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A Near-Death Experience At The Edinburgh Fringe

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Like many of my distant ancestors I am spending this month performing in a cave. Such is the fate of the stand-up comic that for one month every year we revert to a Cro-Magnon existence. We tell jokes in subterranean oubliettes whilst condensation creeps down walls freshly adorned with electricity cables and hastily erected lighting rigs. It's a health and safety nightmare, but we pretend not to notice. If there's a fire, we perish. This is the risk we take.

My show is at eight o'clock in the evening, and by that time the surface of the stage has a clammy, mucous quality about it. This prevents me from moving around too much for fear of slipping and falling headlong into the front row. Admittedly, that could be quite funny, but slapstick isn't my forte and I bruise like a little girl.

I'm not complaining. Some of my most exciting experiences in Edinburgh have taken place in dark, wet rooms. There's something quite exhilarating about watching comedy in an apocalyptic bunker. There's that "all-in-this-together" spirit, a determination to enjoy oneself in spite of the discomfort. I should imagine this is very much how it felt at the time of the blitz.

Under such circumstances, you're relying to a degree on the goodwill of your audience. But a couple of nights ago I found myself in a situation that could only ever really happen at the Edinburgh Fringe. It left rather a sour taste in the mouth. Not unlike that time at Pizza Express when, midway through a green salad, I noticed an infestation of creeping things in my radicchio. (I still fully intend to seek vengeance for this, I just haven't got round to it yet.)

Let me set the scene. My flyerers and I had been working the streets of Edinburgh for a good few hours. I realise that my phrasing carries an implication of prostitution, which is not too far off the mark. One of my flyerers, Thomas, actually offered sexual favours to a group of Australian backpackers as an incentive to see my show. You might call it desperate, I call it an ingenious marketing strategy.

In any case, after three hours of begging and general degradation, we were a mess. To make matters worse, I was nursing what Eric Linklater once so memorably termed a "three-dimensional hangover". We were tired, miserable, and our hands were crosshatched with paper cuts. Still, the show would be starting in less than fifteen minutes, so the end was very much in sight. It was at this point that we found ourselves caught in one of those Scottish monsoons you may have read about in the National Geographic. I called out to my flyerers to take cover, my mouth filling instantly with rainwater as I did so.

I abandoned my flyers and sought refuge in my venue. After all, the show was due to start very soon and I needed to do a quick sound check. It was at this point that my technician informed me that there was a seventy-five percent chance that there would be a power cut at some point during the next hour. Apparently, Scottish Power were digging up the street so that they could play Cat's Cradle with the cables, so some of my show was probably going to have to take place in complete darkness. This is all very well if you're an extreme performance artist, but I can't think of anything less conducive to comedy (with the exception, perhaps, of Roy "Chubby" Brown). I'll bet that blitz analogy doesn't seem too hyperbolic now, does it?

And so, when the audience entered, they were positively sodden with the rain, and were visibly miserable. It looked like they were shuffling in at gunpoint for some kind of Stalinist show trial. This, I thought to myself shrewdly, is not ideal.

But Fate was about to issue another of its wanton bitch-slaps. As I was welcoming more audience members at the door, seven or eight rather burly middle-aged men marched past me, their faces masks of pure rage. They ignored my greetings and took their seats on the second row, some finding consolation in their pint glasses. In their wake, a young barmaid entered, clearly agitated, and told me that she had just had a blazing row with these men and that they were "likely to cause trouble".

Some more commotion outside was the prelude to yet another spectacular entrance. A young man, drunk to the point of idiocy, was shepherded in by one of his friends, who told me that he would "be absolutely fine" before guiding him to a seat. I was not so reassured when the venue's security guard came in to tell me that this drunken man had been barking at strangers in the bar, and that it might be prudent to have him ejected. Not wanting to cause any more problems, I decided to let him stay.

And so the show began. I took my place in the spotlight, and looked out at this poor, drenched collective. The entire second row glowered at me, still seething from their altercation with the barmaid. The drunken man started to make noises, not wholly dissimilar from the anguished cries of a dying sow. I announced that there was a very real possibility that we would be plunged into darkness at some point during the next hour, thanks to the machinations of Scottish Power. Needless to say, the atmosphere was tense. I could practically chew on it.

Perhaps I am gifted with a form of clairvoyance, but I felt fairly sure that this would be a tough gig.

Welcome to Edinburgh.