Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Put on your party frock on and some dancing shoes and let the mysterious power of karaoke heal you.
Underbelly’s Big Belly is a lovely round cavern of a venue and most suitable doubling as a late-night bar in Scott Swinton’s “Karaoke Saved My Life”.
It’s true to say that as his story unrolls, you realise that the title’s a bit sensationalist – this is a first-love story, but Scott’s life was never in mortal danger – just like the silver star-spangled black suit with turquoise sequinned shirt he wears, this is all about a slightly self-deprecating and essentially shy man using a bit of showbiz to tell his story.
There’s no set except for a music stand and a tablet which plays the music that forms the soundtrack to his adventures. There are two microphones because this is a show about sharing. Swinton’s gentle persona allows him to relate the progress of his romance, but the focus is never really solely on him – it’s about his generosity of spirit allowing the members of his audience who choose to take part in a number to shine.
Growing up, it’s clear he feels slightly inadequate, unlike the athletes and cheerleaders who go on to be Prom King and Queen. He’s no jock, but maybe if he dates a cheerleader he can join the club? The object of his affection dates a football player, but after graduation she moves to California, intent on an acting career. He writes letters but the response is still a bit luke-warm. Persistence and a grand gesture drive across the USA, “from New York to LA” as the song goes, puts him back in the picture. Does he finally get the girl? It’s great fun finding out.
If Swinton’s personality is in the minor key it allows his willing victims to play in major – he’s a gentle, smiling presence – a bit like a long-lost uncle at a family wedding. He’s enjoying himself and he’s making sure you do too, with good assurance and consent handling that never feels false or forced. If he were more confident the show would lose a little of its very individual charm. He is self-confessedly atonal, but he really loves singing, so why not join in?
At my show there were maybe a dozen. People from Barcelona, all over the UK. Complete strangers, who, after the ice is broken, root for each other as they have a go at anything from “Don’t Stop Believing” (the Glee version, that’s important) to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” – even Kate Nash’s difficult “Foundation”. There were some great voices in my crowd and as the story nears its end we all feel like we’ve bonded. There are handshakes and hugs. The finale is a big bop on the stage with Scott – one of the Spanish girls grabbed the mike and rocked out to – well I’ll save that treat for you. Just for a moment all the troubles in the world didn’t touch us in that little Edinburgh bubble.
If the show works that well with a small number I wonder what it would be like with a full-house. It’s not ground-breaking and it doesn’t have a particular message. But it reminded me of Terry Wogan being asked what he thought were the three most important words – “Kindness, kindness, kindness”. I came out feeling great – it’s life-affirming and hugely entertaining. Put on your party frock on and some dancing shoes and let the mysterious power of karaoke heal you.