Will Young

FEST

willyoungThe problem with Will Young – and it’s not a terminal problem – is his apparent need to assault everything he looks at. He’ll attempt to establish an ideological standpoint, frame a performer’s whole existence or tie the whole show up into an epithet. Until he’s got his performer helpless and hogtied, Young does not feel comfortable approaching their work.

For example, he either wilfully ignores or woefully misunderstands Stuart Goldsmith’s first joke in order to make a weak point about the show in general, a fractured foundation he then builds upon. Brennan Reece’s use of a false Jongleurs-style opening to his otherwise weighty material makes him “a bit of a conman”. There may be more imaginative ways of embarking on Mark Watson’s I’m Not Here than by stating words to the effect of “He definitely is here, I saw him in the lobby”. And, in order to take on Nath Valvo, Young first embarks on a straw-man rant about what (I can only assume) he thinks Valvo believes, or perhaps it is meant to convey what other reviewers believe, or what we might believe were Young not there to give us guidance:

“Have you ever noticed how no debut comedian ever has anything valuable to say? Aren’t they ALL awful, shouty, brash white blokes finding ways to embarrass audience members as a distraction from limited observational material? Isn’t EVERY SINGLE ONE a sad disappointment for a hopeful audience risking a new act?”

I’m still not sure what that was all about, but it was almost certainly unnecessary. Still, at least once Young has his subject under wraps he delivers some decent reviewing. “It’s not for everyone, and it’s little more than the sum of its surreal parts” he says of Alison Thea-Skot while, commendably, enjoying her show to the full nonetheless. By the time Young gets to discussing Watson’s passport routine, “a rich vein to mine his own neuroses, with engaging diversions into his family life and views on modernity” I’d almost forgotten his other transgressions. When you can distil a performance this efficiently, there’s no need to go at it with a semantic pickaxe.

Tamarin Fountain

FRINGE GURU

tamarinfountainFirst the good news: Tamarin Fountain has an excellent name. Well, that’s not the good news. But she does, though.

The good news is that Tamarin Fountain writes very clearly in plain English. Her style is friendly in a sub Marge-Proops way, and she lets you know what’s going on without getting too deconstructive: “This show is riotously funny and provides a steady stream of hilarity, a few aahs and oohs, and even the odd shriek along the way. If you like the absurd and skilled silliness, you will love this.” She thus gives us a lovely overview of Plague of Idiots. And she uses the word ‘lovely’ sometimes, too, which is always a good thing.

But it’s difficult to gauge what, exactly, Tamarin Fountain is doing with her life. She seems to have a thing for improv (as all theatrically-minded reviewers who take a punt on comedy do), but the thing is this: She absolutely HATES getting involved.

During Plague of Idiots “There were a few moments of audience interaction which were too invasive for my liking, and with which I was not entirely comfortable.  But then again, I do have terribly British sensibilities when it comes to these things”, she shudders.

Blind Mirth aren’t quite so scary: “Those words – ‘audience participation’ – always make me nervous, but here it is gentle and entirely optional.” What’s she doing? It’s like someone going to a brothel just to squirm in horror at the brazen immorality of it all (I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that prostitution is as bad for society as improv). And then, when she goes to see Le Beau Zeaux, she complains that the audience aren’t sufficiently involved and none of their suggestions were properly employed.

We shouldn’t get the idea that Fountain doesn’t understand improv, though. She understands it so much that she wants to make sure WE understand it:

“We are encouraged to shout out ideas as contributions to the set-ups of various scenarios and, in doing so, become collaborators in the creative process of each show’s formation. Whilst the onus is on the performers to work imaginatively with whatever random offering they receive, it will inevitably be easier to find the comedy in some suggestions rather than others, a major factor in the variance of each night’s level of success.”

So there we go then. 78 words. A mini-essay on the challenges and pitfalls of improv that somehow neglects to mention “Some audience members will keep turning up even though they are scared shitless of being asked anything and thus are as much use as a Mike Leigh film in a suicide intervention.” It’s not as if her potted guide has even helped her very much: “In an improv situation where scenes can quickly become abstract, garbled dialogue combined with unfamiliar games sometimes left me wondering what on earth was going on.”

Damn it Tamarin, it’s a minefield out there.

Edmund Rumania

Joseph McAulay

BROADWAY BABY

josephmcaulayJoseph McAulay concerns himself with theatre in the main, and makes only occasional sorties into comedy.

While a thesp overview of comedy is sometimes helpful and revealing, McAulay gives the overall impression of someone who wishes the comedy he’s watching could be a bit more – well, theatre-y. It’s clear that he sees the driving ambition of comedy (to make people laugh) as rather a low target. Of This Is Your Trial he concedes that the comedians managed to do the very least expected of them: “Both did a competent job of using the format to make witty and interesting jokes”. He continues: . “These did admittedly produce funny moments. Overall the show is enjoyable, but that’s almost the problem: it’s just enjoyable… you’ll have a few drinks before, laugh at the time…” To which you sort of want to say “Not everything is Titus Bloody Andronicus, Joseph.”

In case we hadn’t realised that he was roughing it, he lets us know quite clearly at the end of reviewing John Robertson’s The Dark Room: Symphony of a Floating Head: “It’s not often than I find myself enjoying myself in a pitch black room surrounded by other sweaty fringe goers while an Australian man shouts at me. Anyone who can make an hour of this entertaining deserves to be checked out.” How does the adjective ‘Australian’ play in the awful environment the critic overcame? Is it being used as a pejorative like ‘horrible’ or ‘stinky’?

