Jonathan Holmes


jonathanholmesWhat is going on at Fest Towers this year? Last year their average score – AVERAGE – was 2.3 stars. This year it’s like opening a box of glitter. Maybe they realised nobody likes them. Maybe it was starting to hit their bottom line (would you buy an ad in a magazine that had called you a talentless so-and-so? I wouldn’t, and I’m an elephant so, you know – pretty thick skinned). We can only speculate, can’t we? But for whatever reason they’ve put in a skylight and let the sunshine in.

One of their new sunbeams is Jonathan Holmes. His style is so fresh and bouncy it’s like taking cotton sheets out of the tumble drier. “Many comics would get disheartened when a quarter of his audience leave halfway through, but Andy Field only gets funnier,” he writes of a gig where he’s one of three people left watching. Is he trying to prove a point, maybe that a good critic can sniff out funny in a vacuum? Well I don’t think so. He seems sincere. Of Ed Aczel he writes that: “Everyone needs to see Aczel at least once in their life, because you’re already living through one of his routines,” which seems as heartfelt as it is a bleak appraisal of the human condition. “It’s like wonderful torture,” he adds. “Joe McCarthy as a pub bore”.

In Ari Shaffir’s writeup, Holmes goes on a bit of a sentimental journey in which he attempts to compare the meaningless, loveless fun promised in the show’s title with the sweaty encounters of those who will be on the pull once Shaffir’s venue becomes a nightclub later on. It’s a little bit tortuous but Holmes just about gets away with it due to his tight turns of phrase: “His visit to Anne Frank’s house threatens to be significant. Then it isn’t.” Similarly his observation that “The astute joke at the centre of Holly Burn’s latest bought (sic) of mania is to collide precociousness with Hollywood glamour” threatens to spill over into verbosity, but then doesn’t. It’s all just about right. I mean it’s a pity he didn’t spell the word ’bout’ correctly but then this is Fest, not The Times. Anyway, Holmes is a measured enthusiast.

But none of this is particularly important. What is important is that Holmes looks at everything, gives it a chance to breathe, and then considers it on its own terms. This is a rarity at the Fringe and like trying to find a pink okapi, frankly, in the back catalogue of Fest reviews. Long may it continue.

Dominic Cavendish


dominiccavendishDominic Cavendish is perhaps best known, among comedians anyway, as the man who walked out of a Stewart Lee gig. Appalled by Lee’s apparent contempt for his audience, Cavendish asked why “the capacity crowd didn’t mutiny at this sardonic onslaught”. The reason, in the heads of most comedygoers, was that they understood the context of the contempt. To which Cavendish replied that he understood that his fans understood, but it was getting a bit tired. And anyone who has seen Stewart Lee’s website will know that the appalled outbursts of reviewers are simply collected and put on display like little trophies. It’s hard to win an argument with someone hellbent on self-deconstruction.

This year, perhaps to oil the waters, his colleague Mark Monahan went along to see Lee and found that there was “a great deal to enjoy”. So that’s alright then. Cavendish, meanwhile, has been pursuing his own line in contrarian needling by reviewing – indeed, celebrating – the most liberal-baiting comedians he could find: Andrew Lawrence, Geoff Norcott and Shazia Mirza.

It’s a relief that a reviewer has done justice to Norcott this year. By actually spelling out the jokes – quite a lot of them, possibly to the detriment of the show – Cavendish at least gives the lie to other reviewers such as Fest‘s resident communist Sean Bell who claimed that Norcott, despite admissions of Tory sympathies, had nothing controversial to say. These jokes “could easily bring death threats in the Twittersphere,” Cavendish assures us. And after the Lee debacle, he should know.

