Edinburgh Fringe 2019

After years of regularly going to local new act comedy nights around Bristol, we were finally given the push by a friend to join him on our first ever trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In case you’ve somehow missed it, the Fringe (for short) is a huge arts festival held in Edinburgh every August. The festival is known for its large comedy segment and accompanying awards, so if you want to see a huge number of different acts all in one place, it’s definitely the place to go.

When our time at the festival was over, I spent some time looking back at all the acts we went to see to both keep as a memento of (hopefully) the first of many trips to the Fringe, and also to spread the word to other friends who were making the trip shortly after us. With the 2020 edition of the festival unfortunately having been cancelled, I thought I’d dust off those notes and take a trip back to last year. Hopefully someone will see my list of favourites and go and support these acts as soon as a bit of normality returns to the world - it can’t be a good time to be a stand-up comedian right now.

An arrangement of swag gathered from across the trip.
An arrangement of swag gathered from across the trip.

Before I begin the round-up, I should apologise - I’m certainly not a professional critic, nor do I know the first thing about actually performing. I hope you find my un-educated thoughts and recommendations interesting regardless!

What we saw (in chronological order):

John-Luke Roberts’ Terrible Wonderful Adaptations

John-Luke Roberts heads up a large variety show with a bizarre improv feel where a number of other guest comedians are asked to adapt a piece of writing that really shouldn’t be adapted to comedy or theatre. In this edition of the show, the acts are tasked with interpreting Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. Would it have been better if I knew anything about Sontag and her works? Possibly, but judging from the madness we saw unfold before us, I’m not entirely convinced that at least half of the acts knew anything either!

This was a very weird start to our first ever trip to the Fringe, and definitely the kind of thing we wouldn’t have gone to see without the recommendation of our friend Sam. The show is different every time, so I’m intrigued to see it again one day to see how it changes. The guests were wildly different in terms of how they decided to interpret the works, and, unfortunately, in terms of how smoothly it went and how it was received. I particularly remember a segment where a comedian tried to split the audience into sections to sing/clap/stamp along to a song he’d written - I don’t know if everyone else there was as exhausted and as unprepared as we were, but it’s safe to say that a hall full of schoolchildren could have easily done a better job than us.

Overall, John-Luke Roberts himself was fantastic at pulling the show together all while staying in character, so I’d definitely recommend it as long as you’re prepared to see something that might (read: will definitely) get a little weird.

Morgan Rees and Riordan DJ: Coming to Terms

Local Bristol talent! We have seen these guys numerous times at our local new-act night Oppo at The White Rabbit, Clifton, which they run along with a small group of other local acts. We’ve watched them try out lots of new material over the year preceeding the show, so it was interesting to see what made the final cut for this shared show.

These two are ones to watch, both very funny, and putting in a lot of effort into both honing their own blossoming talents as well as helping other new acts in the South West do the same.

Will Duggan: Class Two

A small and slightly odd show about a man with far too many imaginary friends. The show had it’s moments but for me it just didn’t quite hit the mark. Enjoyable enough, but I wasn’t left wanting for more next year. I think the conclusion here was that this would have been a good space for a breather, to pace ourselves for the marathon of shows still to come…

Bec Hill: I’ll Be Bec

My prized numbered flyer from Bec Hill's show. Should have got it signed!
My prized numbered flyer from Bec Hill's show. Should have got it signed!

This marked the start of a stretch of three stellar acts, two of which I hadn’t heard of before and was blown away by the experience (thanks again to Sam for almost single-handedly building our first-time itinerary).

Bec Hill’s show was a slightly bizarre, slightly silly, kind-of-character-comedy centered around time travel. You might know her for her popular flipchart work that you can find loads of clips of online, which somehow I had managed to completely miss before seeing the show. If you enjoy those you won’t be disappointed in her live shows. The setup and polish that went into this show was insanely good. There’s a small bit of audience interaction that was well handled and entertaining, and fit very well into the structure of the show. Then, to top it all off, the show build to a very heartfelt message at the end, which really stuck with me after I left. My only regret is not getting Bec to sign my (responsibly sourced!) flyer after the show was out. Maybe next year!

Mat Ewins: Actually Can I Have Eight Tickets Please?

Matt Ewin's pre-show projection gives away very little of what you're in for... apart from how DIY the projection screen is!
Matt Ewin's pre-show projection gives away very little of what you're in for... apart from how DIY the projection screen is!

