John Hegley: Letters To An Earwig

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

In the constant quest for the new, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the fantastic performers who come to Edinburgh year-in, year-out, always with top-quality shows.

He’s no Fringe spring chicken, but John Hegley’s Letter To An Earwig is one of the most wonderfully entertaining hours on the Fringe – and in the far-from-sought-after 1pm slot, faces very little competition for your time.

If you know him simply as the dry, sardonic poet, you’ll be impressed at just how many bits of ‘business’ are called into service in the name of comic entertainment. From the ukulele he strums at the start, improvising as he helps latecomers find their seats, to imagined letters from his grandmother towards the end, this is a rich, funny, diverse show.

Hegley has the air of an impatient schoolmaster, even when delivering the funnies. He peers disapprovingly over his glasses if the audience fails to react how he wants. He’s almost daring us not to laugh – how dare such flippery enter his venue? – but can’t help cracking a wry smile now and then when we do. Defined by this false tetchiness, his relationship with the audience is sublime.

As if to extend the classroom analogy, he recruits a couple of volunteers for an arts and crafts project to start the show, and delivers many of his sublime verses from behind a desk, as if taking the register. There’s even a playtime, when he takes to a swing for more poetry.

Not that any of these distractions are evidence of dumbing down. Hegley’s verses are as sharp as ever, and this is a show that celebrates erudition. At one point, a punter earns a round of applause for his ornithological knowledge; in many shows he’d be mocked mercilessly.

It’s not the only point Hegley encourages us to join in, and even the most reluctant participant with have their spirits raised by completing rhymes or providing backing singing to his songs

Some of his usual themes – glasses, dogs, Luton – are played down, though they do make their presence felt. Instead the theme to which he keeps returning is the 1923 emigration of his ancestors from France to the US, and there are some poignant moments in his family history to add texture.

These are slotted between the silliness in an hour full of bathos. From his A-Z of animal poems (in which not every letter is guaranteed to appear) to the crushingly insensitive translation of his book for the American market, there is genuine hilarity throughout, and always from a position of warmth.

Hegley doesn’t put a foot wrong in this delightful, joyous, genial, inventive hour of inspired comedy. It’s as simple as that.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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