Every time I’ve been to Edinburgh it’s been so full of tourists that I might as well be Judith Chalmers in 1996, wading through a throng of camera-toting idiots, trying to get to the sarong wrap shop before it closes and filming begins.
I can only imagine just how much busier it is during the Edinburgh Festival, a time when thousands upon thousands of comedians, clowns, magicians, finger puppeteers and midget-jester plate spinners descend on the city to play in a tiny room above a pub in front of 3 Japanese tourists who have no idea what the bugger is going on.
So it’s with that in mind that I was sat in the Deaf Institute last Thursday, in front of a makeshift stage in their main bar, while a half-naked man shuffled across the floor in a cheap fabric wardrobe trying to get his Powerpoint presentation to play sound without spoiling the surprise of him being half-naked by getting out to give the AV cable a jiggle.
That was Phil Ellis with his ‘Has Been on Ice’ show, but before that we were treated to Pat Cahill and his stand up/theatre/informative lecture ‘The Fisherman’. Starting the night off in a room full of 25 people, of which all of them are approximately 1 metre in front of you cannot be easy, but Pat managed to hit the ball out of the park.
As he begins, the slow uncomfortable realisation that he may just be coming on stage to talk about the intricacies of fishing begin to dawn on you; as he recounts the moments as a child that he began fishing and started learning the lingo. As he carefully explains the set-up of his rod, and how the perfect tension on the line can produce the best results – you’re quickly thrown into surreal territory as he casts a large flump down the centre aisle towards the audience, and then pulls out a woollen dog hat and precedes to dry hump chairs and chase ping pong balls around the room.
It’s surreal, alternative comedy at its best – start with a simple concept – fishing, and use it to digress into hilarious tangents while always giving the audience a steady base in which the absurdity never really moves too far away from. Pat Cahill accomplished this with ease, and although there are a few areas which needed tightening up or removing altogether – the show looks set to be a corker when it arrives in Edinburgh this August.
This is the ultimate goal of the Group Therapy residency at The Deaf Institute – for comedians to hone and test their Edinburgh shows in front of a slightly forgiving but sometimes brutally honest audience, so they can go to the Scottish capital with the best show possible. For only £5 you get to see two acts (both doing approximately and hour a piece) – and although they may be a work in progress, that doesn’t mean you’ll be short on laughs.
This was definitely the case of headliner of the night – Phil Ellis and his ‘Phil Ellis Has Been on Ice’ show. As mentioned earlier, he starts in a fabric wardrobe – which is supposed to double up as a cryogenic chamber – where he has been for 3 years and now needs educating. Helping to get back on his feet and back into the modern world is TK MAXX, a computer voice with the ability to selectively give Phil back his memories and educate him on world events over the past 3 years.
The concept is excellent, and what begins is a series of seemingly chaotic set pieces, with Phil breaking down the 4th wall as he directly talks and informs the audience on what’s gone wrong or will definitely work better come August. Phil’s comedy pieces were once described as a “series of errors” and this evening was no different – but that’s what made the performance, and Phil’s interaction with the audience so much better and a richer experience.
As he dragged an audience member on stage, and then carried her boyfriend out of the door, Phil’s improvisation and quick thinking patter ensured that the routine remained fresh as everyone was forever on their toes – not knowing what would go wrong, or indeed right next – including Phil himself.
There is a semblance of a structure in there, involving an ex-girlfriend and some bad memories, and I think this is probably where the routine could do with a bit more work. Phil is excellent when things go wrong and at working the room, but the ultimate conclusion to the piece falls a bit flat in comparison to everything else. But once again, this is the point of the show, and the reason why the comedians are doing what they do – to improve and see what works and what doesn’t in preparation for Edinburgh.
If you get the chance to catch either Phil or Pat before Edinburgh I highly recommend that you get involved – you won’t be disappointed. It’s notoriously difficult to make me genuinely laugh, but I found myself chuckling away on many occasions, while my girlfriend cackled away like a Macbeth witch next to me.
The Group Therapy residence is on every Thursday from now until the end of July and is only £5 per person. You can see a full list of the upcoming performances right here.
The Deaf Institute, 135 Grosvenor St, Manchester M1 7HE
0161 276 9350