Ahead of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, many people asked whether the festival could survive in a cost of living crisis. It’ll be a while until we fully know how this year’s event has stacked up compared to the last. But there are signs of hope on the streets of the Scottish capital, from the busy bars to the enthusiastic flyer brigade. Chatting to punters and performers, you’re reminded why we’re all here: a shared knowledge that there’s no better place in the world.
It was only a few days ago that everyone lost their minds over a joke about a cheetah, but this weekend the festival comes to the end for another year. Here are my final reviews...
Rob Auton: The Rob Auton Show
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Nobody does whimsy quite like Yorkshire stand-up Rob Auton. The comedian has been delighting audiences at the Fringe for a decade with his quirkily themed shows. His set design features visual nods to past work: The Hair Show, The Crowd Show, The Sky Show. It’s a little odd, but beautifully crafted; just like Auton’s comedy.
It’s not just the aesthetic that references his back catalogue. Auton runs us through his comedy career thus far, introducing each of his previous shows like a greatest hits reel. With a background in poetry, Auton has a skill for wordplay that elevates his show. He speaks in offbeat metaphors and similes. “Francis Bacon and Kevin Bacon are different rashers from a very talented pig,” he observes, seemingly at random. Telling the story of his life, he remembers being “happy like a mathematician eating his dinner off a number plate”.
These eccentric comments, when paired with Auton’s understated delivery, have a soothing effect. His act is well honed and his ease infectious. There’s a glint in his eye and a smile on his face: it’s obvious Auton loves what he’s doing. Watching, you’d struggle not to be swept up in the charm of it all too.
Griffin Kelly: Two Cats on a Date
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To many people, a solo show about, well, two cats on a date, might sound like a glitch in the matrix. To others, it’ll be your prototypical Fringe show. Really, this hour from US actor Griffin Kelly is a bit of both; unflinchingly “out there”, even when that feels like a cliche in itself.
The show’s title is self-explanatory: this is the story of two cats who go on a date. Griffin, dressed in black and with whiskers drawn on her face, walks us through the surreal encounter. She gamely plays both cats herself, speaking almost exclusively in meows, parodying both dating culture and cat behaviour.
Her performance is relentlessly physical. As you might expect, it soon wears thin. Yet just as the audience begins to question whether we’re really about to spend the next hour watching a woman pretending to be a cat, and pretending to have sex with another cat (who she is also playing), all while purring, Griffin does something clever. She breaks the fourth wall, shifting Two Cats on a Date into an intelligent parody of the solo show genre. It reminded me of Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show before it went on to be a five-star West End smash (except one where it star meows and hacks up hairballs).
Griffin’s show doesn’t maintain the same fast pace throughout. There are definitely moments where it loses momentum, and audience attention with it. Yet there’s something to be admired in her long-wearing commitment and unwillingness to drop the character. By the end, people are on side, singing along to an all-meow karaoke of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, whether they like it or not.
Ahir Shah: Ends
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Ahir Shah has been thinking a lot about generational sacrifice. It might not seem like the most obvious topic for an Edinburgh Fringe show, but the Mock the Week star has a lot to say on the subject; about what we owe the generations before us. In his award-nominated show Ends, Shah pulls it off. This is an astonishing comedy hour about using the past to take a more positive view of the present, one that takes audiences to the highest of highs of human emotion.
Shah explains to the audience that he’s two months away from getting married. It’s been a quick process, from meeting his partner to marriage, he explains, one that’s made him reflect on the life, love and struggles of his first-generation immigrant grandparents. The world may be bleak, but Shah feels privileged to live a life never afforded to his family. He can’t stop thinking: what would his grandfather, who arrived in the country in 1964, make of 2023?
Performing with seemingly endless supplies of energy, Shah races through topics at lightning speed, gesticulating wildly. There’s political and personal material, both of which inform the other. When he talks about politics, there’s a balance in his opinion rarely seen in our polarised world. Shah is critical of the Tories, and jokes that Gen-Z audience members won’t know what a hospital “was” beyond the place “where the queue of ambulances begins”. Yet moments later, he suggests that Rishi Sunak being prime minister is a good thing for representation, regardless of his policies. “Politically, I’m furious,” he says. “Racially, thrilled.”
There will be people resistant to this argument from Shah, but the comic has an ability to emotively root his theory in his family’s history and get people on side. His biggest skill is in the heart of his work: an ability to make audiences empathise with experiences other than their own. When he evokes the image of his mother arriving in India aged six and hiding behind her mother’s sari because she didn’t recognise her own father, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house. To have this effect without making the audience feel manipulated shows a comic doing something few can do. At a time of unrelentingly bleak news, Shah offers a glimmer of hope amid the hilarity.
Darran Griffiths: Inconceivable
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Many comics before Darran Griffiths have spoken about the struggle to have children. But the topic of infertility has – in comedy as in society – largely come from the female perspective. Hearing a man discuss his infertility problems is a rare thing, and Griffiths has an interesting story – so why not tell it?
In Inconceivable, Griffiths informs us of the last few years of his life. He’s always wanted to be a parent – as has his wife – but soon found out that his sperm were too “fat and stupid” for him to conceive naturally. This news was followed by a series of gruelling medical procedures, tests and heartbreak, resulting, thankfully, in the birth of his two children.
Griffiths is an affable presence, opening with some cracking material about the way the characters in his kids’ favourite show In the Night Garden all sound like lesser-used racial slurs. It’s a razor-sharp start, even if the remainder of the show never quite lives up to it in terms of joke-writing and the confidence of its delivery. Elsewhere, he walks us through his story in chronological order, with a succession of anecdotes.
The audience can’t help but feel for the couple’s experience, and Griffiths in particular speaks with real reverence for his wife and the suffering she goes through. We know things work out well; after all, Griffiths told us at the start that their mission to conceive was successful. The man has potential. With more experience, he’ll learn to iron out these kinks.
Zoe Coombs Marr: The Opener
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It’s been seven years since Aussie comic Zoe Coombs Marr last performed at the Fringe as her character Dave, a sexist hack comedian. When she retired him in 2016 – placing him in a coma, she tells us – she didn’t think he’d be making a return. But then the past few years happened. Coombs Marr watched comics accused of sexual misconduct be welcomed back to the industry, as well as the rise of so-called “anti-woke” comedy, and Dave stirred.
Before the onslaught of Dave, however, Coombs Marr wants to introduce herself. She comes out in a dressing gown, explaining that she’s here to vamp for Dave with short routines that are both funny and tight. We get silly bits about her overbearing love for her dog, as well as the cyclical nature of modern-day trends, where Nazis, she jokes, could be just as likely to make a comeback as spaghetti straps and cargo pants.
And we get some Coombs Marr staples, from body horror to meta times jumps – but it’s Dave we’re here to see. Woman and man begin to morph. Her eyes twitch. Her tongue sticks out. Glue and hair are stuck on her face, and Dave emerges, with some outdated things to say about cancel culture.
Coombs Marr is an engaging performer, with impressive levels of energy as she flips between Dave and herself. The problem lies more with the character, and his position in 2023. With the character lacking that sophistication, it’s hard to tell whether the joke is on the sexists or the audience. It might be the central conceit, but do we really want to hear a comedian joke about the #MeToo movement and read aloud from Dave Chappelle scripts? There’s a sense Coombs Marr doesn’t fully believe in it either, and when she loses confidence, so does the audience.