Fringe Comedy Reviews: Theatrical & Literary Comedy

Feature by Stu Black | 11 Aug 2015

In Scaramouche Jones [★★★★], the Dickensian-sounding Thom Tuck has crafted a semi-Shakespearean character. This centenarian clown has spent the last 50 years silently making children laugh while keeping his own true self concealed under white make-up and a scarlet wig. But as he hears the chimes at midnight on the eve of his 100th birthday, Jones decides to finally unfurl his own tale: a globetrotting saga that intersects with some of the key events of the 20th century. He winds up slowly before unleashing a torrent of words, a mesmerising odyssey that goes ‘the long way round’ from Trinidad to London via Venice, the Balkans and the Nazi death camps.

The idea of the tragic clown is nothing new and the specific story at the heart of this show is reminiscent of Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful (and Jerry Lewis in the self-censored The Day The Clown Cried), but Tuck’s commitment helps this show transcend any sense of familiarity. The writing is as rich and fruity as a Victorian Christmas pud, with every sentence stuffed with pungent references and spicy adjectives. The phrasing forms a breathless maximalism in the manner of García Márquez or E.L. Doctorow. It as intense as it is intoxicating. Again and again significant details hook into the brain: a child languishing in a barrel like a turtle for three days; an escaped snake crawling across the antique mosaics of a cathedral floor; an iron shovel bending as it tries to open up the frozen earth for another mass grave.

There are also great characters to relish: the clown’s whorish mother, or his bow-legged master from Mombasa, or a masturbating prince. More like a short story read aloud, this is a treat for word lovers, each sentence conjuring up a thousand pictures.

At the opposite end of the scale is Marriage [★★☆☆], a dreary dramedy that utterly wastes its strong cast of comics, including Adam Riches, Lazy Susan, a few of the Beta Males and two thirds of Beasts. This 'sketch supergroup' try their best to inject some fizz into the hopeless script, a loose adaptation of an 1842 play by Gogol, written (at the last minute it seems) by Tom Parry of Pappy’s.

It has a strong whiff of Jeeves and Wooster, though it’s seriously missing Wodehouse’s wit or cleverly dovetailing plot. Here, a young flibbertigibbet toff called Peter hires a matchmaker to find him a wife but then changes his mind for no real reason and tries to pretend he didn’t. But his old chum Charlie won’t let him off the hook so goes out of his way to make sure Peter gets hitched. It could have been a fun farce, but there’s no logic to anything that happens and the characters whirl about without any clear motivation for what they say or do. The jokes are execrable: a man with a name that sounds like omelette is called out on it about six or seven times. Elsewhere, one line is a shameless steal from Austin Powers – and not even one of the good ones.

Given that the play is so pompously titled (as if it’s the last word on the matter) you’d think there would be something about the institution here worth chewing on. But whether it’s Parry or Gogol at fault, the story has absolutely zilch to say about marriage either then or now. Avoid.

The Pajama Men [★★★☆☆] make a much better fist of their interpretation of a classic: in this case Dumas’s 1844 novel The Three Musketeers. The two Albuquerqueans, Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez, wearing only their nicely-ironed nightwear, recreate all the characters in the book with impressive physicality and expert voicework. They also remember to pepper their show with good jokes. Most of the good ones come in the form of anachronisms – such as the louche d’Artaganan chain-smoking Gauloises because "he wants to die." Permanently on the verge of corpsing, the two actors – here accompanied by a brilliant period musician – are good company, even in the bits that drag. They nicely pre-empt audience irritation with a bit in which they pretend to be two ladies in the front row who have no idea what’s going on.

Elsewhere, another American duo, this time calling themselves Charles [★★★☆☆offer up Moby Alpha, a pleasing parody of nerdy sci-fi wrapped up in a truncated retelling of Melville's novel Moby Dick. Not much of the book is allowed to get in the way – it’s basically Captain Ahab and his robot sidekick Starbot trekking across the universe in pursuit of a white and whale-shaped cloud of neutrinos. Meanwhile crew members Ishmael and Queequeg are sent on a mission to get inside the monster. Perfomed entirely in the dark with some versatile glow-in-the-dark helmets, the show is largely an excuse for skits on movies like Alien and 2001. There aren't many surprises but the jokes are mostly good and the two actors, playing all the parts, are good company on the space/road trip.

There's more simplified scifi with Tom Neenan: The Andromeda Paradox [★★★☆☆], an ebullient one-man show that takes its cue from the old Quatermass movies. These (very) minor classics of the 50s and 60s featured a tweedy gentleman hero taking on supernatural and extra-terrestrial forces with the power of science and a stern, finger-wagging Anglo Saxon attitude. Neenan enjoys hamming it up as Bernard Andromeda, the astral twin of the original British boffin. He plunges him into a cleverly-concocted mystery full of foreign fiends, tiny green aliens and very hard mathematical equations.

It's a very well-performed show and Neenan nicely channels an England of warm beer and baffled bobbies. At times it does feel like he’s a bit too affectionate in his regard for the old films – they were disposable tosh after all. And there’s a nagging feeling that he’s found a less-parodied bit of the culture, but missed the opportunity to take down the era that produced it, which was full of wonky attitudes and misplaced moralism. Still, the story is undeniably fun and it did feature one of our favourite bits of wordplay: the self-satisfied doctor creating a new portmanteau word out of mumbo jumbo and poppycock.

Scaramouche Jones, Underbelly Cowgate, until 30 Aug, 12:20pm, £8-11

Marriage, Assembly George Square Studios, until 30 Aug (various dates), 2pm, £6-13

Pajama Men: 2 Man 3 Musketeers, Assembly Roxy, until 30 Aug (various dates), 8:20pm, £13-15

Moby Alpha, Assembly George Square Studios, until 31 Aug (various dates), 4:10pm, £10-12

Tom Neenan: The Andromeda Paradox, Pleasance Dome, until 31 Aug (various dates), 6:40pm, £8-10