Apologies for the din. All that hacking and spluttering is just me yanking on the starter cord on this here blog, trying to get it running for festival season. My, it's been a while. Feels a bit like an ill-advised reunion special of a bad sitcom. Still, with Fringe a week in and Melbourne Festival about to hit, I thought I'd see how long I can keep this thing juiced up to cover some of that territory. So here, unedited, ill-thought-through and dashed off faster than is clinically recommended are some ponderings on a bunch of show I've already caught. Entry one: COMEDY.
REBELS AND RADICALS
I’m a pretty free spirit. I’m content spending most of my days pottering around the vegetable patch, checking the water tanks for unwanted chalk deposits, tending to the jerry-rigged wind farm I’ve assembled on my roof from hard rubbish refuse (while battling the fascist local council and their Orwellian planning permits), sometimes letting off steam of an evening by talking to the endangered Powerful Owls who live in the area and pondering the animal wisdom that will vanish with their passing. Occasionally I’ll stop to chat with one of my neighbours, the friendly banter about our chances in the Grand Final also an opportunity to slip in a few consciousness-raising comments about regional salinity problems and my embattled cultural heritage. And when the defenseless need defending, don’t think a letter to the editor is beneath this jaded old soul. In short, I have walked this earth and find it good, but know that some things are worth standing up for.
Education is an obvious candidate for standing up, even when it's done sitting down. I've grown up with a generation who can't imagine the fact that a tertiary education in Australia was once free- that there was a time when people could go to university with no more expense demanded than a cheerio wave to the benign government official handing out enrolment forms.
But anyone with any experience in the arts can tell you this for nothing: you can give yourself a full university education simply by attending student theatre. There’s never been a student production that didn’t betray the courses its makers have enjoyed most. You can tell the pomo fans, the gender studies majors, the classics kids from curtain up.
What you’re also watching when you’re watching student theatre is this: you’re watching somebody else learning. And that in itself is an interesting thing to me, though for most people I imagine it’s a load of wank since the idea of assisting in someone else’s learning is pretty alien. Also: a lot of student theatre is a load of wank, too. Which makes the audience more crucial. If a student making theatre is to learn, it’s through the audience that they’ll do so. Some of those early lessons include: your audience may just be you and your friends; a broader audience doesn’t mean a more appreciative audience; audiences who don’t share your interests aren’t necessarily wrong; you have more learning to do. These are probably the lessons I hope emerging theatremakers learn early on. Once you’ve got them down, you can actually start making what you want without getting all worked up about how nobody understands just what a genius you are.
Same deal in comedy: while someone grows as a performer you can spot their influences, interests, prejudices. Most often the influences are other comics, but there's another trend that I find enormously fascinating.
We've reached a point whereby History Comedy is a thing. And Science Comedy and Statistics Comedy and all kinds of other educational humour (ouch, strike that description) but my focus here is on History Comedy. Andrew McClelland probably leads the pack locally, but there are plenty of others plundering the books for nuggets of entertainment based on real events.
Micah Higbed is one such man. Rebels and Radicals turns to Australia's historical roster of upstarts, revolutionaries, utopians and subversives as inspiration for an hour of stand-up that isn't consistently funny but is entertaining (and informative) enough to keep you intrigued every minute of the while. Did you know there was a King of the Australian Empire? I didn't! And that a New Australia was settled in Paraguay by malcontents looking for a better alternative to our nation (albeit a racist and pretty awful-sounding one)? And it's STILL THERE? The late, great Charlie Perkins also gets a solid go-round and I was compelled to go straight home and read up on the guy once the show ended. These are the little morsels of fact that make up Higbed's show, and while they don't add up to constant laughs they're doled out with a heaping helping of gags that prevent the evening from ever approaching the dustiness of an actual lecture.
Higbed himself doesn't have the manic energy of many factoid comics – there's never a sense that he's trying to persuade you that this is interesting stuff. Rather, he finds it endlessly intriguing and probably assumes you will too. There's nowt geeky about the feller either; he's just a friendly dude who happens to have a few smarts to bang together. Which is a welcome change in stand-up.
ANNE EDMONDS – MY BANJO'S NAME IS STEVEN
Someone recently said that Anne Edmonds has funny in her bones, and the phrase has stuck – I've heard or read the same sentiment a dozen times since. It's entirely true. When she passes on I hope she donates her corpse to comedy so someone can work out where the hell she gets it.
Edmonds is one of the rare comics who makes me laugh just thinking about her act. It's as if she was made for a universe where all laws are slightly different, but somehow ended up in this one. She's a bundle of contradictions: fearless but self-conscious, focused yet casual. You can't tell if she knows exactly what she's doing or has no idea, if she's hilarious because of or despite her awkwardness. The line separating admirable bravery from wince-inducing revelation is a fine one and Edmonds pole vaults it while suffering an attack of explosive diarrhea (figuratively).
The show itself is a collection of anecdotes and the occasional song (she plays a mean banjo and has an accompanist on keyboard). On paper they sound pretty routine, but Edmonds knows that no account of a country netball team's trip to Warrnambool is complete without someone screaming “GET IT OUT OF MY ARSE GET IT OUT OF MY ARSE!” At times Edmonds comes across as a kind of filthy nana after one too many sherries, at others like a teen who hasn't quite worked out the rules of life. I know she's been mentored by John Clarke and like him has a really unique shtick that's hard to convey. So many comedians have the self-aggrandising thing down pat while really squaring up as all hat, no cowboy. Just as many go the other route, turning self-deprecation into a form of battle-dress. Edmonds is neither of these creatures.
She's only got a few more shows to go, and comedy-wise she's one of my top picks of this year's Fringe.
