Nicky Woolf's Edinburgh Diary: Late-night comedy revues

Comedy at the Fringe is as much about the night-life as the day-life.

Edinburgh is as much about the night-life as the day-life, and it's not just for barflys; most comedians and comedy groups up at the fringe promote their shows by taking part in cabarets and night-time revues. It's a way to perform in front of new audiences and advertise a show, especially for young up-and-coming acts.

Dec Munro is the compère for revue shows Test Tube Comedy and Edinburgh Must-Sees. “At Test Tube we've had some acts that have done very well,” he says. “[Comedian] Tony Law did a set there that went down brilliantly, and literally half the crowd went to see his show after that. That also happened with Nick Sun, and with a beautiful theatre piece called Slow Clap. There is an element of promotion – but obviously it depends how well your material goes down.”

Spank, in a sweat-box of a basement cave at Underbelly, has gained a reputation for being the most raucous of all the late-night revues. There is a moment at the end when performers can make their pitch to the audience – as long as they are naked on the stage.

These late-night revues can be brutal for performers. In front of a drunken audience, it's possible to really strike a chord- if you bomb, you really bomb. “The audiences at some of the late-night places can be... testing,” says Munro. Because they're all wasted? “Yeah.”

Mark Cooper Jones is one quarter of sketch comedy act Wit Tank, regulars at Spank and other places; tonight, they are due to play another, Live at the Electric. “The experience is brilliant. Its lots of fun. It depends on the kind of act you are; we're quite a loud, shouty group. You have to shout over the top of the audience sometimes, but it's a laugh”

“It can get bad,” he continues. “I've seen people tank before, if they can't get on top of the crowd. You've got a bear pit in front of you, and if you have a weak beginning... it can be horrible.”

“Do you know the Scott Capurro story?” Munro asks. This tale has entered Edinburgh festival lore. Comedian Scott Capurro, having bombed on stage at the Gilded Balloon's Late and Live, was forced by a baying crowd to urinate on his own jumper and shoes, live on stage. In a surreal twist, Jimmy Carr, who was performing after him, had to mop it up before he could perform his act. “Arguably,” says Munro, “that's not the best way to promote your show...”

These are the kind of laughs comedians at the Fringe would die for. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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