Archive for category Ben Behrens
Ben’s favourite 2012 Fringe shows were:
Armageddapocalypse: Threat Level Dead (review)
There are so few gaps between the jokes in this show it is astounding. One of the most economical pieces of comedy I have ever seen. Every line is quotable – it’s brilliant.
Doctor Brown: Befrdfgth (review)
Fast becoming an Edinburgh legend, Doctor Brown’s latest show is his best yet. Physical clowning at its finest: at once utterly hysterical, immersive and gripping.
Bane 3 (review)
Bane 3 was one of my favourites last year, and it’s one of my favourites this year. Some might say it’s boring to keep returning to the same show as a festival highlight. They have obviously not seen it. One of the greatest innovations in popular theatre you will ever witness.
Tom Flanagan presents an hour of old school, slapstick clowning just like back in the good old days. This is uncomplicated ‘man-gets-into-scrapes-whilst-trying-to-perform-tasks’ stuff with shades of Keaton, Atkinson and even Les Bubb. Over the course of the hour, Flanagan gets stuck in a ladder, stuck in a bucket, and generally entwined in all sorts of humorous objects.
This is not particularly ground breaking material: there is no subversion of expectation as with Doctor Brown. Instead, Flanagan signposts exactly what is going to happen and then delivers just that. But this is no problem whatsoever when you can deliver physical comedy with such dexterity and gentleness. His gestures are well timed, as are his knocks and scrapes with various inanimate objects, with whom he interacts with great ease, imbuing them with as much comic energy as the man himself.
The narrative is a sweet touch, and one that keeps the show moving pleasantly, the bursts of acrobatics are unexpected and wonderful, and the audience participation – in an Edinburgh festival saturated with the bloody stuff – certainly does the job. A talented man delivering a show full of treats all the family can enjoy.
DugOut Theatre present NSDF12-ISDF nominated show Inheritance Blues, a tale of 3 bereaved brothers and a blues band told with live music. The show features The Hot Air Ballues telling us of their first gig in their current line-up, which allows for a neat structure – the band stop the action to comment on what’s going on, and occasionally rewind to correct certain discrepancies in the story. It’s a lively way to tell a tale and one which ensures a pacey piece of theatre. The live music accompaniment is not only well performed but becomes important to the plot of the piece, rather than just a pleasant extra, which immediately puts the play above most theatre with live music in it.
The performances are all excellent and it is no stretch to imagine professional careers for every one of these actors. Each are capable of delivering comic lines whilst retain a wholeness of character. The plot is not completely stellar, and for a while there is not a lot driving the action: I found myself struggling to identify the motivation of most of the characters. A lot of the plot twists are rather familiar, though I give credit to a final gambit that is revealed in the reading of the late father’s will, a bold move I was not expecting.
Overall it’s a classic example of what devised theatre is both good and not good at: the show is played out in a stylish and unique form, with good performances, but the action is not always properly motivated. All the same, Inheritance Blues largely succeeds, and this is certainly a young company on the cutting edge of theatrical development.
The Girl With No Heart tells the tale of a girl travelling from one world to another, and finding there a land of desolation, ash, and children pitted against adults. In many ways, it might as well have been called Zeitgeist: The Play as it contains pretty much all the elements a typical 2012 fringe theatre show has. These include puppetry, shadow puppetry, masks, live music, storytelling, storytelling within storytelling, a fable, another culture explored. But at least it has the good grace to do these well, and the characters are endearing enough for us to invest in the narrative.
Unfortunately, as a play written partly in response to the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on children, its messages tread the line between being powerful and dated. It also ends rather suddenly and unsatisfactorily, but in general this is a decent piece that is far less irritating than it might otherwise have been.
Freddie Machin’s tale of Winston Churchill’s early escapades is a curious affair. On the plus side, he’s a terrific performer, capable of subtly but firmly drawing distinctions between the characters he plays, all the while creating a convincingly gung-ho, naïve and sometimes downright foolish Churchill at the centre of it all. But this piece, which has been marketed as a tally-ho adventure story, is often prone to moments of introspection that interrupt the narrative. Indeed, there are points when it might be called Winston Reflects On His Predicament, or Winston Thinks About Rats. These are not necessarily poorly written or performed, but mean the play is stuck in a mire between being an adventure story and a reflection on one’s situation, and we get neither of either to fully satisfy.
Machin is a terrific Churchill, light-years away from the weighty statesman we all know but showing the same sense of defiance that made the man. But I do wish we had a little less contemplation and a little more things happening, as that is when this play is at its best.
