Edinburgh Fringe, Day 15: Participation hell and real tears in a comedian’s eyes

Hell is other people en masse, as Jean-Paul Sartre did not say.

God! How I hate audience participation!

Not all audience participation, just some.

As mentioned before in this blog, I am allergic to certain things in comedy.

One is stand-up character comedy when it is an attempt by an actor or actress to create a ‘real’ character. or, almost worse, a fake ‘eccentric’ character when the performer does not have any streak of eccentricity themselves. This is not comedy; it is a drama school showreel. The more cartoony, the less real, the more I like it.

The other thing that I can’t take is mass jollity. Singalongs, dancealongs and people doing almost anything as a group instead of as individuals just ain’t me. I can think of nothing worse than people singing in gigantic groups. Or doing anything in gigantic groups.

So perhaps it was foolhardy of me to accept a ticket for a late-night show called Juan Vesuvius: I Am Your Deejay at Assembly’s George Square Theatre, allegedly presented by a Venezuelan DJ (actually New Zealander Barnie Duncan in his third Fringe show).

Juan Vesuvius aka Barnie Duncan – Arghh! Help! Let me out!

It started as Manuel-from-Fawlty-Towers style character comedy then, once the character was established, turned into a brash, loud, glittery, music-music-music lecture on the history of disco music, disco clubs and related social music phenomena. It is tremendous entertainment. Wildly exciting. Terrifically atmospheric. And, as anyone who read my blog about The Elvis Dead, it is not remotely for me. At the end of the show, people were up on their feet dancing and waving their arms about. I was internally screaming: Arghh! Help! Let me out!

The audience loved it. And I got a new insight into my dourness.

At the risk of sounding like some desperate Miss World contestant, I’m interested in people. People as individuals.

150 people dancing the same movements to the same music or 10,000 people singing a song in a stadium is nothing to do with people. It has to do with psychological insecurity and a need to feel wanted.

Sitting at the back of the Grouchy Club, a silent man

The concept of the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club at the Counting House is to talk to the audience. One person at a time. Community singing is not encouraged. Individual opinions, anecdotes and bees-in-bonnets are encouraged.

Today, those people included Nick Awde from The Stage, director Sarah Chew, Ian Dunn from the British Comedy Guide, Robert Peacock from The Wee Review and Ewan Spence from multiple podcasts, Forbes magazine and the Eurovision Song Contest. And performers.

And no random non-industry punters. Which is perfect. Because it meant we could gossip, for example, about one performer’s objection to a one-star review he got from The Wee Review and his consequent, continuing campaign to get hold of Robert Peacock’s home address, threats of legal action, articles in the New York Times etc etc. It is possibly the subject of a future blog, except the current copied-and-pasted basic information is over 3,700 words long.

Michael Brunström, gloriously surreal, with a bag of Oz compost at his feet

The real eccentricity of the day, though, started when I went to see the gloriously surreal Michael Brunström’s show Parsley at the Dragonfly. Anything that starts with the performer in some sort of ancient Grecian dress, draped with  some sort of green-leafed climbing plant and playing the recorder is good for me.

If he then gives out whoopee whistles to the audience, asking them to randomly blow them whenever they like throughout the show, it can only get even better. And does.

The on-stage character is, of course, exactly that – a character, not the real Michael Brunström… but I can’t help observing it’s not THAT different from him. Writs may arrive in my letter box next week.

In the gloom, Mr Twonkey announces the bad news to his disappointed audience

I was also due to see Mr Twonkey perform his Christmas in The Jungle show at the Dragonfly. Alas, there was a power cut before he started and he was forced to cancel the show.

The admirable Mr Twonkey is, again, a surreally eccentric character (played by ever-amiable Paul Vickers).

And, again, the on-another-planet character on-stage may not be exactly the same as the person playing him, but I think they may live on the same planet as each other… just not on planet Earth.

Which brings me to Lewis Schaffer.

I went back to see his Unopened Letters From My Mother show again at the Counting House. I saw it around a week ago.

Each night, he is opening a different letter from his mother which he received but never read.

Someone has described this show as part comedy, part tragedy, part sociological experiment, part psychological insight and 100% voyeurism.

It may have been me in that last sentence.

Tonight, in her unopened letter from 2002, his mother called him a shit and said he was dead to her. She is now dead. The tears in his eyes were genuine.

Lewis Schaffer’s unopened letters from his mother

Lewis Schaffer does not really know why he did not open the letters and, the more I think about it, the more I wonder why he decided to do the show at all. I have a terrible feeling that he is doing these shows as a way of daring the audiences – and daring himself – to dislike him.

The previous time I saw this show, he opened and read the letter towards the end of the show. Tonight, he opened and read it towards the start.

He is trying out different things each night.

For me, opening and reading the letter towards the start was a mistake, because he was so emotionally affected by the contents tonight that he was not in the same control of his show that he usually has.

Even when performers appear to be themselves on-stage they are, of course, performing as a particular version of themselves. They are not themselves.

Lewis Schaffer’s show tonight was a fascinating, unique voyeuristic experience, watching an actual person on-stage showing raw emotions and trying to recover from them – part performer, part real human being. Fascinating.

Colin Buckie – from Bobby to Lou

Someone who should have been at the Grouchy Club but wasn’t was Colin Buckie, who owns Bobby’s Sandwich Bar by the Greyfriars Bobby statue. I met him because he was chatting to former submariner Eric in the Abattoir by the Purple Cow.

Such sentences seem reasonable in Edinburgh during the Fringe… I met him because he was chatting to former submariner Eric in the Abattoir by the Purple Cow.

Colin had once sat next to Velvet Underground rocker Lou Reed at a Burns Night Supper in Edinburgh.

“It was three years before he died,” Colin told me. “It was an unusual night. It was at the Reid Music Institute, the Reid Hall at Edinburgh University. We had a lovely evening round a table and Lou Reed stood up and read out a poem or a story by Edgar Allan Poe – he was a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe – and then some readings of Robert Burns. He was a huge fan of Robert Burns too. He said: I love these lyrics.

“I mean, primarily, Lou Reed was a lyricist. He was very interested in poetry and William Burroughs and beat poetry and…”

“He,” I asked, “read out Edgar Allan Poe stuff on a Burns Night?”

“He did,” said Colin. “I was astounded I was sitting next to Lou Reed. I have never been starstruck before or since. I was so astonished, I never mentioned once to him that he was Lou Reed.”

Will people, in future, speak in such awe of having been in the presence of Lewis Schaffer?

Only time will tell.

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