My one-woman show: what I learned in Edinburgh

A couple of weeks ago, Georgie Grier, a comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe, posted a plaintive message on Twitter (or whatever its Musky name is now – Cross, is it?). There had been an audience of one at her show the previous night, she reported sadly, closing with a tearful ‘It’s fine, isn’t it? It’s fine…?’ Accompanying the message was a selfie of Georgie looking devastated.

It was a clever idea. Social media loves nothing better than shared misery. In a flurry of pink hearts and emojis, the Twitter/Cross community expressed their support. Comedy stars revealed that they, too, had once played to audiences of one. One sharp-eyed journalist almost crashed the vibe by noting that Georgie had sent out a similar message at the 2022 festival but that was too late to derail the publicity train. Tickets for the show were soon selling merrily.

All this brought back some slightly discomfiting memories from exactly ten years ago when I was in Edinburgh with my own show of songs and stories,  called My Village and Other Aliens. I was a rookie then in my mid-sixties  – just a kid with a crazy dream, really  – and I had thought a good way to launch a ironical, musical take on rural life was to take it to the sophisticates of the Edinburgh Fringe. After all, they like the unusual up there.

In My Village and Other Aliens, I played the part of a self-deluding writer, reporting on village life, and occasionally breaking into song.

This was not – maybe you have spotted this – the greatest of concepts. I received a few faintly bewildered three-star reviews and a good kicking in the Scotsman, but I survived the three weeks, almost entirely thanks to the valiant support of my good friends Rocky and Adrian Laird-Craig with whom I was staying.

But it was tough. Looking back on my Edinburgh adventure a decade on, I can see that, while neither the show nor my career benefitted much, I learned a few things that have held me in good stead since then.

PR is only important if it’s done right.  During the festival, the streets of Edinburgh are full of people promoting shows. Most of them are young, talented, attractive, energetic and interesting. A man of a certain age wandering down the Royal Mile, pressing flyers into the hands of confused tourists will not cut it. I discovered over those three weeks that I’m not good at promotion; nor, more surprisingly was, the was the London publicist I had hired to help push the show. Her list of media coverage mostly consisted of the columns I wrote in the Independent.

Nobody knows who you are. Delusion is important for a writer – how else would you get out of bed every morning?  – but, if you are performing at the Edinburgh Festival, it needs to be cut with reality. I was used to appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival in Charlotte Square and at that event you are surrounded be people who know you, or at least know of you.  The literary world, though, is a tiny, inward-looking village; being known there is meaningless in the chilly outside world. I thought I could at least rely on a few writers in my audience, having been a regular at adult and children’s events at the Book Festival down the years. Surely a few if them would be intrigued by my journey from the tents of Charlotte Square to a basement in the middle of town. Nope. I soon gave up visiting Charlotte Square with my flyers, concluding that –

There’s no snob quite like a book snob.

Irony works best on the page. My show was about a self-important prat. The world around him was seen through the distorting lens of his own vanity. That was the central joke of the show. Unfortunately, most audience members looked at the stage and simply saw a self-important prat.  I realise now that there are all sorts of tricks on the page that writers use to point up the unreliability or idiocy of a narrator. On a stage, it takes acting, performance, comic skill – none of which, I painfully discovered, I possess.

The only person I can play on a stage is myself.

Small audiences are not the end of the world. Twenty was a good night. Five to ten was average. Like Georgie Grier, I had an audience of one – I’m grateful to this day to the woman who sat with me for an hour as we both maintained the illusion that this was entirely normal. After the show, sitting gloomily atop Arthur’s Seat contemplating the debacle, I considered posting something witty and self-deprecating on Twitter, but thought better of it.

Good thing too. That kind of self-promotion can only work if you are a certain sort of person and performer. A bit like the Fringe itself.