Year of the Free show?

Blog by Richard Tyrone Jones | 13 Aug 2009
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If 2009 should prove to be the year of the free show, then that’ll be due less due to the recession itself (paid shows a the big four are still selling out) and more to the media’s penchant for stories about the recession, and how to beat it. Personally, I’ve been seeing mostly free shows due to a sympathetic attachment to the ‘little guy’ (the same reason I’m doing a Free Fringe show myself), and partly because the fact I’ve now managed to wangle a Promoters pass means I can talent-scout many shows for free – but the 48 hours notice required has given me a window of stinginess in which I refuse to pay £15 to see watered-down TV comics. Although the best laugh I’ve had so far at the Fringe was courtesy of graffiti I saw penned on a massive Stephen K. Amos poster, describing him as “A black Lenny Henry”.

First up, Peter Buckley Hill (PBH)’s Free fringe, which, at 170+ shows makes up abut 8% of the Fringe brochure’s 2098 total. Both that and the rival free festival (don’t mix them up!) include cabaret, theatre and spoken word so you can’t say you’re not spoilt for choice! Even Robin Ince is avoiding the admin and expense of the big venues by doing two free fringe shows later in the festival which are bound to be roadblocked.

There is a danger, however, in acts using the Free Fringe to do a show to promote their main show, making the free show its poor cousin. Andrew O’Neill overreaches himself with his Hour-long character-based character show (15.00, The Arches, Niddry Street, not 17, 24), one of three he is doing. Warning that it’ll be a bit crap in the blurb is not an excuse for being a bit crap as ironically, throughout the course of his character show, O’Neill proves that he is a much better stand-up and improviser, despite cutting lines like ‘Turkish Delight is made of Kurdish children’. No such overreach is apparent with Richard Sandling’s Perfect Movie, a format the comedy buff’s film buff has been perfecting in London over the last year. The ‘So you think you’re funny’ winner, also part of a sketch show at the Pleasance, amiably riff-rants about cinema for one third of the show, one guest does standup about film for another third, then another acts out their three favourite film scenes to make up their ‘perfect movie’. With guests like Ince and Stewart Lee coming up, it hardly needs a boost from me so get there early.

Underword (19.50 daily at the air-conditioned Fingers Piano Bar) is the best place to see Edinburgh’s indigenous spoken word performers, where storyteller Gavin Inglis, who comes on like a cheeky undertaker, hosts a different lineup each day. Yet the hottest non-ticket on the Free Fringe comes on 25th August only, from 15.30 to 16.26 at the Rowan Caves, where ‘A young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man sits in a rocking chair for fifty-six minutes and then leaves.’ At last, the true spirit of the Fringe! Bring some bananas for the bucket. I’ll fight you for a seat!

Although Alex Petty’s rival Free Festival has some great shows, it is unfortunately hamstrung by a slim brochure in an unreadable Impact Bold font which gives no information about actual show content and resembles a cluttered, homemade geocities website circa 1998. At 9.55pm in the amusingly gothic kitsch of the Jekyll & Hyde (real goths don’t go there) Jessica Delfino, with her rape whistle rap, ‘Mah pussy is magic’ song and defiantly art-school home-made products deserves a bigger audience and is a welcome antidote to the conventional ‘themed show’ formula. Up the same alley, but on the other side of town at the Meadow Bar (Fri 14th-22, 0.45am), musical act Kunt & The Gang will encourage you to ‘go on then, just this once/ use my arsehole as a c#nt’. One disadvantage to Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe is that he discourages acts who are purposefully offensive. This means he’s missed out on Kunt. The whole point of his cheerily catchy electropop filthbath is that it is so purposefully offensive that it splashes out on the other side into life-affirming innocence again.

But the whole idea that the shows are ‘free’ is risible. It’s been sixteen years since PBH first tried out the bucket principle, so the techniques of the art of the ‘ask’ are well-trodden: make a joke out of the awkwardness of raising the question; make a joke out of charging tourists more; suggest a donation level, which works well; give out merch to those who donate a certain amount; plead ‘its my only job!’; ‘So after you’ve decided how much you’re going to give, just fold it up and put in the bucket’, these are the techniques of the street performer. They reach their epitome in the Free Fringe show of Chris Cross, contortionist and escapologist (Voodoo Rooms, 21.30). Though the skills he demonstrates are limited – the maximum number of shoulders you can dislocate are, after all, only two – his predatory audience control and edgy quick wit are awe-inspiring. However, this rubber-bodied superior end-of-the pier business is spoilt by the fact his plea for cash and mocking of tight arseholes takes up about 10% of his show. The longer it goes on, the less you feel inclined to give.

And if you don’t pay in notes, pounds or coppers then you sure pay in guilt as you sidle out without donating. On the walk of shame, some shows just shake the bucket, which results in just coins. Some ‘seed’ it with a fiver to encourage generosity – but, add too much cash and the audience might scrimp, thinking you’re loaded already. Free shows need to raise money, sure, and we should give before they are forced into the emotional blackmail like exploiting children to collect money (as some do already to give out flyers - and it’s not just the Sherlock Holmes shows – I’m talking about you, Tom Allen!).

Let’s face it though, the attraction is not that these shows are ostensibly free in terms of money to the audience member. What’s more important is that acts don’t have to pay venue hire or an extra £400, as they must do if they are on at the big four to get in the ‘Comedy Festival Brochure’, or an extra £350, as they must do to get on at the Five pound fringe if they aren’t run by ‘GSOH’ productions. The point is that, because you don’t have to book tickets and can just turn up, you are temporally ‘free’ to just look in the brochures, see what’s on and rock up rather than having to book days in advance, and intellectually ‘free’ to try something new. All that’s missing for the free shows, lacking the publicising hype of the big boys, is the media attention. But even that is changing…

Richard Tyrone Jones’ show, ‘Utter!’ spoken word, runs till Sat 29th Aug at Fingers Piano Bar as part of the Free Fringe, 5.30pm, a new show daily.