"It's a cancel culture bit, what way am I going to go? I'm hard left but I've said a lot of dumb shit!"
Underground Scottish comedian Richard Brown brings another multimedia show full of Jordan Peele worthy twists and turns to Edinburgh. The man on stage is deceptively softly spoken, clearly well read and considered. And he might just be the most dangerous man on the Fringe.
Hilarious and yet troubling. He doesn't wallow around in echo chambers. He is bound to say something you personally disagree with, if only he didn't sound so goddamn reasonable all the time.
Most acts who operate in the taboo, saying the 'unsayable', look to provoke a pre-agreed reaction. They are playing to a crowd that bought a ticket to be shocked. The punters want loud hectoring laddishness. Yet there's nothing particularly macho about Brown... although he has taken up kickboxing to protect his rescue dog. Brown assizes us all like he is delivering an end of year report for humanity - resigned, beleaguered, glad it is almost over.
Animal rights, the ridiculously low bar a man must meet to be considered a decent person on the comedy circuit, Ed Sheeran and lockdown parties all suffer his withering gaze. He retells of a visit to see Polish extreme metal band Behemoth, a set piece dripping with disappointed detail. You'd label him a misanthrope but in my mind he's a hyper aware pragmatist. After showing us clips of embattled predators mauling their idiot mistreaters, he's keen to underline he's as much a proponent of human rights as animal rights "I just don't see the two concepts as mutually exclusive."
Dark comedy usually attracts totalitarian dictators behind the microphone stand. What is surprising about Brown is he always cares about his audience. He pops out before the start of the hour proper to let everyone know where the door is, "it isn't a hostage situation." Anyone selecting a show where the poster has a man bleeding from his mouth, his soul being ripped one pixel at a time from behind him, and expecting a safe haven for an hour is given the free passage to leave at any point. He opens the show with his crowd pleasing party piece Robohack 3000; an automated stand-up comedian, operating on a hyper aware algorithm whose head is made up of a cardboard beer can box. He sets his stall out early as being bleak, self-critical and abrasive but he does so with quite an accessible, daft and deftly honed morsel of parody to at least get the room on board. Crumbs for potential acolytes to follow.
Lockdown has gifted Brown the chance to make quite a few audio visual skits. It is a tech heavy show that gets the balance between clip and monologue just about right. He has the instincts and capabilities of someone who could probably churn out a viral video on a weekly basis. He is, after all, a founding member of cult Glasgow comedy night Chunks, where no act is permitted to do straight stand-up during their three minutes of stage time. You could see Brown abandoning live work at some point and just exploring the lo-fi sketch clips rabbit hole. That would be a loss to the Fringe though. He's been an annual must-see for me over the past eight years. An act who resonates with me more than most - working class, intelligent, brutally funny and one who understands that laughs and scares follow the exact same format. Horror Show is so full of rope-a-dopes and belly laughs, I implore you to take a walk on the wild side.
Another cult-ish firm favourite who demands an even wider audience is Stuart Laws. I saw his latest show Putting Zoo last year as a WIP and couldn't wait to see the playful bravado of it in its finished form. Earlier in the week I joined seven very keen Norwegian fans in a queue to see it and nobody came to usher us in after half an hour of delays. Two nights later I found myself refused entry for being at the door within seconds of the show starting. His walk-on music was also the score of me walking away dejected and rejected. The Fringe is fraught with overruns and poorly organised infrastructure and it looks like Laws' show is going to be my Great White Whale this year. A show I'm going to put more effort into not seeing than the thousand or so I could watch instead.
Now, for a debut of genuine note, intoxicating and insouciant.
Lily Phillips sets out her stall early. Makes it quite clear to the men in the room her show isn't intended for them. One man opposite me took this declaration seriously and sat looking at the killer act like she was talking in an alien language for the entire hour. C'mon mouth breather - thrush, uneven labias, Moon Cups and Britney's Instagram account might not be in most middle aged blokes' wheelhouses but when the writing and delivery is this assured then only an idiot wouldn't travel halfway for the laughs.
It's an incredibly meaty show, as taut as three club sets lined up in a row. Phillips plays to her demographic with a laidback charisma. The content is unashamedly "adults only" and Phillips finds new slants on each of her gynaecological topics. It is a hot venue, on a heatwave night when I saw it, and the around-the-room laughter did not stop.
Phillips looked up the word 'smutty' in the dictionary after being regularly described as it by the comedy press and promoters. She realised she was being valued as being arousing and pornographic. So she's leaning into that. Reclaiming the description for feminist import. Nothing is off limits from dog vaginas to whale cocks.
