Monday, March 24, 2008
Almost as good as the Edinburgh Festival
We've lived in Glasgow for four years now and have never made it to the Edinburgh Festival or, as indeed would be the case if we did, the Festival Fringe. That's a pity because the big thing we missed when we lived abroad and enjoy so much since we moved to Scotland is British humour.
Never Mind. Glasgow has its moments. Each year they have a Comedy Festival. Last year I think it was sponsored by Millers beer. This year it's Magner's cider. You get the point.
We chose four acts to see this year. Mitch Benn, Dara O'Briain, Russell Howard and Sean Lock. Now that selection tells me where I get my culture: BBC Radio 4 and BBC2.
Before any more analysis, let me say these are four very funny gentlemen. Four evenings of deep mirth were enjoyed by all who attended.
But it was interesting to see how the audiences were composed.
All four performances reflected, in the type of audience and the choice of venue, so much about how one makes it in the world of comedy.
Mitch Benn I only know from Radio 4's Now Show (yes, the same show that provided the Marcus Brigstocke quote from a previous entry). He does a couple of turns each week, commenting on the week's news by performing a parodic song of his own composition. This he does with very small resources and yet, such is his skill, he evokes beautifully the style of a recognisable artist and matches it well to the news. This last week it was Bruce Springsteen (Born on the NHS) and, I am of the opinion, David Bowie for a song about finding methane on extra-solar planets.
In Glasgow, alone with just a very small guitar, he drew an audience of a couple of hundred to the Tron, a small, intimate and generally experimental theatre. The audience were Radio 4 people, almost to the level of self-parody. (For foreign readers, I should describe BBC Radio 4: it is 'talk radio', the immediate descendant of the BBC Home Service - 'this is Alvar Lidell reading the news...' . It is what they call a bastion and I am a very proud and devoted listener.)
This is the modern Radio 4 though. Mr Benn is not staid. He is not Richard Stilgoe. His humour was often very non-Reithian. He was, however, one with his audience. There was much talk of this shared love of the Beeb's traditional values. We were all there because of this half-hour we share, 6:30 of a Friday evening.
The evening was all the better for this limited scope. During the interval, he composed a topical ditty to a subject shouted out by an audience member. A very common gimmick for this sort of performance. He made it plain though that, if it was any good, he'd be putting it forward as one of the three tunes he has to offer the producers of the Now Show on Thursday. Come the Friday evening, it was there in his first spot on the radio programme. 200 Glaswegians felt they owned a little bit of the radio that night.
The only reason we know Dara O'Briain and Russell Howard is through 'Mock the Week' (BBC2 and Dave). That's enough to warrant the ticket purchase but it also identifies both of them for us. Two sides of a single coin.
However, Dara played to a huge audience (probably 2000) at the Royal Concert Hall (an enormous acoustic disaster area in the centre of Glasgow where everything popular happens - apart from the very popular which use the SECC). His first half was in the Mock the Week style, a rant with lots of good stuff for the enemies of unreason and the unreasonable. The second half was much gentler, observational humour of the old school. Lots of audience involvement and altogether rather homely. The audience was incredibly mixed: ages from teenage to very old (that is, older than me). In fact an awful lot of old people. It seems Dara has another life.
Russell Howard and Sean Lock appeared at the Old Fruitmarket, a wonderful restored Victorian 'Crystal Palace' building which lends everything an air of unpretentiousness. There's a bar in the auditorium and everyone has a 'glass' in hand during the performance.
Russell Howard is a lively, amiable young man. That is his act. Lots of personal experiences from his childhood in Bristol. Lots about his mum, his dad, his brother. All we knew was his contribution to Mock the Week where he voices the reaction of the innocent, abused Englishman to the nastiness of modern life. Live he's even more of an innocent, telling of the confusion of a good soul amongst the messy and corrupt.
His audience however was not so young though not so old as Dara's. The sound they made was appreciation, humming along to the same tune. There was nothing to take offence at. However his support act, Steve Hall, did blatantly test the limits. To me (perhaps I'm old) just seeing 'how far we can go' is no fun any more. Strangely someone in the audience was taken ill after only 20 minutes and, rather than trying to restart, the performance was abandoned.
I only know Sean Lock from his being a fraction of QI. Enough of a recommendation. His part is to come up with 'angles' on the discourse. I like that approach.
The promotion for the gig listed three TV programmes that he does ('TV Heaven Telly Hell', '8 out of 10 cats' and '15 Storeys High') and made him out to be a TV giant. I've never seen any of these and, thinking of him as an itinerant 'guest' only, feared that his live act would depend too much on this unknown repertoire. I feared the worst.
Not at all. His act is unrelated to anything. It depends on nothing else - not on his QI persona, not on any expected reference to his TV successes. It was completely fresh and independent. He is described in his publicity as an 'absurdist', which means... what?
It is his function though. He just exudes daft ideas. As usual, I can't remember anything. As each clever idea appears and you pledge to remember it, its hold on your memory is loosened by the next one demanding the same.
His audience was surprisingly much younger than Howard's and his relationship with it was more direct: he just stands there and keeps eye contact, somehow with a thousand people. His demeanour is of a very, very normal bloke.
And then at the end of the show he does something so bizarre (I won't say - not while his tour has dates to run) that nobody was prepared for it and it still seems appallingly risky.
So, Sean Lock is the one I recommend. Though Mitch Benn made a small group of people, including me, feel very , very good.