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…’