Fringe Comedy Reviews: History Lessons

Feature by Ben Venables | 14 Aug 2015

In 1990, storytelling stand-up Sarah Kendall was a withdrawn, acne-faced teenager slicing gherkins in McDonalds. She was exactly the type of kid that would've been bullied in Newcastle, Australia, a town which due to a slump in the economy was overlooked by a demonic fibre-glass chicken. But, down the pecking order from Kendall was George Peach – and even the school bus driver picked on Peach. Kendall befriends the solitary boy, who likes magic and puzzles, and naturally rumour spreads they are dating. Soon, on a school trip, Kendall won't even allow her friend to talk to her. The consequences of her snub have led her to write A Day in October [★★★★☆], which is as much about the power of stories as it is about friendship, courage and the layered status and hierarchy among teenagers. There's a richness to Kendall's language; an eye for the detail of history – for example, in the significance of a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air lunchbox. This is a novel packed into one comedy hour and Kendall never forgets she's a comedian, bringing out incongruous images through her penchant for sea life sex dreams. One or two callbacks have variable returns but this is a quibble on a show that is surely as spellbinding as any at this year's Fringe.

It's been nearly two decades since Mark Steel brought a full show to Edinburgh and, like Kendall, he finds himself looking back to his childhood only to encounter more questions than answers. When Steel was in his 30s, and a new father, he fully appreciated that his adoption as a baby was probably a major life event to the birth mother he doesn't remember. There can little doubt Steel has one of the knock-out stories of this Fringe as the improbabilities of the parallel universe he could have inhabited stack up. Who Do I Think I Am? [★★★☆☆] deliberately forgoes the polish of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? and instead has Steel left pondering nature and nurture. The drawback with this show is that Steel spends quite a bit of time warming the audience up with the sort of routines in which we're all familiar with from Radio 4. No doubt this is all very sensible given his audience will be those that have bought a ticket to see Steel himself as much as the actual show, but with his schtick so well known it'd perhaps be better to cut straight to his compelling family history, and debate about our genes and the environment that he has come to Edinburgh to talk about.

To some extent Glenn Wool also talks about family history. His family left Estonia for Canada during the Second World War, and on a visit to the country his ancestors called home he finds his double and – given the relatively small genetic pool there – seeming carbon copies of his family at various different ages. This, though, is only one travel tale, as in Creator, I Am but a Pawn [★★★★☆] Wool finds himself contemplating faith, though characteristically through a certain kind of prism, such as the luck of finding himself stumbling upon four topless Dutch women having a water fight while he had lost his way on a solitary journey through Holland. At one point, he compares himself to a bear on a bicycle and his delivery oscillates between a low growl and a roar. It suits the mixture of tease and shock in his stories, often ending on wordplay we should see coming, but that Wool often manages to smuggle in as a surprise. The laughs come from very deep down when watching Wool and leave the inter-coastal muscles in some pain.  

Phil Jerrod also has something of a bear-like delivery, and explores the wider family history of apes referencing the characteristics of our close chimpanzee and bonobo cousins. Neanderthal [★★★☆☆] has some wonderful comedy moments that highlight his enormous potential, such as an assessment of his hypochondria and how human it is to have anxiety coupled with imagination – in other words he's talking about worrying and worrying about worrying. But despite this being a strong debut, Neanderthal doesn't quite reach the heights we expect from Jerrod, who seems to stay a little too much in the centre ground rather than unleashing the pool of absurdity that seems to be welling under the surface.

Political history and the evolution of free speech interest Tobias Persson. Generally, there are plenty of comedians who use the shared knowledge of politics in the news for material, but they are not political in the sense of taking a stance and wanting to change people's views. Unfortunately, Tobias Persson and the Drivel Rights Movement [★★☆☆☆] does little to redress the dearth of this kind of comedy and Persson seems a rather silent champion of free speech. All in all, he's perhaps too much of a nice guy and we have to read his flyer to get any idea of what his actual politics are. It's a shame because some of his wordplay and punchlines are well honed, but he does mount a curious defence of Bono against those who dislike the U2 frontman's "pretension". This is all very much based on a flawed set-up though. Forgetting the whole tax avoidance thing, the reason people dislike Bono has nothing to do with him being pretentious – people dislike Bono because he's a prat.

Sarah Kendall: A Day in October, Assembly George Square Studios, until 31 Aug (not 17th), 6.45pm, £10-12

Mark Steel: Who Do I Think I Am, Assembly George Square Studios, until 30 Aug, 8:15pm, £12-14

Glenn Wool: Creator, I Am But A Pawn, Assembly George Square Studios, 9:20pm, £9-12.50

Phil Jerrod: Neanderthal, Pleasance Courtyard, until 30 Aug (not 17th), 7pm, £6.50-10

Tobias Persson and the Drivel Rights Movement, Stand Comedy Club V & VI, until 30 Aug (not 17th), £10