Rose Matafeo: 'She would fill whatever stage you put her on' | A look back at the Edinburgh Fringe of 2018

Rose Matafeo: 'She would fill whatever stage you put her on'

A look back at the Edinburgh Fringe of 2018

Almost up to date now, as our travels through Edinburgh Fringes past reaches 2018, when the main comedy award went to a woman of colour for the first time, Rose Matafeo, and Ciaran Dowd was crowned best newcomer. Here are some of our reviews from that year, all by Chortle editor Steve Bennett, except Matafeo’s, which was written by Paul Fleckney.

Edinburgh Fringe Time Machine

Rose Matafeo: Horndog

Rose Matafeo was nominated for the Barry Award at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival, so it should be pretty bedded in by now, and it most certainly is: honed and running like a dream. This is Matafeo’s third show and she really is an impressive comedian – if any other twentysomethings look to her to help them navigate the complexities of love and life, then they’re in good hands.

Horndog is a broad look at what it is to be a straight 26-year-old woman, unpopular with the guys at school, good at matchmaking others, and now lamenting her sexuality. There are so many reasons to be turned off by men, she says, but you are who you are. 

There is more than a flicker of #MeToo: she recounts how a male comedian got in contact to apologise for a derogatory comment he made which she’d completely forgotten about and says that over her years of being a comic there had been a buildup of small incidents which added up to a substantial dossier. 

The show isn’t as much about sex as the title suggests, and she has her own definition for horniness that is perhaps particular to her, and which brings us to the very funny and rousing finale. Sex is in the mix though: such as the difference between male and female teenage horniness and how she was never really taught about sex or masturbation, she had to figure stuff out by herself. Something she didn’t have to figure out for herself was crocheting – a skill passed on by her mother and her mother’s mother. . 

Matafeo is so strong on these personal yet universal subjects: bold and insightful, a real force of nature onstage. In fact, it’s her delivery that makes her such a compelling performer. For someone who speaks so much about insecurity, uncertainty, angst, the emotional toll of being a young woman, she is so confident on stage. She performs everything big, and I have the feeling she would fill whatever stage you put her on. There are few young comedians of whom you could say that.

She complements some of her routines with visuals on the big screen, turning her theories and punchlines into memes behind her, and giving us a bit a bit of YouTube comment comedy, which isn’t the most original idea but she has unearthed a beauty of a thread, and chops it up to reveal it bit by bit, building the comic effect.

‘I’m not like the other girls,’ she says at one point, albeit to an imagined boy, and she certainly plunders her peculiarities for humour, owning the fact that she’s kissed far fewer boys than her contemporaries and the strange fantasy she has of pretending she’s been cheated on (perhaps it’s not that strange, I don’t know). 

The sheer fact that she shares all this makes her a kind of confidante – everyone will have their own unusual thing, even if it’s not the same as hers. 

She isn’t the only comedian with material on navigating a breakup while having their wounds constantly reopened by Facebook, Neftlix and Spotify. Matafeo is excellent on this subject, though, and intellectually follows it through further than others would, questioning how Facebook in particular is so selective in how it personalises what it pushes to you, and how damaging that can be.

A K-pop-inspired finale rounds things off with a bang. Matafeo was perhaps unlucky not to get nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award last year; this year’s offering is at least as good.

4 stars

Ciaran Dowd: Don Rodolfo

As sharp as his rapier, as swift as his parries, and as tight as his codpiece, this uproarious story of legendary swashbuckler Don Rodolfo Martini Toyota is a riot from beginning to end.

Ciaran Dowd’s alter-ego is a legendary swordsman - in both euphemistic and literal sense of the word. A 17th Century Spanish version of Rik Mayall’s Captain Flashheart, this debauched adventurer has eyes a woman can drown in, an unquenchable libido and a thirst for revenge, travelling far and wide to avenge his father’s death at the (six) hands of a mysterious nemesis.