There are a few anecdotes she tells that suggest men should be held to a higher standard than her or her sex. She recounts a mortifying second-hand story about a poo that goes horrifically wrong, to the point of being newsworthy, that would be equally damning to either party, and just as likely, if the genders were reversed.
There's a few times she "punches across" the room at the soft lads in the front row to maintain status when it isn't really needed. But then I think about that guy opposite me, with his gormless obstinate look on his mug throughout, and realise us boys can probably take an hour of languid sideswipes. It is far more palatable than 50 minutes of whiny virtue signalling.
Her apex routine is about being a Disney Princess for hire at children's parties. Bountiful with real life details, punchline after punchline. She is right though - what kind of big headed, self-entitled little monster would want a Disney Princess as her servant for the day?
With that in mind, I enter the Blundabus surrounded by two breeds of teeming rich kids. Performing arts students slumming it near the underpass and the intentionally unwashed trustifarians, bumming it around an endless summer of festivals us regular folk could never afford. People who have spent a lot more time considering their facial hair than their personalities, wine bottles take precedence over common courtesy. The refugee camp / apocalyptic cabaret stylings of Bob Slayer's admirable but shrinking empire has attracted a seedy element this year. I hope he gets back to full strength, yurt and all, for 2023.
Just before admittance onto the double decker, the lights of the entire temporary encampment go out. Lucy Hopkins winds through us like a shadowy sorcerer, the atmosphere would be portentous if it wasn't for Tarquin and "Yoghurton" desperate for attention. You keep your hand on your wallet near them, not as they have any desperate need to rob you but they are hereditary Tories and no soul's finances are safe in their vicinity. Thank goodness I did not have any national infrastructure stored in my backpack.
I realise in these diary entries I spend as much of my word count recounting the audiences as I do the acts, but it feels particularly apt here. This bunch of landed soapdodgers create a bad atmosphere upstairs, in the claustrophobic confines of the top deck. A clowning show relies on the performer being able to play the audience like one big symbiotic instrument. Working the tensions and the responses with both a gentle and blunt improvised fingering. Hopkins is the better of the two absurdist shows I saw this particular night (I'll leave the other one unnamed), the more communal experience, the kind of once in a lifetime experience the Fringe is perfect for, and the Blundabus is the natural habitat of. When you sit at the back of Bob's bus in the Scottish moonlight you are guaranteed that unique shit is going to go down. There are no safety features on this ride.
Barely lit, pressed together, nervous but full of jaded anticipation. Our dark mother, Voodoo Witch Doctor meets Josephine Baker, holds court. Guttural harmony greets us, and soon the few last slithers of illumination are doused. She's a human Rorschach test. What you put into her inkblot presence is what you get out.
Questions and facial expressions put us at further pointed unease. A fantasy movie villain tries to soothe and comfort us with her untrustworthy purr. Open feeder questions illicit answers as random as jam, pillows and just who is father? These responses are weaved throughout the rest of the hour-long improvisation as slickly as if it were all scripted. Though playing the ominous fool, Hopkins is clearly an erudite person. Some of her split second reactions show a high functioning academic mind. I don't think I could define the subconscious so readily and so eloquently. Certainly not after making an orifice ooze inky black blood.
Twenty minutes in, the congregation become united, we follow our Dark Mother's whims and beckoning. She can illicit laughs merely by changing the speed of her hand movements. It may not look like traditional joke structure but the setup is a mimicry of typing on a keyboard, the punchline is a shift to a mockery of wage slave work. Why did the chicken cross the road? So your expectations can be upended. Same principle here, only physical. For such an outlandish figure, Hopkins can rinse a lot from even the most imperceptible shift in gait. She knows when to give this nervous, fearful room the sweet release of laughter. And when to keep building the pressure until that moment is unavoidable. Impressive.
You don't need me to tell you that this is that Phillippe Gaulier school of clowning. Hopkins' spin on it is sublime and grotesque but also evolved and feminist. She grinds out silences, conjures within ever diminishing, ever changing slithers of light source. She manages two moments when different sections of top deck hum entire soulful numbers to her tune. Never doubt she is in complete control.
Those hippie hooray Henrys were an unfair handicap though. They interrupted the abyss of the gig far too often, interrupted her rare extended verbal moments. Hopkins calmed them quietly, shutting their stinky butts down with a minimum of effort. After they then tried to make the show about them, she put a stern but matriarchal lid on them. Never once breaking character too... Wowzers! And despite their best, stumbling arsehole attempts, they failed to escape before the bucket was produced. Pay What You Want, sure sure. But there should be a steep fine for disrupting and dashing. Props to Lucy for enduring their toxic, entitled attitude. Our turban wearing shaman embraced the chaos that comes with the Blundabus with memorable grace.