“It is a joy to watch and is even better in the flesh. Go if you have the chance”
Earlier in the week I’d attended a Fringe show. There were three of us in the audience. Two on stage. I felt for them. I’d guess they felt for me. Audience participation with three audience members his hard yakka for all concerned.
It did seem odd then that my next show was Al Murray, arguably the biggest name at this year’s Fringe. I got there half an hour early and the already the queue for the landlord snaked out of Assembly Gardens and down the roads towards Underbelly. That is the Fringe for you – in all its ridiculous sublimity. If you come to Edinburgh genuinely do try to see as much as you can – from the big names to the small, from the old to the new.
But to our tale… how do you review Al Murray? In a way it is pointless. You don’t analyse our national treasures. You bask. You understand that he is a very British sort of genius – he couldn’t have come into existence anywhere else – and you enjoy.
The crowd was large and boisterous. The circus tent in the gardens crackling in anticipation. And then it began. He ambles in from the back of the venue, gently caressing the bald heads he passes by and bounds on stage. Beer covers the first few rows. Some are surprised. Really?
The pandemic has been good for the landlord. He has waited all his life for this moment. Covid was as he says ‘’our blitz’’. The moment we stood as one and did our bit for Queen and Country. For the first time we join the ranks of British heroes. We, he tells us, are the survivors and he wants to learn who is in the lifeboat with him: who made it through? So much of Murray’s show is unique to the night itself.
There’s little point telling you what happened or highlight particular gags because there’s just so much audience work. There’s no one better at it. Many try. Many manage for five minutes or so… but for the majority of the show. That isn’t high-wire stuff. How anyone can elicit so many laughs from two questions: ‘’what’s your name? What do you do?’’ I’ll never know. Flitting back and forward, weaving their lives together, Ollie in the corner must know Evelyn the gynaecologist and the jaeger bomb Durham boys. The strokers who go for a wee within ten minutes. None of these people will be there tonight. They won’t happen tonight. Something though will.
Throughout the course of the evening we meet Rod in finance, Dim Dave who ‘works for a solicitor’, a sheep farmer, a slow brick maker, a family lawyer (‘and a cold wind whips through the hall”) and many more. At one point he speaks to Deborah who has a play on at the fringe about WWII. The landlord lets loose a stunning two minute summary of the relatively obscure war story the play is about and then back to the important things of talking to the audience.
Of course, the badinage ends up back to the themes of the pandemic, our leaders, our survival against the odds of Covid and in the end he moves from the audience to the central theme that the last the two years we have had to endure.
Al’s theory of how each generation is perfect for the challenges the world throws at it. Our grandparents fought Nazism singlehandedly without help whilst we rose to the challenge we faced, a challenge only our generation could face: staying in the house watching TV for four months.
Whilst being paid by the government.
Tonight’s show will be similar yet entirely different. Where he goes is entirely dependent on who shows up. Only a handful of comics could pull this sort of show off and fewer still relentlessly hit such heights.
There’s little point dwelling on the technicalities. Murray is one of the cleverest, quickest-witted comics out there. You know that. Everyone knows that. It is like explaining Monty Python or David Attenborough or David Gower’s cover drive. His character allows him to explore areas of life that others shy away from or – if they do – tend to veer to shock or righteousness.
One minor point: for an act so on the button of current affairs and with such an intuitive understanding of what the British public thinks… I was a little surprised that there was no mention (in the show I attended) of that other comedian who plays a character that happens to use the actor’s real name: Jerry Sadowitz. I’d have thought that was ripe material for the landlord particularly given some of the gags early on about the various genders of grandchildren that we might boast about our Covid heroism too.
But let’s not dwell too much on this. That is a throwaway thought rather than a criticism.
His character is timeless and needs no introduction: the garrulous British blowhard who almost knows what he is talking about and has a view about everything. It is a joy to watch and is even better in the flesh. Go if you have the chance. Just make sure you know your job and don’t try to claim you are an acrobat.
Come for the crisps being flung at you. Stay for the white wine for the lady. Get your red blazers on and join him in his lifeboat.