UK Cabaret Review:
This is the first of two chunks of coverage from the Edinburgh Fringe, with Mark Ritchie sampling a few well-chosen delights from the biggest arts and entertainment festival on the planet.
Edinburgh is always worth a visit, especially for fans of showbiz and the arts who happen to be in town during the month of August. With the hiatus caused by the dreaded ‘C’-word hopefully now behind us, I arrived at my modest guest house accommodation (as publisher I pay my own expenses these days) and then off I went to explore the Edinburgh Fringe.
Driven by the archetypal dour Scottish taxi-driver, I headed in Fringe Central to meet helpful Charlotte from the media team, who sorted out my accreditation lanyard. Soon after I was off on walkabout, armed with a map containing literally hundreds of venues. Some were adapted from pub function tooms, restaurants and the like, with others ranging from bona-fide theatres to university lecture theatres.
I have been coming here for years and I have witnessed everything from Lady Boys of Bangkok to a one-woman show presented by a frighteningly attired and rather quaint and elderly dominatrix.
My friend and publisher Nick Awde opined in newsprint recently that the best way to enjoy the Free Fringe was to plan nothing and simply stroll around. Sound advice there from a Fringe veteran.
Eschewing the option of schlepping up and down the Royal Mail and crushing past the gawping tourists, some of them probably high on cocaine and shortbread, I headed down to the Gilded Balloon and my first review.
We have included a star system, which reflects my thoughts on the shows I managed to see during my all-too-brief visit.
X Avoid at all costs
Jo-Jo Sutherland Growing Old Disgracefully
Gilded Balloon-Teviot- Sportsman room
Reviewer: Mark Ritchie
Sar Rating-Three Stars xxx
When I noticed two walkouts early on in Ms Sutherlands set, I deduced this duo had decided they were just too young to be in Ms Sutherlands audience.
This is a stand-up performed by a woman who, in her late-fifties seems to have found her mojo in life. Regaling us with tales of visiting Glastonbury for the first time in 2022, the overall theme of ‘been there- done that and currently acquiring the proverbial tee-shirt’ was explored at length.
At times I was finding Ms Sutherlands ramblings more than a little incoherent, possibly due to her rather novel microphone technique. Garrulous and gossipy is her comedy modus operandi and on home territory in Scotland, the bubbly Jo-Jo may have shocked one or two in her peer age range with a tale of misadventure at ‘Glasto’, including lost car keys and popping the odd pill or two.
Family ties with her grown-up children and ex-husband were trotted out, with many relatable episodes for those of us of a certain age and blessed with the gift of empathy.
The impression given and received here was of a performer who had written new material for The Fringe, only to find herself crashing into more familiar comedy territory whenever feeling ill-at-ease during her spot.
I enjoyed the show. I felt empathy and at times Ms Sutherland made me laugh. As far as I am aware I have no hearing problems but some of the gags seemed rushed and rather garbled.
Debra Stevenson- The Many Voices of Debra Stevenson
Assembly- Studio 2
Reviewer: Mark Ritchie
Star Rating- 5 stars xxxxx
I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much at an Edinburgh show, this time in the company of an impressionist who most people will recognise principally as an actress.
Ms Stevenson’s telly drama work in Coronation Street, Bad Girls and Holby City will provide her with box office pulling power, as was demonstrated by the packed house at this lecture theatre type venue. I wonder how many of those buying a ticket will have been surprised by the sheer breadth of her talent.
Accompanied by a keyboard player for the musical bits, I tried to count the voices, but gave up after a while. From Donald Trump to the cast of Acorn Antiques and from Adele to a brilliantly funny Anastasia (during which I almost fell off my chair) during a ‘mirth-quake’ of response from the audience.
Ms Stevenson’s impressive CV of work alongside the likes of Jon Culshaw. Jan Ravens and others in TV vehicles such as The Impressions Show, Spitting Image and Dead Ringers really should be better recognised by those who commission new telly shows, but I imagine not too many of the Oxbridge mafia who run the telly are into impressions these days.
It is 30- years since Debra Stevenson first appeared at The Fringe and now aged fifty, she has carved out a career where she is both loved and admired in equal measure.
Both a crowd-pleaser and quite a draw in Edinburgh apparently, my mind wondered back to The Fringe of 2019, when in the very same auditorium I saw both Steve Hofstetner and the very tall Camilla Cleese (daughter of John) receiving a very lukewarm response from a sparse crowd. How different showbusiness can be when audiences are entertained by someone who puts the ‘show’ into showbusiness.