A Bristol Computer Science graduate who always makes sure he flaunts all of the CS tricks he’s picked up to build a fantastic non-stop show. This is the third show of his I’ve seen and it keeps getting better. Ewins’ shows feature a high energy bombardment of audience interaction fueled by various simple video games, CGI sketches, and a healthy dose of webcams and computer vision.

This show hinged a lot more on his video editing skills than previous ones, but they are top notch and very well refined. As a software engineer myself, his shows are very impressive - there is a lot of technical work put in behind the scenes, and he’s quite brave to rely upon so many live demos in front of such large audiences! Loud, energetic, and funny; I can’t recommend this show enough. In fact, when Ewins brought the finished show back to Bristol a few months later, we couldn’t resist going again and bringing along some friends who had missed it.

Trevor Lock’s Community Circle

The poster for Community Circle gives away as little as possible, just like I'm trying to...
The poster for Community Circle gives away as little as possible, just like I'm trying to...

Nothing happens in this show. I didn’t know what to expect coming in to Community Circle - all I was told by my friends was that some people were tasked with taking notes, and that I should put myself forward for the role. It took a little while to transition from my state of bewilderement to being fully on board. This was completely unlike any comedy show I’d ever been to before, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell anyone actually what happened. That’s fine though - to really get the wow factor for this show, you need to experience it first hand. I’d be doing Trevor Lock a disservice if I tried to explain it.

In any case, the show is almost entirely audience interaction based, expertly steered by Trevor Lock. You’ll need an open mind going in to this one to really enjoy it, and the show very much hinges on the main participants and the audience as a whole really being involved and ready for anything (but also ready for nothing, because nothing happened). I was one of the volunteers for the show and thoroughly enjoyed it - if you feel up for it, my advice is to relax and don’t try too hard (and learn Trevor’s name before getting into the show). It might be a bit nerve wracking putting yourself forward for that, but it certainly makes for a memorable experience.

Rob Kemp - Moonraker 2: Moonrakerer

Yikes! This show fell flat, and you could tell Rob Kemp knew it. Lots of visual gags and some audience interaction came together in a similar vein to Mat Ewins, but a lot less successfully. The jokes on offer wore thin quickly, which was unfortunate given how often they were repeated. It didn’t help that the venue wasn’t ideal for a show which relied heavily on a projector. Regardless, a better venue wouldn’t have saved this one.

Bristol Variety Show

Our friend Sam had a short slot in this variety show hosted by Morgan Rees and Riordan DJ. Similar to my thoughts on their earlier show, we knew what to expect having seen all of the acts numerous times before the Fringe. Have I mentioned that I’m a big fan of Bristol’s stand-up comedy scene?

Desiree Burch: Desiree’s Coming Early!

Desiree is an American comic who performed a show that is wholeheartedly American in style. She is a fantastic storyteller, and I couldn’t help but get drawn into the tale of a trip to Burning Man that made up the show. Sadly I’m not much of a festival-goer, so the zany stories of the substance-fueled nightmare that is Burning Man weren’t quite relatable enough to me. That being said, the fact that I was still engaged despite not being fully sold on the humour is a testament to just how good she is at weaving a tale, so I’d highly recommend giving her a watch, particularly if you’re a fan of American stand-up.

Ahir Shah: Dots

We owe Sam a big thanks for being organised and buying tickets to this show very early - the entire run was completely booked out by the time we were at the Fringe, and the venue was not a small one. Of the comedy shows I saw at the 2019 Fringe, this was the best show that I would describe as “normal” stand-up comedy. To be clear, by “normal” I certainly don’t mean boring - “traditional” perhaps describes it better. Shah didn’t rely on audience participation, props, or gimmicks to entertain. The content was very smart and a bit political - he pokes at the ridiculous polarity in opinions in the everyday from the left and the right. It was a very enjoyable show; easy to see why it was entirely sold out!

Glenn Moore: Love Don’t Live Here Glenny Moore

We continued our “normal” stand-up line-up with Glenn Moore. This show was much quicker than the last: a fast flowing torrent of short jokes and one-liners with plenty of sillyness, all stemming from stories from his previous job as a radio newsreader. The venue was absolutely packed when we were there (so much so that a few were forced to stand at the back). I can see why: the show was fun, light, and silly - but not nauseatingly so. I was amazed to learn at the time that the rest of the shows in his run weren’t fully booked out already - although perhaps it didn’t stay that way.

