SO, THIS is how it works! About a month before the Edinburgh Fringe Festival begins, reviewers receive confirmation of their accreditation. “What are you interested in reviewing?” This year, the first full festival for three years, your eager media representative replied: “Plays and comedy of interest to a churchgoing readership.”
During the four weeks that followed, 380 emails arrived from people asking me to review their show. That’s about ten per cent of the festival. And each one of them had a fabulously inventive reason why the Church Times readership would be intrigued to read about their work. My favourite was, “Our play does not have specifically religious themes, but at one point it does mention church architecture.”
Would I be interested in the story of how someone turned their back on the Church and instead found fulfilment in comedy? I’m afraid not. I’ve heard that story so many times before (scatologically from Katy Brand, plaintively from Hugh Dennis). There were two new versions at this year’s festival. How about a recitation from memory of St Mark’s Gospel? Two of those as well. Might I be swayed by the fact that both parents of the performer are clergy in Sheffield diocese? Nope.
I was, though, won over by “I am a Christian but I really struggle, and that’s what inspires my comedy.” Jacob Hulland presents his debut show Jacob’s Ladder in his shoe-shop-salesman suit. He serves Professor Brian Cox a beer while interviewing him sitting in his bath, and explains how he came to be called a Nazi in Salisbury Cathedral. He has great charm and great impersonations. What he hasn’t got is punch lines to close out his jokes. He is going to have to thump out the funnies if he is going to climb the ladder.
The sketch group Tarot have been on the circuit for some time, but have broken through this year, just in time to remind us in a recurring joke that, although it is out of fashion, sketch comedy will never die. In horror-movie make-up and awkwardly revealing nightgowns, they provoked shrieks of laughter in the first seconds of Cautionary Tales, which refused to let up until the final dreadful impersonations of Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Trivial and triumphant.
But, if comedy is a serious matter for you, you need to take lessons from the comedian in Marcelo Dos Santos’s rip-roaring monologue Feeling Afraid Like Something Terrible is Going to Happen. He is played by Samuel Barnett, in a performance that deserves every one of the awards showered on it. He prowls the stage with the effortless control of a comedy star, then crumples to the floor with both vulnerability and a hint of nastiness.
Having always thought of himself as incapable of anything but meaningless hook-up sex, he meets someone for whom he begins to feel unprecedented tenderness. The man is perfect in every way, except that he has cataplexy, and to laugh would kill him. The play is so engrossing that I changed my mind three times about whether to expect a happy or tragic ending. It is a serious play about our compulsion to laugh, but it has end-to-end killer gags.
Many Christians bring painful back stories to Edinburgh this year — literally, in the case of Joey Rinaldi. While he was playing one of Jesus’s disciples in Godspell at his Roman Catholic high school, a bizarre accident nearly destroyed his penis.
Some of the wince-a-minute jokes fell down the crack between US and UK humour, but, on the evening I was there, he was given five tipsy nurses in the back row who knew everything there is to know about colostomy bags. They were hilarious and helped Rinaldi to a rollicking evening. If they ever put on a show, I’m going. Rinaldi has taken Potty Training to the Fringe as a thank-you present to his mother for praying for him throughout the catastrophe. I, too, am grateful for my mother’s prayers, but I decided that a box of shortbread was enough.
Cicely and David tells the story of Dame Cicely Saunders and how a love that was never quite allowed to develop with a young, dying Polish man led to the founding of the hospice movement. It has an effective set and fine actors, and it is heartening to see the positive impact of faith taken seriously on the Fringe. But Saunders’s biographer David Clark recounts one event after another without any sense of how to set alight what ought to be a gripping tale with drama. He has made a great case for palliative care, but not a great play.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Jack Stokes makes an astounding debut in a story of four obsessions: Jesus, Jane, Mother and Me. It is a sadly believable story of an outsider seeking some kind of fulfilment in a church, a dominant mother, and, hilariously, the singer Jane McDonald. In Stokes’s performance, his effeminate bravado disguises a soul that is as fragile as it is possible to be. The script by Philip Stokes takes him to a place that I genuinely could not have foreseen. In the closing seconds, I was absolutely undone.
Lottie AmorBosco Hogan, Anna Healy and Fiona Bell in The Last Return by Sonya Kelly
The staging of An Tobar and Mull Theatre’s In the Weeds is magnificent. A dark pool shrouded in mist and lit in blues and greens takes us to a loch on a remote Hebridean island (design and lighting by Kenneth MacLeod and Benny Goodman). There, a Japanese man has come to lose his demons and find a mythical sea creature. Is what he finds in the water a human or a selkie, half seal and half woman?
Sadly, the love affair between the characters is not nearly as convincing as the setting. The mystery evaporates in the lack of chemistry between the two actors, which seems a cruel thing to say after watching them slosh around in that water for 60 minutes.
Sometimes, though, the most eye-popping set is the one in your imagination. Eulogy takes place in total darkness. It is a supernatural tale by Darkfield Theatre, which specialises in blackout productions. The story is heard in superb binaural sound through headphones, and we are led through a strange hotel in which we are due to deliver a eulogy for someone whose identity is not clear until the end.
Answers that we have given to seemingly innocuous questions at the beginning mean that the story is individualised for each audience member. Shudders, breezes and bumps increase the tension. Creepy and clever.
Keith Alessi offers an unexpectedly uplifting show, Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved my Life. He tells the story of how he, a very successful CEO, was brought close to death by cancer. Buoyed up on a wave of prayer, he found his way back to health, but lost interest in making money. All he wanted to do was to learn to play the banjo well enough to perform in front of an audience — which he does. It is a modest show, but heartfelt and witty. “What do you call a beautiful girl on the arm of a banjo player? A tattoo.”
Liz Kingsman will look back on 2022 as life-changing. By the time One Woman Show reached Edinburgh, word of mouth had generated huge expectations. Frankly, she exceeded them. The show is achingly funny, full of misdirections and giddy surprises. It parodies with razor-sharp observation the confessional monologues that make up a great deal of the Fringe programme — shows such as Keith Alessi’s. And she skewers the difficulty of having your work noticed. (Producers are attending “to decide which woman is going to be successful this year”.) Liz Kingsman has no such difficulty. This is her “Fleabag” moment. People were begging for tickets.
And that, coincidentally, is the theme of the Festival’s best play. The Last Return is set in a theatre foyer before the final performance of an operatic superstar. The queue of people desperate to get their hands on the final ticket breaks down into murderous rivalry as the event gets closer.
The breathtaking cleverness of Sonya Kelly’s absurdist satire becomes clear as you begin to realise that, under cover of the laughter, you are watching an allegory of global injustice, as we prepare for a world in which growing numbers of people stake a claim on diminishing resources. As in so many shows, the skull behind the smile is evident. This year’s Fringe was a scary place.