‘I’m just imagining a world in which, I’m going to the fringe, the highlight of my year, it’s so communal and exciting, and then – Oh sorry, that’s not happening, what you’ve got instead is some sketches recorded in an audiobook format instead of the best arts festival in the world.” So begins the contribution of sketch troupe Sheeps to Penguin’s audiobook Edinburgh Unlocked. They’re recording this in early March 2020 (so the joke goes), when such a fate is absolutely “not worth thinking about!”
It wasn’t – but is it now? A “fringe-inspired audio comedy festival”, Edinburgh Unlocked can now be enjoyed in lieu of this year’s missing carnival in the Scottish capital. And, even granting Sheeps’ point that it can’t begin to substitute for the real thing, it really is enjoyable. Props to the curators: the lineup is packed with acts I’d have been first in line to see at the in-real-life #Edfringe. Newcomers Chloe Petts and Mo Omar, double-acts Shelf and Anna and Helen, big-hitters Jordan Brookes and John Kearns: it’s a bill that steers far from the middle-of-the-road towards comedy’s most creative talents.
In some cases, we get excerpts of the shows we might have encountered in Edinburgh. Drag queen Glamrou’s remarkable autobiographical set combines cross-cultural material (he’s a queer Iraqi Muslim who went to an all-boys boarding school in the UK) with outrageous – and sacrilegious – sex comedy. He has clearly lived a life of extremes, so the story stays extraordinary even when the humour isn’t. It has all the hallmarks, in other words, of a classic Edinburgh debut, declaring “This is me!” so eye-catchingly the rookie weaknesses are easy to ignore.
I could say the same about ex-model turned comic Michelle de Swarte’s 20 minutes, which address “the benefits of being fit as fuck” – which no one, she claims, ever speaks honestly about. Sure enough, this feels like a fresh perspective, as De Swarte recounts her years of sailing through life, blithe in the advantages beauty confers – and cuts through the cant often uttered on this subject. It’s as much TED Talk as comedy – although, who knows, it might (as might Glamrou’s show) come gloriously alive in person.
Elsewhere, there’s more bespoke material. Drawing on the claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic, Ivo Graham parallels that tragedy with his own unheroic lockdown experience. It’s urbane and self-mocking, and much fun is had domesticating Shakespeare’s blasted-heath original, as the character of the Earl of Kent is compared to Mrs Doubtfire, and tennis player Kyle Edmund fingered as proof that all Edmunds are “rotters”. Comedy award champ Jordan Brookes offers a binaural “guided meditation” that goes dark and self-reflexive, as we journey from the beach of tranquillity past the goblins of repressed trauma to a nasty encounter with some penis-shaped cars.
Of the three hours I listened to, further highlights included duo Giants’ silly and strangely touching lockdown-era song, We Will Party Again, in their alter ego as Norwegian pop stars Fjord; and squabbling sisters Jessie and Bebe Cave, in an item with all the uncomfortable intimacy of Jessie’s solo work. It feels less like a show, more like an eavesdropped conversation. (“What’s your new hobby? Doing makeup shitly?” / “Well at least I don’t look like a Mormon.”) Sheeps’ set is another standout, even if (or not least because) it includes material from their terrific 2018 show. In March, fringe-as-audiobook wasn’t worth thinking about. In August, it’s well worth listening to.
Edinburgh Unlocked is published by Penguin Audio (£16) and is available at Audible, Kobo and other online platforms