I trained as an actor and as such I have seen a lot of theatre in my life. I’ve always been a massive fan of comedy, since those heady days when I was allowed to stay up late to watch Vic Reeves Big Night Out, but I didn’t realise you could “do” comedy as a kind-of-not-quite-but-almost career. So instead I embarked on three years of classical training to learn how to be an actor. I’m very glad I did but (to put you in the picture) my journey to comedy has been a circuitous one.
When I first moved to London I enjoyed going to see plays as much as the next drama school graduate but one day after I’d seen one too many indulgent uses of the revolve at The National Theatre and left (out of stultifying boredom and annoyance) in the interval, I fell out of love with theatre. It seemed to me at the time that funded theatre in London was predictable, passive and invariably preaching to the converted.
At around about the same time (in 2006) I went to the Edinburgh Fringe as a punter and saw We Are Klang in their show Klangbang in a small hut at The Pleasance and my world duly exploded. We Are Klang (featuring Marek Larwood, Greg Davies and Steve Hall) are ridiculously funny and heroically ridiculous. The audience was involved whether they liked it or not and by the end of the show they did like it, very much. We Are Klang not so much broke the fourth wall as ate it up and shat it out in your face with added spittle and jokes. Maybe this is what theatre once felt like, I thought; unsafe, surprising and bursting with anarchy. Maybe watching Ubu Roi once felt like this, whereas now it can only feel like a professional replica of something which was once rebellious and mischievously scatological. As I emerged, blinking and laughing from that hut, I pledged my heart to live comedy. There is nothing better, I thought. There is nothing more dangerous (for all involved) nothing more joyful and nothing more surprising. Or so I thought.
This year (as I have for the past 3 years) I went to the Edinburgh Fringe to perform and also to see as much as I could, illness and inevitable Fringe Depression permitting. As has been widely reported the Edinburgh Fringe and all of its off-shoot festivals is in the process of eating itself. What was once a celebration of independent productions on the fringes of the original festival has now become mostly about money, TV, PR and well…the mainstream. There are always notable exceptions but for better or worse, this is largely how it is. As always I went to watch some excellent stand ups, sketch groups, and character comedians but this year the productions that truly surprised me (and the element of surprise is at the heart of comedy after all) fell squarely in to the theatre category.
Half way through the month I saw the young Russian company Hand Made Theatre perform Time For Fun and wow what fun it was! Both big hearted and full of tiny detail this was one of my most joyful moments of the fringe. The company use their hands, feet, arms and charm to create moments, pictures, words and characters which range from a pair of moving bagpipes to a duck. Here was something extraordinary and generous. There were no egos, no TV stars, no irony, no text and very little sound from the performers themselves. Instead (to a backdrop of various tunes) one could hear the “ooohs”, “aaahs” and laughter of a sold out crowd. Here was joy and surprise, plain and simple.
Towards the tail end of a very long month I went to see Mess at The Traverse Theatre. As the play’s publicity material states “It’s about anorexia. But don’t let that put you off”. Not an easy sell, especially in a country where “issue plays” abound, but there was absolutely nothing dry or didactic about this inventive and gorgeous production. From start to finish this was a brilliant, funny and perfectly pitched piece, full of witty asides, direct address which deconstructed the art of theatre itself and wonderfully judged performances. I don’t want to give much away because I presume it will tour and you really should see it for yourself but this was as funny and surprising as any comedy I saw in the month but with the added bonus of being beautiful and moving. Fortunately I have never had anorexia but like many of us I’ve known people who have. I have a vague understanding of the illness but, not having experienced it myself, my understanding can only really be academic.
Watching Mess I felt for the first time a little bit closer to understanding the twists and turns of an eating disorder. It was as if someone had rubbed away condensation in a window and allowed me a slightly clearer view. And for me coming away with this little glimmer of understanding was perhaps the biggest theatrical surprise of all.
On my last day of the Edinburgh Fringe I saw Marek Larwood in his pants with mustard smeared over his face shouting the immortal words “Mummy I’m a big boy now!” to a bewildered Pleasance courtyard and I though “ok comedy I’m not quite done with you yet”.