Edinburgh Fringe: Heard The One About Thucydides?
A smile of self-awareness crosses his face. It is a wry expression that characterises his entire act. One could be forgiven for thinking that the son of famed wit, raconteur, author and former Tory MP Giles Brandreth, a product of St Paul’s School and Cambridge, and currently a successful London barrister, might be a touch haughty.
On the contrary, he comes across as self-effacing and unassuming… almost nervous at the prospect of being interviewed. His show too belies expectations, as he pricks his own pomposity (or at least people’s expectations of such) for a full and wonderfully wordy hour.
The Brandreth Papers, a one-man character piece in which the act blends experiences from his own life with the fancy, the hyperbolic and occasionally the surreal, has been playing to full crowds at the Fringe, with fifty or so cramming into a small room nightly. Many of his performances have been in the company of his parents, who sit to the rear.
It is a show born out of his desire to have “a portfolio career,” he tells The Huffington Post UK, stroking his five-week-old baby’s head. The child is called Cornelius - exactly what you would want from a man who already earns a wage as a coach of rhetoric for The Royal Shakespeare Company. As he said: “a portfolio career.”
The genesis of his show started at a Tall Tales night in a pub in Kilburn (London) about a year ago. Having been asked to take part, the 36-year-old decided to tell “an enormous lie”. The audience reacted warmly and Brandreth the performer was born.
“I became addicted to the fact that something I had written could make people laugh,” he says. “I loved the immediacy of the response. But could I do it for a whole hour? I tried and it went well. So well that they asked me to perform here at The Gilded Balloon… actually I said I’d like to come and they very kindly agreed.”
Much of the show has been informed by Brandreth’s work at the RSC. Not so much the content, but certainly his style of story telling.
“Classical rhetoric is all about grabbing the attention of the audience and persuading them to believe you. A lot of the rhetorical tools I try to incorporate into my show. I also wanted to test myself. Here I am teaching students how to use rhetoric, but could I walk the walk as well as talk the talk?”
The answer is most definitely yes, with Brandreth delivering a performance of verbal acuity, in which classical references slide into more modern allusions at a stunning pace. Not once did he trip over a word.
“The first night was terrifying,” he says. “To do a short story night in a pub in London is one thing, but now I’m playing among the big boys. What I’m doing is very wordy and a bit intellectual, but, without wanting to sound pretentious, but inevitably doing so, that is what I’m interested in.”
“I make a joke about Thucydides, I make a joke about Fredrick the Great - not everybody is going to enjoy that. Will I find the right audience for that? Is there an audience for that? So far I’ve had some astonishingly kind reviews and I’m currently selling out. I’m starting to think that there is not only an audience for this kind of thing, but there might be a gap in the market. Some people want to hear observational stuff about cooking pasta with pesto. It is very broad. But perhaps some people want to hear a joke about Emmanuel Kant. It is not easy. Sometime people laugh and sometimes they don’t but at least I tried.”
The show is hard to categorise - part stand-up, part after dinner speech. The man too is equally difficult to pigeonhole.
“Before I came up I would have said I wanted to be a comedian, but now I think I want to be a raconteur. It means to be skilled at telling stories and amusing anecdotes and that’s what I do.”
I enquire as to his inspirations… Peter Ustinov, perhaps?
“I’m aware that Ustinov was a raconteur, but I’ve never actually seen him. I know him as an actor, of course. My main inspiration is my father who is astonishingly good at telling stories. I also really like Woody Allen, who is clever, wordy and unusual but also very likeable.”
“Long-term it would be great if someone asked me to do my show for a London West End audience, but more realistically, I think it is just good to raise my profile. Hopefully people will hear me and think I’m a nice chap and very jolly, then I’ll get to do interesting things like appear on Radio 4 panel shows and do stuff on TV. I’m shameless - I just want to do fun stuff and I’m hoping this will be the launch pad to do it.”
The Brandreth Papers is playing every day at 6pm at The Gilded Balloon until the 29th August.