The story is told with a suitably fiery passion and very little seriousness. There’s enough to keep the story moving, the audience invested and Rodolfo just about credible – but everything is up for grabs for the sake of a joke. If there’s a way to make it funny, Dowd will do it, no matter what angle it comes from.

There’s the preposterous tone of the epic saga, of course, which also includes Rodolfo’s talking smartass horse, his predilection for arson, the tall tale of him single-handedly slaying an army of 600, from whence his legend sprang, and his latter descent into a cheese-addicted funk

Postmodern gags abound, spoofing the spoof. Our red-blooded hero is from the Andalusian mountains, though he must have spent quite some time in Drogheda given how much the accent slips. He argues with a voiceover when he fails to comprehend a familiar theatrical device and has to deny that elements of his story have been plagiarised from a Hollywood favourite.

Yet while the tone is of constant mucking about, playing fast and loose with the fourth wall, it’s underpinned by a taut script that wrings out a laugh every couple of lines, never flagging.

There are ridiculous touches everywhere, for while Rodolfo is quick of sword, he’s slow of wit, and his dumb thoughts are always delightfully daft. I loved his absolute failure to grasp innuendo, deployed, subtly, in one great line about a brothel but never used again – a hit-and-run worthy of Zorro himself. For nothing overstays its welcome in this joyously ridiculous romp.

Dowd – previously best known as 33.3 per cent of sketch group BEASTS – has definitely got a cult hit on his hands here. And he’ll duel with anyone who says otherwise.

5 stars

John-Luke Roberts: All I Wanna Do Is [FX: GUNSHOTS] With A [FX: GUN RELOADING] And A [FX: CASH REGISTER] And Perform Some Comedy!

John-Luke Roberts asserts a serious purpose for his hour of nonsense, claiming it to be a ‘manifesto for absurdity’; a celebration of the surreal for the sake of it. After all, he argues, comedy shouldn’t have to follow a narrative: stories are just lies we tell ourselves to pretend to make sense of a random universe, so why shouldn’t art be random, too?

Proclamation over, and we are thrust headlong into a relentless tempest of insanely inspired shenanigans; a dizzying parade of mad skits and eccentric characters, all built on a nugget of peculiar innovation. Quite what corner of his unique brain they emerge from, who knows, but they are at once instantly identifiable and obscure and quirky, that’s the brilliance of each oddball creation.

He insists these are all missing Spice Girls, from Military Spice to Christmas Spice, Neurotic Spice to Smart-Aleck Spice… and those are the more sensible names. The premise gives free rein for his imagination to roam wherever it wants – which is far and wide – while rooting the creative madness in some sort of quickly-established familiarity.

The format also accommodates an incredible joke rate, with Roberts cramming in more original punchlines in his hour than some comedians manage in a career. No Spice need outstay their welcome, he can jump in with a gag and move on, or dwell a little longer to explore these oddball alter-egos.

Despite his early proclamation, every sketch is a mini-story of sorts. Or in the case of Facts About The Romans Spice and his convoluted entourage, quite a long story. There are several  fantastic running gags, such as Roberts literally praying for help, an assumed audience reaction to the Spice Girls obsession, and an anatomically creepy old crone, doling out very precise curses. The return of these characters is always welcome, each time building on the last appearance, in contrast to lazier sketch shows that use recurring characters to merely repeat the same gag.

Meanwhile, the odd random asides such as impressions of Alan Bennett or Jon Ronson (basically the same, let’s face it) keep the audience surprised. The jokes and ideas come thick and fast, leaving so much to unpack, you could watch this show twice and still find more to enjoy.

It’s not too long before Roberts’ dyed blue moustache – done for just one brief gag as well as the idiosyncratic visual effect –  is the most normal thing in the room. Yet, quite remarkably given the avant-garde tone, he even manages to incorporate some personal confessional into the show, before coming back to test his initial point about absurdity. His theory is that we will all come to embrace irrationality so much that after the hour we ’ll laugh at his simple unveiling of an everyday object since our notions of normality will have been so disrupted by then. And we do.

