Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Just A Minute/One Show regular Gyles won multiple five stars for his last Edinburgh outing. ‘Joy, deep joy’ said The Scotsman. This time, with more hilarious stories from his life in theatre and politics, plus a little help from psychiatrist Anthony Clare, Freud, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Howerd and the Queen, award-winning raconteur and ex MP Gyles explores the secrets of How to Be Happy.
I’m not entirely sure what to expect waiting in the queue for Gyles Brandreth: Looking For Happiness. On the one hand he is known as the mildly bumptious but highly erudite panellist on Radio 4 shows such as Just a Minute and Wordaholics. On the other he is the author of quite the most remarkable series of novels – Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders – which I have struggled to put down since picking them up earlier this year.
There is a YouTube clip of Stephen Fry talking about Wilde in which he compares the Irish poet and playwright’s reputation as akin to the view of the Empire State Building in the rearview mirror of a yellow cab. At first the landmark is only one of several, fitting neatly but not noticeably into the skyline. But as the cab goes further downtown (presumably in the direction of the Broome Street Bar on West Broadway) the Empire State looms larger and larger until it towers over its contemporaries, its unique splendor more obvious for the distant perspective. As with the art deco office block, opines Fry, so with Wilde.
In years to come the same may very well be said of the prolific polymath that is Brandreth. Writer, broadcaster, parliamentarian, cultural impresario, wit and this year’s EdFringe guest lecturer on Looking For Happiness. This light, however, is firmly hidden under a bushel as Brandreth takes to the stage resplendent in a jester’s outfit, bells and all – powdered custard over crème brûlée – Brandreth’s signature style. Anecdotes, gossip and allegories flutter in the breezy discourse on the philosophy as well as art of living. It’s almost too polished.
When talking about life after Whose Line Is It Anyway, Tony Slattery remarked that his performance style had become so mannered and caricatured by the improv classic that he found regular acting all but impossible. Has Just a Minute had a similar effect on Brandreth? I’d like to ask him but the auld injunction never to meet your heroes is clearly taken very seriously by his publicist.
His interactions with the audience are charming and lyrical. Although for anti-participationists such as the Current Mrs Dan, it might be a little much. The jester’s outfit is replaced by a snug onesie – think Churchill emerging from his White House bath to greet President Roosevelt – which in turn gives way to something more Brooks Brothers sombre. Sinatra always wore a brand new suit each time he went out on stage, Brandreth has a similar view on shirts it seems – his still has the M&S fold marks. Like the costume changes, it’s not entirely clear what several of the properties and furniture are doing on stage. They are arranged on the far left and right pulling the performer to and fro. The Britney Spears microphone is an interesting choice – more Stephen R. Covey than Charles Dickens.
This show best explains FringeReview Edinburgh’s decision to abandon star ratings on a trial basis during 2013. Among the many problems with star ratings identified in a flurry of social media at the end of last year, was the fact that the difference between 2 and 3 stars is infinitely greater than between 3 and 4. 3 stars was supposed to represent a solid performance but it did not seem to carry the authority of a 4 star production. I would cautiously recommend this show to audiences who might as yet be unfamiliar with the Brandreth brand but instantly point out that for fans and devotees it is, of course, unmissable.