Edinburgh Fringe 2018
An hour of quite sublime, uplifting comedic storytelling from a master of his craft.
Gyles Brandreth is a polymath. Not content with being one of the better known broadcasters in these sunlit isles, he has also managed to find time to be a writer, actor and raconteur par excellence in a glittering career spanning more decades than he perhaps would like to admit to. He even managed a short spell as a Tory MP back in the 1990’s, but politics’ loss has been the entertainment world’s gain since he was booted out in Tony Blair’s landslide landslip election win back in 1997.
Brandreth’s latest Fringe show, Break A Leg, focuses principally on his interaction with the glitterati of stage and screen over the past decades. And what a line-up he assembles. Olivier, Gielgud, O’Toole, Harrison, Holloway, Burton, Taylor, West, Scales and Dench are but a soupçon of those in the performing arts that Brandreth has befriended or had some form of meaningful interaction with.
But, with many on that list now no longer with us, this show has him on a bare stage, with just a copy of his latest book (that gets well plugged) for company. Yet, despite operating in the vast sauna that is Pleasance One, Brandreth still manages to make everyone in the packed audience feel that he’s speaking to them personally. The end result is a sublimely uplifting hour of fun and silliness.
Brandreth started coming to Edinburgh back in the days when the Fringe really was on the fringes, and not the mega-spectacle it is now. And, since he first started performing in 2000, he has become something of an institution, our latest national treasure even, with this latest hour long monologue full of superb stories, each crafted with an expansive lexicon and punctuated with a perfectly timed punch line that is as effective as it is funny.
There’s a script, of course. But a master raconteur like Brandreth needs no encouragement to venture off-piste as we did here once he’d spotted an American in the audience from Bel Air, Maryland. Cue a five minute extemporisation on John Wilkes Booth from that very city, who achieved more notoriety for having assassinated President Lincoln than he did from his chosen profession as an actor. And Brandreth didn’t miss a beat, weaving this sidebar seamlessly into the overall theme of his show.
And do the words flow! Machine-gun delivery in the style Brandreth uses probably comes at about 150 words per minute. An hour of that means he has to assemble around 9000 words into a storyline that both engages his audience and is funny. There’s not a stumble, nor a mumble, let alone a sign that he’s lost the thread. It’s a master class in stand-up comedy/storytelling that any aspiring comedian should be making a beeline to watch, listen and learn from.
It’s all over far too quickly, but how on earth do you rate a show like this? Brandreth himself is on record as not agreeing with the star system used by many publications. And FringeReview moved away from the quantitative to the qualitative some years ago, so how about the following:
Must See Show for the bus pass brigade, which was about 80% of the audience the day I was there. You’ll recognise all the stars of stage and screen that Brandreth name checks as well as appreciate the comfort of listening to a doyen of stage and screen that is the reassuring face of a well-known brand of stair lifts and the calming voice behind a leading purveyor of incontinence pads.
Highly Recommended for those approaching their bus pass years, largely for the reasons above but also because you can laugh at all the people laughing at the stair lift and incontinence pad references (although your time will come!)
Recommended for everyone else with a sense of humour and an interest in preserving the stories behind live theatre. And there’s the world premiere of a Ronnie Barker parody of Christmas Day in the Workhouse. Oh, and it’s probably the only comedy show at the Fringe that’s a Brexit-free zone.
Need any more incentive to trot along? An absolute master class in comedic storytelling.