Thursday, August 14, 2014

Edinburgh Free Fringe Review: Is he a bit Simon Jay?

Is he a bit Simon Jay is no spring chicken at Great Britain’s fair fringes. It has had previous performances in London, Brighton, Bath, Reading, Oxford and Milton Keynes. And now it’s moved up to bonnie Scotland, like a particularly weird-but-pleasant tingle.

This year’s Edinburgh Free Fringe venue is the Bohemian playground of the Counting House, home of 2013’s marvellous Austentatious. And similar to Austentatious’ downright bonkers improv Austen plays, during the various times I have seen Is he a bit, it has changed, adapted and matured.

Character comedies might be anything but few and far between at the Fringe, and needless to say, I cannot claim to have seen more but a fraction, but this was definitely one of the shows worth coming up for. It’s hard to describe this one: perhaps a wild cocktail of The League of Gentlemen meets Coronation Street on acid, spiced with a pinch of Stephen Fry.

Is he a bit Simon Jay (the character not to be confused with his “puppeteer”, the performer Simon Jay) is the tale of a man of curious biological condition – presented by a floppy claw hand sewn into a jacket draped over a chair, at his own autopsy by Dr Richard Wise, who begins to unravel the mystery of Simon Jay like a morbid Derek Acorah.

Simon Jay’s life spools backwards, revealing his story through the many characters that knew him, loved, hated or love-hated him.  There is his embittered soon-to-be ex-wife Belle, his mouthy chain-smoking tough-love jailbird mother, like a car crash from an EastEnders geriatric gang war, cockney geezer Pete from the Pub (my personal favourite) riddled by his grief for his alien-probed wife Mavis and conspiracy paranoia that caused him to take a gun to his wardrobe, pathological liar creator-of-facts Lee Buxton from the Job Centre, his employer Barry from the sewers, a copper, a priest, a deranged-randy creature called Uncle Terry that somehow strangely rings familiar to most, his tragically deceased sister and even an endearingly stammering Prince Bertie having to deal with a family crisis.

All in all there are 22 characters beautifully distinguished by acting, voices and accents, which culminate in a bizarre, frantic wedding scene in which Simon (the actor) switches between them with a fluid ease, a frantic-comic energy and the humble help of a scarf, which left the audience laughing helplessly. Some might mistake the moments of stabbing satire for crude humour, but it made this here viewer cackle.

Delightful also were the cleverly improvised responses to the noise from the venues next door, providing extra giggles for the audience when it could have easily thrown the performance. Mr Jay knows his role(s) inside out, and he easily charms the pants off his audience.

Is he a bit Simon Jay? is a type of comedy bordering on the surreal that could equally bemuse and bewilder as cause wild hysterics, with an amount of cultural references that tickle older viewers but might easily be lost on the young. Mind, its brief references to sexual deviancy makes it a 14+, anyway. Still, there is plenty of hilarity in it to make it thoroughly enjoyable for a variety of audiences... given that they are willing to let themselves into an experience entirely different from the myriad of bog-standard stand-up the Fringe offers.  Upon first watching it, it evoked a similar reaction in me as my first encounter with The Mighty Boosh did. But the initial “What the fuck am I watching” barrier needs to be broken for full enjoyment and the bonkers embraced in a bear hug, and once achieved, it becomes a thorough delight.