Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Final "List of Things to See" Post Before the Fringe Starts

So we're one day away from the start of the Fringe and soon I'll be able to actually start reviewing shows, rather than just listing stuff I think will be good or mentioning people I have seen in previous years.

But before I get cracking, there's time for one more post about local talent here in Edinburgh!

Outside of August, Edinburgh does have a reasonably good comedy scene. It's nothing compared to the Fringe, obviously, but there are some decent established acts as well as some up and coming guys to look out for.

The experienced guys include Tommy MacKay, the man behind Alex Salmond's Gastric Band, who does some great musical comedy. His act is usually very much based around Scottish politics, so probably more appealing for locals than visitors to Edinburgh. This year he's doing a show called "Oliver Pissed" and it's all about minimum pricing of alcohol. It's a free show!

Scott Agnew has been around for a while - he is doing a specialised type of show called Tales Of The Sauna, which - let's be clear - is all about his experience of gay saunas.... I have seen him do some regular stand up and he's very non-camp and likeable - I guess his subject material is either going to be your thing or it's not! If it is, his show certainly won't be spoiled by his presentation!

Alan Anderson is Scottish Comedy's whisky expert. After calling his show "Whisky Fir Dummies" for several years, he's been harassed by the publishers of the "For Dummies" series of books so its now called "Whisky Fir Dafties". (What a bunch of pricks these people are). Either way, why wouldn't you say no to some free whisky along with your comedy show! And I'm led to believe, although I haven't seen it myself, that it is a very good show.

Finally another very accomplished patriotic comedian. Bruce Fummey is a Fringe veteran, half Scottish, half African, former physics teaching, Burns expert with some outstanding material, great stage presence, charm and story telling ability... and damn it! As I go to insert the link for his show I realise he isn't doing one this year! Ah well, still one to look out for on the circuit.

On to the less experienced acts now... My Friend Chris Bain has been doing material on youtube as Wee Mental Daz for a while, but he's taken a break from that to start doing a mixture of straight stand up and sketch comedy. He stars along side the more experienced Clair Myychael and Anna Devitt in "Charlie Nicholas Bought Me An Ice Cream" which is a mash up of sketch show and straight stand up. He's a naturally gifted stand up and I reckon he'll do even better amongst some experienced comics.

In recent years I've seem local comic Gareth Waugh go from new act competition heat winner to semi-pro and he's starring alongside Chris Conroy (who I've not seen as much of) in Thatcher's Death Party... An interesting title designed to wind up the Daily Mail readers and potentially give them a publicity boost if history manages to catch up with them! Go and see him while he's still free and relatively unknown!

I've not seen much of Matt Winning but I'm a huge fan of Richard Gadd and the pair team up for "This is Awkwarder". If you are looking for straight stand up then this certainly isn't it... But if you want to see something original and surreal then go and see them. There will be awkward moments, pauses lasting a bit too long, times when you're not sure if they are deliberately messing things up or actually messing them up, but it's highly entertaining and wonderfully out-with the norm.

Another bunch young chaps who are growing in confidence are Scot Laird, Liam Cumbers, Dan Petherbridge and Stuart Thompson. Liam and Scot are both improving well. I saw them in a showcase last month and they were both relaxed, with a very good flow and good enough for a recommendation. I've not seen as much at the other two... The show is called "The Kids We Used to Be". I think the theme of growing up is a good place to start in your first Fringe show so they deserve credit for picking a simple theme... Stories of teenage mischief and confusion can be touching as well as funny and the guys easily have enough in them to carry it off.

Finally, I want to give a mention to a very young comic called Gareth Mutch. He's performing in his first Fringe show with Genevieve Cytko and Ray Fordyce called Life, The Universe, Whatever. At 18 he's already impressed me several times. I've heard experienced local comics say they remind him of a young Kevin Bridges (who also started at 17 and brought his Mum and Dad along to his first gig). I would be more inclined to compare him to Lloyd Langford - very cheery, with simple touching anecdotes and a good grasp of observational comedy. He's well supported by Ray Fordyce who has some amazing one-liners. I've only seen Genevieve Cytko in competitions and she looked a tad nervous, but her first full run at the Fringe will hopefully help her overcome that!

So that's the talking over! Fringe time tomorrow and I can't wait! Keep an eye on my Twitter feed as well as the blog!

The Trap's "Bad Musical"

I've been going to see Fringe shows for around 12 years now, but I've only been blogging for around a third of that time... Before that, I regularly posted reviews on the official Fringe website (it still lets you do that).