BART FREEBAIRN IN UNDERGROUND AWESOME QUEST
I think I can speak for the entire audience when I say this show had a terrifying start. That's because the entire audience was me! Ok, ok, and a housemate I'd invited at the last minute. That, er, smallish attendance is where the terrifying bit comes in. Stand-up to an audience of two puts a lot of pressure on everyone in the room. I don't know if I can feign interest in a friend for an hour, let alone a comedian. Bart Freebairn turned it into one of the most enjoyable experiences of live performance I can recall.
Stepping off the stage, he pulled up a chair and sat down with us. What followed felt less a performance than a conversation, even though I didn't say a word for the forty-odd minute running time. A fourth latecomer joined us shortly in, and wasn't at all put off by the sight of three people just sitting together while one told funny stories. The show didn't even end, really, since it eventually dissolved into a chat that was the logical extension of what came before.
The ostensible conceit here is a quest to discover the essence of awesomeness: Freebairn picks at the notion of the hipster, scours his childhood for the things that seemed most magical, and tries to locate where awesomeness might reside in his grandparents' world. There are some terrific moments of humour but the intimate dynamic meant that we weren't being performed to, but were a part of the performance itself. Like spending a bit of time with a friend-of-a-friend who's a first-rate yarn-spinner.
We live in a collection of warrior cultures. We raise our kids to be fight-ready, in war-zones or job markets or sporting arenas or affairs of the heart. They're drilled in campos of intellectual violence. We are old children wary of play. In comedy as elsewhere – stand-ups talk of slaying them in the aisles, killing a routine, nailing a punchline, blowing an audience away.
It's refreshing to see a comedian who looks not to murder but to seduce. I can't imagine what this would be like if Freebairn was playing to a full house; I'd happily catch it again if numbers picked up, since it would be a completely different experience. But is it wrong to be glad that a performer didn't pull in an audience, just once? Because I am.
Nick Coyle was one third of Pig Island, a group who pretty much set the benchmark for the art comedy scene that's emerged in recent years. Depending on your preferences, it's a mode that either cleverly merges stand-up and sketch humour with off-kilter absurdity, in-joke allusions and a kind of indie cool, or gives hipsters a chance to indulge in excessive whimsy and deliberately crap stagecraft. I've long been a fan of Pig Island, but I can appreciate that their stuff isn't for everyone.
Coyle's first solo show at Fringe is certainly in keeping with his former company, but shows a flair for writing and a range of characterisation that probably goes beyond it. It's similar to fellow Pig Claudia O'Doherty's Monster of the Deep 3D but where her shows are all about Claudia qua Claudia, Coyle sinks himself into the fictional figures he plays here, never really producing a persona as Coyle himself.
What we do get are a teenage girl who slays a ravenous monster to save her village (which then shuns her as a witch), and the godforsaken offspring of the beast on a mission to avenge the murder of its mother. The setting is deliciously anachronistic (decidedly medieval, but the baker rides a segway, for instance). It's like a cross between Beowulf, Mean Girls, The Little Mermaid (Disney version) and The League of Gentlemen. With excellent writing. And really funny characters. The heroine is introduced as The Miller's daughter, Emmaline Miller, and if you don't get that gag you might scratch your head at much of this. Indeed, there's some very odd references I still don't get – what Amelia Earhart has to do with any of it – but that's partly the point.
This kind of comedy can be dangerous. Not tightrope-walking dangerous – more like flinging a teabag over the neighbour's fence. It won't offend, but if it's not your bag it might leave you with a wrinkled nose. But if you're unafraid to go an hour in the presence of a prancing man in black smock and bright red tights, go for it. Or you could, you know, just go shopping and text a bunch of friends for no reason. I'd suggest the former will leave a more lasting impression.
This sketch show features a rubber chicken, along with all that implies. Given that the title seems a nod to two novels by Sartre, I was expecting some kind of existential humour but what results is closer to the dystopian obsessions of your standard undergrad show: soul-crushing corporations, Soylent Green-style science, plot resolution via aforementioned rubber chicken. The company members are clearly pretty young. Of interest is the curious and inexplicable cross-gender casting – everyone plays the opposite sex, but nothing is really made of it (I didn't even notice until halfway through). Not much else to say on this one.
LOU SANZ – NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN
Comedy and horror and pornography are often seen as less serious modes of artistic expression because they implicitly seek to make us leak stuff involuntarily from our bodies. I can't imagine a horror film that would literally cause a person to soil their pants but it's still the kind of terminology we use when describing fear, and we indicate a great laugh due to the apparent crying/pissing it provokes.
Lou Sanz's hour of storytelling didn't call for a red-faced trip to the drycleaner for me, but its confluence of comedy, porn and very bleak matter most certainly aims for a visceral response, even if it's just a hearty chuckle. She sits reading from a journal, once or twice pulling out a large sketchpad to illustrate things, but this relatively sedate staging is in contrast to the lurid subjects she vividly describes. There's the wonderfully harsh original tale “Annie, You'll Never Amount to Anything,” a revision of The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe in which the titular lady is desperately sex-obsessed but hobbled by the circumstances of her dwelling, and a reading from Enid Blyton's (very real) children's book “Mr Pinkwhistle Interferes” that needs no added colours or flavours to take on sinister connotations.
I think it's the storytelling framework that prevents this from reaching bladder-evacuating hilarity, and the whole could be a little more varied in tone. Sanz leaves quite a bit of space for the audience to fill in their own meaning. Of course space can be hard to interpret it is, or it'd be called “English” or something. But for those who like a bucket of wrong dumped on their tales, Sanz gets it awfully right.