August 18, 2007

The Show Must Go On

A Canadian Bartender at Butlin's. T. J. Dawe is a Fringe festival machine; this is his first time in Edinburgh, but he's performed at some ridiculous number of other Fringes throughout the world (I forget the exact number, but I think it's in the sixties). He's also a really charming Vancouverite with a clipped soft-spokenness that reminds me a lot of improviser-cum-lawyer extraordinaire Chris Dye.

So it was with some disappointment that I sat through his fairly flat show. It had some nice moments and some cute observations, but the story arc was poorly skewed if really present at all, and the content in general suffered a lot from not having been adapted for a British audience (he spent five minutes explaining what a shandy is, which I'm sure would have North Americans doubled over, but just felt like stating the obvious over here). Dawe himself is a capable performer and his storytelling quite captivating, but the script leaves a lot to be desired. Two and a half pundigrions.

The Walsh Brothers. I found the Walsh Brothers quirkily loveable, but their show just wasn't right for a British audience, either. They made a gag about Make Way For Ducklings, for God's sake, and I don't think there are even many people outside Massachussets who have heard of that. And while a lot of their bits had me snickering, they sort of came across like they were in way over their heads, and knew it. I look forward to seeing their act again in Boston with a friendlier, home audience, but in Edinburgh it just didn't work. Two and a half pundigrions.

Gwyneth Herbert. Gwyneth Herbert has been one of the lynchpins of the Underbelly's music program since the Underbelly started having a music program, but I had never made an effort to see her before this year and, frankly, I feel like a royal dumbass for it. She is stop-you-in-your-tracks, shoot-you-in-the-face fantastic. Her lyrics are tight, her voice elegant, her manner onstage masterful; and it was all backed up by some really superb guitar by Al Cherry. Her new album's out on Blue Note next month, and I'd highly recommend it. Five pundigrions.

Skinner and Bell: Where Are Dave and Dave? This is a cute little comedy play by another longstanding Underbelly duo. Well, I say "play", but it's really just a series of sketches stitched loosely around a pretty ridiculous plot. It's a shame, actually, because even the ridiculous plot I think would have been okay if they had just given it a little more attention. For instance, they have this great scene early on where their two German nemeses (played by them in glasses) sit around plotting, but that thread is then almost completely cut out. Partly, of course, this is down to time limitations, but there's enough weak material elsewhere that could be purged to make way for a little more story.

I still enjoyed the show, though; Dave and Dave seem to have gained confidence since last year and their jokes were stronger and delivered with more punch. With a little more attention to crafting a plot that can grab the audience's attention more effectively, they might actually have a proper sell-out on their hands. Four pundigrions.

Punt and Dennis: Stuff and Nonsense. When I was eleven years old, Punt and Dennis burst on to the BBC with their first TV sketch show. They mix a lot of satire, observational comedy, and stupid puns, and I was instantly smitten (if you watched their early stuff you'd probably see where I get a lot of my sense of humour from). They haven't done a stage show together in over ten years, so when I read they were doing a special, four-night-only engagement at the Pleasance this year, I practically wet myself.

The show was about what I expected; they haven't changed a whole lot since they were on TV together in the Nineties. Which is fine, except I suppose I only remember the good bits from back then – so the chunks of weak filler scattered throughout the hour took me a little by surprise. But they still have a knack for timing and a wonderful chemistry onstage, and consequently some of their skits still worked beautifully (especially Dennis's drunken presentation on the British Isles that closed the show). Four pundigrions.

The Mitch Benn Music Club. Mitch Benn is an extremely cynical middle-aged man who has some very strong opinions about music. He can often be found on the radio expounding said opinions, mainly through the medium of satirical songs. He's sort of like a British Weird Al, only more intellectual. (Example: "Everything Sounds Like Coldplay Now".) His material was sharp (best line, in a song about how much he hates James Blunt: "He's the only man who's also his own rhyming slang", and even if some of the references were a little over my head, I had a really enjoyable hour.

Unfortunately, the show went on for almost two, which is a lot of goodwill to ask of any audience, never mind a drunken late night one. And, honestly, though a song like "Everything Sounds Like Coldplay Now" is funny, the schtick didn't change much for the rest of the show; he also did an opening song from a musical that had much the same meta-commentary on the conventions of the form. It was well-observed and I giggled a little, but after two hours it just ain't that funny anymore.

My other beef was the "improvised" section of the show, during which Mitch writes a song based on an audience suggestion. Except that he gets the suggestion and then takes a fifteen minute intermission, which seemed like a bit of a gyp considering I've seen many, many improvised songs done completely on the spot. The sad thing is, Mitch seems so comfortable with the music, I bet he probably could do it completely extemp - he just lacks confidence.

Anyway, shave forty-five minutes off the runtime and have some balls in the improvising and I'd have no trouble giving it a five. As it stands, three and a half pundigrions.

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