Minchin, Watson, Gilbert... and Jim Bowen | Some of Chortle's reviews from the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe

Minchin, Watson, Gilbert... and Jim Bowen

Some of Chortle's reviews from the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe

2005 was the year in which Laura Solon achieved the Edinburgh dream - an unknown playing a pub back room with a show she had to put together at the last minute because her partner dropped out at the last minute.

But it was a great year for newcomers too. Tim Minchin blew everyone out of the water, but also nominated were Charlie Pickering – now a TV star in his native Australian – Mark Watson, Rhod Gilbert and the double-act Toulson and Harvey, aka Stephen Harvey and Luke Toulson.

Here are just a very few of the reviews Chortle editor Steve Bennett wrote from that year's festival...

Edinburgh Fringe Time Machine 2005

Christie & Doyle's Axis Of Evil

Double acts, they always say, are like a marriage. Odd then, that there have been so very few since George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Perhaps it’s a power thing. Comedy partnerships are invariably mismatched – but have a dominant male, and it’s unappetising bullying; a dominant female and she’s a humourless battleaxe.

Fringe newcomers Bridget Christie and Andy Doyle overcome this by the convenient happenstance that he’s gay. There’s no relationship worries, and he can be the poor misunderstood, artistic type to Christie’s no-nonsense – and sometimes slapsticky violent - practicality.

For this, their debut, they’ve chosen to cover evil. So you might think Osama Bin Laden, Pol Pot, Hitler or Stalin might make an appearance.

Sure, enough, there’s a nod to them. And, musically, to that other male-female double act that put Christie’s home town of Gloucester on the map: Fred and Rose West.

But this is not the thrust of the show. They’ve taken their theme very broadly, so to them, simple bad manners is evil – which gives them a wide scope on which to base their mix of sketches.

Best of the lot involves the emotionally taught married couple, in which the wife flips her feelings on a sixpence, switching in an instant from the lovey-dovey to the embittered bitch, much to his mournful incomprehension. They are both a wonderfully observed, well executed, inventions -  if Catherine Tate should ever be in need of a couple of new characters, she needn’t look much further that this.

Other highs include the effective scene-setter involving an evil potato-headed mannequin and the bizarre, and quite creepy Brief Encounter-esque  encounter on a station, worthy of Dame Celia Molestrangler herself.

Not everything’s so strong. The well-to-do couple spouting barely-veiled racism is saddled not so much with their politically incorrect lines, but with the fact there’s little to say. And most of the solo links are found wanting.

Their forte is inappropriate language – not rude words, but a clever mangling of English and her grammar. There’s a knowing edge to it, too. Christie’s savage Irish nun Sister Alopecia is quickly followed by a discussion about how it’s a caricature every female character has ever found material in.

Another strength is that they don’t panic in a relentless rush to get to the next gag. That it takes the unhurried Doyle  an age to awkwardly remove that shop dummy from the stage is a delight of tortured embarrassment. But the flipside of this is that whenever a sketch doesn’t work, it always seems overlong.

But despite these complaints, this is a confident, sporadically brilliant, if still-patchy debut. Most of all, though, Christie and Doyle have an obvious promise which is not always found in the myriad of sketch acts that populate the Fringe. You could do a lot worse for an early-evening excursion into this much  (if often rightly) maligned genre.

3 stars

Bridget Christie won the Edinburgh Comedy Award eight years later, and Andrew Doyle is now best known as the creator of 'woke' parody Tatiana McGrath.

Jason Manford

I’d be surprised if Jason Manford ever gets a review that doesn’t mention Peter Kay. Not only does he sound like him, which is obviously no more than geographic coincidence, but he also uses a similar brand of upbeat, one-way banter with one foot in the cheery showmanship of the old school.

He’s clearly a likeable bloke, eager to please and with a puppy-dog enthusiasm for life. He doesn’t come across as one of life’s great thinkers, but more an instinctive jester, always looking for ways to take the mickey.

And for his Edinburgh debut, he’s come up with a simple idea that plays to his populist strengths: the discussion and  demolition of urban myths.

It’s a great idea for two reasons. First up, it means he starts with an array of stories that are naturally fascinating and engrossing – that’s why they endure and  spread so well, as they tap into our fears and prejudices. Instantly the show should, hopefully, hold the interest.

