“This is not feelings camp”: my week at the Edinburgh Fringe with a university sketch show

By the end of this story, one member of UCL Graters will end up in A&E, and it will be my fault.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Walking up and down Edinburgh’s cobbled hills during the Fringe, and trying to navigate around the festival’s street magicians, jugglers, and buskers is a task in itself. Then you have to deal with the incessant leafleters. The faces of high-level comedians (mostly white men), and comedians looking for their big break (mostly white men) beam from the posters on most of Edinburgh’s bins and walls.

But it is the theatre kids, the earnest young students behind sketch shows and comedy reviews, who form the bread and butter of Fringe shows. For the last week or so, I have been living with one such group, the university sketch troupe, The UCL Graters.

University sketch comedy at the Fringe is where many of the most well-loved comedians learned their trade. Alumni include Monty Python (Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue), Mitchell and Webb (Cambridge Footlights) and Nish Kumar (Durham Revue), all of whom made their funny bones here. Such groups tend to be funded by their university’s extra-curricular budget – an important factor at a festival where most comedians lose thousands of pounds.

By the end of this story, a member of UCL Graters will end up in A&E, and it will be my fault. But for now, it is five minutes past three in the morning. We are in the living room of our rented two-bedroom house. There are six people (three boys and three girls) living here – seven if you include me. For this privilege, each is paying £600. Alice Fraser has volunteered to sleep on the sofa for a month. Calm, with blonde hair and cool blue trainers, she is in the middle of a “discussion” that will last the night. Despite my best attempts at being a fly-on-the-wall journalist, I am involved too.

The question at the heart of the debate is whether it is funnier for Christopher Chope “MP for Christchurch” to have a Texan accent or not. Luke Shepherd, a wiry man with a beard and black glasses thinks it is not. He argues the accent is detracting from the joke, and that is is confusing the audience. They have a done a show each day for a week, and still have three weeks left to go, so there is still time to experiment. 

The rest of the group stands firm. Luke, they say, is over-complicating matters. We are two hours into the argument. The leader of the troupe, Flick, declares: “This is not feelings camp.”

A suitable compromise is discovered at 3:30am, and I fall asleep at around 5am. We wake up five hours later. After everyone has put on their dungarees (they hardly stand out among the eclectic Fringe fashions, and have the benefit of massive pockets to hold flyers) we venture into town to convince tourists to watch our show.

Flick is clearly the best at flyering. She is warm and bubbly, and without fear. She will somehow convince a 60-year-old woman to see her show by talking about one of her sketches in which the premise is a rehab meeting for those who brush their teeth too much. 

The show is in a tiny converted teaching room of Edinburgh University, draped in black curtains for the duration of the performance. I am asked to run and buy a potato. I get back just in time. The potato sketch lands. While the couple from India don’t appear to be laughing, the Robert Peston look-alike at the back is highly amused.

In the two weeks I am there, arguments ensue, but the group’s friendship manages to endure. Every day after the show, some of the performers dissect the big laughs of the day over lunch (Alice will badger everyone to talk louder), while others flyer for more professional comedians. Luke considers the £15 he earns from two hours flyering as “beer money”.

Later in the evening, if you’re not exhausted, you will try and catch a show, maybe even two. Holding a stack of fliers in the Fringe is as effective as garlic on a vampire: other flyerers nod their heads in solidarity, and don’t bother you.

The performer’s discount on pints is not helping anybody’s livers: an excess amount of alcohol will be consumed on a daily basis. Issy, quiet in person, ridiculously charismatic on stage, jokes that she brought her running gear with her. I have no intention of discovering whether Edinburgh has gyms. 

At a pub in Bedlam Theatre I meet members of the Oxford Revue who are probably the most well-known sketch group at the Fringe (second only to the Cambridge Footlights). The Revue has produced some of the country’s most famous comedians, such as Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci and Rowan Atkinson. 

While most university sketch groups have to flyer incessantly to convince people to see their shows, averaging just over 20 audience members, the Revue can get 80 plus without much effort. They are a brand.

Olley Matthews, one of the cast, tells me he feels the pressure. John Rayner, another cast member, says “I haven’t been relaxed all Fringe at all.” He looks it. It is clear neither has slept very much.

Even in the gilded world of Oxbridge comedy, the Fringe is taking its toll. There are grumblings about the producer, and claims that they haven’t had any major reviews because their marketing person is more focused on promoting her play.

Olley tells me that he believes a lot of their audiences are coming to be impressed, rather than to laugh, and they consist mainly of old men with their arms folded. 

A sketch in which the punchline is in Latin will be panned for being “too Oxford”, their sketch on the variation of the phrase “dumbass bitchass bitches” will be panned for being too lowbrow. They cannot win. Only four shows, he feels, have actually been “great”.

Nevertheless, the cast agrees that they love the Fringe, and that it is the social aspect that makes the festival. Olley tells me how he smashed a window in the house with an onion because... too long to explain (toxic masculinity). 

Everyone whom I talk to understands the immense privilege of being able to do something they love for a whole month off the universities’ back. They all say it has lived up to expectations. A few years ago they were spotty teenagers watching reruns of Fry and Laurie, now they are at the festival where the two made their names.

On one of my last nights in the house, the Scissor Sisters are blasting from the portable speakers and Flick is asking why men can’t express their feelings. Alice is gluing letters to a glittery placard. A conversation about mental health follows, and as Alice and Issy dance and sing to “Wuthering Heights” we all discuss our mental health issues. The moment feels oddly profound.

The next morning, most of us are too hungover to flyer. Flick struts out early nevertheless – she leads by example – while the rest of us try to sober up at home. No one is looking forward to the show. 

Each day, just before the performance starts, the room's operator will lead the waiting audience to their seats. Sometimes only seven people will wander in. But today, of all days, they keep streaming in.

I count 26 people in total, and beam to Alice, who is sitting by the tech booth in the back. “There is no science to flyering,” Luke will later tell me. The audience looks young and eager to laugh. 

The Christopher Chope joke, for the first time, lands big. They love the Texan accent. They love the explanation as to why he has a Texan accent. Who knew late-night arguments could be so productive? Alice is still hungover, but she is thrilled. That was their best show of the month. In the dressing room afterwards, everyone looks revitalised. The adrenaline rush of a good show is contagious. 

Later in the day, when I am running for my train back to London with Alice alongside, she slips. I leave her on the stairs.

Later she will find out she tore two ligaments, and that she will have to spend the rest of the Fringe in crutches.

As I sit in my warm train carriage, Alice is trying to hail a taxi on the streets of Edinburgh, and I am talking to her on the phone.

She cries: “I am soaking wet and half-crying. I am in so much pain and I have just shouted the word Fringe loudly – I hate this!”

I comfort her. “This is not feelings camp.”

Jason Murugesu is a postgraduate student in science communication at Imperial College London, and a former Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman.