April 01, 1990

Fringe Comedy

Filed under: Archive,Comedy


Murray Bramwell

There is something likeably democratic about the Fringe’s published programme. In alphabetic order under general headings, it is the great leveller- events are listed with sublime even-handedness. The good, the bad and the ugly are all equal in the sight of the Fringe creators.

The only trouble is that this doesn’t make it easy for the poor punter looking for a winner or even something each way.Add to that the absence of a comprehensive box office at Fringe Centre and confusion is a short step from apathy. There were enough troubles at peak times – like work lunch-times and early evenings- getting BASS bookings for anything at all, Fringe or Festival, so it would hardly be surprising if the fine young Fringe cannibals used to making on- the -spot choices either bought an on-the-spot ticket for Little Sisters or decided to take a walk.

The cabaret and theatre programme both indicated a changing pattern. The Little Sisters programme was packaged from Melbourne and the shift was to the television- tested and burlesque. The Fringe, scene of the Cabbage Brothers, Tick Where Applicable, Funny Stories, Even Orchestra and the pre-Big Gig Doug Anthony’s now seems to be in a time lag from Tuesday Night Live. The sudden popularity of Australian comedy on TV is  double-edged -it raises recognition exponentially it also demolishes subtlety and decimates six month’s material in a single night.

The biggest draws at Little Sisters were The Dougs, the Bachelors from Prague and Swinging Sidewalks -all staples for Melbourne variety TV. Gerry Connolly showed his intelligence as a mimic actor but he was rather shaky live. The Great Big Opera led by counter-tenor Jon Jackson with the Spectoral synthesiser sound of Greg Riddell and Allan Walker introduced high calibre camp while co-billed comic Rachel Berger worked sub-Harmer territory. Mention should be made again of Paul Livingstone’s Flacco -Eat Carpet credit squeezer and monologist without peer. He first amazed the Fringe in 1986 and these days he is appearing on the Big Gig. The Doug Anthony’s made a smart move getting  him on their bill for Edinburgh and then- after a late scratching by Gerry Sadowitz- Adelaide also.

My comedy favourites were Found Objects who dispense wet gags with silly props and avoid the tired hydrophobics that the Doug Anthony Allstars now dispense to a whole new audience . For me, nothing quite touched the slow-moving weirdness of the Slave Clowns of the Third Reich from the 1988 Fringe. But this is no place for misty nostalgia.

The theatre programme, seemed thinner this time with fewer inter-state shows braving the Malthusian conditions for Fringe performance. The Rag and Bone company, former VCA students drew attention with their Bluebeard , while the Bastinado company from Sydney holed up at the Balcony for three shows. I saw only the Picasso work Desire Caught by the Tail, a play famous for its author, which was nevertheless strong and engaging theatre. It made you a bit wistful for the extravagant theatrics of Nigel Kellaway’s Sydney Front.

Some local groups worked more traditional material -the Celtic Circle could probably have done a three week season of their Under Milk Wood and Flinders University Drama Centre students played to full houses for their J.M.Synge one-acters at the Red Shed.  I’m sorry to have missed are the Aboriginal Cultural Institute’s Up the Ladder, new works by Vitalstatistix and Darrelyn Gunzburg and interstate visitors Handspan and Entr’acte.

One local show reflected the tenacity of theatre-making. Put together from their own funds Suna Productions’ Salome and Acts of Contortion played about a dozen performances at the New Century. Written by local writer Jenny Boult with additional material from Kathy Acker, Acts of Contortion told a story not unlike that of Wedekind’s Lulu. Director Doug Leonard took a dash of Weimar and a lashing of Fassbinder to tell the story of Zilla the headless woman. The paper gave it a  stinko review devoid of specifics. It was rough theatre, with artless performances but it deserved better.

The irony for this year was that the Festival’s Archaos was the star Fringe attraction and the best show in the Fringe belonged in the main festival. The Attis Theatre from Athens gave only one performance of Euripides Bacchae as part of Glendi. Using Artaudian and traditional quasi-yogic techniques the five actors under the direction of Theodoros Terzopoulos went for the savage heart of the most disturbing work in the classical repertoire.

Performed entirely in Greek with deft physicality and extraordinary mental concentration this Bacchae brought us closer to the dionysian paradox than most tunic and olive branch re-creations ever could. The Attis Company who have worked with the Berliner Ensemble and toured extensively in Europe and North America, played unheralded in the Scott Theatre. If you hadn’t looked between Antebodies and Bastinado in the Fringe  programme you would have missed them.

With the doors finally closing on the Living Arts Centre there are more questions than ever on the future of the Fringe. As the festival continues to programme its own fringe the official Fringe starts to look like a poor relation, offering much the same but with a grungy ambience and uncertain value for money .

If we were really in a recession and not a time of beautiful numbers, the Fringe might be seen as a bad risk for performer and customer alike. It is not hard to imagine a future where the crowds come in for the cabaret head-liners and then buzz off back to the Fezbah for brandy crustas. Everyone expects the Fringe to be out on the edge but no-one wants it to become marginal. In the past decade the Fringe has achieved a great deal but left to grow unchecked and unconsidered it could well be swamped by its own endeavour.

“Fringe” The Adelaide Review, No.75, April, 1990, p.21.

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