This year we saw 30 shows in six and half days. As always, there was a neatly worked out official record of the events, which only has a small to moderate greasy stain on it.
And as there are still 5 days of the fringe left, I thought I’d offer some reviews and recommendations, and to do this I’ve broken down the shows we saw into arbitrary and essentially meaningless categories. They really are senseless categories. Some things appear twice. At least one show doesn’t appear at all. It really hasn’t quite worked out. Anyway, here we go…
Shortlist – Showstopper!, Into the Woods, Baby Wants Candy
Straight away we see the insanity of the categorisations, because two of these shows, Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy, are musicals wholly improvised by the cast and band on the spot, whilst the third was written in advance by Stephen Sondheim, who presumably was sitting down in a room with thinking time and the ability to cross stuff out and try again. Already it’s not a level playing field.
Judging them just on their merits as musicals then, fairly unsurprisingly Into the Woods is the category winner. And it’s actually a very good production – really strong performances in terms of both acting and vocals, and it whipped along a nice clip. I love Into the Woods, but the second half can drag a little bit. Here it didn’t. Definitely worth going to see.
Honorable mentions nonetheless for Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy. I really enjoyed them both. I’ve seen Showstopper! twice before, whereas I was a Baby Wants Candy newbie. Both are hysterical and the musical and lyrical talent to improvise a whole 1 hour musical is jawdropping. For me the Showstopper! cast have a little bit more range and precision in their adoption of different musical theatre styles, so if you’re living the sort of hellish existence where you only have time to see one improvised musical, that’s the one I’d go for.
Shortlist – Showstopper!, Austentatious, Rhapsodes, Baby Wants Candy, Folie a Deux
So now Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy appear again. These categories really are a mess, aren’t they? And we’ve already established that I liked Showstopper! the best of those two, so unfortunately that means Baby Wants Candy are out of the running in this category too.
The other three shows in the bracket are: Austentatious – a whole improvised play in the style of Jane Austen; Rhapsodes – Shakespeare/poetry based improvisation (which is way way funnier than that makes it sound); and Folie a Deux, which is a two-person improvised sketch show sort of a jobby thing (also way funnier than that makes it sound). And these three are really hard to separate. For technical wonderment Rhapsodes are hard to beat – they improvise scenes and poems in the styles of Shakespeare, Pinter, Poe and Chaucer (again it’s way funnier than I’m making it sound). Folie a Deux’s show is surreal and funny and I left believing that one day I might grow up to be lacrosse champion of the world. Finally, Austentatious, improvise a play in the style of Jane Austen based on a title suggested at random by the audience. The day we saw them the title selected lumbered 90% of the cast with having to do the whole thing with Belfast accents, with varying levels of success, embarrassment and horror.
For me Austentatious just sneak this category, for pure number of laughs per minute combined with an almost coherent plot, but the Folie a Deux performers also perform with Austentatious, and the Rhapsodes team are also part of Showstopper! So in short Austentatious and Showstopper! are both brilliant – take any opportunity to see both or to see their members’ other shows.
Best Sketch Show
Shortlist – Cambridge Footlights, Oxford Revue, Ingrid Oliver, The Canon, Folie a Deux.
Ingrid Oliver is sort of a wild card here, because hers was a one-woman show rather than a classic sketch show, but she does different characters in different settings so I’m calling it a sketch show. (What’s that you say? These categories are insane? No. No. I think they’re fine…) The characterisations were spot on, particularly the sub-Katie Hopkins phone-in host and the Student Union President with the no-platforming dilemma.
Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue are both student shows. Unsurprisingly that means you get a bit less polish and in both shows, particularly Oxford Revue, my writer brain was itching to get my hands on their script and attack it vigorously with a red pen. There were some good ideas in both, but there were more laughs to be squeezed out of those ideas and there was some flab that could have been cut more vigorously.
The Canon is a literary-themed sketch show from ‘By No Mean Feat’. What they brought was the polish and the editing that Footlights and the Oxford Revue lacked in places. Their re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet to the Taylor Swift song was a highlight, as were their skits on Macbeth and 80 Days Around the World. This is a tight category between The Canon and Folie a Deux. The Canon obviously benefited from editing and rehearsal, so as with the musicals, we’re not comparing like with like. Folie a Deux were hysterically funny though. Aaargh… I can’t call it. The Canon and Folie a Deux are joint winners here.
Best solo comedy (with singing)
Shortlist – Jan Ravens, Mitch Benn, Michelle McManus, Pippa Evans, Tim Vine, Rachel Parris
Yeah – I’ve arbitrarily broken the solo comedy shows down into ‘with singing’ and ‘without singing’. And technically I’ve not even done that right. John Robins does do singing, but no instrument and no backing track so I didn’t count it. Random, but my blog, my rules.
Five of the acts here really impressed me – Jan Ravens, Mitch Benn, Michelle McManus, Pippa Evens and Rachel Parris (and those last two are Showstopper! and Austentatious performers respectively – see I told you there were good). Mitch Benn and Pippa Evans are, I think, the only two acts we’ve seen every time we’ve been to the fringe, which is a strong recommendation, but unfortunately it means that they are kind of known quantities which makes it hard for them to push into ‘wow factor’ category winner status. The act that most surprised me was Michelle McManus – she was a bit of a random pick, because it’s important to have some random picks in your fringe schedule – and she was joyful and self-deprecating and very very funny.
My category winner though is Jan Ravens. Her Difficult Woman show felt like a show from a performer really coming into her own and claiming centre stage. She’s helped, as an impressionist, by the unprecedented number of high-profile political women around at the moment, and she ‘does’ Teresa May, Diane Abbott and Nicola Sturgeon to good comic effect. On paper I don’t think she was the highest scorer in the category but her show stayed with me, so she sneaks the top spot.
Best solo comedy (without singing)
Shortlist – Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Mark Watson, Tom Allen, Viv Groskop, Fred MacAulay, Shappi Khorsandi, James Acaster, Ellie Taylor, Ed Gamble, Neil Delamere, Mark Thomas, Matt Forde, Ingrid Oliver, John Robins
AKA the ‘everybody else’ category. Too many acts to go through them all, other than to say there was nobody I’d actively advise you to avoid. I loved many of these shows – Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Tom Allen, Fred MacAulay, James Acaster, Mark Thomas and Matt Forde could all have been contenders, but it’s a crowded category, so I’ve got to be tough.
My even shorter shortlist then is Mark Watson, Shappi Khorsandi, Ed Gamble, Neil Delamere and John Robins. On paper Ed Gamble is the only perfect 20 there, so he should win. Worth noting that he was a perfect 20 last year as well, which on the greasy paper/napkin based scoring record is no mean feat. For me he’s a comedian you have to see live to get the full impression – on TV I think he’s good, but in the room he’s great.
Mark Watson and Shappi Khorsandi are two of my favourite stand-ups – I’ve seen them both multiple times before, and will see them again whenever possible, and neither of their shows this year disappointed at all. Shappi Khorsandi’s had the additional benefit of being about Lady Emma Hamilton who is one of my favourite historical figures.*
The two new performers (for me) were Neil Delamere and John Robins. Both of their shows have a personal dimension – Delamere talks about his father and the end of an era in their relationship, and Robins talks more literally about the actual end of a relationship. More personal/confessional stand-up shows can be horrendous. There’s a risk that it becomes an awkward navel-gazing self-indulgence. Both Delamere and Robins avoid that by remembering that it also has to be funny, and they are both very very funny.
I’m struggling to choose between these five acts but, again in direct contradiction of the scores of the greasy paper, I’m giving it to John Robins. The phrase ‘display lentils’ will forever be shorthand in our house for particular type of wanker.
*Stand by for that blog post in a slow week ‘In which I list my favourite historical figures…’
I decided at the weekend that this week I would blow the dust off my blog and get back into it. I was going to post my traditional ‘What I learnt at the RNA Conference’ post, where I would have talked about Jill Mansell writing long-hand and the importance of not stalking reviewers or literary agents. I would have illustrated the whole thing with this picture of me with my colleague, Janet Gover, and my agent, Julia Silk.
And it would have been very lovely. But since then I have become distracted by the news the next Doctor is going to be played by a woman.
This has been met by delight, indifference and horror in difference circles, so I thought I’d take a minute to explain why I’m delighted. The first thing to say is that I didn’t expect to be delighted. I’d sort of guessed from the last episode of the most recent series that they were going to take the plunge, and I thought that would be fine. I’ve never been a particular fan of the idea of pushing for specific roles to be played by non white male actors. I tend towards the view that diversity needs to be more diverse than that. It principally matters, I would have said, that Bond is always a white bloke, because there are so few comparable roles that aren’t. If there were more other films with Asian female super-spies, for example, Bond’s whiteness would matter less. So I figured the Doctor could be any ethnicity or gender and I would be equally fine – for me, I thought, it was more about the individual they cast.
But when I watched the announcement roll past on twitter and clicked and refreshed like a crazy person on my phone to find the video clip introducing Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor I did well up a tiny bit. I’m old enough to have liked Doctor Who the first time around – by which I mean pre-1989, not the actual first time around with Doctor number 1. I’m the lone crazy person who really liked Sylvester McCoy, and I really really liked his companion. She was Ace, and indeed ace. She was chippy and reckless and liked to blow stuff up. I very much wanted to be Ace. It only strikes me now that I didn’t want to be the Doctor. I wanted to run away with the Doctor, but I didn’t think I wanted to be the Doctor. Now the eleven year old me out there somewhere feels like she’s allowed to want to be the Doctor too. And that feels good. Really good.
I’ve also seen a lot of comments that the casting is gimmicky, or tokenistic. That makes me want to be shouty. I shall try not to be. Firstly, I don’t think we can know if something is gimmicky until we’ve seen the episodes. Secondly, there has been some casting in Doctor Who that has looked seriously gimmicky and has worked out fabulously. Two of the most successful companions of the post-2005 era are Rose and Donna. Billie Piper was best known as a teen popstar and former spouse of Chris Evans when she was cast. Catherine Tate was best known as a sketch show comedian. Either of those could have been described as gimmicky – both were brilliant. And Jodie Whittaker has serious acting class – nothing gimmicky at all about that.
Ultimately though the part of me that wants to defend this change so passionately is the writer. The assumption seems to be that this is a casting that has been made for box-ticking or PR reasons. Until we’ve seen the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall’s, episodes with his version of the Doctor, I think it’s right to keep the faith that this is a creative, writerly decision. Recently the Doctor has seen his oldest friend regenerate as a woman. He’s seen his newest friend transformed into a Cyberman and choose to die rather than live as something other than herself. He’s lost his wife. He’s beyond his original regeneration cycle. He’s lived through more selves than he was ever supposed to have. And, for the Christmas special, it appears he finds himself face to face with the very first incarnation of himself – the old man who used to be a young boy who stole a blue box and ran away. We’ve also seen a Doctor who appears to have more control over the regeneration process than we’re used to. Capaldi’s Doctor was able to choose to resist and slow the regeneration process in the closing episode of the last series. David Tennant’s Doctor was able to choose to regenerate the same body.
Is it fanciful to think that a man that old, a man whose seen that much, might choose to start afresh in a wholly different new body? As a writer, that feels like a perfectly well thought out character arc to me.
Of course I could be wrong. The Christmas Special could play out quite differently to that. But I’m excited to find out what happens and what happens next.
One last thing – some of you will be thinking it’s silly to care about Doctor Who because it’s for children. Well, yes – it is silly. But caring about the Handmaid’s Tale is also silly. And caring about Lizzie and Mr Darcy is silly too. They’re all just made up people at the end of the day. Silliness is brilliant. Do try not to grow out of it if you possibly can.
Hello. I’m here at the blogface, peering hazily at the date on my last post and blowing a layer of dust off my keyboard (because obviously I have a special blogging keyboard which isn’t used for any other activities). It has been too long fair blog readers. Apologies, and with no further ado, let’s get some blog posting done.
As it’s getting near to Christmas and the end of the year and all that sort of stuff I thought you might like an end of year book review sort of thing. It’s a post that would be very timely if these were all books published during 2016, but they’re not. They’re books I just happen to have read during 2016. Ah well, I’m sure we can all agree to go with the flow a bit on that one.
Anyway I’ve read lots of things this year. Here are some of my favourites that I would heartily recommend to you all… I will acknowledge that a lot of these are by writers I know. That’s a problem if you’re an author, particularly if you’re involved in organisations like the RNA or Society of Authors – you tend to meet a lot of writers. All of these are books I genuinely enjoyed though – trust me; I have very honest blogging fingers.
S0, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my super-short bite-sized books of 2016 reviews…
Falling by Julie Cohen
This *might* be my book of the year, if I don’t become distracted by one of the other books further down the list. The characterisation is incredible – the story follows three generations of women and they’re all beautifully drawn. I fell especially in love with Honor, the grandmother, and Lydia, the teenage daughter. They both felt like characters I haven’t seen a gazillion times before in commerical fiction. It’s really a very good book indeed.
Please Release Me – Rhoda Baxter
This is a book where you start off reading and you’re thinking ‘Ok, I get what sort of book this is…’ and then all of a sudden it takes a fantastic turn and you’re reading something quite different and quite unique. It’s funny and clever and I sort of don’t want to describe the story too much because I don’t want to spoil it, but Sally and Grace are fantastic main characters, and the plot is wonderfully not-average.
We Are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman
I cried. A lot. A lot of the action of this one is set in a hospice and you get glimpses of the different patients’ lives, stories and regrets. It’s beautifully written and the main plot strands are fantastic, but it’s the glimpses of those different lives that tips this from being good to great for me. It’s a wonderful book, but make sure you have tissues to hand before you start reading.
I Don’t Want To Talk About It – Jane Lovering
It was the setting and the theme of this book that got me really excited. Essentially, and without veering into spoilers, it’s a rom-com about loss. I firmly believe that comedy is a completely appropriate way of dealing with big, dark, horrible things – it’s possible that I watched too many episodes of M*A*S*H at a formative age – and this book does that beautifully. And it’s set in Yorkshire as many of the best things are.
So there’s a smattering of my reading this year – I also very much enjoyed Little Girl Lost by my writing/tutoring partner-in-crime, Janet Gover, and a little-hyped tome, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling. That’s the book of the play scripts that serve as a sequel to the Harry Potter book series. I’m not sure why they chose to do it as a play this time – I can only assume that the original books didn’t do that well. Yes. That’s almost certainly probably it. I know some readers struggled with the script format, and obviously it’s conceived to be watched rather than read, but if the budget doesn’t run to a trip to the West End then I’d say the book is well worth reading.
Apart from Harry Potter, my reading this year does seem to have been very ‘commercial women’s fiction’ dominated. So please leave any recommendations for next year’s reading, particularly stuff in other genres, in the comments…
Another August, another trip to Edinburgh to view many forms of entertainment. I went to the Edinburgh fringe for the first time two years ago, and again last year, and I now basically consider Edinburgh during August to be my spiritual home. It’s full of comedians and fire-eaters and artists and places that are prepared to sell you a chocolate and banana crepe. And I like all those things. Very much.*
We were in Edinburgh for about 4 and a half days this time and packed in 23 shows. They were… Andrew Doyle, Mark Steele, Extreme Broadcasting, Mitch Benn. Thrones!, Wendy Wason, Shappi Khorsandi, Pippa Evans, Matt Forde, Showstoppers, Jess Robinson, Austentatious, Ed Gamble, Katy Brand, Sarah Kendall, Mark Watson, Set List, Crosstentatious, Kirsty Newton, Funny for a Grrrl, Cambridge Footlights, Mary Lunn Rajskub, and Shitfaced Shakespeare.
Now I’m not going to review 23 shows. That would be a very long blogpost. For the completists amongst you though here’s a picture of the official Edinburgh 2016 Napkin of Record that shows my score for every show and EngineerBoy’s score as well for good measure. I had assumed that all fringe attendees maintained an official Napkin of Record but we showed ours to a random bloke we met on the last day and he reacted as if it was a bit odd. He was, of course, mistaken. The Napkin of Record is special and good and definitely normal.
As you can see there were no total duffers in this year’s selection. There were three perfect 10s (or technically perfect 20s) amongst the standup comedians – Shappi Khorsandi, Mark Watson and Ed Gamble. All three were fantastic. I’ve seen Shappi Khorsandi and Mark Watson live before and both were every bit as good as expected. Ed Gamble gets a hint of a bonus mark for being slightly less of a known quantity and being entirely brilliant with a set that was definitely absolutely not solely about cauliflower. Overall though I’d say Mark Watson was the best standup we saw this year. Go and see him if you get chance. He’s very funny indeed.
The other perfect 20s were for Austentatious and Showstoppers. Both are sort of fringe institutions and both are entirely made up on the spot. Showstoppers is an improvised musical set in a location of the audience’s choosing and featuring songs in styles called out by the audience. Austentatious is a play in the style of Jane Austen improvised in response to a title picked at random from those suggested by the audience. Both are brilliant. EngineerBoy reckoned he slightly preferred Austentatious – indeed we liked them so much we went back later the same day to see them do it all again with women dressed as men and vice versa. Despite that I’m refusing to separate these two. They are both brilliant and you should all go and see them both, possibly many many times. That’s the beauty of improvised shows – you can just keep going back. Both have shows coming up around the country after Edinburgh so you can all go. Lucky lucky you.
I feel that Mitch Benn, Matt Forde, Pippa Evans and Sarah Kendall can rightly feel a little hard done by amongst the comedians, as can the casts of Thrones! and Shitfaced Shakespeare. They all scored in the 9 to 9.5 range and could easily have been 10s if the chairs had been more comfortable or the blood-alcohol level more amenable to not needing to pee during their shows. All very very good indeed.
Shitfaced Shakespeare deserve a special honourable mention. The concept is simple; it’s a Shakespeare play (this year it’s Measure for Measure) but one random member of the cast spends the 4 hours before the performance getting completely hammered. The results are v funny, unless you’re the person in the front row who’s made to hold the emergency bucket. In that case I imagine it’s quite nerve-wracking. In the performance we saw the drunk performer had a really quite endearing tendency to correct her colleagues and make them do bits again if she thought they hadn’t gone right. She also kept explaining what she was supposed to be doing to the audience, and did a lovely monologue in the middle – entirely unrelated to the play – about contraceptive choices. Very very daft but very very funny.
So that was our Edinburgh Fringe 2016. There were at least another 100 shows we could have seen quite happily and I really want to go back already. *sigh*
* Apart from fire-eaters to be honest. They make me a tiny bit nervous.
Choc Lit, the rather lovely publisher that brought Sweet Nothing, Midsummer Dreams and the Christmas Kisses series into the world is seven whole years old today.
This is very exciting because seven is, I would suggest, without any doubt at all the best age to be. You’re still little enough to be cute and not really be expected to know stuff or do useful things like wash up or know how to debone a poussin, but you’ve reached the point where you’re in sufficient control of your own limbs for the full range of running/jumping/twirling activities to be very much on the table. At least until an adult comes and makes you get down off the table.
Furthermore, at seven you’re on a par with deadly sins, heavenly virtues, and the generally agreed optimum number of dwarves that can be looked after by a single fairytale princess/occasional housekeeper.
Seven is also the title of that film where Gwyneth Paltrow’s head ends up in a box. It’s how keen Jeremy Corbyn is on the EU. It’s the maximum number of crime-fighting children/dogs Enid Blyton considered it practical to group together into a single secret smuggler-catching gang.
It’s the wedding anniversary at which you might buy one another a nice jumper or a small flock of sheep. It’s the number of days Craig David needs to meet and thoroughly romance a young lady and get to the point where they both need a nice long rest.