All I Wanna Do Is [FX: GUNSHOTS] With A [FX: GUN RELOADING] And A [FX: CASH REGISTER] And Perform Some Comedy! was prompted by a blog one audience member wrote last year, complaining that his hour was incomprehensible, anathema to Roberts’s mantra that it’s good to laugh when you don’t understand. 

Judging by the constant wall of guffaws in this unconvincingly converted seminar room, his audience are more than willing to embrace that idea when the nonsense is as unflaggingly funny as Roberts peddles.

4.5 stars

Kieran Hodgson: '75

BBC founder Lord Reith would bloody love Kieran Hodgson’s ’75, a show that epitomises his famous mantra to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. 

You are guaranteed to emerge from 60 compelling minutes in this 30-year-old’s company with a thorough understanding of the political fault lines beneath Britain’s tumultuous relationship with the European Union over the past six decades. 

Now that might not be your No.1 aim when weighing up your entertainment options for an evening, but this engaging double Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee injects the history lesson with personal drama, whip-smart jokes and performance flourishes that bring verve and wit to this potentially dry subject matter

As a young gay man working in the arts and living in metropolitan London, of course Hodgson’s voted Remain; while as a Northern working-class woman of an older generation, his mother is the epitome of a nostalgic-seeking Leave voter.  And it’s for the resolution of that tension, which exploded in a visceral but ill-meant insult, that led him to the history books.

It took him back to 1963, when Harold Macmillan’s bid to join the Common Market was vetoed by Charles De Gaulle; to Edward Heath taking Britain into the European Community in 1972; to the in-out referendum of 1975, called by Harold Wilson to patch over deep divisions in his ruling party (sound familiar?); and to Margaret Thatcher’s shifting stance towards Brussels.

At times this show sounds like a throwback to the top-rated Mike Yarwood variety specials of the 1970s as talented mimic Hodgson impersonates the political big BEASTS of the era. You could fairly Roy Jenkins impressions are not exactly ‘one for the kids’.

Politically, ’75 is nuanced: the liberal comic at one point finds himself praising a Tory Prime Minister because of Heath’s impeccable principals; shifts his position on whether Brexit was inevitable or not based on the facts he unearths; and ends up idolising Wilson – a fellow Huddersfield lad – for his pragmatic compromises, and love of a sandwich.

This is all catnip for political nerds, but Hodgson wears the learning lightly. His bookishness is one of the running gags, his obsessive personality another. And if he overachieved in childhood endeavours that didn’t require friends, he continues to overachieve today with delightful mini-sketches peppering this taut monologue that showcase his many talents.

Political infighting is envisaged via musical theatre – a sort of Westminster Side Story; he imagines the Beatles as a single entity living next door to Macmillan to usher in the Swinging Sixties, while De Gaulle’s intransigence is explained by the medium of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

’75 is incredibly dense in both laughs and information, yet never seems so. It's not half as niche as it sounds, and ten times funnier. And my do we need a unifying laugh over this most toxic of debates.

Sam Campbell: The Trough

(Reviewed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, before it became a cult hit of the Fringe)

Sam Campbell has always been fizzing with oddball ideas, but has tended to sabotage himself, often because of a massive blind spot when it came to loose, self-indulgent routines that fail to fire.

Well, with The Trough, he has conquered those shortcomings, with an hour that zips by in a gambolling, grinning parade of insanity. Sure, some ideas are funnier to him than to us, but the pace is mostly such that nothing lingers, and his strike rate is high.

He defines himself from the off, playing doctored footage of the horrors of watching a Dave Hughes routine. In case you were in any doubt, this surreal weirdo is about as far from relatable old Hughesy as you can get.

When Campbell arrives on stage, it’s in a romper suit with wieners for fingers – and also coming out of his headgear – smirking inanely. As well he might, given the onslaught of stupidity he knows is about to happen. ‘I’ve got a serious case of the wackadoos,’ he tells us at one point… no kidding; even though kidding is what he relentlessly does.

