Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Following last year’s critically-acclaimed adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Josh Dolphin returns to the Fringe with his solo effort A History, w Nowell Edmurnds. It is a nightmarish, surreal examination of minor celebrity and our relationship with it, backgrounded by projection and a constant soundscape also designed by Josh.
We all know a Nowell Edmurnds: he’s whichever light entertainer we can still neutrally recall. This one’s old contemporaries have sunk into the past, more or less gracefully. All’s left is a chequered life story repurposed by a chequered public. Their number are depicted with deft precision by Josh, whose solo performance runs the gamut of bitter old peers left in Nowell’s wake. Character monologues and short sketches reveal yet stranger facets of the mysterious ‘Nowell’. Along the way, the show aims to illustrate the creepy appeal of minor celebrity, ‘voodoo dolls for the remnants of a country’.
I found myself in the labyrinth of stony corridors in the Caves on the last night of Josh Dolphin’s solo performance of a History w Nowell Edmurnds with curious expectation. I had no real interest in the alluded to TV presenter and tend to avoid TV like this as much as possible, so wasn’t that familiar with him as an icon but of course I haven’t been living on a mountain so I am well aware of the various presenters who enjoy their minor celebrity status as the Royals of prime time Telly.
What drew me here though was Dolphin’s flyering technique – which may not sound that exciting but after being bombarded daily by emails and flyered frequently on the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, a good technique stands out.
Josh Dolphin has a cool professional air, for one so relatively new to the Fringe scene he comes across as a bit of an old hand. He talked about his show intelligently and minimally, refreshingly clear about what is good about it.
How did he do? I was impressed. This was a complex piece of work. Dolphin, alongside his own devised soundscape and projections launches into different characters with scathing parody and often grotesquely hyper real intensity. The complex layers of social comment often blur until we no longer know is the central player in the satire, the presenters we watch or us watching them, the viewers who created these modern day monsters in the first place. There are moments where Dolphin stands eye to eye with the audience…pausing that bit uncomfortably more…that gaze a little more intense than expected…audience members squirm on their seats and we are given a moment to remind us that we aren’t neutral observers; we are all part of the rise of the minor celeb. A young woman giggles at a gag, Dolphin stops with a measured stare, “Oh you like that Little Britain shite do you?”. He reminds us that even the anti-institutional programs we all laugh smugly along to are just as much part of ‘the institution’.
Surprisingly this show, despite being at times difficult for me to follow – mainly I think because I don’t watch TV, but also perhaps Dolphin plays with his own intelligence, took us through some very thought provoking moments. This was much more than a sketch show or parody. This was much more considered than a comedy show with cheap gags, although it was funny and delightfully crass in moments and had us in fits of laughter. This bold experimental piece had depth and politicism. A scene with Jimmy Saville triggered some genuine anger in me; the soundscape and projection and Dolphin’s visceral characterisations evoked an uneasy atmosphere that uncovered the darkness bubbling beneath this cheery smiley television culture. It’s certainly an uncomfortable reflection on our society’s adoration of fame.
I would recommend seeing this show to see a skilled and intelligent performer working through some complex and dark layers of popular culture. It’s the bamboozling pace and energy that Dolphin performs this piece together with the meticulously designed sound and visual narrative that discombobulates and engages the audience all at once. In Dolphin’s words this show “aims to illustrate the creepy appeal of minor celebrity”. I would say he achieved this aim in a unique, energetic and strong production that is wonderfully difficult to define. Well done. I look forward to seeing future work.