Stu Black

THE SKINNY

stublackStu Black is quite refreshing. Perhaps I feel like that because we’ve all had a week in the FringePig office looking at reviewers eager to winkle out misogynists and those guilty of cultural essentialism or national exceptionalism or gender reductivism. Reviewers who have taken on the job of culture police.

And then suddenly we have Mr Black writing, of Diane Spencer’s show about Nancy Dell’Olio: “Her takedown of the oleaginous Botox bucket is as brutal as a mafia hit. We do hope Spencer has her protection sorted, and this therapeutic dragon-slaying doesn’t bring Dell’Olio’s legal chums or cousins from Sicily round to her flat to break the radiators.” I feel unable to enjoy this kicking of Dell’Olio because I don’t know her. But I do know a man from Sicily who isn’t in the Cosa Nostra. So, you know, it’s possible Stu. Maybe dial the Mind Your Language stuff back a bit.

Still, at least he’s very clear. After I’d read a Fest reviewer’s take on Brett Goldstein’s Burning Man, I hoped that some other reviewer would come along, at some point in the Fringe, and explain what it was ACTUALLY about. So when Stu Black writes: “The main spark of this show is an offhand remark made by Goldstein’s mother that sets off an existential dilemma that ultimately leads him to the Burning Man festival in Nevada” he not only explains a quite complex idea succinctly but satisfies a curiosity that, in me, dates to the beginning of the Fringe.

SO he makes me wish I’d seen Brett Goldstein. But I DID see Sarah Callaghan:

“She imagines her bedroom and invites us to look around: photos on the wardrobe, a broken curtain rail, don’t step on her notes, mate! It’s all a bit like this – she welcomes and repels at the same time.  She pins her spikiness on ambition and assures us it will all get better once she’s on TV”.

That about covers what I saw. It’s a simple thing, but when you see something you like and it gets misdescribed, it really grates. Black didn’t like Callaghan as much as I did, but I don’t doubt that he knew what he was looking at.

So I’m willing to accept that Twonky’s Stinking Bishop is “a wilfully weird show that would probably be best appreciated after taking a crash helmet full of drugs”. Although I find it hard to believe that a man who “sings uncomfortable ditties about sheep dip and haunted cable cars, and also performs incredible feats with the assistance of a menagerie of unsettling puppets” is only worth two stars. His review makes him sound delightful.

Derwent Cyzinski

Dominic Cavendish

THE TELEGRAPH

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

FRINGE GURU

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! “

Jon Stapley

THREE WEEKS

jonstapleyThere are some toys at FringePig who seem to think that that theatre-hags and cabaret-whores and music-prostitutes and childrens’-show…erm… whatever class of degenerate they are… should stick to hanging around in their own fleshpots.

I’ve never really agreed, and so it is my pleasure to present the amazing, multi-faceted, quadruple-headed Jon Stapley. A good few days into each Fringe Stapley will have a break from his usual worthiness and take a look at the comedy. And then he goes home, or to the office (sorry, this is Three Weeks… he goes home, or to a McDonalds with wifi)… and he does a bloody good job of typing it up.

Stapley comes up with some intrigue for Murder She Didn’t Write about how the audience were led to believe they were suggesting themes for a murder but, in the end, didn’t really contribute to how it was staged. Perhaps that’s where the show’s name came from. But we don’t get to find out because Stapley runs out of words and can only conclude that “the clear potential for something really special wasn’t reached”.

Stapley does his best, though: “With a musical number in the first five minutes, and a double male striptease in the first fifteen, Giraffe’s blistering show lets you know what you’re in for pretty quickly,” he tells us, providing a similarly express service. He was similarly circumspect about WitTank last year, writing that “As the school’s preposterous headmaster, Naz Osmanoglu mercilessly hoovers up the biggest laughs, though all three members do get to shine.”

Stapley never butchers anything or over-reaches himself with florid epigrams. He’s just the sort of person to do a good job in a tiny space. At least, he is most of the time.

Becky Walker’s Panda

Claire Smith

THE SCOTSMAN

clairesmithClaire Smith – or ‘The Scotsman’s Clair Smith’, as the Wow24/7 website denomes her – is every bit as good a reviewer as you’d expect a veteran hack to be. (Note to comedians: ‘hack’ is not a pejorative term in journalism.)

You might not agree with everything she writes, nor the assumptions on which she builds her arguments. In her review of Felicity Ward she writes that “a lot of creative people fear analysing their quirks”, despite working in an environment where 1,200 comedy creatives want to talk about their quirks for a whole hour. And her comment that Henning Wehn’s “joke telling is as dry, logical and precise as German engineering” is the sort of thing a freshly-minted student reviewer would think is really clever.

However, such bumps can only jolt the reader because the rest of the road is so smooth; on the whole Smith’s reviews are marvellously clear, articulate and witty without giving the impression she’s trying to compete with her subject. She tells us that “Candy Gigi eats onions, disco dances in a pig mask and false boobs shaking maracas, and simulates sex with a blow-up doll dressed as a Hasidic Jew. She talks about poo and dirty sex and does unspeakable things to a real chicken”. This seems to commit the reviewing sin of set-listing, but the important thing is that Smith only does this where it’s genuinely intriguing. And it certainly is with Candy Gigi.

Smith’s matter-of-factness results in some statements that don’t sound like passages on the way to critical approval but in fact are: “Ward has galloping irritable bowel syndrome, severe anxiety and bouts of depression”. “[Christie] begins by constructing a ludicrously grotesque definition of a feminist”; “Christie lengthily, wilfully and deliberately misses the point of Nigel Farage”. It’s a small thing but helps reinforce Smith’s ability to hold a show at arm’s length and to see it before she judges it.

I have a small problem with her comment about This is Your Trial that “Defence lawyer Rachel Parris probably should have laid off the Chardonnay before the performance”. If she was drunk then tell us, but let’s not jump to the conclusion that pretty blonde girls only quaff bimbo juice. Well, not if you’re going to declare an admiration for Bridget Christie.

Are we allowed to say that girls are pretty? Of course we are. Although I did wonder how Candy Gigi’s “lovely skin” was a vital factor next to her pig mask and onion-scoffing. But if such minor improprieties are the price of seeing some old-school professionalism on the Fringe then it’s a price worth paying.

Jemyma C. Noevil