To start with a story: a long time ago the Fringe had no central ticketing system. Admission was cheap, informal, barely managed. For dramatic purposes we'll imagine it as a golden age, even though it was probably a nighmare from the perspective of planning any sort of financial model for performers. Computerised ticketing arrived in the 90s, then the computers broke in 2008 and caused chaos. Wanna know what didn't crash, though? Ticket prices. They crept up and up and up, far outstripping inflation. It's not uncommon these days to find tickets for shows at the Edinburgh International Festival cheaper than those at any of the big four venues. It's not clear how much of this bounty has found its way into performers' pockets.
Understandably, some souls have been moved to act, resulting in several alternate models based around low or no ticket prices. There's insufficient space or inclination here to go down a rabbit hole retelling the not entirely collegiate history of the various free fringes. Suffice to say that the Laughing Horse Free Festival, Peter Buckley Hill's Free Fringe and various other free-ish shows or pay-what-you-want venues—such as Bob Slayer's Heroes—aren't all the same. They have a variety of different models for reserving tickets, paying artists and paying venues. What's consistent is that there's a bucket at the end, and you'd be very mean to consider that a free show means you oughtn't pay the performer for it.
Also important to remember: it's really hard to draw a correlation between ticket price and quality at the Fringe. Hottest ticket in town, and 2016 Comedy Award Winner, Richard Gadd was on the Free Fringe. There's established names charging zilcho up front, like Elvis McGonagall, Harriet Kemsley or Lloyd Langford. There's also a near-unmanageable choice of showcase events where you can sample a number of acts over an hour and (here's the theory) go and see the full shows of those performers you like, and avoid making eye contact with those you don't when you spot them flyering.
Here's one: the tenuously-named Rat Pack Presents: International Stars of Comedy (3 stars) which, on this occasion, features two Englishmen, a Scotsman and Yuriko Kotani representing, one assumes, both Japan and the rest of the world. As with any showcase, there's acts who are literally not worth writing home about (so I won't). But compere Rich Wilson is notable as a textbook example of what makes for a great MC. Making a solid bid for 'most loveable rogue of the Fringe', Wilson is slick, energetic and picks his material carefully in the service of energising the room. The Fringe isn't often the place to celebrate skilful club comics, but Wilson is a great reason to think that's a mistake.
Kotani, too, is a highight. Scratching around in the untranslatable no man's land between English and Japanese she picks at novel insights and does so with a very distinctive voice. Smartly, she plays a bit of a daft lassie. She's well aware of the nuts and bolts of English language and timing that make for good comedy. But she's also able to switch into the habits of her mother tongue to wrong-foot us.
Less a showcase and more a mini movement, Siân Davies has curated a lineup of working-class comedians in Best in Class (3 stars). Spawned out of her frustration at being denied access to Fringe venues because of her inability to front £1,800, she's developed a crowdfunded profit-share model as a means of creating opportunities for working-class comics. Jones sets this up really well, simultaneously unapologetic about the economic and social barriers she's experienced, and unafraid to find the humour in them. The lineup changes each week of the festival, so it's not a complete pot luck, and gives the comics a bit of a chance to get into a groove.
Based on today's performance, Tom Mayhew may need that time. There's too many "what can I talk to you about next" moments to make this anything close to a polished set. That's absolutely not the case for Cheekykita, whose frenetic, uncanny act is a dose of proper, unhinged Fringe idiocy. Less fully-formed character sketches than shambolic variations on a theme of Cheekykita, this is nonetheless proof enough that if you restrict the diversity of voices in comedy, you miss out on head-turning originality.
There's a certain rough 'n' readiness to Arnab Chanda's Stories From Arnab (3 stars), too – though that's not the thing that makes this debut such an endearing hour. Undoubtedly, this is early in the run, and Chanda hasn't quite nailed the segues between the parts of his biographical meanderings yet. His is a story of ferocious talent and an anxious, fidgety dislocation which means he's never really felt he made that talent stick. He quit comedy, lost his hair, and went on a journey of self discovery.
If this sounds mawkish, it's definitely not. There are sweet moments, but Chanda has a delicious edge of understated cynicism, which he positions ambivalently as both cause and effect of his various tribulations. He is a man who can neither believe his successes, nor process his failures. This ensures his defiantly chatty, meandering style contains tension, but it's a tension that he has to consistently work to rebuild. One gets the idea of a sweet anticlimax at the end and, one hopes, it will grow increasingly anticlimactic as he nails the buildup.
Same venue, same room, and Rory O'Keeffe is already as slick as you like. The 37th Question (3 stars) is a polished set from a standup who, having previously talked of his love of language, is making a literary turn with a storytelling show.
O'Keeffe tells the story of Zoe and Stewart, whose geeky romance burgeons, flounders and, in finale, flourishes. It's told through recordings, through O'Keeffe's monologue and through a few bits of choose-your-own-adventure plotting which serve no other purpose than variety – and serve that purpose well enough. It's a really enjoyable story, and the focus here seems to be O'Keeffe working out his writerly chops. Desciptions of place and person are carefully pointed. However, there's the familiar feel of a comedian working hard to tone down the sponteneity and crank up the poetry by chucking in adjectives. Keeffe's self-aware joke about a GCSE drama piece is a little too on point.
But if he's still feeling the heft of a writer's pen, he certainly hasn't quashed his comedic instincts. Leading us variously down cheeky dead ends, or indulging in silly asides, this isn't ever boring. If O'Keeffe does fulful his dream of publishing a novel, sign me up for a pre-order.