Posted by Martin in 5 stars, Assembly Venues, Ben Behrens, Dr Brown Brown Brown Brown Brown and His Singing Tiger on August 27, 2012
The man who can do no wrong presents this children’s show to accompany his award winning Befrdgth. He is accompanied this time by a Singing Tiger, who provides musical accompaniment to the doctor’s actions, and acts as a translator figure, a proxy for the audience, a relative state of normality through which to view Brown’s exploits.
This is not a watered down version of his adult show, rather it gives us a chance to look at the Doctor Brown persona through more innocent lenses. His deviancy in the adult shows becomes naughty playfulness, the darkness is still present but more likely to be resolved. In the early minutes of the show he pronounces one of the dads gravely ill, but this being a kids’ show he finds a way to make him better. It’s beautifully structured too, as we see him work through his daily chores until we get to the finale – Doctor Brown’s bike – which is as spectacular and funny as it ought to be.
It’s always a pleasure to be in a laughing audience, but to be in an audience of children, parents and unaccompanied adults all laughing together is even better. This is one of the best shows at the festival, and if you don’t exit with a smile on your face you have no soul.
A genuinely marvellous slice of free standup, featuring Liam Williams (of Sheeps fame) and Ivo Graham (of Ivo Graham fame). Graham comperes the show, a crafty and intelligent persona, injecting his material on familiar themes with his own brand of knowing neuroses. He is superb at audience interaction and, when gifted with a child in the front row named Merlin, was able to unite the audience with likeable and sharp – but never aggressive – reflections on how absurd yet delightful this was.
Liam Williams is different, not an observational comic but a storyteller with elements of standup. He wiles his way through various short tales, enacting different characters, pausing to comment on his own methods. But the whole thing is tinged with a knowing irony in his words and actions that elevates his set to a new comic level. His final gambit, a reading of the blurbs of some of his fictional fringe plays, quite justifiably brought the house down. Midday may not be the best time for comedy, but Graham and Williams provide what is easily one of the funniest hours of standup available at this festival. Tremendous.
Robert Khan and Tom Solinsky craft an intelligent, gently satirical and very funny play imagining a fictional coalition in 2014. Deputy Prime Minister Matt Cooper (Thom Tuck) is looking for ways to re-establish influence in the coalition, which involve ever more devious acts against his own party. Khan and Solinsky beautifully capture the political paradoxes of today – right siding with left, negotiation clauses that are both public and private, politicians with no interest in their constituents.
Coalition juggles this sharpness with the hubris-filled, almost Greek Tragic arc of Cooper whilst maintaining a great sense of fun and some wonderful comic constructs, the scene in which the debates are rehearsed being a particular delight.
The casting is at times unwise: Phill Jupitus is utterly vacant in the roll of fruity Tory Whitford, putting on a funny voice without any sense of character to back it up, and Caulfield is low key to the point of unconsciousness. But Thom Tuck is revelatory, delivering punch lines with aplomb but retaining a rounded sense of character, his journey is compelling to watch.
Coalition is a well-rounded, strong production that – in its own small way – is important. It deserves a life beyond the fringe.
This bizarre three act piece is the very definition of a mixed bag. The first act is an enjoyable and fun adventure romp in which two cosmonauts traverse a planet searching for a beast. The performers then proceed to piss away any goodwill built up by this by having a twenty minute middle section in which one of them painfully slowly mimes doing everyday chores. This is agonizing to watch – does it really need to go on for twenty minutes? Especially considering they repeat the same ten minute sequence twice. Surely after five minutes the audience will have either got it or not, we don’t need another fifteen minutes on top of that. Perhaps they were trying to reflect how sometimes life can be boring and tedious, but it is to escape these that we go to the theatre. Why would we want them echoed in an auditorium?
The final section, about a USSR astronaut in space during the collapse of Communism hints at being engaging but never fully explores or concludes what it sets out to do, and frankly by this time I had lost interest. This is a shame because the first section was genuinely entertaining. Ultimately, theatre should be challenging but never tedious, and this is something that Captain Ko fails to grasp.
Autojeu Theatre are mining a rich vein with their latest show, and one which is becoming increasingly popular at the Edinburgh Festival. These are epic stories told by a small cast, miming all the props and scenery, creating the scenes out of little more than their own bodies. It’s the sort of thing that should be inventive, fluid and fun. But this is slow, sloppy and rubbish. There is a basic lack of clarity in a lot of the mime: at one stage the hero is training on an imagined treadmill, encouraged by his teacher. The teacher tells him to get off, then walks right through where the treadmill was before getting on it himself.