One of the first shows I went to see that really excited me was The Trap's "Bad Play". It was an absolute triumph. The guy who gave me the flyer played along by telling me that it was three guys, and they literally wrote the play on the train on the way up from London, hungover.

It took me a while to realise that it was actually three very accomplished sketch comedians/actors pretending to be shit actors who stopped mid sketch to argue with each other, the sound engineer and half the audience. To put it simply, they spoof bad theatre and the results are hilarious!

I went to see Bad Play 2 the following year and Bad Play 3 the year after that. (The fact that a quick google search reveals this was 2000 - 2002 makes me feel very old, but it seems to be true).

Now, after a 10 year break they are back... with Bad Musical! This is a show that you simply have to see.

I've not seen it yet myself, but after 3 brilliant "Bad Play's" there is no way this can be anything other than outstanding! You can get more info and see some quotes from reviews of heir old stuff on their own website, which seems to have been thrown together at the last minute in true Trap style!

As a serial blagger, I'm hoping to score a free ticket to see the show in the coming days... if I don't manage to get a free ticket, I'll be paying to see it!

Stewart Lee Agrees With Me!

So, it seems like Stewart Lee has read my blog!

Having seen me compare the big four venues to a supermarket, he's only gone and called one of them Tesco and told people to visit The Stand and the Free Festival in his article in the Guardian. Feckin' Plagiarist!

Of course, I'm kidding! It's actually the other way around... I've read Stewart Lee's opinions before and it was his previously expressed opinions along with those of many other comics I have spoken to and agreed with that helped me form the opinion in the last blog.... But it is almost as if he's just taken all my examples and rewritten what I said in far far wittier prose and said "There you go amateur... that's how you should have written it".

As has been established in the comments section of my last blog, the acts performing in the Big Four venues should not be boycotted and if anyone takes your fancy and they are performing there, you should go and see them! (Another thing Lee agrees with me about).

But the idea that there is a "New Alternative" out there is really picking up steam (See Bernard O'Leary's feature in The Skinny for more Stewart Lee and More about the Alternative Fringe) and I see the increasing popularity of the two big Free Festivals, along with the Alternative Fringe and the increase in the power of The Stand and their associated venues as a very positive shift.

Having said all that, in my next post, I'm going to go crazy for a show at the Gilded Balloon, that you MUST, MUST, MUST see....

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A View on the Big Four and "The Alternatives"

In an effort to stop the blog becoming a list of the acts I follow on Twitter, I thought I'd try and tackle an issue that affects everyone who comes to the Fringe... Whether they realise it or not.

Newbies to the Fringe may not know what I am talking about, but any comic who has put any thought into which venue they will be performing at will know straight away what I mean... So, who are this "Big Four"... Let me explain, by starting off with a history lesson...

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was created when a few people who wanted to perform at the official Festival but were told they couldn't, decided to come to Edinburgh anyway, hire a space, put on a show and try to get the reviewers who were there anyway to come and see them....

The following year, more people did the same and here we are, 65 years later with the worlds largest arts festival; the original "alternative" festival.

In the beginning the Fringe was spread over 100's of venues and essentially, that is still the case today. However, something has happened and the best analogy I can give as to how and why it has started is Supermarkets... (stick with me).

We all know that 50 years ago our grannies used to wander down to the high street, get meat from the butcher, bread from the baker etc etc... Nowadays that's all changed and the family will, instead, nip into the 4x4 for the weekly shop to the local edge of town monstrosity while the poor old butcher struggles to compete with a new "Sainsbury's Local", fighting for the well-to-do-town-centre-with-no-kids-yet couples and the dwindling number of other people with cash to throw around.

And whilst we all know that there are struggling corner shop owners, wine merchants and sweet shops out there, we can't turn down the value that the big supermarkets offer on a litre of milk or a pound of mince, so we all shop there and don't support the little guy as much as we want to.

The other things that the big four supermarkets have on their side as well as price is location, marketing, brand awareness and of course, lots of cash!

"But what does this have to do with the Fringe" I hear you say...

Well, the same thing has happened with Fringe venues! The four biggest have grown into behemoths that hoover up the punters and take them away from the little venues. Replace Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrison's with The Pleasance, Assembly Theatre, the Underbelly (complete with the big purple cow) and the Gilded Balloon, and you have your Big Four!

So what makes these places unique? Well, first of all it's the space they have at their disposal! Each venue isn't custom built to be split into performance areas, but it may as well be... Especially The Pleasance with it's hundreds of little cubby holes. By having lots of performance areas in one venue, you create a hub with lots of choice so people see it as a one-stop-shop with everything on offer.