Secondly, though, although billed as truth, the stories are works of fiction, and as such easily debunked. Comedically, all he has to do is point out some inherent flaws, or imagine what happened next, and, hey presto, he has a routine.

It sounds so easy and so obvious, it’s a wonder no one else thought of it. But they didn’t, and  Manford did - and he executes it brilliantly well, with a never-ending sense of playful fun.

He starts off with horror  tales of  murders and psychos before widening it out to include outlandish rumours about stars and films that have come to be believed. Disney is an especially popular  source  of gossip, and Manford’s even brought along video clips to illustrate some of them, as an extra treat.

There’s a gameshow, too, as the audience hollers ‘true’ or ‘false’ to various outlandish stories, which clearly demonstrates Manford’s people skills. He should encounter no difficulty finding work as a radio host, should he want it, so happy is he to talk and  listen, while subtly keeping control of the conversation.

Manford lightly sprinkles the show with bits of social history, suggesting why certain stories come and go. He claims to have done research into many of their origins (though most likely that’s little more than a search on urban myths website snopes.com) and drops in references to classical mythology to please the  more high-falutin critics.

But Urban Legends is not about intellectualising the basis for such parables; it’s a show unashamedly dedicated to good, uncomplicated fun. And as such, it triumphs.

4 stars

Jim Bowen: You Can't Beat A Bit Of Bully

hough you might think of him as from another era, Jim Bowen is very much a product of today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. He’s only famous for hosting a cheesy, low-rent game show, and even then not brilliantly well, because it’s acquired cult status and  a place on the satellite TV rota.

Of course, he started as a comedian on the working men’s club circuit – but whether he was any good or not has been forgotten; he’s the guy who to this day shares a stage with a cartoon bull.

He starts with a clip from his appearances in Phoenix Nights and in the Amarillo video alongside  Mr Blobby (the real one, not a cruel nickname for the chubby, lowbrow Peter Kay), lest  anyone, god forbid, think he’s not working these days.

And once on stage, things start pretty much as you’d expect: with a parade of gags you’ve heard before. Told well enough, but nothing exceptional. Anyone, you think, could do this – and given the material’s old and generic, would have equal right to.

But behind his Northern bluff, 67-year-old Bowen’s astute enough to have realised  the comedy world has changed. He acknowledges his generation ‘just used to do gags’ while of today’s generation, he graciously concedes: ‘They are creative – we weren’t.’

He doesn’t sound bitter about it, either, genuinely impressed at the effort it takes  to be a stand-up today. Though you do sense a bit of regret when he reminisces that mother-in-law gags and, possibly other  non-PC  jokes wouldn’t be acceptable now.

But once he’s found his comfort levels with that old stuff, he relaxes into more anecdotal style, and the show is all the more better for it. The first is a much-told tale about Tommy Cooper meeting the Queen after a Royal Variety Performance, but finally, after all this, Bowen gets round  to talking about himself.

There are a couple of road tales from his life as a gigging comic, and then what everyone came to hear – anecdotes from Bullseye. ‘It was bloody crap,’ is his verdict, and the room seems to agree. But we still kind of loved it.

That same relationship between Bowen and audience rings true today. We know he’s not really up to all that much – but we suspect he’s well aware of that fact too – so bit of self-effacing charm and modest good manners, and we warm to the old bugger.

The yarns he spins from the Bullseye days are rich with that same knowledge that this was no work of art or intellectual endeavour. He takes the mickey out of the contestant’s slow-wittedness, the corny catchphrases or the fact that Bully’s star prize was always a damn speedboat; ideal for a Barnsley housing estate.

It’s all a bit of affectionate eye-rolling at the dross  they produced, and  it’s hard not to be won over by the tacky charm. There’s a nagging concern about the stereotypes he still trades on – his producer was gay, and this extravagantly camp and  predatory, and there’s a long story about two Irish  contestants who are as stupid as they are drunkards.

But overall, it’s surprisingly entertaining, and likely to stand him in good stead on the lucrative after-dinner speaking circuit he mentions at one point. It might be a slightly odder choice for an  Edinburgh Fringe show – but then when has the Fringe not embraced odd?