Reginald D Hunter- Bombe Shuffleur
Assembly Rooms- Ballroom
Reviewer: Mark Ritchie
Star Rating- Five Stars xxxxx
Before experiencing Mr Hunter live for the first time, I strongly suspected we may see a performer who, as is the case with so many of the great ‘stand-up’s’, would be free from the shackles of television limitations and able to show the true breadth of his talent. I am surprised to report that Reginald D Hunter gave a performance consisting of pretty much exactly what I expected.
There has to be a sureness of touch when a comedian delivers a slow burn gag, with a big shock ending and Mr Hunter succeeds in scoring heavily with his lengthy routine about a childhood friend. The routine was a success, despite the unwanted vocal intrusion of an inebriated Scottish heckler, seated towards the back of the house.
Revealing how he temporarily became a racist, due to the sandwich he purchased on a train and how he really must listen more closely when Joanna Lumley is on TV, Reginald D Hunter covers a lot of ground. The joins in the material were marked by a pause and a sip on a well-placed drink, before a number of subjects were explored, from abortion in the U.S to Boris Johnson having an orgasm and not necessarily in that order.
Despite what seemed to me to be the sheer incongruity of casually dropping in the C-word, probably because he felt he could, and the prolonged presence of a litany of gags containing the dreaded N-word, I felt I just liked Mr Hunter and bathed in the warmth of his company nevertheless. Although such vocabulary is thankfully solely owned by black comedians and actors, Reginald D Hunter made his mark with audience members of all races.
One thing is for sure, I won’t forget either his joke about conspiracy theorists or his Philip Scofield routine for a long time.
When addressing the rise of global fascism, this American born comedian, who was lived in the UK for more than 20-years now, is probably not trying to upset anyone with his searing honesty. At least now he has done a fair bit of telly, here is a comedian who attracts audiences who arrive knowing exactly why they bought a ticket in the first place and are primed and ready to laugh.
Eh Up! My Owd Flowers- The Charlie Williams Story
Pleasance Courtyard- 2
Writer/Director; Chris England.
Reviewer: Mark Ritchie
Star Rating- Five Stars XXXXX
Charlie Williams was the very first black comedian to become a household name on T.V screens, when he hit the big time, during the 1970’s. I confess to having known him personally, as well as members of his family and many mutual friends. We were born in neighbouring Yorkshire mining villages. My late father was in Charlie’s class at school and I went to school with Charlie’s two children. With so much connecting us, I could easily have slipped into the sentimentality trap, when writing this review. There is often little room for sentiment in showbusiness and readers will find none here.
This is ostensibly a two-hander, with a lightness of touch within the story, which is an approach inspired by the fact that Charlie Williams never took either himself or the world in general too seriously. He was simply a black man trying to make his way in a country that was almost completely white back then.
Coal-mining from the age of 14 was followed by a career in professional football, before Charlie launched himself as a singer, known back then as Mel Williams. Plucked from the then burgeoning working men’s club scene of the 70’s by TV producer Johnnie Hamp, to star in a show called The Comedians, fame followed and Charlie’s life as the only well-known black stand-up comedian in the U.K paved the way for others to follow. There were a few other black comedy performers around in the clubs at the time, such as Astor and Jos White, but it was Charlie who was first to make it to the bigtime.
Playing the lead role of Williams is Tony Marshall, who gives a performance that is as textured and nuanced as it is possible to be. The audience can actually discern the off-stage Charlie, suddenly switching to on-stage mannerisms in a single glint of Mr Marshalls twinkling eye. Probably for those of us who knew Charlie, the effect is more profound, but a clever soundtrack and a trawl down the years of his career presents many opportunities for light and shade.
This being a truncated affair, produced specifically for an Edinburgh time slot, there is sure to be more time within the full two-hour show with which to add even more depth and pace. Nick Read plays all the other parts and brings much comedy deftness to what is a wide piece of acting territory to attempt. Amongst others, Read plays the parts of a coal-miner, Johnnie Hamp and fellow comedians Frank Carson and Bernard Manning. One of the comedy highlights was when Mr Read plays a skittish one-eyed pit pony.
The show is full of laughs, but astutely questions whether Charlie was aware of reinforcing racial stereotypes. According to some of the early proponents of P.C, the nay-sayers of the day pointed towards allegations of Charlie’s complicity with those who played the racists games. He even agreed at one stage to appear at a nightclub full of white people in Rhodesia, which is now known as Zimbabwe. This was long before apartheid barriers had been broken down in neighbouring South Africa.
I can’t find suitable superlatives to describe the performance of Tony Marshall. This is not simply an actor performing an impression. This is a quite spookily presented portrayal of a man who arrived on-stage delivering a fruity welcoming exhortation, that provides the title for this work.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Charlie now, walking on-stage, armed with a big toothy grin and his first words into the microphone….Eh Up My Old Flowers!