They are also established venues, people have been going there for years to see Fringe shows...

What else? Well, they have the big acts. No self respecting off-the-telly comic is going to hire out a church hall when they can pack in the punters, then sip a cold pint in the courtyard with their celebrity chums and TV Exec buddies, safe in the knowledge that they will get the punters in on the back of their appearance on Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow!

(My pub owning buddy would also want me to point out that they also have a competitive advantage because they don't need to pay business rates on the temporary bars that they set up right next to his boozer).

But most importantly, they have the cash, and lots of it! Any act that wants to hire a tiny venue with room for 60-70 people crammed in has to pay around £4,000 for the privilege. That's £3 per seat per day... So If they are selling tickets for £6-7, they need to be at the very least half full every day to cover the venue cost.... Now keep in mind that this is just the venue cost... Not the cost to get to Edinburgh, sort accommodation, pay for their own marketing (including £400 just to get into the Fringe Guide). So if they want to cover those costs, they would need to be 3/4 full and heaven forbid if they were to make a profit they would need to be packing them in every single night....

Now, given that the average audience for a Fringe show is around 12 (I can't provide a source for that but I'm not plucking that figure out my arse... It's true), you can see how hard it can be for an act to make a profit!

But the acts do pay for these venues and they do walk away losing thousands. Why? Because they don't come to Edinburgh to make money, they come to get seen, reviewed, recognised, in short... to get famous.

So what do the venues do with all this cash? Well, they spend it on marketing and make sure the big shows are a success! The smaller shows at these venues usually make a loss, but they do get their name out there and after a few more years filling the venue's pocket with their hard earned cash, they may eventually see a return IF they are talented enough!

So far, so unsurprising.

What has happened in the last few years though has been a little more controversial and this is where the supermarket analogy well and truly ends!

The Big Four decided to get together and create the Edinburgh Comedy Festival which is essentially a marketing machine that only promotes their own shows. They create a great big glossy brochure and distribute it right next to the official brochure in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the punters to choose them. (They have added a 5th smaller company called Just The Tonic into the brochure who are, for the sake of this analogy, Waitrose... but the Big Four are still the key players).

If the five big supermarkets were to get together like this, then small business owners and the Competition Commission would have a serious problem with this, but Fringe venues are not large companies and the Fringe is only one month a year, in one city, so nothing is ever going to be done about this and I'm not suggesting anything should be.

What I do want to do though is let people know where their money is going at the end of all this. Just as I do my weekly shop at Asda, I also start my Fringe adventure every year at The Pleasance for the simple reason that you can pick up free/cheap tickets during the previews, (sadly I don't get press accreditation for doing this blog).

But I'm very much aware that every time I go to see one of these shows and blog about them (assuming I like them) that I'm helping the establishment and there are hundreds of smaller acts at the Fringe for the first time who have great shows, but can't get the punters or the reviewers in (even small fry amateur reviewers like me) to show them how good their show is and get the word of mouth out there!

Now, I'm not by any stretch of the imagination saying that you should not visit the big four... Go for it. If you've seen someone off the telly and you want to see then live then you should. Although I prefer to watch less established acts I know many people like a safe bet.

Just please be aware where your cash is going.

Be aware that you are lining the pockets of the agents and not helping "small business owners" in this case struggling actors or stand ups who still have a day job and are using a year's worth of annual leave to try and get their big break - just like you are not helping farmers or butchers when you but 10 chicken breasts for £9 at Asda.

And if you do go and see a big act, please also make an effort to get out and support everyone else too! Take a risk. Go and see a free show... Pick a 4-acts-for-1 type of gig... (Generally speaking you get two decent ones, an average one and a pretty poor but with sitting through one).

Here's who I think you should take some time to support:

The Stand Comedy Club... They must absolutely rake it in during the festival, but provide comedy all year round in Edinburgh (and still have staff to pay in January when the streets are deserted) so for that alone, they deserve to be supported and deserve their annual bumper month! That's before you even mention that they generally attract the best established but alternative acts, keen to play in a real comedy club. On top of that, owner Tommy Sheppard has got one over on one of the big four by securing the rights to host shows at the Assembly Rooms (previously run by Assembly Theatre who have run off to the South Side to be with their other three buddies) from 2012. Sheppard seems to have several admirable goals; to stop the Fringe becoming too tied to one area (South Side), to keep supporting local and/or up and coming acts as well as less commercial but established alternative comedians and to stop the rampant commercialism of the Fringe.

