Computer says no

A charming tirade against technology suffers from some very bad dancing

<strong>Will Adamsdale</s

What can be wearisome about observational comedy is the stand-up's assumed superiority to his subject, especially when we suspect Mr Funny is not as clever as he thinks he is. In his new show, Will Adamsdale, who clearly is bright (as well as enjoying the surfer looks of an Australian soap star), instead submits to the superior complexity of his subject, the personal computer.

In a summer when the techno-gags on the Fringe will concern Facebook, MySpace, iTube and downloaded child porn, it may seem odd that a previous Perrier Award winner should choose as his topic the travails of a first-time computer user. But computers are, to most of us, an alien world in which many hours can be lost when things go wrong. How often have I found myself at 3am, dripping in sweat, feeling culpable, even criminal (or perhaps just criminally incompetent), for failing to observe some protocol? If Adamsdale, as he says, has only recently become a home computer user - or even if he hasn't - his paranoid fantasy is entirely credible.

He starts off observationally enough. He doesn't like the chattiness of programs: "I'm going to cut and paste the Word document. You OK with that?" Computers should stick to their own language. McAfee Antivirus addresses you, on the other hand, like a zealous Scottish sergeant major. Microsoft Help is "polite and disruptive at the same time - like chuggers". Mind you, his technophobia is pretty indiscriminate. Why, he wants to know, does switching off his mobile phone entail a five-minute sound-and-light show? And what other things, he wonders, are changing at the pace that razors are turning into spaceships?

His charming - a nine-year-old could be safely taken to this show, and would enjoy it - and submissive response to the march of the machines is to turn himself into a human computer operated by the audience. "What sort of computer would I be?" he asks himself. A low-tech one, that's for sure. This is a performance whose props are cardboard held together by masking tape.

Adamsdale produces versions of Microsoft's cursors - a big hand, a giant arrow and a spinning wheel (the one that tells you things are really buggered up) - then switches himself on and asks us to make the noise that computers make when warming up. He noted ruefully, in the early performance I saw (at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, pre-Edinburgh), that he was discovering not everyone had the same type of computer as he did.

Then, from above the stage, come flapping down the desktop programs he would have if he were a computer: "Tips", "The Dance I Do Every Five Years" and "The Time I Hit a Seven-Year-Old Girl". He selects an audience member to operate him by using the big arrow on a stick to "click" a program. Tips was first. These were quite useful. "You can't win sex but you can lose. What you want to go after is a score draw" was one; "Never run for a bus - don't give them the satisfaction" was another. But then the lay operator clicked Dance and Adamsdale went into a sub-David Brent routine that - because the audience-member operator was a sadist - went on and on and on.

I don't know what Adamsdale has done with his Dance program now that he's in Edinburgh, but this proved the seed of the show's near-destruction. He sweated so hard and lost so much breath doing his dance, that he never regained his composure. The potentially funny story about his altercation with the seven-year-old was ruined. Adamsdale is an actor rather than a stand-up and he is not a natural speaker. This threw what he does have in spades - his timing - to the wind. The rest of the show, as it accelerated into an increasingly bizarre fantasy in which the arrow (posh British accent) and the hand (brash American) went on a quest together to the lair of the deadly spider virus, suffered badly.

That said, The Human Computer never actually crashed. By its last minutes, it had recovered to become an epic story of individual resistance to a technological conspiracy. At one point, Adamsdale even became a diehard mini-Superman who flew over our heads, as by now his jokes were sometimes doing. This show, like many new computers, needed a few patches when I saw it, but it has genuine intel inside.

Runs at Traverse 3, University of Edinburgh Drill Hall, 41 Forrest Road, EH1, until 26 August

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix