Tuesday 21 November 2017

Stage... Fringe benefits: shows not to miss at festival

Lady pilot: Clare Dunne shoots drones into Afghanistan in Grounded at the Tiger Dublin Fringe
Lady pilot: Clare Dunne shoots drones into Afghanistan in Grounded at the Tiger Dublin Fringe

Maggie Armstrong

You see them around all year. In cafes, tapping at laptops, writing shows. On makeshift stages in half-empty pubs, testing out bits of shows. Making you coffee, looking like they'd rather be sweating it out on stage. The Fringe performers are like you and me, only a little bit better. When they finish work, their work begins. They can act, sing, tease: they are able to get up in front of a room and briefly overturn how we see the world.

This year's Tiger Dublin Fringe, to use its full, alcohol-sponsorship title, offers two weeks of much-hyped new shows, free shows, shows in secret locations, social experiments; the parochial and the international, with no distinctions between art forms but a laser focus on comedy. The tremendous thing is the Spiegeltent is back for the first time since 2009, the spiritual home of the Fringe, setting up camp at Wolfe Tone Square by the quays.

In previews we but gamble on the hits and misses. So here are my awards for a festival that hasn't happened yet. (Runs September 7-20, 2015, see fringefest.com)

Best thing to come out of Westmeath:

Alison Spittle is the latest fascination on the stand-up circuit. "I try to find the funny parts of experiences I have that are not all that positive," says this giddily self-contained artiste. Her new show is Alison Spittle Discovers Hawaii (Sept 8-11, The International Bar). Alison has never been to Hawaii. "The nearest I got was buying a grass skirt in the pound shop and watching Dog the Bounty Hunter," she says. "The show is about finding your own personal Hawaii, that place in your head where everything is okay."

Best blockbuster:

Clare Dunne plays a hot-rod F16 fighter pilot in Grounded, written by US playwright George Brant and directed by Selina Cartmell (Sept 5-12, Project Arts Centre). Her character becomes pregnant and is "grounded" - she must settle to fly drones. "I'm getting to experience the mindset of someone sitting at a computer, flying a drone. The show is about the effect this has on her," says Clare. The one-woman play explores the banality of killing, of balancing work and family. "It's about coming home from war, having dinner. Any hard-working parent will relate to it. It's so domestic and yet so epic."

Best heartbreaker:

A barista by day, a singer by night, Sean Kennedy is a beautiful boy, and a classical tenor to wit. Boy is his Fringe debut. "I tell a story about domestic violence, abandonment and loss. I sing some opera arias, they act as an emotional vent, they work as a release valve," says the boy. "It's about a selection of things that happened in my life and how I came through them. When I sing, it's like soaring through another world. It can feel like crying". (Sept 15-19, Smock Alley).

Best man:

I shall never forget my first Fringe. It must have been 2003, sitting in the Spiegeltent drinking one of those cloudy German weiss beers that flowed through our pipes in that prosperous epoch. David O'Doherty emerged, sat at a keyboard and floored everyone with delight. A musical comic with a tenacious grasp of the absurd and the maudlin, David O'Doherty has become a man, pushing 40, sporting full-face hipster beard and new show (Sept 18-19, Project Arts Centre).

Best meal deal:

From a college canteen called Luncheonette, three comedians bring us Flemish Proverbs. Set during the Dutch Golden Age, Moira Averill Brady, Isadora Epstein and James Moran will tell a tale and cook a historically accurate meal that might include pickled beetroot, white fish and beer (Sept 9-11, 14-15, National College of Art and Design). "It's about the prison of life," says Moira casually. It may also be about the prison of the day job. "I'm a career waitress", she says. "I've worked in restaurants since I was 14." She works in this very eatery even when not performing. "It's where I make mayonnaise all the time."

Best Walter Mitty:

 By day you hear Abie Philbin Bowman reporting on RTÉ's Arena, or see his stuff on Irish Pictorial Weekly or Callan's Kicks. By night, the stand-up brings us his new political satire, Developing the Country as a Hole (Sept 7-12, Sweeney's Underbelly). "Comedy is surprising people with the truth," says the exuberantly clever Abie. "The magic moment in comedy is when everyone realises together that something is completely bonkers." His material rambles from the topical - the marriage referendum, immigration, ISIS - to his own marriage and "the year I spent growing up, getting a house and a real job".

Best last-night blow-out:

When I was at Trinity, James Walmsley was a swaggering history student who wore pointed crocodile shoes and carried an impish elan about him. He did an excellent Dylan impersonation. Girls trailed him. He left college. He formed a comedy collective, Dead Cat Bounce, in which he played electric guitar and wailed out ridiculous lyrics. Here, with a new solo career, he has put together the one-night Hootenanny, a Fringe fundraiser. Co-producer Megan Riordan says it is "a compilation variety show showcasing a mix of top Fringe talent". (Sept 20, Spiegletent, €25).

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