John-Luke Roberts: After Me Comes the Flood (But in French) drip splosh splash drip BLUBBP BLUBBP BLUBBPBLUBBPBLUBBP!!

I don't think you really get a feel for the absurdity of the show without the marketing photo.
I don't think you really get a feel for the absurdity of the show without the marketing photo. Image © John-Luke Roberts

Yes, that is the title.

As you might have gathered, this show is bizarre and ridiculous from the get go. Unlike the John-Luke Roberts show we saw at the start of our trip, this was a solo endeavour. The show consisted of a series of crazy sketches that start to blend together by the end. The show opens with a gimmick that initially seems like it’s going to get tiring - all of the punchlines for a series of short jokes are provided in advance of the setup. These were expertly crafted, each punchline reveal straddling the fine line between giving away too much so as to ruin the joke, and giving so little context so as to be meaningless.

Then, the gimmick is blown quite literally out of proportion to add a fun twist to the madness on stage. Did I say this show was surreal and bizarre yet? It really was great fun though, and John-Luke Roberts’ characters are wonderfully crafted. I just wish we’d have had another appearance from the little witch at the end!

Adam Riches: The Beakington Town Hall Murders

A crazy christmas themed audience participation murder mystery trial! Christmas hats were provided and were to be worn at all times. One member of the audience was randomly selected as the murderer, and then Adam Riches plays detective as he tries to identify who that is via a series of strange games. It got quite tense at times, and we were only 1 space in line away from one of us being marked as the killer! Great fun and surprisingly tense, although I think the show was slightly let down by the audience size - the crowd was quite large, so a fair chunk of the audience didn’t get too much involvement (particularly as an early elimination round was Guess Who styled). Regardless, watching the hijinks unfold was quite fun and at times quite tense.

Very crazy and great fun, although the ending was a little disappointing. Like Trevor Lock’s Community Circle, this was another audience participation show where I think being a little bit shy about taking part in the action actually lent itself quite well to both personal enjoyment and also execution of the premise in general.

Jordan Brookes: I’ve Got Nothing

This show revolved around making the audience feel incredibly awkward. That seems like a risky move, pulling off something that would turn away a large audience - especially where the shows are fully booked, so there’s no opportunity for a shy audience member to pick and choose the perfect seat to watch with immunity.

Like a lot of the acts we went to see, I went in blind - not having seen any of Brookes’ previous work or read anything about the content of I’ve Got Nothing. On walking in it seemed like a very standard stand-up setting, but you soon come to the realisation that the show is on a very fast descent into weirdness. Brookes is certainly incredibly talented at intimidating and awkward crowd work, and best described as “odd”, for lack of a better word.

It was good fun, but I was very much relieved to have made it out alive afterwards! I think I would recommend going to see a Brookes show, but it’s really not for the fainthearted! This show went on to win the Dave’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards “Best Show” prize.

I’ve since watched one of his earlier shows on YouTube and it’s very similar, so you can get a very good idea for it if you’re unsure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHDQWW7NTAc

A Loss of Structure

Finally, after a long and hectic schedule planned by our friends, we were left to our own devices thanks to scheduling differences between our travel back home. We were given a few suggestions, although as we didn’t plan this day much in advance, some of the shows that didn’t make the original schedule cut were already sold out before we could squeeze them in on the final day. So, we did what I think turned out to be a great idea, and frantically planned a day last minute based on flyers, reviews, and availability.

Surveillance (Anomaly Theatre Company)

Surveillance was the first and only show we went to see not in the comedy category. I caught sight of this show on the Half Price Hut list, and we just made it in time thanks to the hut’s ridiculously slow queue (if any Fringe organisers are reading this, please stop asking people for so many personal details just to buy some last minute tickets).

Surveillance was an anthology of 3 short plays all focusing on different scenarios where technology comes into opposition against privacy - an area that is both very interesting and very important to anyone working in tech. I admit I was apprehensive about taking us to this show. We didn’t really know what to expect from theatre at the Fringe, and reviews for this particular show (positive or otherwise) were nowhere to be found. Eventually we decided to take a punt.

