I was at The Wrestling last night (see below).
Free for all?
Joe Lycett was the ring announcer, and to make himself available, he joked, he'd had to pull out of a benefit gig for Avalon acts. The line got a big laugh – the joke being that acts managed by hard-nosed comedy producers Avalon are having a tough time this year.
It's in that context that the ongoing conversation about the free fringe is so interesting. Jay Richardson published a piece in the Scotsman yesterday interrogating the success of PBH's Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival, and raising intriguing questions about where they go next. The free festivals recreate the "lucky-dip" spirit of the original fringe, claimed storyteller and songwriter Lach. So why not formalise that in an "uncategorised" subsection of the Fringe programme, so audiences were given no foreknowledge of shows whatsoever? (Shades of the Lyric Hammersmith's new "secret theatre" initiative there.)
More provocatively, Cariad Lloyd asked: "if [the Free Fringe] becomes this incredible money-maker, what if all the really successful comedians take all the spots, leaving no one to try stuff? Where will the new people go?" I can see where she's coming from. Her impro troupe Austentatious is playing to packed houses daily. She told me they had to recruit stewards to control the crowds; because ticket distribution can't be regulated in advance, far more people are turning up than can get in. It was the same at Lloyd's Austentatious teammate Rachel Parris's show. Parris, not uniquely on the Free Festival, is getting audiences that many paying, and paid-for, acts can only dream of.
So why wouldn't those supposedly skint Avalon acts, for example, jump ship and play the Free Fringe? Obviously a mass exodus from paid-for to free festivals isn't about to happen. And as the free festivals get bigger and better, it'll be hard for them to resist incurring costs (like those Austentatious stewards, for example) that risk removing it from the cash-free economy. But it's a sign of the thrilling, world-turns-upside-down success of the free fringe that these conversations are taking place.
Who's the (big) daddy?
When The Wrestling first took place two years ago, it instantly entered fringe legend. It was double-act Max and Ivan's idea: Max Olesker is a former professional wrestler, bizarrely enough. The duo brought together pro wrestlers and comedians for a one-off, late-night dust-up – at which Olesker broke his ankle, to add an undertow of genuine violence to proceedings.
So last night, I went to The Wrestling II at the Pleasance Grand. It was an extraordinary event. What makes the concept so perfect is that wrestling is one of the most ludicrous human activities imaginable. Its cocktail of preening machismo and blatant fakery is laughable already – and that's before you throw a dozen comedians into the mix.
But the event doesn't rely on that factor alone. It's also a sensationally well produced piece of theatre. Ostensibly, it's a three-bout wrestling match between the forces of good (Ardal "Coach" O'Hanlon's team) and evil (led by Tim "Dr Punishment" Vine). Around that, we have the subplot of ring announcer Nick Helm being illegally flattened before the fight even begin. Then there's Matthew (Pappy's) Crosby as ringside reporter, a pacifist weakling who, at the death, finds himself cast as spandex-clad avenger ...
Take these ingredients, add production values, and apply artificial violence. The wrestling itself is a spectacle and a half. Here, gymnastics meets magic: you marvel at both the athleticism, and the sleight-of-hand, as choreographed non-violence is made to look and sound like unmitigated savagery. Most entertaining of all is how fully the comics have entered into the spirit. We see Thom Tuck flinging Dan Cook across a ring, Tom Rosenthal and Dan Head locked into ever more improbable contortions ("from here it looks like they're both giving birth to each other," says commentator Brendon Burns), and Olesker himself performing belly flops from high above the ring. How, between countless daily fringe gigs and a lifestyle of booze and daytime TV, have these comics found the time, energy and application to learn all this, you wonder.
It's too long, it's often chaotic – although it's impressive how orchestrated the "chaos" often is – and I'm not sure that Tim Vine is the right casting to represent the forces of evil. But none of that matters: it's loud, it's late at night, and everyone's up for what is a spectacular, ridiculous rumble – an event that oozes Edinburgh fringe, from its perma-tanned forehead to the tips of its musclebound toes.
The state of the nation
One of the subplots of this year's fringe has been the absence (deliberate, in some cases) of theatre engaging with the possibly imminent break-up of the country we've all lived in for the last 300 years. I'm afraid to say, the silence is just as conspicuous in the comedy section of the programme. If standup is any guide, no one gives a hoot that Scotland might be about to cut loose and "British" may soon start to mean something else entirely.
Well, almost no one. The Scottish comics Vladimir McTavish and Kier McAllister are considering the state of Britain at the Stand Comedy Club. And their conclusion is, "we could be the first country in the history of the world to vote for, 'who gives a fuck?'" The duo's show is more talk radio than standup comedy: McTavish (aka Paul Sneddon) and McAllister sit on stools, blether and show videos that cast comic comment on what Britain means today. It's underpowered, but there are some good jokes. A routine about Tory leader Ruth Davidson comparing the Scottish public sector to a gangster state leads to amusing remarks about scoring drugs off the local council. The UK citizenship test, not for the first time, is held up to mockery ("are we auditioning people for Pointless?")
At least McTavish and McAllister are looking at what's right in front of all of us, and – in their own low-key way – raising one or two interesting questions about what options are being presented to Scots, and how complacent/indifferent Brits in general are as we drift towards possible separation. Comedians, present company excepted, are not an exception to that rule.
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