It’s clear that Andrew Lawrence is a bit of a critical battleground this year. From hate blurts that backhandedly validate him (Broadway Baby) to considered take-downs (Chortle) and contemptuous dismissals (Fest), most have attempted a sort of bomb-disposal review that won’t prove Lawrence right about the Liberal conspiracy. There’s no reason why the Torygraph should toe such a line, though, and Cavendish commends his bravery while excusing pretty much all his faults: “It’s as if we’d forgotten that comedians had licence to be honest, however ugly that might make them. Does that mean too few jokes? At times, yes.” He lets Mirza off too for having the courage not just to condemn Isis, but show evidence that the Prophet does too: “Given the bravery and urgency of the material, you’re inclined to overlook the fact that she loses momentum midway in by over-stating the same points.”

While we may disagree on which kind of bravery is most needed in comedy or the world, it’s clear that Cavendish is is genuinely concerned with this idea of ‘urgency’. He puts more emphasis on the message, and how different it is, than he is with the slickness, the surroundings or the technicalities. This is especially important when so many critics troll up to Edinburgh, watch Jack Whitehall and then complain that they didn’t see anything political/right-wing/controversial/daring. One criticism we might make of Cavendish as of all broadsheet reviewers: do you really see enough comedy to appreciate what is truly brave or different? You get the feeling that the shows Cavendish picked were selected in pursuit of a theme, and because he wanted to make his points without seeing any more than he had to.

Yet, when Cavendish is not having to explain why he went home early, he gives the show he’s looking at time to unfold on the page. At times this does mean a little too much punchline-spilling, but that’s a small loss to an hour-long show and worth it for an approach that, instead of having a point to prove, aims to prove its points with detailed reference to the original material. Not that Cavendish is always convincing: it seems sometimes that he was determined to come out in favour of  these three shows before the lights even dimmed. But, the misjudged Stewart Lee debacle aside, there’s nothing particularly wrong with a reviewer with a point to make.

Mister Kipper

Craig Thomson


craigthomsonAt first, Craig Thomson’s prose style can jar a bit. But then you start reading his work in a clipped, treacly, 1950s cricket-commentator voice and then it all feels right. Especially when he says things like: “There shouldn’t be a problem with drunken rowdiness before elevenses, I’d hope.”

Not that Thomson is impenetrable: far from it. He writes some of the best and most concise first paragraphs on the Fringe.

“Fan Club,” (he tells us) “… is the third successive Edinburgh show from sketch outfit Present and Correct – and the new generation has served up an enjoyable routine which, even if it didn’t move me to join the club myself, is at least a pleasant way to ease yourself into the day.” Then there’s the deft precise cheeriness of “I definitely didn’t want to miss a trip on top of the Blundabus this year, and I’m glad that I got on board with Luca Cupani”. And then, as if to show how much thought he puts into these reviews even before he’s started: “When Lizzie Franks and Nerine Skinner met, what choice did they have but to eventually form a comedy double act?  Fate dealt them a kind hand in the name department, albeit one which I imagine is frustrating for search engine optimisation”.

He does fall into the sketch reviewer’s trap of trying to explain the inexplicable premise, which just leaves us shrugging: “Time travel and the flower shop both had good gags and good delivery, for example, and the French exam was a clever scenario that was well executed”… but for the most part he’s so considered and patient, even in his negative prognoses, that he’s like a kindly old doctor. Of Gurpal Gill he writes:

“I thought Gill was too quick to turn to audience interaction throughout his set – it came to resemble a nervous tic, and became increasingly stilted as the front row grew tired of being picked on.  I’d much rather he took the time to develop his own voice, which is worth hearing when we get it.”

Only once does he get tetchy. “On a couple of occasions, [Fan Club] had me screaming (internally!) “yes, that’s the joke!” It’s quite nice how he brackets and exclamation-marks the word ‘internally’, to make it more internal and screamy.

