Edinburgh Fringe — James Meehan and Tamsyn Kelly

Two stand-up performers I saw at Edinburgh delivered sets with a theme in common — “escaping” a profoundly working-class background in the geographical backwaters of middle-England to become comedians living (in Kelly’s case at least) in London’s insalubrious neighbourhoods. But it’s London, so it’s relative.

In Tamsyn Kelly’s case, she comes from the nearest council estate to Land’s End — the contrast with the middle-class, Rick Stein postcard fudge-packet version of Cornwall was probably what hooked me when I saw her show recommended in the Evening Standard and I booked it in advance.

Seeing James Meehan was down to serendipity. I’d come out of Monkey Barrel, having seen Olga Koch (of whom more in another post) and walked along Cowgate collecting flyers. I don’t know if it was the person handing out the flyer, the flyer itself or me looking up the show online but I was interested enough to turn around at head back to Cabaret Voltaire — like the Caves an amazing subterranean warren of vaulted brick rooms. (I seem to have picked up he was a fellow Lancastrian somewhere along the way.)

Both shows were predominantly autobiographical — and both dealt with some bleak aspects of growing up in places marginalised and forgotten. Both comedians referenced cruel characters from their upbringing who’d been (possibly) brutalised by their upbringing. Neither did so with sentimentality — James Meehan performed some warts-and-all character sketches of people with indefensible attitudes from his the scene of his Leyland upbringing (framed as the worst online dating videos ever).

Not that either show was depressing or flat — there were plenty of laughs in both. There was a great audience participatory callback in Meehan’s show involving the world’s worst sex toy. Tamsyn Kelly ended her show in a way that was as far from self-pitying as is imaginable.

Both displayed an honest and appealing wit — and first-hand insight — into what divides the country into (some might say) a vibrant London and “the left behind” (if that can be interpreted as unsentimentally as possible. The shows made the point that privilege enjoyed by the likes of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jack Whitehall and a large number of similar others in the creative industries certainly doesn’t extend to any substantial percentage of the British population.

Both stand-ups used material to show that characters from their backgrounds could react to this either in a moronic or actually rather dignified way. Both comedians delivered amusing and though-provoking hours of stand-up with no sense of time-dragging or repetition, using visual aids and innovative changes of structure to vary the pace.

Finally — the Edinburgh Fringe

Edinburgh Royal Mile on a Fringe Evening
Edinburgh Royal Mile on a Fringe Evening

I finally made it to Edinburgh for the fringe this year!

So many people had recommended it to me over the years — and now I see the reason why.  It was only a fleeting visit of two days — and, even then, because of the expense of accommodation, I stayed in a hotel a distance away from Edinburgh that would have constituted a respectable London commute. (Because of the travel I wasn’t able to join some of the late night events, such as my ex-tutor Kate Smurthwaite’s Late With Katewhich I would have liked to have gone along to.)

Even so, I managed to squeeze in eight shows over two days, almost all comedy. Even if you stayed for the full duration it would only be possible to take in a tiny sample of the thousands of shows on offer. Only by walking around and seeing virtually every public surface plastered with posters is it possible to comprehend how many different venues and acts are competing for the audience’s time.

The official Fringe programme also makes this point — it’s almost telephone directory size — putting many a Thomson local (of days gone by) to shame.

Thankfully there’s a useful official Fringe website and mobile phone app that allows a prospective fringe-goer to search for shows, enter them into a useful day-by-day planner and book tickets online (with lots of physical ticketing points).

I didn’t want to pre-plan too much — I imagined before I arrived that there would be lots of opportunities to grab flyers and spontaneously pitch up at rising stars’shows. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to leave everything to chance and so browsed various online recommendations from the likes of the London Evening Standard, The Arts Desk, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, Chortle and various others.

I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing established performers that I already knew — or could probably go and seek out on tour or in London in the near future. The type of act I was most interested in were those who were “emerging” — those gathering a reputation and who were on an upward trajectory. I also wanted to see at least as many women performers as men,

I’m not a reviewer but I’ll try to sum up my thoughts about the performers I saw in a couple of posts following this one. Overall, I was pretty satisfied with my choices, although it felt a little like sticking a pin in the catalogue. Many of my decisions were driven by time. As you may expect, the most established acts tended to play in the 8/9pm slots — so any sensible up-and-coming act would work around that and either go for a later or earlier slot. Because I was looking at the emerging acts, my most difficult decisions were around who I’d see at 4-7pm — and there were so many that clashed or had too little time to travel between venues.

In the end, I enjoyed a very concentrated programme of shows that took in many of the most atmospheric comedy venues — especially those in the arches of the North/South and George IV Bridges — like the Caves, Monkey Barrel and Cabaret Voltaire.

Not having visited before, I didn’t realise that many of the countless venues were repurposed teaching spaces from Edinburgh University. Lining up for a show at the “George Square Studios” was a little like the last time I waited outside a university examination room (actually only about ten years ago before any comments about long memories!).

Teviot Venues

Maybe it was the brevity of my visit or that I didn’t venture too far out of the main Old Town venues but I was surprised at the corporate feeling of the Fringe — most performers that came to my attention (either personally or via posters) were linked to promoters or groups like Soho Theatre. (I go to Soho Theatre quite a lot but I know where to find them the rest of the year.)

I had the possibly naive notion that there might even be Open Mic events that could be rolled-up to on the night. Perhaps there are but I didn’t come across any. Given the performer to venue ratio, it seems that the venues have the upper hand — and many in the centre had at least seven or eight different performances during a single day.

But my time in Edinburgh didn’t completely pass without me enjoying a bit of the limelight. I went along to Naomi McDonald’s show Copycat —  it was unscheduled and driven purely by her posters (see below). I was picked out of the audience and spent a few minutes on stage being a straight-man to a selection of Naomi’s character impressions.

Naomi is a superb vocal mimic — particularly when she sings — and I thoroughly enjoyed her show and the large and varied cast of characters of whom she performs.

I Ended Up on Stage in Naomi McDonald’s Show

Another Stand Up Performance — This Time with Logan Murray!

Over the spring I took the brilliant Logan Murray’s stand-up course and met a dozen or so fantastic comedians and made some wonderful friends — and we continue to meet up afterwards.

The course ended with a showcase evening at the excellent Museum of Comedy, which was videoed and very generously shared by Mandy Moore.

Here’s my bit — I’m managing to trim myself down to five minutes a bit better these days. It appeared to go down quite well with the audience on the night. I have to credit the amazingly supportive Logan with quite a few of the jokes, having had a one-to-one session with him in the run-up to the show.

I’d recommend Logan’s course to anyone — and obviously many people have done so as they’re invariably sold out several months ahead. However, he’s hilarious to work with and an irrepressible source of jokes.

I’m Still Standing (Up)

Having got a taste for going out on stage in front of a rowdy audience of (almost) complete strangers on Kate Smurthwaite’s City Academy courses, I followed up with another course with renowned stand-up comedy director, Chris Head.

This was at the dedicated comedy pub, The Bill Murray, in Islington — part of the same management as the famous Camden Head. While I was doing the course in the upstairs room some big names in the comedy world (Nish Kumar, Daniel Kitson, etc.) were appearing on the stage in the room below — the stage which I graced myself in our end-of-course gig (see below).