First Class Clowns

Puddles Pity Party, Deanna Fleysher, Spencer Jones and John-Luke Roberts have different levels of clown education, but all bring shows of distinction

Feature by Ben Venables | 28 Jul 2015

Following Dr Brown's and Red Bastard's success at the Fringe in recent years it comes as no surprise to find another clown in our midst.

There is no doubt Puddles Pity Party looks the part. Dressed for the interview in full-clown regalia and bound by a vow of silence, he seems as commited to his art as we've come to expect from his clowning forebears. He pats his dog while writing down his answers in marker – within a few minutes, it seems an entirely normal way of conducting an interview.

"When I was very little my mee-maw said I came into the world singing," he writes. And it is singing by which he communicates, with covers of Taylor Swift and Lorde songs on the hit Postmodern Jukebox albums which propelled the 6' 8" clown to become a YouTube sensation. By adding his muscular baritone he often changes the meaning or the feel of the lyrics: "I like to bring out the emotion in a song."

On-stage he also seems to pay great attention to his entrance, building up tension while getting himself ready and prowling the audience during the set, to their discomfort and pleasure. Surprisingly, Puddles never trained in clowning and refers to his education as "the school of hard-knocks" – something of a departure from the Browns and Bastards. 

Interestingly, Red Bastard's director Deanna Fleysher performs her first Edinburgh show this year as Butt Kapinski, who is something of a Raymond Chandler type noir detective. More interestingly still, before she worked with Red Bastard, his alter-ego Eric Davis directed an early incarnation of her character. 

Unlike Puddles, Fleysher has trained in clowning but admits to intially being "resistant to any kind of comedy training." After spending a little time with the renowned master clown Philippe Gaulier, she identifies herself more with the Lecoq tradition and is keen to point out her act is a very different kind of show to that of Red Bastard. Wearing – improbably – a street lamp, Butt Kapinski hosts a murder mystery starring him and the audience: "The show is entirely interactive," Fleysher says, "but it's a very different vibe and risk:reward ratio to Red Bastard." She describes a more child-like interaction with the audience: "I think of it like recess at school where we have to play this crazy game."

Spencer Jones is a different prospect. "Look at this," he says, picking up a ukulele which he then starts to play with a handheld fan. "There's something funny there. I don't know how I can make it work in a show yet." Indeed, it's Jones' creative use of props and a lovely child-like silliness in his performance that makes his character distinctive.

Returning to the Fringe after introducing The Herbert last year, Jones has also completed Burgers' workshop and did a short Gaulier course: "He shouted at me across the room and said awful things about me. But he said nothing worse to me than my mother has said." 

Overall, Jones felt he understood (as with Puddles) the importance of entrances better after both Gaulier's and Burgers' sessions: "I became quite aware that there is a magic there from when somebody walks in and the audience think, 'Oh, here is somebody who is in charge' or not. It helped me get in the head of the audience."

"Phillipe is quite hard going," says John-Luke Roberts about Gaulier, though it's something of a compliment. And Roberts should know, having spent the last year at the master clown's school in Etampes.

Roberts' background in sketch group Behemoth and as a founding member of the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society suggest he has some versatility as a comic already, but it's clear he feels he's benefitted from his year in France.

Describing himself as a "one-liner comedian", when discussing his early solo career Roberts considers the comfort in the structure of a joke. "It's like an equation," he explains. Roberts therefore found it became easy to rationalise that the joke "worked" in terms of the logic of its set-up and punchline, even when it may have bombed with the audience. 

Roberts feels this year's show Stdad-Up wouldn't class as clown, but says it will be a much more physical show: "What clowning has done has made the performance the most important part – and made it all about the pleasure of the performance."

Puddles Pity Party, Assembly George Square Gardens, 6-17, 19-24, 26-31 Aug, 7.25pm, £12-14 Butt Kapinski, The Liquid Room, 8-10, 12-17, 19-24, 26-30 Aug, 2.10pm, Free John-Luke Roberts: Stdad-Up, The Voodoo Rooms, 8-30 Aug, 6.55pm, Free Spencer Jones Presents: The Herbert In Proper Job, The Hive, 5-17, 19-24, 26-31 Aug, 9pm, Free