Edinburgh Festival

In which I have been to Edinburgh (again)

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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.

Edinburgh 2016 Napkin of Record

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.

In which I tell you what I did on my holiday. With graphs.

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I’ve just got home from my holidays. I went to Scotland – first to the highlands where there are red squirrels and pine martens and reindeer and dolphins, and second to Edinburgh where there is much festivalication and fringesomeness. And, as I did last year, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the Edinburgh Fringe shows we saw, along with some recommendations. And I thought I’d use graphs.*

So let’s start with the rundown of which shows EngineerBoy and myself managed to get along to:

What we saw

So that’s quite a mix. Shall we have a look at precisely what sort of a mix. Yes. Yes. We shall.

What did we see.png

So that shows a bit of a bias towards stand-up comedy, which becomes more marked if you factor in the ‘Comedy +’ events. But comedy is marvellous, and we got in some talks by proper scientists with Professor in front of their names as well, so it’s all good.

So, I hear you ask, how did you rate the shows you saw? Well, gentle reader, I rated them like this:

My scores

My top scorers there are the impressively eclectic pairing of the Festival of the Spoken Nerd and Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Both of those shows were fantastic. The first is Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker who do comedy about science and maths, and set fire to stuff. The second is an entirely improvised musical. One of them included an entirely brilliant pastiche of a song from Wicked! and it’s not the one you’d expect.

But, I hear you mutter, that’s a only one person’s opinion. Can’t you find some way to broaden your data set? Well yes. I can. As mentioned above, I took EngineerBoy to Edinburgh with me for this very purpose. Here are his scores:

EngineerBoy's scores

It’s no surprise that EngineerBoy also liked the Spoken Nerds. He wore his ‘Stand back – I’m going to try science’ t-shirt most of the time we were in Edinburgh so going to see the nerds was really a trip to his personal EngineerBoy happy place. He also gave perfect scores to Andrew Maxwell and Alex Horne. Andrew Maxwell probably suffered slightly on my list because he was one of my favourite acts of the fringe last year, and so expectations were very very high. He was very very good, but I expected him to be, so didn’t have the thrill you get when a performer exceeds expectations. That was probably deeply unfair scoring on my part, but it’s my blog, so tough.

We saw Alex Horne performing his Monsieur Butterfly show in which he… well he sort of… well it involves…. erm… well you should definitely go and see it if you get the chance. It was brilliant. Weird. But brilliant.

I notice, looking back at my scores, that I gave Alex Horne 9.5, whereas EngineerBoy didn’t give any half points at all. This smacks of weak-mindedness and a lack of decisiveness on my part. If I’d stuck to a whole integer scoring system Alex Horne may well have snuck a perfect 10 from me too. I’ve given quite a few half points actually. I’m disappointed in myself. If half points suggest indecisiveness here’s how indecisive I am:

My decisiveness

Anyway, I digressed. I imagine that what you’d really like to see now is the cumulative scores from both judges ranked from worst to best. At least I hope that’s what you’d like to see, because that’s what you’re going to get. Here it is:

Final Scores

So there you go. The Festival of the Spoken Nerd are officially and indisputably the best show of the fringe 2015. Good to have that cleared up.

A quick mention as well for the two acts tied in fifth place on the overall chart. Matt Forde is a political comedian and impressionist who does a hysterical Ed Miliband impression – see him now before we all forget who Ed Miliband is. And Nathan Caton was probably the act who most exceeded expectations, I’ve seen/heard him a couple of times on TV and radio and thought he was ok, but live he was very good indeed – relaxed, consistently funny and with a particular point of view that differentiated him from the mass of stand-ups we saw over the four days at the fringe.

There’s also a couple of acts on there that I think can feel a bit hard done by to not make the top 5 – Jess Robinson probably really deserved a 9 from me for her impression of Nicki Minaj singing nursery rhymes alone, and Richard Wiseman deserved more than an 8 from EngineerBoy but he’s a tough judge, and I’m just reporting the results – it would be Very Wrong for me to go about changing his scores just because he hasn’t done them right.**

So that’s my experience of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in graphs (with thanks to the Festival of the Spoken Nerd for graphly inspiration.)

And as ever now you finished being blogged at, you could consider buying a book. Sweet Nothing is out in paperback now you know, and it involves comedy, romance and maths, so is potentially pleasing to nerds and non-nerds alike.

*Technically mainly charts. Yes. I know.

** ‘Right’ – ie. how I think they should have been.

In which I tell you what I did on my holidays (part 2)

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Yesterday I kicked off The Awesome Week of Daily Blogging (as I’m now totally terming it) with part 1 of my exciting adventures on holiday. So by the laws of numbers and counting and that, welcome to part 2 in which I will do some actual recommending and reviewing of a tiny percentage of the tiny percentage of Edinburgh Fringe shows I managed to see last week. In order to do this I shall split all 19 shows that I saw into entirely arbitrary (and probably poorly conceived) categories and declare a winner in each section. The Some Random Woman’s Blog Awards – trust me; all the acts at the fringe will be talking about them. Probably.