Add to this an awful lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense: the twist regarding the experienced mountain climber who is not what he seems appears to be pretty much forgotten, the hero dons fingerless gloves for the climb of the mountain (no need for actual gloves, presumably), and the denouement is ludicrous. The story is narrated by two French philosophers who waste a lot of time talking about the equation for life itself but never reveal what this is.
Autojeu need to be locked in a room with a script editor to get rid of the guff, a physical theatre practitioner to sharpen up the mime elements and a director to train two uninspiring performers. Sort it out, please.
For how much longer must John Robertson remain undiscovered? Not only is he peddling an excellent storytelling show The Old Whore, but in The Dark Room he is at the centre of a remarkable interactive video game.
Robertson, in a paean to his favourite games of the 80s, has created a text based adventure game in which audience members, by selecting actions from a series of options, must escape from The Dark Room. Robertson is an incredible presence, there must be hundreds of combinations of options for the players to choose, but he has hilarious lines for all of them, some scripted, but many improvised. Indeed, he is one of the finest ad-libbers I’ve ever seen, creating lines out of audience interaction with ease and conviction. ‘What’s your name?’ he asks one man, ‘Sven’ ‘Sven? That’s just a misspelling of seven’ he says with the assurance of a man for whom excellent ad-libbing is integral to his comic persona.
It is terrific fun, and a genuinely challenging and interesting game. No one completes it, and I suspect I won’t be the only one who comes back to try again.
The premise might sound irritating: a group of 9 to 16 year olds doing sketches written by adults could amount to little more than an episode of ‘Kids Say The Funniest Things’. But it’s a lot more than watching precocious kids say rude words, it’s a delightful 50 minutes. The writing of the sketches isn’t stellar, but it’s the performances that lift this above it’s potential: some of the kids are good comic performers for their age, but a surprising number of them are simply very good comic performers full stop. It’s certainly a great experience for the audience, by the end of the show you feel oddly proud of these children you’ve never met as they defeat the obstacle of their age and put on a good show. It’s like being parents at a really good school play.
Some of these kids are particularly special and one girl who performs a monologue as Suri Cruise captivates the audience for five minutes, and for at least half of that she does not speak – a feat many adult performers can only dream of.
It’s an inherently bizarre experience, watching children perform in a sketch show that is aimed way above their age group, but they make it work. It’s not perfect, some of the sketches lack inspiration, but with a cast this charming that hardly matters.
DugOut Theatre have been chugging away as a graduate theatre company since 2009, and Cover marks a reasonably good addition to their canon. Two brothers sneak back to their father’s flat, their partners in tow, only to find everything packed up in boxes. We find that their father isn’t the only one with something to hide, as each character reveals something about themselves during the course of the show.
With a single location, 4 interesting characters, and a structure that keeps things moving, it is a satisfying and contained piece. The performances are all good, there are enough laugh out loud moments: it is a convincing and fun situational comedy. Nothing earth shattering happens, no one’s acting ability is pushed to the limit, I was never crying with laughter. But it is solid all the way through, and another string to the bow of a company who are – at the early stages of development – getting things right.
Little Cauliflower Theatre present a devised puppetry story about an Irish village hit by a storm, and the attempt of one boy to get home. The story is the essence of simplicity great shows are made of, but it is hampered by poor execution. For instance, so much time is spent setting the scene (both figuratively and literally) it is 20 minutes before anything discernible happens. The plot itself, despite being simple, is very unclear thanks to a lack of narration. Instead we get songs to inform us of the narrative, but these are a poor replacement. Whilst the puppetry of the protagonist is pretty good, the representations of the boats out at sea are little more than folded bits of paper the cast wave around without much skill.
All of which is a shame as the cast clearly have personality, as shown in the humorous wordless action at the beginning, but they need to find a less murky form through which to express this. Kids might enjoy the puppets, but given the sheer variety of quite exceptional puppetry at this year’s fringe, they’d be better off elsewhere for now.
Russell Kane has made a habit in the last few years of making acclaimed comedy shows around serious themes. This year he has a show based on his concerns about not being a father, an idea he explores by raising an imaginary child, Ivan, in front of the audience, explaining what qualities he does and does not want inherited from himself and his parents. It is a very sweet idea and he reveals a touching level of detail about his family life, his own insecurities, and the innate complexities of wanting someone to be both like you and better than you.
I am, however, unconvinced that he is funny. There are an awful lot of wank, wee and shit anecdotes whose biggest appeal is shock value, rather than any clever structuring or turn of phrase. Indeed he is becoming predictable: a serious theme, some dirty stories, characters depicted in one of his two go-to voices (in Kane’s world people are either super-posh or super-cockney). Worst of all is his general lack of discernible jokes. It is not really enough to tell stories in funny voices; we need gags.
