Fringe Comedy Reviews: Different Directions

Feature by Ben Venables | 14 Aug 2015

"I’m already liking this,” says one of the audience before anyone has sat down in The Hive's Bunka room. Our host, Beth Vyse, is dressed in Dolly Parton togs and throwing white polystyrene balls at her guests for no apparent reason. So far, this looks to be a typically Vysian show of oddball characters – exactly what we'd expect from an artist closely involved with the Weirdos Collective, but there is soon a whiplash change of mood.

Five years ago Vyse was diagnosed with breast cancer. In As Funny as Cancer [★★★★☆] she recounts the story of her childhood in the Potteries, the ‘glamour’ of her early acting career and her then-new relationship with Michael Jackson (from a number 12 bus rather than Neverland). However, after discovering a lump in her left breast, a cancer diagnosis soon followed, and her consequent decision to have a mastectomy.

Vyse admits it's taken five years for her to tell this story, but this show is not really about her – she is so attentive to how it impacted on all those around her. The story flowers with beautiful detail of the spectrum of completely normal human reactions, and sometimes those reactions are from the same person. For instance, Vyse's father could not face accompanying her into the consultant's room for her diagnosis but he would drive from Stoke to London to take her the short distance for a hospital appointment, before driving back to Stoke in the evening. This is not by any means a sombre show, however; Vyse weaves the key scenes into her story, with signature madcap props including a giant forehead and inflatable penis. And those polystyrene balls have an unexpected use too.

In less skilled hands this show’s tone could be all over the shop, but Vyse has the the control, pacing and manner to encase the disparate elements. There is a slight jump in the story as she keeps her eventual break-up with Jackson brief, but this is rather a compliment because Vyse has brought her experiences so vividly to life it’s difficult not to wish to hear more.

Tiff Stevenson takes a slightly different tack in Mad Men [★★★☆☆]. While we'd anticipate the solid and impressive hour this is, Stevenson doesn't shy from asking, "Why wear the T-shirt?" or to put it another way, have the slogans and brands we wear become who we are? She spins one too many plates in this hour, simultaneously trying to tackle identity, racism and sex. She sometimes struggles to keep these topics in comedic territory but, overall, in Stevenson's hands this is never a dull show. For a comedian with her ability, and one who can sit comfortably in the mainstream, this push into more daring material is interesting and hopefully is only the beginning of a line she'll continue to pursue.  

Natasha Noman also found herself going against the norm when she moved from New York to Karachi. It's taken as a given that many of her activities from her embassy work station are monitored. But as a journalist she finds another source that the authorities are not looking at and seeks a same-sex partner on Tinder. This isn't easy in Pakistan and Noman believes at least two of the three on the dating app were men who'd categorised themselves incorrectly. In Noman's Land [★★☆☆☆] she demonstrates a strength for setting scenes, evoking her dates and lifestyle in her community with great skill. Unfortunately the story seems a little too close or raw for her to inject the comedic energy she goes for, and would probably be better served after more time and in a memoir. There is little doubt she has a strong story to tell, but a one-woman theatre/comedy production perhaps isn't the best vehicle.

Beth Vyse: As Funny as Cancer, Heroes at the Hive, until 30 Aug (not 18), 4:20pm, free/£5 (PWYW)

Tiff Stevenson: Mad Men, The Stand Comedy Club 5 & 6, until 29 Aug (not 17th), 4:05pm, £10

Natasha Noman: Noman's Land, Gilded Balloon, until 15 Aug, 7.45pm, £8-10