The Shack... A new all year round comedy club run by Edinburgh stand up Jojo Sutherland! A modern venue that turns into a 70's/80's themed disco at night. This is their first Fringe, and they only have a limited number of acts (who are not yet listed on their main website - get it sorted Jojo) so you have to do a venue search on the official site to find out what's going on there. I don't know enough about all the acts to comment on them but given how well connected Jojo is, I reckon there will be some very decent acts on at their late show.

Then you have the two free companies: PBH's Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival. I should warn you, there's some history between these two... The politics in this situation is interesting to say the least and is well covered by Claire Smith in The Scotsman. I've always supported the Laughing Horse Free Festival because I know Alex Petty and many of his acts, but there are some equally good performers in the PBH Free Fringe... and it's not really about the promoters, it's about the performers! Both give platforms to a tremendous number of new acts. You do have to do your research more if you don't want to waste the odd hour on an absolute stinker of a show, but if you don't mind taking a risk (not that you're losing anything other than your time) then go an see as many acts as you can!

Finally, another venue that's claiming to be the new "alternative" is the Hive. They are running some free shows, but they have set aside the peak times for paid shows, with ticket money split with the performers, so that the acts don't have an initial outlay! John Fleming has spoke to the creator Bob Slayer and sums up how it will work here.

So, there you have it! As far as choice goes, Edinburgh has literally everything! It's a comedy and culture smorgasbord!

My advice... Spend your money wisely. Put fun first, but don't forget where your money is going!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

More Stuff That Takes My Fancy...

OK... before I start I'd like to plug a blog similar to mine, that seems to be just starting out.... The Insider's Guide to the Fringe They started with a "Place to Stay" guide and have moved on to recommending shows. It seems to be a young couple of Fringe Fans contributing to this blog....

As always, Doug Segal seems to have sniffed them out early and charmed them into recommending him. Way to go Doug!

They have picked a few shows from acts that I have reviewed before... Other than Doug, I have also seen Nina Conti before (very good).

I saw Sarah Kendall around 7 years ago and she had some great lines and got cracking reviews... The crowd were a bit funny with her the night I was there and she didn't get the big laughs that I had heard she was getting every other night, but still a very capable stand up and with another 7 years experience in her she's going to be seriously good.

I also like the look of Trevor Noah and One Night Stand (not for any other reason than they've stood out in the Fringe guide as shows I'd like to see, so I've googled them).

So good luck to the new kids on the block! I hope they enjoy writing about their experience!

On to my picks now... My early tip for Best Newcomer Imaan has put up a new video plugging his show... Watch it and if you like the look of it, go see it!

I've seen a little bit of Kate Smurthwaite at a few 4-comics-for-the-price-of-1 shows and she's been excellent. Go and see her if you like a bit of left leaning satire. She's also well known for being the star of the Atheist Bitch Slap video on youtube which has proved to be popular. A top top act and one of the best acts I can find in a FREE show!

Another act that I don't think will be free for too much longer is Ashley Freize. A great musical comedian who has written the book on how to put on a Fringe show.... Literally (well, co-written it at least). He has some cracking sex based songs... the one about shagging old ladies is a particular favourite of mine!

I'm also a big fan of Lewis Schaffer.... He doesn't do comedy by numbers.. he can be quite eclectic, but he has some of the sickest lines I've ever heard (the work "sickest" applies equally to both the old school and new school meanings). He is a frequent subject of John Fleming's excellent blog. The link will give you a better idea of the show you are likely to see - I couldn't have put it any better than John! Kate Copsick of The Scotsman agrees and that paper put him on last years list of the top ten shows to see in 2011. (Just about every other act had been on TV regularly the past year).

Sarah-Louise Young is bringing back her popular Cabaret Whore for a short run... with the best of her shows from the last three years... She used to be part of the Free Festival, you're too late to see her for nothing, but she's well worth paying for. As it's a "best of" show with old material, it's a very safe bet to go to during the previews for only £7.

Another very funny lady that you'll need to part with your hard earned cash to see is Diane Spencer. Her blurb on the fringe website compares her to Joan Rivers and Sarah Millican... If you are one of the many people who don't find Sarah Millican overly funny then don't worry, I don't either, but I loved Diane Spencer! Millican comes across as being deliberately smutty, Spencer does it effortlessly (so for me the Joan Rivers comparison is a far better one)!

I've raved about him before, but the king of deadpan suave and sophisticated comedy is Marcel Lucont. One of the few comedians I've seen over and over and not tired of. He has some great videos of longish sets on youtube... Don't spoil his show by watching too many... But here's a 3 minute set! He's also hosting a Cabaret Show on Fridays.

Coming next... I'll give you a run down of some local talent performing at the Fringe, many for the first time!