I saw four extraordinarily vivid acts at the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday.
The first was the much-talked-about Red Bastard, who manages to combine mime and verbal attacks on his audience with bits of psychology, philosophy and the hint of a dodgy cult thrown into the mix.
Oddly for a performance artist, Red Bastard also managed to work in a big dig at the Fringe itself. The one thing that was unoriginal in his act was to say that everyone involved in shows at the Fringe – the venues, the publicists, the technical people, the management, the agents – all make money – everyone except the performers. But somehow he made even that sound unexpectedly original.
The late-night vivid act I saw was Bo Burnham.
In 2010, we gave him the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award as ‘Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid’. We were right to do that. The extraordinary thing is he manages to attract large audiences of almost rock music mentality with a comedy act of genuine originality.
Sandwiched vividly between those two acts was mind-reading Doug Segal, who abandoned the normal format of his show I Can Make You a Mentalist.
Usually, a random member of the public is chosen (sometimes by throwing bricks into the audience) to be on stage and to ‘do’ the mindreading etc.
Last night, that member of the audience was pre-chosen: Scotsman comedy critic Kate Copstick.
This was a lesson in how to get publicity and a near-guaranteed good review for your show. Doug collared Copstick outside Bob’s Bookshop the other night and (I did not hear the exact words but) ‘sold’ her on the concept of actually taking part in his show one day.
Yesterday, that happened and Copstick was so baffled afterwards – “I have absolutely no idea how he did any of that,” she told me when she came off stage – that I cannot believe he will not get a good review.
Of course, it only works if you have a good show to begin with.
The Edinburgh Fringe is all about word-of-mouth.
Scotsman journalist Claire Smith told me she had, as she came out of a show, met the next act going into the venue. It was a “dangerous harpist” act who had never been to the Fringe before and who was unbilled in the main Fringe Programme.
Claire thought this sounded like something I might like. She told me. I went. I did.
The performer is Ursula Burns.
She was born in the Falls Road, Belfast, in 1970 – not a good time or place to be born.
“Bombs, shooting, war. Miracle that I actually survived,” she tells her audience (several of whom have never heard of the Falls Road).
“Total and utter war zone,” she tells them in her Ulster accent. Then she switches to a Spanish accent to say: “Now I will sing my song for you: Being Born.”
Her aunts play the piano and sing; her grandfather was a fiddle player from Donegal; her dad “sings funny songs in bars”; and her mum plays the harp – which is why Ursula never wanted to play the harp while she was a child.
She sings comic songs while playing a very glamorous Paraguayan harp. Her songs include I’m Your Fucking Harpist and Get Divorced and Join The Circus.
When she was 14, she actually did run away from home to join the circus – “They were dark, dark times,” she told me – and, when the Fringe ends, she is going to France with the Irish Tumble Circus.
She cannot read music but she can stilt-walk and taught herself to play the harp only when she was an adult. She accidentally won an Irish music comedy award.
During her show, she says:
“People think, because I play the harp, that I’m actually cultured. They think I care about the history of the harp and how many strings it has. They think, because I play the Paraguayan harp, that I know stuff and I’m cultured. But, actually, I just do it for the money.”
Her show is called Ursula Burns: I Do It For the Money, which is true – because she has to support her 9-year-old son who is, she says, very successfully flyering for her in Edinburgh “because he is cute and everyone likes him on sight”.
After the show – in Fingers Piano Bar at 3.10pm daily (except Mondays) until 24th August – she told me:
“I had always written funny songs and I’ve always composed music, but I never associated what I was doing with ‘Comedy’. Then I accidentally won the Irish Music Comedy Awards last year.”
“Accidentally?” I asked.
“People shared them round and a comedian in Belfast – Stephen Mullan – used it in his comedy night and he said You should forward your video to the IMCA Awards, which I’d never heard of.
“I tried, but the deadline was the next day – in March last year – and I couldn’t do it. But another guy had forwarded my details and just got in before the deadline.
“The IMCA people got in touch with me and asked me to come down to Dublin and play in the finals… and I won. I only had two funny songs at that point but, in the next month, I wrote the hour-long show.
“I had accidentally got on the comedy circuit and I found that really difficult, because I was getting up there with a harp, sandwiched on the bill between two stand-up comics. I found the comedy world quite rough; I didn’t understand it; I was a fish out of water. They were all men and I’d turn up in a ball gown with a harp. I’d won this award and people were looking at me: Go on! Prove yourself! I need good sound and some of these gigs wouldn’t even have proper sound set-ups.
“The comedy scene doesn’t pay very well. I live off gigs; I live from gig to gig. There’s months where there’s nothing coming in and my life is expensive – I have a 9 year-old son. That’s why I wrote the song I Do It For The Money. I’ve been performing all my life. I’ve paid my dues. Everyone who was on the scene when I was learning my craft has either got famous or given up, but I’ve hung in there.
“People said You’d go down well at the Edinburgh Fringe but, at a basic, bottom reality, I couldn’t afford to come here. So I applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a grant and I only found out I was getting it at the very end of June (too late to be in the Fringe Programme) and I only got the money the week before I arrived. I couldn’t have come here without their help. Sustaining yourself as an artist with a child is hard and ends do not always meet.
“When I first started,” said Ursula, “I would write really violent lyrics and put them with beautiful melodies and I would be travelling round with bands in vans. I’ve played everywhere from the Albert Hall to tube stations.
“The thing for me about the harp is breaking down the boundaries and comedy is just another aspect where I can do that. I don’t imagine that I will stay in comedy. I need to explore all things in all directions.”
She is a stilt-walking harpist who won an Irish comedy award by accident…
Only in Edinburgh during the Fringe…
Perhaps the oddest thing I saw yesterday, though, was in the early hours of this morning at Bob Slayer’s Midnight Mayhem show (though even he admits it is not a ‘show’) when surrealist Doctor Brown met flatulist Mr Methane. Neither had heard of the other.
The initial conversation went along the lines of:
Mr Methane: You won the Perrier Comedy Award last year without saying anything?
Doctor Brown: You fart?
Eventually, a bemused understanding was reached.