September 01, 2007

Show Off

The Witching Hour. This year was The Witching Hour's third year at the Underbelly, and, seeing it for the first time, I can see why they keep coming back. The basic premise is that the host (this year the extremely funny Steven Harvey) makes a few yuks as an intro, riffing on horror cliches and poking fun at the venue and audience. Then it all gets a little more theatrical and we're told that our car has broken down and we've taken refuge in an old mansion for the night. Cue a cavalcade of celebrity guests (different every night) to tell ghost stories, intercut with Harvey returning to add a few of his own. It's all done between 11pm and midnight, roughly, so the crowd is at that happy level of drunk and it all just comes across as good fun.

Then (and this is why I understand their preference for the Underbelly) they cut all the lights and, being as we're in an underground cave (famed for being haunted) we're plunged into complete darkness. Harvey then suddenly drops all pretence of stand-up comedy or light-hearted storytelling and proceeds to scare the absolute liquid crap out of the audience for about five minutes solid. It was exquisitely timed and carried out, and I can honestly report that not a single member of the audience (including all the big butch men) left without an anxious grimace on their face. Really, really excellent. Five pundigrions.

Ola Onabule. A British soul sensation whose catalogue blurb lists as a dubious honour his having been the only musician invited to perform at the Spice-Beckham wedding. Onabule takes the stage with a seven-piece band and a large stack of confidence, and subsequently belts out song after song of slick jazz/funk/soul ditties, pausing every now and then for some tiresome London banter with the crowd. The band was technically proficient and Onabule's voice a treat, but the songs (like so many contemporary soul/funk acts) seemed to all blend into one, fairly limited bassy sound after a while, and the end result was pleasant but hardly memorable. Three pundigrions.

Craig Campbell. Craig's a Canadian comic from out West who some of you may know as Ed the Sock's co-host on Ed's Night Party. He has a very no-nonsense, Canadian sense of humour, and a keen sense of timing and of the ridiculous. He spends the first ten minutes or so of the act ad libbing banter with the audience, which I have to say is one of the most impressive things I saw all Fringe. One of the women in the audience was a fish biologist and, boy, did he go with it! He did fish biology jokes for a full two minutes, and they were funny and, I presume, pretty unprepared. The rest of his material, too, came across as spontaneous and energetic, and the show was entertaining from start to finish. Favourite line: "I love the way Scottish people party: 'Let's drink til one of us dies... And then kick him and call him queer'." Five pundigrions.

Aeneas Faversham Returns. A Victorian sketch show from some of the country's best comedy performers, The Penny Dreadfuls. Most of them are ex-Improverts (the main Edinburgh improv troupe), now based in London where they do a variety of comedy shows year round. Aeneas Faversham was their show last year and marked the first year they tried the 'Victorian' thing; basically, they all wear vests, long black coats, and cravats for the whole show, and most of the sketches have a sort of old-timey theme/content to them. I think most of them would actually work fine as 'straight' sketches, too, but the gusto with which the performers deliver their lines in their booming RP accents really makes it work.

They were the sweethearts of the Underbelly this year, selling out every night but two, and it was well-deserved. The material is sharp and the performances are convincing, and they have a couple of sketches in which the whimsy is so well-tuned you'd have a hard time not cracking a smile. A couple of the bits are slightly hit-and-miss, though, and frankly they would have done well to replace the weaker new sketches with some of the real zingers from last year. Still, a healthy four pundigrions from me.

Terry Saunders: Missed Connections. A hint to all Fringe performers: if you have an important critic in one night, get your tech to propose to you at the end of the show, and you're pretty much guaranteed a good review. Terry Saunders does a sweetly poignant show about love, fear and taking chances, but mostly what I remember is when his girlfriend/tech hijacked his slideshow in the last two minutes and inserted a few extra words along the lines of "Let's get married." The venue, which was packed to the rafters (mostly with venue staff who knew what was coming) burst into joyous tears as the unassuming Saunders stood, gobsmacked, in the spotlight, nodding and accepting from his thick daze. I think the show was pretty good, too, though. Four pundigrions.

James Dowdeswell: Wine. Dowdeswell bills his show as an hour of humorous discussion and stories about wine, which it sort of is, but in a kind of disappointing way. Mostly the wine thread is used as a jumping board into vaguely related tangents on other topics, which I think would have been okay, but he was too scared to really pounce on his punchlines - so the stand-uppy style fell a little flat. What worked best was when he was taking us through how to taste a glass of wine, but he seemed too much like a nervous kid at show and tell to really achieve the warm authority that the show demanded. A nice idea, but let down by its production. Three pundigrions.


Thus ends my Fringe reviews. In all I was pretty pleased with the quality of shows this year; my reviews have been overwhelmingly positive rather than overwhelmingly negative, which I think says something about the seriousness with which many acts take the Fringe now. Long may it continue.

Anyway, I'm moving to Boston in two days, and should really get packing. As usual, there will be something of a blog lull over the next little while as I get settled, but CWG will appear on Friday if nothing else.

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