And Thomson, unlike some reviewers we could mention, felt no need to mention that he was on top of a bus all the way through his Luca Cupani review. A bus! Isn’t that weird? Sadly the downside to this considered approach is that he’s still talking way past the point being made, sort of like a distracted relative who won’t get off the phone. There are two whole paragraphs at the end of his Franks and Skinner report where you want to scream (internally!) “Thanks Craig! Got to go! Our last bill was enormous! Goodbye! “

Emma Newlands


emma-newlandsThis tired old Fringepigger started out not liking Emma Newlands. But that’s largely because the term ‘self-deprecating’ winds me up for reasons I have explained to death. So: “Reviewers always describe me as self-deprecating, says Angela Barnes, just as this reviewer had written those very words down.” (WHY? WHY HAD YOU WRITTEN AN OVERUSED BIT OF HACKERY DOWN AS YOUR FIRST CONSTRUCTIVE THOUGHT?) “But it’s hard to think how else to sum up her set” (WELL THEN YOU’RE IN THE WRONG BLEEDING JOB, LOVE).

However it turns out Ms Newlands has reviewed Spencer Jones and actually understood the fellow’s mind-bending clownery. And she doesn’t even get showy-offy about it. Her appreciation is candid, precise and sympathetic of his world “where nonsense rules and the truth regularly cuts through more clearly than in the outside world”. She lightly mentions that his outfit is skimpy, whereas some gibbering arse at Fest Magazine thought it necessary to explain that you could see the shape of his penis. Newlands is not an unpleasant person, and her manners do her credit. So I take back all those shouty capital letters. And the casual sexism at the end. Sorry. I am an older elephant.

I wasn’t so keen on her writeup of Sooz Kempner, however. It starts by making no damn sense. “Like tightrope walking and bomb disposal, character comedy requires precision to achieve its ideal goal: to subvert!” Surely the point of tightrope walking AND bomb disposal is to not die violently? Neither was I certain that a show of four successive character acts is “satire-by-numbers”, because it just isn’t. It’s a show of four successive character acts. Her review of Tobias Persson, though, was fairly sound and reasonable with just enough of the chatty commentary that sometimes gets away from her.

Emma Newlands is a difficult reviewer to assess; by turns drily perceptive and mildly annoying. She has a lucid, natural style to her writing but she needs to stand out of the way and let the thing she’s reviewing speak for itself a little more. And stop telling us that things are something they are not.

Mister Kipper

Gemma Scott


gemmascottWe’ve been wondering here at Fringepig why, when Three Weeks is such an insubstantial piece of festival trash, so many of reviewers have scraped through this year’s Fringepig audit relatively unscathed.

On the whole, it seems to come down to the length of rope. Three Weeks writers, while certainly no better qualified than their peers, are simply not given the space or word count to say anything truly stupid. There are less typos, since even the most distracted student can be bothered to re-read one paragraph, and there is absolutely no room in a Three Weeks review for that most fatal detour of the amateur journalist, the fanciful allegory.

For this reason we’ve taken to reading at least 10 reviews of each Three Weeker, reasoning that in that space their weaknesses will start to show. No dice with Gemma Scott, however, who maintains a lucid, chatty and sympathetic style throughout her canon – and all without committing any grievous howlers.

If there’s one criticism it’s that her style is a bit cosy: “With this quiet start to an inevitably frantic Fringe day, Snee will make your heart hurt a little bit,” she says of Emily Snee. Her review of Susan Calman, meanwhile, whitewashes her in sugar syrup: “If you’re looking for a lovely hour with a lovely comedian, Calman’s your lady”. But then again, charity is in short supply at the Fringe and Scott is generous with those in need of it, forgiving errors and missteps. Emily Snee, for example, was supposed to be performing comedy but bottled it to perform “an hour of acoustic, folky songs on a tiny, tiny guitar”. It’s nice that Scott doesn’t mind. Similarly Robin Ince “repeatedly berates himself for the weird, unpredictable nature of the show, but this is actually what makes it so exciting”.

This is not to say she’s easy with the stars. However. Only the more thought-out and involved stuff gets four, but across the spectrum of her work she makes a fair and even distribution. She rarely tells us whether she, or anyone else, is actually laughing although at Susan Calman’s show “you can’t help giggling”. You do get the feeling Scott would rather not if she can help it, but perhaps she’s just maintaining professional distance.

Mister Kipper