In short, whilst Kane fans will enjoy more of the same, that ‘same’ has never really been good enough, and it isn’t here.
Imagine every bad, lazy element of sketch comedy you have seen at the Edinburgh festival. I’m talking people getting covered in raw meat (this happens 3 times), people getting covered in lipstick, people getting covered in Nutella (masking as cat shit).
Imagine a rap in a shop, a song about blogging, a dreadful framing device which drains the show of what little energy it has (in this instance the performers fritter away literally minutes complaining that the action isn’t edgy enough).
Imagine ending a show on a song of one woman’s love for Hitler. Now imagine all these elements in one easy to hate package, and you will understand what Vinegar Knickers are all about. If any of this sounds entertaining by all means go and see it, but those who like our comedy with wit, invention and humour in it will be elsewhere.
In Double Impact, Ward and Bartlett have to strive to make any impact at all when all that separates their room at the pub from the pub proper is a curtain. But to their credit they don’t let it get the inevitable noise get the better of them and put on a decent show. Ruaidhrí Ward starts us off with an affable set. It’s pretty unremarkable until he begins using the screen to demonstrate the internet game ‘doodle or die’, and some of Belfast’s murals. This material isn’t brilliant but the visual aid makes for a refreshing approach. Mickey Bartlett is a more assured and quality presence, whose material is an improvement on Ward’s, though not by much.
These were two comedians battling against loud noise next door, and on the very last night of their run, so it makes little sense to judge them harshly. They’ve clearly got talent, but need some honing of material and a better performance space to fully realize it.
Les Enfants Terribles return to the fringe with The Trench, a multi-modal period fantasy about the fate of a man stuck beneath the trenches of the First World War. Theatre often attracts different performance elements, but in a way that can sometimes seem extraneous. Rather than mindlessly piling on bells and whistles to their shows without any real point, the miraculous thing about The Trench is that all its disparate elements make perfect sense. The beautiful live musical accompaniment, the third person Greig-esque poetic narration, the physical theatre aspects, the inventive use of props and the wonderful puppetry, all combine to make a unique and compelling world like no other. So seamless is the transition between period drama and fantasy play that it is not really a transition at all, and it is the variety of performance elements that allows this to be so.
This company are going from strength to strength and, rather than outgrowing the fringe, are pushing the boundaries of the scale and quality of work it is capable of producing. Outstanding.
Ross Sutherland’s innovative interactive hour is an attempt to recreate the onstage murder of comedian Joe Pooley in 1983. Each audience member plays a character present at his final gig, with one person getting to be Pooley himself, reading lines from a screen at the back. Other characters get to heckle. The final 5 minutes of his life are played out 7 times over the course of his show, so the audience swap characters (including being the comedian) and everyone gets a go at different roles each time. This act of repetition is excellent, as the audience become better hecklers and better at their characters after every run.
The success of the show is obviously dependent on how game the audience is, but Sutherland creates a great spirit of fun and if most shows were as mine was, the audience will be up for it.
It is a fascinating act of reconstruction, very entertaining with a terrific use of the audience in a way that celebrates the comic potential in all of us. It is also a compelling philosophical study of how we build up an image of the past. A unique and fun hour.
Unperturbed by the fact that the fringe is a live performance festival, Hardbody Productions screen two episodes of their comedy show It’s Grimm Up North, a grotesque blackly comic mess in which Grimm Tales are fudged onto oddball characters from the north of England.
Having little in the way of resources, it is understandable that the quality of the animation is poor. But this does not excuse everything else. It aims for a League of Gentleman grotesquerie, but fails to grasp the difference between the grotesque and the unpleasant. With repulsive, poorly enunciated voices and cruelty without sufficient humour to make it palatable, it comes across as skin-crawlingly crass, as opposed to daringly black.
The way the Grimm elements are incorporated into the narrative of the first story is ludicrous, something about Rapunzel and a man trying to climb a drain
to rescue a disabled woman. The second episode, a retelling of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, is a little more coherent, as a man who sleeps with women by telling them he only has a week to live gets his comeuppance. But in its characters obsessed with meat, devious attitudes to sex and voyeurism, and attempts to darken familiar fairy tales it all feels pretty familiar. I left feeling rather ill: it’s a dark comedy without the comedy, so we’re left with a sickly black mess, like a tramp vomiting tar. Give it a miss.
Hugely hyped sketch trio The Pin bring their début hour to Edinburgh. It gets a pretty lukewarm reception from the audience but I was left wondering if we were we all watching the same show. Because this was really good.
