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Edinburgh 2012: That Was The Fringe That Was

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It's ironic that in the year that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe introduced a Spoken Word category for the first time, its biggest comedy awards recognised silent comics.

The brilliantly bonkers, beautifully bearded clown Doctor Brown won the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award; while its Panel Prize rightly went one of the darlings of the Edinburgh Fringe, Sam Wills - aka The Boy With Tape On His Face - who performs his comedy high jinks with a strip of duct tape over his mouth.

In fact, the shortlist for the 2012 Comedy Award was one of the most eclectic in its history - featuring not just the silent clowning of Doctor Brown but also the wonderful, quirky Australian Claudia O’Doherty, the softly spoken but killer delivery of James Acaster, the effortlessly lovely and funny Josie Long, the surreal joy of Canadian Tony Law and the brilliant, acclaimed sketch troupe Pappy’s.

Pappy's were expected by many to win the Comedy Award - and likewise, the teacher-turned-stand-up David Trent was the Best Newcomer nominee with arguably the most 'buzz' about him, not the eventual winner (delightful Norwegian stand-up Daniel Simonsen).

And as Cardinal Burns note in this piece about the Edinburgh Fringe, it's all about 'buzz'. Pappy's and Trent may have missed out on the big prizes, but like Brown and Simonsen, they've caused a stir, raised their profiles and garnered great word of mouth about their acts. In short: they have 'buzz' - and that can count for as much.

Outside of individual acts, 2012 will also go down as the year that the Fringe bubble arguably burst. Audience figures were down dramatically in the first two weeks and acts that would be expected to sell out found themselves playing to half-empty rooms. As Richard Herring wrote in his blog, whether this was due to the Olympics, the recession or the high price of staying and going out in Edinburgh ("delete or add as applicable – there's no definitive answer"), it maybe means that the Fringe is now simply too big and can't successfully sustain itself. "It's open to the same market forces as the rest of life and it can't expand indefinitely," said Herring. "Things can't keep getting more expensive without something breaking."

Certainly, the choice of shows can be overwhelming. The Free Fringe is also bigger than ever, and while that's great news for punters' wallets - and a good deal for the acts - this combined with the sheer scale of the Fringe means that it's harder than ever for comedians and other performers to cut through the white noise. So will anything change in 2013? Is the Fringe so big that it needs its own Fringe? Watch this space to see what conclusions the Fringe Society comes to. In the meantime: the festival may be over, but many of the acts we saw will be touring their sets - so here's our list of...

Shows we loved - and acts to watch out for
  • In stand-up comedy: Bridget Christie made us howl with War Donkey - an utterly delightful hour about feminism that's silly but smart, thought-provoking but never po-faced. Josie Long made us love her even more with her latest hour, Romance And Adventure, which mixed the personal with the political. Sara Pascoe's frank, quirky (slightly) musical version of her life story - or at least her childhood - was a delight. Stewart Lee's Carpet Remnant World was a masterclass in delivery, dissection and castigating the audience ("MY timing is brilliant. Yours is all over the f***ing place"). As mentioned above, David Trent's hilarious video clips, force-of-nature delivery and wonderful writing and structure made him a Fringe highlight and a definite one-to-watch. And So You Think You're Funny? winner Aisling Bea and runner-up Jonathan Pelham are both clearly stars of the future, albeit with hugely different styles.
  • In character comedy: Alex Dubus' alter ego, the wine-drinking, womanising Frenchman Marcel Lucont - who produced our favourite pre-show announcement ("English persons are permitted to watch as long as they are switched to silent or vibrate"). Comic actress Anna Morris, whose array of spot-on, darkly comic characters mark her out as one to watch. And as he's actually known as Phil Burgers in real life: Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Doctor Brown, a silent comedy act that has to be experienced to be believed. Just avoid the front row. And being male.
  • In musical comedy: The Horne Section came up trumps (and trumpets) again, with more delightful silliness, a musical homage to the Olympics, and an array of special guests including Tim Key, Simon Amstell and Suggs. Vikki Stone - she of The Philip Schofield Song fame - is an ebullient, natural born entertainer (and we have to love anyone who puts on a beard, pretends to be Noel Edmonds and plays Deal Or No Deal with cheese). We were also taken with the talented twosome Bourgeois & Maurice, whose songs cover not the usual cabaret fare, but politics and current affairs - to hilarious effect.
  • In sketch comedy: Like policemen, sketch comedians tend to be white and male. And like policemen, they seem to be getting younger every year. But the men were sorted from the boys when we saw Cardinal Burns - returning to Edinburgh for just a few, triumphant nights with some of their best-loved (and impeccably written and acted) characters and sketches - and those aforementioned Comedy Award nominees Pappy's, whose fantastically funny, terrifically crafted Last Show Ever! may well be their best show ever. Catch them on tour this autumn if you can.
  • And in other comedy: Former Daily Star journalist Rich Peppiatt isn't a stand-up, but his show One Rogue Reporter is a wonderfully funny - and enlightening - indictment of the tabloid press. And we were lucky enough to sit in on the recording of BBC Radio 4's Tonight With Rory Bremner, which was a Scottish devolution special. Listen to it here while you still have the chance (ie. before it's taken down. Not before Scotland's devolved.)

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