So seven. There you go. It’s a number. Traditionally it comes after six and before eight, unless you’re counting alphabetically, in which case (taking only the first ten numbers in this example) it would come after one and before six. I wouldn’t recommend counting alphabetically though; you lose a lot of the benefit of counting if you do.
All of which is a very long winded way of saying, Choc Lit publish books, including my books. You could buy one if you wanted. Or not it’s really up to you. Anyway, they’re seven. Happy Birthday to them.
At the start of April I started my brand new shiny weight loss challenge with my very clever and not at all excessively convoluted plan to do lots of different diets for shortish periods of time to a) lose vast quantities of weight and b) assess which of them actually work.
Phase 1 of the plan was the 5:2 Diet. 5:2 is a form of Intermittent Fasting which is the idea that you eat very little indeed on some days and then normally on others. Intermittent fasting plans vary in how many calories they allow on fast days, how many fast days per week they recommend and whether those fast days should be consecutive or spaced out. The version of 5:2 I was attempting was to eat around 500 calories on two non-consecutive days each week, and then eat normally on the other five.
And so how did it go? Well, not that well. Over four weeks I lost precisely no weight. At one point I had lost 3lbs, but I put that back on again, so we can’t really count it. So what were the problems?
Well, I think, ultimately, 5:2 just doesn’t really suit me. And I think there are reasons, which are various and I shall attempt to enumerate for you now.
1. 500 calories a day is a fast track to moodiness
If you’re doing 5:2 prepare for the fact that on the 500 calorie days you will be Grumpy McGrumpitude, possibly not on all of them, but on most. It is possible that on your first and even second 500 calorie day you will find yourself thinking ‘Oh, this isn’t that bad. I am thinking about cheesecake but I can have cheesecake tomorrow, so that’s fine.’ Those feelings don’t last. By 500 calorie day 5 I was basically ready to start eating my own face, and the faces of friends, family and innocent passersby.
2. 500 calories a day isn’t great if you want to exercise
So we all know the basics of losing weight, don’t we – eat less, move more. The moving more part isn’t that effective on its own, but is generally A Good Thing To Do for all sorts of not simply weight related health reasons. Try and do exercise at the end of a 500 calorie day and the things you may experience include: dizziness, nausea, light-headedness, stopping for a little sit down, hating the universe, weeping and, ultimately, abandoning both fasting and exercise and inhaling a massive cake, which does feel sort of counter-productive from a diet point of view.
3. You still can’t really eat what you like on the non-fasting days
And there’s the rub frankly. 5:2 gets bigged up with the alluring idea that you can eat whatever you like on the other 5 days, but that’s not true. Dropping to 500 calories for two days a week basically gives a woman a 3000 calorie deficit over the week; eat 600 more than you should on the other days and you’ve wiped that out. So actually 5:2 is a diet with 2 days of evil fasting and 5 days of eating sensibly, and frankly if I had the eating sensibly thing down I wouldn’t need to lose 5 stone, would I?
4. You have to be really good at forward planning
5:2 might work quite well if you have a very strong routine and fixed schedule in your week. I don’t, so I have to sit down at the start of each week and work out when my fast days will be. Once I’ve ruled out days with exercise in them (see earlier references to dizziness and cake) and days with socialising in them and days with big dayjob stints of travelling and being on my feet, and then added in the complication that the two days can’t be consecutive, I rapidly found I was struggling to find options. That was made worse by…
5. It’s not great if you have other health problems
I suffer from IBS which means that every now and then I have phases where my stomach will really only tolerate beige food – pasta, bread etc – which tends to be dull and relatively high calorie. The problem is that those phases arrive quite unpredictably and if one crops up on what you’d intended to be a fast day, then that’s the whole week out of the window from a diet perspective.
So there you go. 5:2 is not the diet for me. It might work for you if you have quite a regular routine and can see where fast days would fit into your week, and if you’re ok already at eating in moderation. I’m not and so for me 5:2 gets Null Points on my dieting score sheet.
The next phase of the challenge is good old fashioned calorie counting, only it’s not that old fashioned, because like all modern endeavours there’s an app for that these days. I’ll update on how that goes next month.