Alice Fraser: Ethos | Edinburgh Fringe review by Steve Bennett
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Alice Fraser: Ethos

Edinburgh Fringe review by Steve Bennett

No one could accuse Alice Fraser of a lack of ambition. Ethos is a sprawling philosophical treatise about what it means to be human that takes in all of the cultural hot topics –  #MeToo, freedom of speech, race – as well as creation myths, the intricacies of imperfect interactions, and the Frankenstein story

Some of this, most notably the latter, is explored via her artificial intelligence sidekick, the Ethos of the title: a cold, robotic comedian who struggles with human emotion (a Jimmy Carr joke here would clearly be cheap). 

As a surrogate child, the machine also issues about parental responsibilities and disappointment that are a reflection of Fraser’s own father fretting about her quitting a lucrative legal job to become a comic. It’s as if the very tenets of existence that have vexed philosophers for centuries isn’t quite enough for an Edinburgh hour, so she added talk of her personal insecurities to pad it out.

It can be an uphill struggle as this intelligent and thoughtful comic sets all these existential plates spinning, meaning the show starts out more TED talk than LOL-fest. Maybe that’s why that after 35 minutes in, she has to remind us: ‘I do comedy!’ 

She addresses the density of her set-up – she has to really – and tries to drag a hesitant weekend crowd along with her. It’s a tough haul, but Fraser has the determination and slowly people get on board.

In any case, she’s got a get-out if they don’t. One of her tenets is that to strive and to fail is an essential part of existence, surely a bulletproof riposte to any criticism.

Central to the story is the Jewish myth of The Golem, a man of clay brought to life when a scrap of paper containing a mystical word was inserted into his mouth, like some prehistoric SIM card. Gradually other pieces start to fall into place, too, from why the stand-up cliché of ‘let me tell you a little about myself’ is so useful, and why everybody needs to encounter an ‘entry-level’ sleazeball, like a certain member of the Melbourne comedy scene who she names.

Much of her premises may sound intellectually hefty, and they are. But Fraser – a regular on Andy Zaltzman’s podcast The Bugle –  delivers with a good cheer and disarming self-awareness. Her robot partner helps explain some of the denser subjects, too, by acting as the voice of a confused audience.

Crucially she can write a cracking joke, too, with a handful of examples here, even if they are rationed them to put the emphasis on her treatise. There’s a boldly uncomfortable punchline about the genocide of Indigenous Australians (as if to contact to all those jaunty quips that exist on the same subject) and well as some wordplay of which she’s smugly proud. 

And for all her highfalutin ideas, she really gets the crowd on board with a parody version of the Kenny Roger song The Gambler. It’s not all so highbrow, you see.

Flying in the face of comedy conventions, the most crowd-pleasing material comes towards the end, so feels like a reward for sticking with her, rather than an icebreaker to get us off on a good footing.

That many of the strands are intertwined also only becomes apparent around this point, which makes the show rather more rewarding in retrospect than in the moment, when there’s a little too much going on. 

But thoughts will definitely be provoked by the end of an erudite and considered hour of comedy.

Review date: 15 Aug 2018
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Underbelly Bristo Square

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