It’s August, which means that it’s time for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! The Fringe, which is technically the alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival, is “the largest performing arts exhibition in the world,” with thousands of performances occurring throughout the city over the course of the month. From spoken word to circus arts, every performer has a shot at exposure at a huge level, and many of them even perform for free. At the Fringe, you can buy an early ticket to see a big name, like Trevor Noah, or very likely sit in a small theatre with ten other people in the audience watching someone with nothing but a microphone and a dream.
The Fringe is vast and overwhelming. Walking down one of the major streets in Edinburgh is a bit like being in Times Square—that is if Times Square’s digital neon signs were posters for comedy shows, the skyscrapers were replaced with castle-like architecture, and every superhero impersonator were transformed into ten youngsters aggressively giving out flyers for avant-garde musicals while competing with buskers for space.
And even though the Jewish shows at the fringe were few and far between, I managed to see four very, very different ones. So if you find yourself in Scotland before August is up, here are four short reviews for your consideration:
This two-person show focuses on one Orthodox family in Manchester over the course of one fateful Friday. It’s a musical comedy of sorts, with characters singing new lyrics to popular standards, from Les Miserables to Carly Jepsen. As the title suggests, Freddie Mercury is given special commendation, including a number during which a woman sings about how she wants to clean for Shabbat, expressing “I Want to Clean House,” in lieu of “I Want to Break Free.” If that sounds like it would get old after a moment, well, let’s just say that some of these songs were mostly funny in title alone.
Speaking of cleaning house, the set was impeccably dressed, with only a small space of tchotchkes which perfectly captured an Orthodox home and even included a Chabad-issued menorah, a blessing for the home, and the exactly right brands of alcohol.
This show also had a twist ending that felt surprisingly mean-spirited, and despite the painstaking description of religious Jewish practice, ultimately felt like a mockery of those who cling to those beliefs.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Worth seeing if: Your iPod consists mostly of Top 40 hits, and your favorite sensation is schadenfreude.
Daniel Cainer: 21st Century Jew
As a follow-up to his last show, Daniel Cainer’s Jewish Chronicles, the songwriter explores, through an hour of original music, his family background, upbringing as a British Jew, and complicated relationship with his identity as it stands today. It’s a compelling concept, but in practice a lot of Cainer’s work only skimmed the surface of deeper issues largely without quite sinking in—like his relationship to Israel, or Jewish continuity itself.
Like Mancunian Rhapsody, this show contained a Jewish parent telling their child, “You’re dead to me.” Eerie coincidence, or easy stereotype?
That said, the song about bagels sparked an uncontrollable craving, and after the show my fiancé and I went on a hunt to find some (sorry Scotland, but your bagels don’t measure up).
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Worth seeing if: You go to synagogue twice a year and feel ambivalent about it, and aren’t sure if you say “Oy vey” ironically or not.
Jewish Cockney Caribbean Female
Michelle de Swarte is a fairly young comedian, but she’s already lived quite a life, from growing up in London projects (while her mother was a sex worker), to emigrating to become a high fashion model and discovering the joys of brunch. She also has a Jewish mother and a Jamaican father, and her blend of life experiences make for a performer who comes across as fearless—she’s quick with an improvisation and merciless with a punchline. This certainty gets her easily through any material that’s less strong (though much of it is solid). Her standup set follows the most incredible details of her life with a sense of bemusement.
De Swarte only briefly touches on her Jewish background during her set, as identity stands in stark contrast to the traditional narrative other Jewish shows would show you: She’s British, she’s a woman of color, and she’s had to struggle with poverty. However, her lack of connection shows through in a few unenjoyable jokes like the one that compares the IDF to ISIS.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Worth seeing if: You like jokes about gentrification.
Candy Gigi— Chicken Soup
Candy Gigi is a performer whose solo clown show depicts a first date from hell (where she would be the Devil). The show is fully manic, somewhat terrifying, and a bit brilliant. The absurdist set has to be seen to be believed, and while its only about half an hour, it ends with the comedian covered with everything from toothpaste to lipstick.
Oddly enough, of all the shows on this list, Candy Gigi most seamlessly integrates her Jewish identity into her work. Her character is Jewish, sure (the act’s first word is “Shalom”), but she strikes a natural balance between explicit jokes and letting it be a natural part of her character. Her ethnic neuroses are only one small part of the reason why she’s an undateable monster. It’s refreshing to see a realistic reflection of modern-day Jewishness through an act that involved a blow-up doll in fake payot.
Rating: It should be noted that throughout her routine, Candy Gigi incredulously exclaims that at last year’s fringe she got 3 4-star reviews, and would like instead to try for a bad one. Sorry, but: 4 out of 5 stars it is.
Worth seeing if: You want something weird and wonderful, and you are not easily grossed out.
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