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Something For Nothing?

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I went to see a couple of shows that were part of the Free Fringe on Thursday. One was a stand-up comedy show in the back room of a pub and one was a piece of contemporary performance at Summerhall - a veterinary college for the rest of the year.

Both were interesting to watch, albeit for very different reasons, and both somehow seemed to be taking place in exactly the right environment.

The pub show was pretty intimate. Two performers, one male and one female, taking it in turns to tell jokes and stories on the themes of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I've done storytelling gigs in pubs, and they're not always easy environments to work in, and this was definitely the case with the venue the other day. The room was only separated from the rest of the space by a curtain and so there was a lot of background noise. This was compounded by the fact that the football was on and so every so often the show was punctuated by cheers and groans from the sports fans next door.

It wasn't the kind of show to suit all tastes. The material was often crude and gynaecological - especially in the case of the male half of the duo. But it was delivered with a kind of honesty that stopped it from feeling exploitative. And I have to take my hat off to both performers for coping so well with a difficult environment. They were both very chatty and casual and had a great rapport with the audience and, in a sense, I think the tone of the material suited the venue. A little bit grubby, full of drunken swagger and of questionable taste. Most of the audience had drinks in their hands and this, added to the friendly, conversational tone of the comics, made the gig feel like a drinking session with some foul-mouthed but rather witty friends.

The second piece took place in a college common room. It too had a bar but the space had been emptied of anyone other than the audience and the performers. The show was called Watch Me Fall by a company called Action Hero and was absolutely brilliant. With the exception of The Games (a very silly and very endearing clown show about Greek Theatre) it was probably the best thing I have seen all festival. It pulled off the difficult trick of being both charming and brutal at the same time. Two performers, one male and one female, exploring the concept of the daredevil and the fascination we have with people who put themselves in positions of danger. It probed the aura of glamour that surrounded stuntmen like Eddie Kidd and Evil Knievel, at one point brilliantly equating the kind of  machismo that drove them to that which drives modern day empire-builders and right-wing politicians. It asked questions about the need we have for fame and adoration and the lengths which people will go to for affirmation of their identity and existence. Ultimately, it served as a poignant reminder of the fragility of human life. And it achieved all this using nothing more than a bicycle, a ramp, a bucket of ping-pong balls, a paddling pool and a lot of Coca-Cola.

It was utterly mesmerising, very thought-provoking and, if you stopped to think about it for a moment, completely bonkers. It also felt absolutely well-suited to its environment - a student bar, decorated with illuminated pictures of half-dissected animal cadavers which, like the show itself, somehow managed to be both disturbing and beautiful.

Having spent the first half of this week feeling a little bit jaded (see Market Forces) it absolutely reaffirmed my faith in theatre and the festival. Not only was it free (well, pay what you want anyway) it was also a complete surprise. No one had leapt on me in the street waving flyers and telling me how much of a must-see show it was and it hadn't been plastered all over town on enormous billboards either. We went along on the off-chance having heard good things about the Forest Fringe and having had a couple of drinks and listened and danced to a very good electro band singing songs about the socially constructed nature of identity (again all for nothing) it was pretty much the perfect end to a perfect evening.

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