Category 1: Sketch Comedy

Contenders: Cambridge Footlights, The Reduced Shakespeare Company

Only two contenders in this section, and one of them isn’t really sketch comedy because it had a sort of over arching narrative, but these aren’t the sort of details that I’m going to let hold me back. It’s a tough one to call. I love the Reduced Shakespeare Company – their Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) is a thing of comic wonder, but this show, The Complete History of Comedy, lacked the same level of tightness and precision, despite a few very funny moments.

Cambridge Footlights I felt a bit sorry for – at least as sorry as you can feel for high-achieving, talented people who are half your age. The knowledge that you’re part of the group where Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Richard Ayeode etc. etc. started out must carry with it a certain amount of pressure. And to be honest, their fringe show, ‘Real Feelings,’ did follow Mitchell and Webb’s edict about sketch shows being hit and miss, but the hits were proper, big, guffaw-out-loud hits, so for that reason my first category winner is….. Cambridge Footlights.

 

Category 2: Stand-up Comedy but with some sort of additional element eg. characters, songs or a talking monkey

Contenders: Mitch Benn, Pippa Evans, Nina Conti, Cal Wilson

Now I did admit that the categories were likely to be poorly conceived. And indeed they are. I’m not at all convinced that these four acts are really comparable, but I’ve come this far, so I’m ploughing on.

The second problem with this category is that I basically loved them all. This is great from an audience-member perspective, but really bad from the point of view of writing insightful reviews, and even worse if you’re trying to pick a favourite.

Mitch Benn’s show is all about skepticism with songs. Pippa Evans talks (and sings) about trying to work out who she is. Cal Wilson explores a similar theme with character comedy based around how she might have turned out if she’d made different choices in life. And Nina Conti has a talking monkey. But her show is so much more than a woman with a talking monkey. She does a terrifying amount of audience participation – if you’re the sort who gets nervous when a comedian starts chatting to the people in the front row, then wait for the DVD. And it’s all hysterical, and it messes with your head. You know she’s a ventriloquist, so you know that all the words are hers, but you reach a point where you genuinely believe she’s surprised by what’s apparently being said to her. And it’s hysterically funny. I mentioned that already, didn’t I? Anyway, out of four fantastic shows, the winner, for pure nearly-wetting-self can’t stop laughingness is…. Nina Conti.

 

Category 3: Improvisation

Contenders: What does the title matter anyway?, Set List

What does the title matter anyway? is the Edinburgh Fringe show not in anyway based on the popular TV show ‘Whose line is it anyway?’ whilst being hosted by the same person, featuring the same cast and involving the same games. Apart from that it is absolutely definitely completely different in every way. And very funny it was too. Josie Lawrence stole the show with her ability to improvise songs at the drop of a hat, but the whole thing was really jolly good. Just like I remember it from the telly, had it been on the telly, which, for legal reasons, I’ll just reiterate, it definitely wasn’t.

Set List is ‘comedy without a safety net.’ Comedians turn up with no prepared material and have to improvise a set based on phrases, words and acronyms that pop up on a screen at the side of the stage. It was a fascinating show from a writer’s perspective as you got to see the creative process happen (or not) right in front of you. The were six comedians performing on the night we went and, as you’d probably expect, it was a mixed bag. Those who nailed it, notably Cal Wilson, properly nailed it, but overall the quality was patchy, and for that reason the winner is… What does the title matter anyway?

 

Category 4: Other Stuff

Contenders: And the Goat Remained a Goat, Tanya Byron, I Killed Rasputin

OK, so I accept the categorisation has really broken down. Now I’m comparing a cabaret show about a early twentieth century ghosthunter, a talk about young people and mental health from an eminent clinical psychologist, and a stage play about a Russian assassination. All righty then.

‘I Killed Rasputin’ is a play by Richard Herring about Felix Yusopov, one of the conspirators involved in Rasputin’s murder. It’s an interesting subject and an interesting, and surprisingly funny, play, with some excellent performances, but for me it was just a little bit too uneven in terms of the tone. In places I felt like Herring needed to trust his audience more. There was a slight tendency to overtell. The play ran to 1 hr 20 minutes, rather than the usual 1 hr fringe slot. Editing it down to an hour and reining in the overtelling would have been an improvement I suspect.

So that leaves two contenders – Tanya Byron’s interesting, knowledgeable, and refreshingly opinionated talk vs. a deeply weird music/magic show about a ghost hunter from Richard Wiseman and The Creative Martyrs. Professor Byron was fascinating but this is the fringe and I think it’s important that we recognise the importance of weirdness to the whole proceeding. So for weirdness, and for my single favourite funny line of the whole fringe (which I’m not telling you, because out of context it makes zero sense), and for including a talking mongoose, the winner is…  And the Goat Remained a Goat.