An astounding blend of comedy and narrative with one of the most sophisticated pieces of story structures I have ever seen in a comedy show. The Pin use fast forward and rewind devices to start at the meeting point of two stories and gradually work outwards either side to get the fuller picture. It’s Memento meets The Pajama Men and makes for a compelling hour.
Perhaps too many of their sketches rely on the pull-back-and-reveal-device but they are capable of creating some fine characters, the Shakespeare spoof was spot on and there are a good few lines.
The Pin is an excellent hour of comedy from a trio who are already carving out their own comic form. I am very interested to see what they do next.
At 2.05pm in the afternoon, in what is probably the worst room in Edinburgh (The Meadow Bar’s only female toilet is located at the back of this performance room, meaning frequent interruptions to any show), lies this rather good free comedy gig. Chris Turner is an affable and accomplished compère, strong on audience interaction, capable of catering to even the younger members of the crowd and generally assuring us we are in good hands. Next came David Elms, although he collapsed into laughter so had to go off for a few minutes whilst Turner picked up the pieces. When Elms got going again, he showed off a good set of comedy songs, his silky voice delving through ballads on the awkwardness of forgetting someone’s name and why we should all be Buddhists to name a few. As a whole, his songs have unique perspectives and solid comic constructs, he is clearly a talent.
Adam Hess, last year’s Chortle Student Comedian of the Year, closes the show with a whirlwind of observations, stories and one liners. I’m not sure his material matches up to the strength of his persona, but he does have some great gags and it is easy to imagine him selling out venues on the strength of his own name in times to come. Hiccups aside, this is a very enjoyable hour from three young standups far more competent than your average free fringe comedians. A very impressive display, well worth watching.
The Matey Institute present a 10 minute play, conceived, written, cast, costumed and rehearsed within the space of an hour, helped along the way by audience suggestions. The central problem is immediately apparent: whilst the onstage writer beavers away on the script, the rest of the troupe have to kill 50 minutes until we can actually see the damn thing. This is not a task any of them are up to. The director is an amiable chap, and sometimes funny, but he tries far too hard to bring a manic energy to the set and is somewhat uninspiring as a result. Neither the costumier, the musician nor the surly and frankly rude playwright have an ounce of showmanship between them. They argue and bicker, in a way that is neither staged nor funny, over who says what lines, the gender of certain characters and other such things.
The actors are forced to undergo various improvisation tasks for no apparent reason other than padding, and none of them are very good at it. Having sat through 50 minutes of this guff we then get the play itself: a dull, boring courtroom drama the plot of which I have neither the space nor the inclination to recount. The final 30 seconds involving a stick of dynamite and a dentist’s drill are lively and fun and show the sort of energy they should be reaching all along. But this is a huge disappointment. A slow, clunky mess I was glad to be out of.
Marcus Brigstocke returns to the fringe with the modest aim of re-establishing a new society. He is clearly a funny man, though his satire is often hit-and-miss. For every clever and fresh observation we get, there will be a predictable anti-Daily Mail jibe. Though he has some well crafted points about the Tories, too often they degenerate into a ‘they are from Eton and therefore incapable of empathy’ simplicity, which does a disservice to his more sophisticated reasoning.
He is, however, well practiced in fusing politics and comedy into a routine. His demonstration of the heinous activities of major banks by collecting money from various members of the audience for a series of implausible reasons is funny and cutting, and shows a sharp mind at its best. Brigstocke has a lot to offer, and when this show hits its heights, he offers it up with a bang. With a little more consistency, he would be verging on something outstanding.
For parents who usually have to renege on standup at the festival due to the presence of children, here is a perfect solution. Comedy Club 4 Kids sees big name circuit comedians perform sets with the rude bits taken out. On this night, Matt Kirschen compered the afternoon, the perfect cross-generational presence with an inherent silliness whose appeal is not age-limited. Marcel Lucont was hilarious too, and though some of his observations flew over the kids’ heads straight to those of their parents, the kids found plenty to enjoy in his toilet-themed ad-libbing and bizarre demeanour. No one seemed to have told Deborah Frances-White, the final act, that this was a family show, as she took pleasure in telling us how desperate she was to have a child and asking the audience what sort of alcoholic beverage they thought they might like. Between the adult comics we even got 2 junior standups (who can’t be more than 14 years old) who have learnt their craft through the Comedy 4 Kids Academy.
Inevitably, the pitches of laughter varied in the audience as some jokes only hit parents and not kids, and vice versa. But there was enough on this occasion for all to enjoy. Crucially, despite the absence of rude material, this did not feel like a watered down comedy show – the acts (with the possible exception of Frances-White) don’t give the feeling of having strained to come up with stuff appropriate for children. It’s a lovely, natural atmosphere and a good family afternoon out.