Good improvisation is tricky to find at the Fringe; both in terms of improv comedy shows and the ability to improvise a change in your schedule. When you are walking the streets of the city through the day, being handed leaflets by a relentless barrage of performers offering “free comedy at six” or a “five star show,” it is natural that at some point you are going to find yourself seduced. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a glossy leaflet offering laughs and fun on minimal information? It’s basically how Brexit won.
My desire for improvised comedy at this year’s Fringe led me to make such a schedule change yesterday. My day was already planned to start with an improvised performance of a play in the style of Shakespeare – Impromptu Shakespeare at Just the Tonic. Their set-up was an inventive twist on the typical routine of asking the audience for suggestions: everyone on arrival was asked to pick from a bowl a couple of plastic orange balls, with each ball having a word or two written on them. Mine had “with child” and “a gift”. The audience was then asked to throw their balls towards the stage, aiming for the wide open trousers of the large actor. Six balls were then withdrawn from the comically-sized trousers and they would set the scene for the Shakespearean play. That was about as much fun as this show became, however, and the actual performance teetered from mediocre to boring, with not much in the way of laughs between. Which was a shame, because the premise is good.
The improvised schedule change came somewhere between seeing an excellently re-enacted performance of Woody Allen’s 1960s standup routine at Frankenstein and eating a slice of haggis pizza at Hunter Square. I was handed a leaflet for a show by UCLA Edinburgh offering improvised comedy in the form of a court case. The show was at six o’clock, when unfortunately I already had another free show in mind to check out at Banshee Labyrinth. However, I was already on my way to the aforementioned bar – which styles itself as “Scotland’s most haunted pub” and is a festival favourite of mine – and there were still a couple of hours until either show started; it wouldn’t be a great imposition to alter my schedule. So I continued along to Banshee Labyrinth and it is indeed an eerie place — I could swear that I witnessed dozens of spirits around the bar. There was a show titled “Monkey Poet with Roger Cumsnatch” about to begin and I decided to substitute that for my other show at this venue, enabling me to go along to the UCLA performance. Here a bearded, apparently homeless, northern Englishman performed as what he described as the outrageously foul character “Monkey Poet” – he wasn’t outrageous, or even close to it – followed by his upper-class snob character “Roger Cumsnatch” who would read poems about his dislike of the poor and ethnic minorities. It was terrible, and not even offensive – which made it worse. The idea was supposed to be, I think, that Monkey Poet was some loveable working class comedian who wasn’t getting a break because guys like Roger Cumsnatch are wealthy and educated and so get all the work. The comedian seemed to have a particular dislike for Jack Whitehall, who I’m guessing is the Roger Cumsnatch to his Monkey Poet. But Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges aren’t Roger Cumsnatch and they do just fine. Difference being that they are good at what they do: this guy isn’t. He’s just angry.
My improvised change hadn’t paid off so far, but sometimes you have to make bold decisions and see where they take you. Besides, I was getting another improv comedy show to meet my desire. “The People Versus…” asked the audience to write on two separate pieces of paper the name of a defendant in a court case and the name of the trial. I scrawled Eddie Fasthands Jnr in the case of “The man who fired the one o’clock gun too early.” I really hoped it would be pulled from the jar, but instead we got The Pope in the case of “The church which was robbed.” Not hugely original, but I suppose these guys can only work with what the audience gives them. The performance was largely enjoyable and there were a couple of talented improvisers in the group of five; although like most improvised shows have the risk of doing it began to fall apart a bit towards the end.
My second night at the Fringe concluded with a return to Pleasance Courtyard, which as always was buzzing with activity. I found myself sitting in the front row for Tom Ward: Sex, Snails & Cassettes, and fortunately I was drunk enough to become involved when called upon. This was a fun, energetic show which had plenty of nostalgia and laughs. It was a fine way to end a day which had become largely improvised – for better or worse, proving that good improvisation is difficult to get right at the Fringe.