 

Category 5: Stand-up Comedy

Contenders: Bob Graham, Danny Bhoy, Lucy Porter, Shappi Khorsandi, Sara Pascoe, Susan Calman, Tom Stade, Andrew Maxwell

A big old category to finish with, and a really hard one to call. I think six of the eight comedians in the list are definitely in the running, so let’s be cruel and deal with the other two first. Bob Graham had some nice material in his set, but nothing that really set the room alight. Sorry Bob – you were perfectly decent but you’ve found yourself in a tough group. Tom Stade is also out of the running. Ultimately comedy is subjective. There were people at his show laughing their little hearts out, but it didn’t do anything for me, and this is my little corner of the internet where my word is law, so he’s out too.

Which leaves us with six, which is still way way too many, but they were all excellent. Seriously, if you’re in Edinburgh over the next couple of weeks and you get the chance, seeing any of those six is well worth the cost of a ticket. They’re all very very funny, and all have jokes or sections from their set that I keep replaying in my head and giggling to myself over. I’ve changed my mind about 48 times over who’s going to win this category, and it’s definitely down to Danny Bhoy or Shappi Khorsandi. Or Susan Calman. Or maybe Andrew Maxwell. Aaargh. It’s too hard. I’m just going to keep typing and hope my fingers pick one. And the winner is… Shappi Khorsandi. Probably. Definitely. But with honourable mentions to Danny Bhoy and Susan Calman. It was really really close.

 

So there you go. Overall I think I did ok. Nineteen shows, and only one that left me cold is a pretty decent hit rate, but these are my final Edinburgh Fringe recomendations. If you’re in Edinburgh and you want to see a slightly random, but very entertaining, cross section of stuff you should check out: The Cambridge Footlights, Nina Conti, And the Goat Remained a Goat, What does the title matter anwyay? and Shappi Khorsandi or Susan Calman, or Danny Bhoy, or maybe Sara Pascoe. Waaah. I’m just going to stop now. Bye bye.

 

In which I tell you what I did on my holidays (part 1)

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Hello world. I’ve just got back from holidays, which is my excuse for the, otherwise inexcusable, lack of recent blogular action. This week that will be very much rectified with an unprecendented five blogposts in five days. Let the bugles be sounded and the batons be twirled in excitement, at least until about Wednesday when I will presumably become distracted from the whole endeavour.

Anyhow, let’s start as we mean to go on with not one, but two, posts about what I did on my holidays. First off I went to the Commonwealth Games where there was athletics and badminton and hockey and gymnastics and rugby sevens. Here’s an actual picture of actual Usain Bolt to prove I was there.

Usain Bolt (in the middle there, honest.)

Anyway, I’m not going to bang on too much about the Commonwealth Games. I like a bit of sport, and this was a very jolly bit of sport, but I’m guessing that those of you who are right-thinking enough to be interested will have watched it on telly for yourselves. Seeing the sport live is much the same but with a slightly poorer view and no red button for switching to iPlayer part way through.

What I am going to bang on about, however, is the Edinburgh Fringe which occupied week two of the holibobs period. I’ve never been to Edinburgh during festival season before and can only concede that that was a colossal error of judgement on my part. The fringe is awesome, and massive, and overwhelming, and weird. Really really weird in places.

Not a weird bit of fringe. An entirely normal bit of zoo.
Not a weird bit of fringe. An entirely normal bit of zoo.

EngineerBoy and I took a day off midweek to go to the zoo and watch Bake-Off, but still managed to fit nineteen shows into the remaining five days in Edinburgh. We probably could have done more, but not without being reduced to jibbering, entertainment-overwhelmed shells of human beings. We tried to work out how many shows were on at the fringe in total and gave up. There are over 400 fringe venues, many of which house multiple performance rooms, which each host shows throughout the day from morning until well after any sane person is all tucked up in sleepy land. We didn’t even scratch the top layer of the outermost bit of surface.

What we did manage to see was *deep breath*: Bob Graham, Danny Bhoy, Lucy Porter, Mitch Benn. Richard Wiseman & the Creative Martyrs in ‘And the Goat Remained a Goat,’ Shappi Khorsandi, the Cambridge Footlights, Nina Conti, Sara Pascoe, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete History of Comedy, Susan Calman, What Does the Title Matter Anyway? (a show that bore no resemblance at all the TV show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’), Set List, Tanya Byron, Nicola McAuliffe in ‘I Killed Rasputin,’ Cal Wilson, Tom Stade, and Andrew Maxwell. And most of them were brilliant. Only one was awful. If you come back tomorrow I shall be splitting all of them into entirely arbitrary categories, one of which will almost certainly be called ‘Other Stuff,’ and recommending my favourites.

In the meantime, as ever, if you want to read more by me, I have books. You can do buying of them here.