3 stars

Mark Watson: 50 Years Before Death And The Awful Prospect Of Eternity

The clever premise of Mark Watson’s Edinburgh debut is that he’s going to live out the rest of his life over the course of 50 minutes; ‘aging’ by a year for every 60 seconds that go by.

It is, however, impractical to maintain. By his own scale it takes him about eight years just to say ‘hello’ and to explain the simple but inspired concept. Not that he’s slow – the very opposite, in fact, as he’s an animated, manically breathless fast-talker – just that he’s prone to digression, his mind leaping around like a flea on a  hotplate.

While these traits may throw a spanner in the works of his big idea, they’re what makes him such an impressive comedian. The pace and energy is so relentless that it drags you along on a tide of enthusiasm, with undercurrents of humour and keen observation to vary the ride. That he reacts so naturally and quick-wittedly with the audience only adds to the sensation of being swept along in the spontaneity of the moment.

In fact, so absorbed are you in the brainstorming flow that you keep forgetting that it’s designed to lead to punchlines - so when they do come, which they do with efficient regularity, they hit you with a thwack. The freewheeling style and brilliant, sharply-written gags combine seamlessly for maximum impact in this coruscating, blistering diatribe.

While Watson has the raw, nervy energy of Lee Evans, he combines it with the droll, intolerant attitude of Jack Dee. Although professedly easy-going, you feel the stage is an outlet for all those gripes he could never get off his chest in real life.

And, under the conceit of the show, as he enters middle age he allows himself free rein to be grumpy about the most minor of irritations. Even one option on a sub-menu on his mobile phone can lead to a passionate two-minute rant.

He deftly leaps in and out of the ‘year for every minute’ concept, suggesting a lot more thought has gone into the show than the loose style suggests. There are a couple of moments where the pace flags slightly, or the gags don’t quite reach the high bar he sets himself, but these are minor gripes. As is the fact that the ‘is he or isn’t he?’ denouement is slightly too fluffed to be the revelatory ‘deathbed’ moment it could be.

In any case, such comments are rendered almost redundant by Watson’s own running commentary, as he neurotically obsesses about how the show’s going.  He’s even invented a signal for selected audience members to indicate lines that are funny, but not quite worth a laugh, in which they tap a drinks can to indicate their approval.

It’s a good job he hasn’t adopted that device to entirely replace laughter – in which case large swathes of this confident,  hilarious show would  sound like the  West End version  of Stomp, so emphatically – and deservedly – well is it received. This is truly impressive stuff.

4 stars

Rhod Gilbert’s 1984

Rhod Gilbert’s first Edinburgh show may be named after a time, but it’s really all about place. He has created his own surreal, cut-off world; a Welsh Royston Vasey in which all the warped, grotesque inhabitants are members of his own family. 

‘This is not a happy show,’ he quickly tells us in his rich, mellifluous but intrinsically depressing Welsh brogue. George Orwell predicted a bleak 1984, but Rhod claims his childhood in Llanbobble was much worse than anything Winston Smith ever  had  to endure.

His gran was horifically injured, and that was even before  the brutal  pancreas incident, his parents’ marriage threatened by a  mystery suitor, there was a horrific board-game related murder in the neighbourhood… and he never got the birthday presents he wanted.

This is, clearly, simple a collection of weird and wonderful stories from Gilbert’s vivid, and wonderfully unconventional imagination. It’s not so much stand-up comedy- although there are a few cursory acknowledgements of the conventions of the genre  in which he usually works - as sit-down storytelling.

His distinctive approach, stylishly written, proves a gentle, quiet delight. His tall tales are told in a downbeat style as his youthful naivety inevitably leads to sadness and disappointment. Misery which is, of course, very funny. 

Despite Gilbert’s many strengths, he can’t  quite pull off all the episodes in this unique family saga.  It’s those ideas that are at least loosely tethered to reality that work best; those that, although clearly ridiculous, might possibly have happened. Home-made board games are one thing, time machines quite another.

Still, Gilbert has a brilliant knack of twisting his tales, always surprising the audience by spiralling off into directions they cannot foresee. And the slow, deliberate rhythms of his delivery help, too, always teasing us by revealing new information one drip at a time until the whole, strange picture emerges.

