the performers and have wandered in by chance.

Out of the seven audience members I think two of us were in the first category; two in the second; two open to debate and one was Darren Walsh’s mum-in-law. There was another couple at the start but they were definitely in the second category and made a hilariously inept phone-assisted escape when they decided after five minutes it wasn’t for them. (I’m not sure what they expected – the name of the show pretty much tells you everything you need to know. It’s a panel show with puns)

Also did they not know they were in the company of punning royalty with Darren Walsh and Mark Simmons as hosts? Those of us who know and appreciate their work (and use Twitter) were a bit stunned by this point. Great comedy, packed houses so far in the run, seven people in the audience today – really? I think the hosts were stunned as well but they were far too professional to call off or give us a stripped back show. I can’t be sure what happens on other days but I can’t imagine having any more fun than we did.

I don’t know if it’s a bit silly to try and describe the set-up of an essentially silly show but here goes. Darren and Mark are team captains each with one panel member in the shape of a guest comedian. On the day there was Fraser Geesin (quite grumpy but I think that’s his comedy persona) and the excellent and completely bonkers  Trevor Feelgood (I believe he’s a resident panel member so that’s a treat on its own). There are rehearsed puns, there are ad-libbed puns and much general silliness. The fun and games extends to the whole audience but as we were seven this was probably inevitable. It was a bit like being at the best family get-together – if you’re lucky enough to have some top-notch comedians in your family.

Of course it will be different each day and you may have to fight to get in. But I’m sure you’ll have a gloriously fun time – I know the seven of us did!

(Review for 16 Aug)



Madame Señorita: The Expector

Audience reviews of Madame Senorita: The Expector remind me a bit of the rules of Fight Club. Nobody is prepared to fully disclose what actually goes on. The reviews are effusive though and it has ‘true spirit of the Fringe experience’ written all over it – so good enough for me!

I can understand the reticence to give a complete account because it would rob the performance (I won’t call it a show or an act) of the element of surprise and that is a major element. However without giving too much away – let me share some memorable images. I say images because it is for the most part a visual event with a handful of words uttered.

It starts with Madame Senorita entering the room as if in a funeral procession. Stately, ghostly, veiled – it’s effectively creepy. Once on stage and unveiled we see a face both mask-like and achingly expressive as she searches the audience – for what? We’ll see. The next stage finds Madame becoming an ungainly figure balancing on one leg and stretching out her limbs as if to make herself as big as she can. She greets everything with child-like wonder and a repeated ‘wow!’ She’s like a new-born animal or perhaps the creature from Frankenstein. She searches the audience again for her true love and there’s a marvelous interlude using classic farce techniques. There is more effective imagery to follow – getting a (male) audience member to place a pair of rubber gloves on her hands (handcuffs?) before she obsessively and suggestively scrubs away at a glass. Her face is a picture of tortured disappointment and disillusionment.

It’s about love, loss, beginnings, endings, expectations, gender roles and probably a lot of other things as well. It’s art in the way you can interpret it how you like. It’s entertainment in the way it’s a stunning performance.

Is it theatre, comedy, cabaret? It’s all of those. It’s also of the calibre of an official Edinburgh Festival show but with the added plus of having an intimate setting and therefore the potential for everyone to become part of the action. And if that puts the fear of God into you – please reconsider. We – as an audience – loved it and I’ve rarely heard such natural hearty laughter (and I’ve been to quite a few comedy shows!) from an audience.

Madame – without coming out of character too much – thanked us at the end and suggested that not every night works. So please go and please engage, you’ll be glad you did.

(Review for 18 Aug)

Madame Señorita: The Expector



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