Dumb props, quirky one-liners, performance trickery and super-creative audio-visual elements illuminate the bizarre hypothetical situations he outlines. Some will hit you right on the funny bone, whether it’s the terrifying creation Brangus – a misshapen stand-up comedian who appears to have no skin – or a preposterous bit of audience participation that involves bowing respectfully to photographs of apes, as if we are in some transcendental cult.  

With this scene, and a couple of others (notably the act-out involving multiple Terrys) Campbell does push the repetition too far. But by then, he’s earned our trust, and we wouldn’t want to throw shade on his fun. He jokes that he might be autistic but has never been tested - that  might explain a lot. 

His enthusiasm for his crackpot ideas goes viral. He’s taking clear, simple pleasure in all this tomfoolery, and so do we. There’s one moment when the show looks in danger of getting serious, tackling the alpha-masculinity from which Campbell’s infantile mucking about is so far removed. But in the end, it’s treated like just another excuse for an unpredictable twist of insanity. And that’s reason enough.

4 stars

Sean McLoughlin: Hail Mary

Well, Sean McLoughlin’s a massive liar. Ever the struggling comedian, he reckons that after five consecutive Edinburgh show, his creative tank had run dry when it came to writing his sixth. Yet this impassioned, urgent broadside on the state of both the nation and his own life is fizzing with ideas, intensity and bloody great jokes.

It’s certainly his tightest hour yet, with his many incisive and funny thoughts combining organically to form a cohesive polemic, delivered with frustrated pique and building to a fine conclusion. But while it’s an impressive invective, there are gags at every turn, and he leaps between them as quickly and nimbly as you like.

While he starts from familiar set-ups, such as feeling he lacks the maturity, stability and achievement he should have at 30 and mulling a future with a partner he loves, he spins them off in insightful directions. 

One core idea is that society is divided between the forward-looking, who eagerly consume each quantum leap in technology, and the backwards-looking reactionaries, nostalgic for an ideal that never really exist. Of course, every comic who’s brought up Brexit has entertained similar thoughts, but McLoughlin has the unique observation that both sides are winning, making for a weirdly uncertain time for everyone, and creating a massive grey area, which he incisively prospects for many a comedy nugget.

Our changing world is illustrated by his namesake, a YouTube gamer with the handle Jacksepticeye, whose zany commentaries have made him wealthy from his 20million followers. The comedian McLoughlin does understands that this world exists – but only just. The next technological iteration adopted by the youth will be the one that leaves him behind, and he has a wonderfully surreal suggestion of what that might be. 

More significantly, McLoughlin also considered the intrusions into our privacy we accept for convenience for tech giants, pondering just how malicious they can be.

Meanwhile, on the traditionalist side, lapsed Catholic McLoughlin finds himself drawn back towards religion – another angle where he bucks the comedy status quo. Arguing that the cheap joke of branding all Catholic priests is just as lazy and ignorant as branding all Muslims potential jihadists, he seeks out the good in the Bible. If nothing else, he concludes, it’s a cracking read. More crucially it’s a bold stance for a comedian to be leaning back towards faith in these atheistic times.

Bringing up Jacksepticeye allows McLoughlin to indulge his low-status shtick as he’s not the most famous Sean McLoughlin out there (he also loses out to a professor of Islamic anthropology and a footballer). He is a battler, pushing valiantly but impotently against a callous world, but his frustration at the lack of progress earned from his significant effort is the grit from which his comedy pearls grow.

Even now, with acclaim and some Ricky Gervais support slots under his belt, he’s still playing a grim underground Free Fringe venue: hardly the dream when he started off all those years ago. It’s the sort of cramped hotbox that could have audience dozing off, but his intellectual and comic brilliance means he has everyone rapt.

If there’s any justice, Hail Mary will be the show that breaks him through, and he’ll have to find a new set of grievances beyond his career stagnation for his ineffectual anger. But it’s probably not a major concern: McLoughlin can surely find wretchedness in any situation.

4.55 stars

Click here to read all our Edinburgh Fringe reviews from 2018

Published: 26 Aug 2020

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