I was incredibly glad that we did! The second play was particularly good, with the female actress playing the role of “SnappyFace”, a social networking site that is friendly to your face, but perhaps isn’t as friendly as it seems. Her demeanour here was fantastic, and really helped sell the idea. The first play covered the moral dilemmas of some employees of a government surveillance agency, which was also very enjoyable. The final play felt longer than the first two, and covered a Black-Mirror-esque scenario of sub-dermal implants that could track your every movement having been made mandatory at a university. The premise for this one was good, although a small love story subplot that was introduced felt a bit unnecessary and didn’t really add to the cautionary tale that the Anomaly Theatre Company was trying to tell. Regardless, I was very happy we gambled one of our precious remaining hours at this show. It had some laughs and the stories were interesting if not ground breakingly original, but certainly believable. If they had presented a collection bucket at the end I would have topped up what we paid to the full ticket price!

Daniel Audritt: Better Man

This was a last minute decision, where we had a short break between Surveillance and the next definite show. We had something from a flyer in mind for this gap - but while we were waiting Audritt himself walked up to us on the street and gave us a flyer. I’ll admit the main reason I went was because of his writing credit for Takeshi’s Castle on his flyer! This was Audritt’s first hour long solo show, and I enjoyed it. The jokes centered around masculinity and relationships, and I was pleasantly surprised. The theatre was surprisingly well packed, the jokes landed well, and Audritt’s demeanour is likeable.

What made this show particularly memorable (although I assume more of a nightmare for Audritt) was the unfortunate presence of a mother and her two preteen girls on the front row, which made for some awkward moments for a show that despite being daytime was definitely a bit adult! It felt a bit like watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as poor Audritt asked a girl if she relates to the fear of taking a pregnancy test, only to find out that no, the girl was only eleven.

Trevor Lock: Gender Studies - Girl V Boy

This show didn’t actually appear on the official Edinburgh Fringe programme, but we saw plenty of posters around the venue and at his Community Circle show we saw previously. We enjoyed the first go so much we thought we’d give his newer experience a try.

Gender Studies and Community Circle were similar but different enough to make it enjoyable to watch both so close together. Lock once again used his expert ability to engage and interact with a small group to build a show, but this time some things actually happened. As the title might suggest, this show was a competition between girls and boys, with the audience split into 2 arcs based on gender. Throughout, little tests and competitions were held, with lots more opportunity for the audience to participate than Community Circle (helped by the smaller audience and venue). There are also some long running audience roles to be filled similarly to Community Circle.

I enjoyed this, despite feeling a bit under the weather after a long weekend without much time to rest, which meant in hindsight I feel I should have volunteered for more. I think you could best describe as “childish adult entertainment”, but I think that does it a disservice. When compared directly to Community Circle, Gender Studies is more likely to be consistently fun, as there is more variety of audience participation and the structure is much less organic. That being said, overall I felt that our time at Community Circle was so much fun as a newcomer to Trevor Lock, and so very unique in it’s lack of structure - so I’d need to declare Community Circle as my favourite.

George Egg: Movable Feast

Our final show of the Fringe. This show was, like many we went to see, unlike anything we’d seen before. This show was definitely made for Hazel - George Egg is a comedian who cooks. His shows revolve around cooking for the audience live on stage, using weird and wacky implements rather than your standard kitchen fare. This is all tied together around a theme, which this year was travel. We saw Egg cook meat, fish, and veg using blow torches, hand dryers, and car engines, to name a few examples.

Very entertaining and the audience gets to try the food after the show. We even bought some recipe cards in case we want to make use of an exhaust manifold in future! I think only the only problem with this show was that a lot of the wacky cooking is restricted by what can be shown on stage logistically - i.e. you can’t actually show bread toasting on a car on stage - although I don’t doubt that he actually did try these out for real before the show.

Conclusion and Recommendations

As you might have gathered, a lot of the shows we went in blind, and I think the novelty of some of the ideas presented really paid dividends for that. I’m very grateful to Sam for putting so much effort into building such a varied schedule. I think part of the fun of seeing all these amazing shows is then going on to share them with others (so cleaning up and publishing this list was just a little bit self-indulgent).

If you haven’t been to the Fringe before and you’re a fan of comedy, then I can’t recommend going enough. It may be frantically busy, the weather might not play ball, and the accomodation and travel might be incredibly expensive - but it’s such an amazing opportunity to have this huge mix of world class acts and brand new names all right next to each other to enjoy.

My Recommendations

My top three recommendations to go and see when the Fringe returns (or if they happen to tour near you):

  1. Mat Ewins
  2. Bec Hill
  3. Trevor Lock
  4. (Honourable mention) Anomaly Theatre Company

The honourable mention had to be included because I think everyone should go to at least one performance outside of what they’d normally go for. There’s so much variety at the Fringe, there’s bound to be something you enjoy in the programme.