What would you do with your first solo Fringe show? You've an hour to fill with the juciest, ripest fruits of years of labour. Perhaps you've done a few sub-hour runs in preparation. Perhaps you've premiered the show elsewhere, tweaking it obsessively before arriving at Waverley station. Almost certainly, there's a lot riding on this. For starters, it's the first and only time you're going to be eligible for an Edinburgh Comedy newcomers' award, along with the sweet sweet £5000 prize that might cover half of your accommodation costs for the month. So what you gonna do? Play it safe or leap for glory?
Well, if you ask Jack Barry, newcomer year is an opportunity to keep it safe and rely on the ease and charm you've honed over several years. Formerly a member of sketch duo Twins, and latterly the support act for rising (risen?) star James Acaster, the 27-year-old has a fair amount of experience to draw on – experience he uses to great effect. He's a relaxed, low-key performer, and his material suits it. He opts for easy, throwaway lines rather than attempting to build outlandish crescendos. He's self-aware and unafraid to puncture the artifice of a comedian on a soap box ("It's hard being 27...it's not really"). He pieces all the necessary elements together—tall stories, callbacks, obligatory audience banter with a degree of skill that belies his youth.
But this feels far too much like a man going through the motions – phoning in talent wrapped up in paper-thin material. "Everyone at the Fringe this year has a joke about Tinder, so here is mine," he says, between jokes on stupid people and fried chicken. It's as if he's embarrassed to reach out of his comfort zone and risk failure. One of the showstopping moments of Twins' show last year involved a sketch delivered entirely in Mandarin – a language Barry speaks fluently. He recalls this briefly, and shows for a brief moment what a rich seam his multilingualism can be for comedy. And then he shuts it down; fills it in. Too risky. The irony is that some of the jokes he does include—lines about "frape" and "pussy hunting"—genuinely are risky, jeopardising the impression of intelligence he's built up. They ought to be cut, however charmingly delivered they might be.
In fact, Barry could take a leaf out of Marny Godden's book. In Flap 'em on the Gate, she throws handfuls of invention and oddity against the wall to see what sticks. A lot of it does. A character comedian—formerly of sketch troupe The Grandees—Godden serves up a selection of her oddest and maddest lads and ladies. Each is nicely delineated, with most of the change occurring in front of our eyes before a final, unseen, finishing flourish to complete the transformation. It's a nice technique, adding outré touches to stock characters, and much-needed expectation to what could be simply mechanical costume changes. In fact, it's a hallmark of Godden's approach throughout: if a dull edge can be made more imaginative, then so it shall be.
Within these parameters, Godden introduces us to Mick the kipper fanatic, a crossword-playing poo-detective, a hoover enthusiast, a digestive-eating, Saab-driving lonely man (with whom I later end up showering – there's audience interaction, too). As you might imagine, with raw material like this the emphasis of Godden's comedy is on silly and surreal, but it's carried off with more than enough commitment and charisma from a superb comic actor. Too much commitment, perhaps: where Godden struggles is in escaping from her alter-egos. Songs are repetitive; characters hang around, fast becoming unwelcome guests rather than the flashes of inspiration they started as. Godden needs a 16-ton weight—or equivalent—to shut them up and charge on.
As an aside, Godden is to be congratulated for the way she deals with a very vocal young audience member on the afternoon I'm in. Without hint of anger or frustration, she involves him just enough to ensure he has a good time, without allowing the intrusions to dominate the show. Sure, there are ropey bits in Flap 'em on the Gate, but Godden is a class act.
If it's hints of Godden's own warmth we see behind her characters then, by contrast, there's little of Corey White we're not exposed to. We're shown everything, from the horror of his upbringing (criminal father; heroin-addicted mother), through his own meth addiction, and the darkest secrets of a failed relationship. It might seem unfair to include White in a newcomers column, given that he has been gigging since 2008. But this is the Australian's first Edinburgh show, and what's clear with this hyper-personal focus is that he's absolutely gone for the no-guts-no-glory approach.
It pays off. There's a reasonable criticism which sees confessional shows as a cynical trade-off of personal strife for laughs and pathos. This is not that show – though laughs and pathos are there in spades. For starters, it's off the scale in terms of the volume and quantity of strife White has to trade in. The guy should not be alive to tell us about it. Secondly, this isn't really about White at all, but about the human capacity for empathy and forgiveness, with this bogan as case study. That's the bit that turns White's tale into human drama rather than personal confession. Never have Plato's virtue-based ethics and comedy stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the service of human endeavour.
Technically, it's a also great piece of standup. White has a number of tools in his box, and he handles them adroitly, from poetic flights of fancy to surreal faux dialogues. There are also some priceless one-liners, whipped out when the mood risks becoming morose. Sure, there are long expositional sections which could do with closer attention to the writing, as well as Aussie references which might be clarified. And there's a near-absent weapon in his armoury, namely a reluctance to make the audience feel at all uncomfortable. Only once does he refuse to ease us out with a joke, and that's when discussing his rape, aged 10. It's powerful, and under-used. If White is asking us to think about the way we seek to understand others' mistakes, he oughtn't let us off quite so easily. Still, he'll probably have plenty of opportunity to tweak this show. There's absolutely no way it's stopping in Edinburgh. Maybe just long enough to pick up an award?