In any case, the fact that McAulay is happy to put himself three times into five words: “I find myself enjoying myself” tells you who is the most important person in his reviews.

This may be why McAulay emphasises whether or not he has enjoyed himself – which, to older comedy reviewers, is as gauche as a restaurant critic talking about the actual food – and whether he’s seen anything life-changing. We can’t argue with that in principle. He certainly understands what he sees: his description of John Robertson as “a deranged dungeon master on a power trip” who “holds the entire show together through his presence and charisma” is a good precis. He’s pretty shrewd when he gets away from himself.

The accompanying picture of McAulay makes him look about 7. Maybe he’ll develop a bit more empathy as he ages.

Billy Coconuts

Matthew Sharpe

FEST

matthewsharpeWe all like a superfluity of grandiose verbiage. There’s no need to say “superfluity of grandiose verbiage” when I could just say “too many big words”, but I did it and I’ll do it again. So when I read that Lou Sanders’ Excuse Me, You’re Sitting On My Penis Again is “substantively light on penises, and any sitting thereon” I thought I was going to enjoy the work of Matthew Sharpe.

And for the most part I did. When he explains that Sanders tends to laugh at her own jokes, it is generous and considered of Sharpe to write that “It does add to her affable charm, but it also undermines the fluency of her storytelling”. Also I like the description of her “minxy, bashful stage persona”. And when he tells us that Phil Jerrod “segues smoothly between musings, offering amusing perspectives on murder”, the slippery alliteration is enough to send a tingle up the spine of all but the most implacable stuffed toy reviewer-reviewer, would that we had spines.

The thing with Sharpe is that reading one review gives the impression of an assured, urbane and articulate reviewer. But when you read all of them you realise that most of the time he’s just showing off. This is fine so long as we can all understand him, but sometimes it’s just trowelled on a bit thick: Jerrod’s show is “ultimately lacking the chuckle-rate that transcends the saturated market of technophobic satire”. Nish Kumar “relishes the chance to deconstruct his hypothetical opponent’s rebuttal”. Beard “earnestly elevate bare sketches to the point where you get the sense that they’re reluctantly performing someone else’s material”. Big words are necessary sometimes for big concepts. But Sharpe is trying to describe straightforward ideas here and bashing everything but the nail on the head.

There are potted (and unintelligible) breakdowns of comedy genres as if Sharpe is establishing from the beginning of each review his absolute mastery of each concept. “Anecdotal comedy has a tendency to bring the exaggerated set-piece moments to the fore and leave the unshowy minutiae by the wayside,” he asserts for Diane Spencer. “Surreal humour, at its best, can dance the line between logic and farce, keeping audiences guessing as it subverts causal reasoning,” he tells us before picking bits out of Beard. During Eric Meat Has No Proof, Only Memories of Pasta he takes the opportunity to tell us what absurdist humour is, too.

The tipping point for me was in saying that Jenny Bede’s material is “never original enough to derive genuine regalement”. Regalement has not been used, as either a proper or improper noun, for about 300 years, and it does nothing here but sit like a stinking Georgian aristocrat in a rotten borough. Then he tells us that Ali Brice’s audience is “more participatory than spectatory”. Spectatory is not a word and never will be, unless it’s used to describe the sort of person who reads the Spectator.

If Matthew Sharpe has any sense he’ll stop being quite so clever.

Derwent Cyzinski

Cara McNamara

THE SKINNY

cara-mcnamaraThis year The Skinny has taken to packing shows together for review, which may be new editor Ben Venables’ way of getting more work out of his staff. For my money this approach works best when the shows under discussion have some points in common.

The Skinny does indeed bind the shows together as themes, but McNamara’s discussion of “alienation and relationships” is so broad that she could have put any two shows on the Fringe in here. And indeed she discusses chalk after cheese: Alex Edelman’s easygoing charm and then Phil Nichol’s dark drama. We wouldn’t do that with reviewers. You will notice that I am only discussing comedy reviewer Cara McNamara in this review, rather than Cara McNamara followed by, I dunno, a brothel reviewer called George McCoy. I don’t know why but we just think it’s better this way.

The ditzy poetasting doesn’t help. “Being a stranger in a strange land makes you fall back on your resources. Everyone loves seeing their lives reflected as if through a circus mirror. For example, Alex Edelman …” In other news, Everyone likes cornflakes. Non-sequiturs live in trees.

Once this somnolent throat-clearing is over, however, McNamara improves, giving a crisp and clear account of Edelman and, to begin with, Phil Nichol. Yet while it’s very clear that McNamara didn’t like Nichol’s Angel In The Abattoir, it’s not easy to pinpoint precisely what her problem is. “This is neither surreal nor literary; it’s sixth form studies stuff,” she says. No clearer. “It slides through every wet dream trope in the teenage boy’s canon.” Do you mean fantasy? Does every teenage boy really have a canon of wet dream tropes? I can’t help thinking McNamara could do with a visit from the Plain English Campaign. And beyond that I do wish reviewers would stop putting the word ‘trope’ into everything they look at these days.

There are more connections to be made with Pippa Evans and Jenny Bede: “both slim, blonde, pretty”. Excellent. “Both card-carrying feminists…” oh. I do hope they don’t mind you lumping them together for being blonde and pretty. “…who see no reason to apologise for being female and funny.” Hmm. Has anyone ever asked for such an apology?

It’s a shame because she has something. Her writing is very buzzy, and it’s well paced and engaging. It just tries to be a little too clever sometimes.

Business Leopard