This is a confident, engaging debut from a comic now  laying down the sturdy foundations of a style he can call his  own. 

4 stars

Tim Minchin: Dark Side

Tim Minchin is such a brilliant virtuoso pianist, it would be a pleasure to simply listen to him play for an hour. Any incidental comedy, you could consider a bonus.

But, as it turns out, he's not only an immensely talented musician, he's also a bright, quirky and hugely entertaining comedian, too. It's the sort of all-round package of genius that could drive other comics furious with envy.

On the face of it, what he sets out to do can sound very ordinary; which makes the fact he creates something extraordinary all the more remarkable. How many disappointing student-grade hacks might tackle a comic song about an inflatable sex doll with painfully predictable results? Well, this unedifying topic is the subject of his second song, performed in a cocktail-lounge jazz style, and itís unexpectedly wonderful.

Minchin's main strength is that he writes proper songs, with heartfelt passion and based on sharp, intelligent observations. He puts his personal view of the world first and moulding the jokes around it, the same approach that makes a stand-up sharing their world view infinitely better than some cracker of old gags.

Combine this distinctive approach with lyrics written with a poetís imagery, vocabulary and rhythm and you have songs with a rare depth and texture. To call them simply comedy songs would be an insult; they are thoughtful songs that happen to be hilariously funny.

But this is not all he does, in a show that never loses its ability to surprise. Not only does he mix the musical styles, he mixes the comedic ones too. There's a bit of slapstick, a more straightforward stand-up routine about playing air instruments (the only point of the show that dips from the inspired to merely being "pretty good"), and a poem fabulously recited through Minchin's increasing mental instability.

In Dark Side, heís not afraid to confront his own frustrations and inadequacies ñ all for devastating comic effect, of course. Indeed, its good to hear that he has got inadequacies - for he's lacking absolutely nothing in the talent department, as even the most casual look at his fine work will attest. Impeccable stuff.

5 stars

We Are Klang

For a comic used to the unpredictable ebb and flow of stand-up, the rigid confines of a sketch show must seem restricting. No wonder then that these three – Marek Larwood, Greg Davies and Steve Hall – play about so much with the format, themselves and the audience.

It makes for a refreshing, exhilarating blast of fresh air into the sometimes staid world of sketch comedy.

Their fluidity and, more importantly, sense of high-energy fun, means the audience are never quite sure how a certain sketch is going to pan out.  Klang quickly establish themselves as a safe sextet of hands who are also essentially harmless, so we’re all willing to join in the shenanigans unafraid of embarrassment.

There is, of course, plenty of embarrassment in this treat of a show; just that it’s always theirs, as the trio try to make each other look stupid, either through the script or  through some spanner-in-the-works ad lib.

Larwood is the most obviously funny of the lot. He’s helped by biology, with the sort of boggle-eyed physical characteristics to play the bewildered simpleton, yet able to bring a lot more to the table. He could well be the next Marty Feldman.

Davies is essentially the authority figure; at 6ft 7in, he’d have to be. When he holds Larwood’s hand he looks as if he’s taking his backward son to the zoo. But of course, in comedy authority figures are there to be made to look stupid – and he excels in that, too.

Hall needs to be more versatile, taking in any role between these extremes, often as a narrator or go-between, or as a placid straightman to ground the others’ excesses. It’s a vital role, and he complements his colleagues well.

All three obviously have fun in each others’ company, and it’s that which informs the general silliness of the show. It fizzes with spirit and energy, and though it occasionally flirts with dark material, it never even threatens to take anything seriously. And subtle it most definitely ain’t.

Between them, they play a cast of over-the-top caricatures, from the mindreader Derren Chillblaine to the arty, badly-translated French actors to the redneck cowboys who give the show its title. Some of these are rightly revived from last year’s debut show, some entirely new.

There’s singing too, which at times seems in the vein of Flight Of The Conchords (and there are worst parodists to be influenced by) although, typically, they tend take their lyrics to extreme.

With such a pacy mix of styles, there’s never a dull moment here. And while some sketches are better than others, Klang manage to avoid the extreme patchiness that tends to blight the genre. Yee-haa indeed.

4 stars

Published: 12 Aug 2020

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