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Free music, an ejected heckler and a lot of laughs - Edinburgh Fringe 2017

As Edinburgh is a long way to go from London just for (separate) matinee and evening shows featuring people I’ve come to know over time, I availed myself of the opportunity to sample 0.001 per cent of the rest of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 (that is, three out of 3,000 shows), all stand-up comedy shows, selected entirely out of geographical, and therefore financial, convenience. I don’t know if the Camden Fringe would ever consider the use of the University College London buildings for its shows, but apparently the Medical School at the University of Edinburgh has been used as a fringe venue for some years now. I was in ‘black box’ rooms there, rather than any of the lecture theatres, and even in the cooler Scottish air, they were very warm and stuffy.

I don’t recall Laura Davis, an Australian comedian making her UK debut, saying very much, if anything about the ‘cake in the rain’ in the title of her show. But then, she was progressively irritated by a man in the second row, who heckled, then heckled again, then continued talking at full conversational volume, in an intimate space, until Davis had no choice, as David Dimbleby did in very similar circumstances on BBC Television’s Question Time earlier this year, to interrupt herself and ask Mr Heckler to leave. It wasn’t the smoothest of rides, having hit turbulence relatively early on, and was further hindered by a bizarre policy in which those who were either ejected or left of their own accord were almost immediately replaced by others. Had the show oversold or something? Even Davis was genuinely surprised by what went on.

The manner in which Davis decided to deal with a heckler intrigued me. Alexei Sayle once told The Independent, “The worst thing you can do is get security to pull hecklers out of a crowd because it turns everyone against you.” And yet this wasn’t the end result here: most of the crowd supported Davis, most stayed to the end, and most were happy with what was, all things considered, a dark-humoured, if unfocused, stand-up routine. Over at ‘Spank!’ (during which every time either of the two hosts shouted the word ‘Spank’, this was to be followed by the audience shouting back, ‘WE LOVE IT!’ irrespective of whether this was the truth at any given point), headliner Paul McCaffrey repeatedly shut down a member of the audience long after someone who was more of an interrupter than a heckler had stopped. I don’t know what the best approach is, or even if there is one. Each comedian has their own act, and their own ways of dealing with the paying public. For instance, Frankie Boyle is neither funny nor offensive, just downright unpleasant, and yet people still pay to see him. Fair play to him.

Davis is a complicated person, with incessantly frequent suicidal thoughts, which she has learned to dismiss with the equivalent of the Expecto Patronum spell out of the Harry Potter series (my paraphrase, not hers). There were some intriguing insights regarding the sort of unpaid work even multi-million dollar enterprises in the entertainment industry require of writers like Davis. If I recall correctly, she refused the work. (But someone somewhere will have said ‘Yes’, giving that person exposure and publicity that money couldn’t buy in any event.) Elsewhere, her putdowns are incisive and systematic – the city of Melbourne is trialling ‘green women’ on some of its pedestrian crossings as opposed to green men, and Davis’ response to the vicious feedback this initiative has garnered is beautifully scornful.

‘Spank!’ is more of an experience than a show. Interspersed between various comedy acts were long but engaging periods of banter, and at one point a man in the audience promoted his fringe show, fulfilling the one stipulated condition: the promotion must be done in the nude. A strictly no camera policy was reiterated just before this happened. Twice during proceedings, the audience was ordered (not invited) to stand for a sing-song, as though this were some sort of secular Evensong. My sparse knowledge of chart music showed as I silently stood, not having a clue what was going on, amongst a sea of Fringe revellers singing their hearts out. I was given reassuring pats on the back from other audience members, such was the lively but pleasant atmosphere.

Now, most of the comedians’ names were indecipherable as the microphones were turned up to arena rock concert level. I have no idea who the hosts’ names were for the same reason. One of the acts introduced himself very deliberately as Anil Desai, which was only memorable for the ‘porn star’ name apparently related to it, Anal Desire. A long list of celebrity impressions formed the majority of his act, some more convincing than others. Matthew McConaughey will forever be intrinsically linked to “alright, alright, alright”, and his Robert De Niro was spot on. My favourite punchline of my debut Edinburgh Fringe experience was from an earlier act, who sang the title lyric from Nelly Furtado’s ‘I’m Like A Bird’, and immediately followed it up by squawking as loudly as possible and flapping his arms madly as though they were wings. Paul McCaffrey, the headline act, brought the house down with his taking down of Joe Wicks, the so-called ‘Body Coach’. Wicks had once suggested using ham slices to bookend a sandwich instead of bread slices. “But what if you want a ham sandwich?”

The best of the comedy shows I saw came from Rhys Nicholson, though I suspect if I had time to take up his suggestion to “go see Daniel Sloss”, that might have topped it. I hadn’t heard of Rhys Nicholson before, and his very rapid delivery style meant he was the only stand-up comedian I came across at Edinburgh Fringe that had no need to be checking their watch periodically, or otherwise check with their techie how long they have remaining. There’s a lot about white privilege, and like Davis, this Australian comedian can’t help but highlight some of the politically charged events going on Down Under at this time. The ad-libs are extraordinary, his trains of thought active and enthusiastic. Perhaps the best news about Nicholson’s act is that it comes to the Soho Theatre this October, so London audiences have an opportunity to check it out for themselves. Oh, and Laura Davis will be there before then, in September.

The most enlightening act was one I didn’t even book to see, because he was performing outside on the Royal Mile. A man who referred to himself only as ‘Morf’ was sat with his guitar laid horizontally, and plucking its strings. I stood, waiting for the time to pass before the next show I was due to attend, transfixed by an alternative but extraordinary rendering of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Before that, Morf was explaining to a following large enough to attract police attention (they worked to ensure traffic could continue to flow without pedestrian casualties) how the unique sounds of his album, conveniently available for sale right there and then, were put together. His YouTube page is worth a look.

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