Comedy dominates the Festival Fringe again this year. Visitors will have a choice of over 1250 acts on the official programme alone. Many well-established favourites are making welcomed returns, but there is also a wealth of new or rising talent and numerous debut performances. I managed to meet up with two solo acts back in June who were looking forward to their Edinburgh run.
Both comedians delight in being subversive and challenging perspectives and norms that in their view are so often unquestioningly accepted.
Sindhu Vee was born into a Hindu establishment family in India, where she was raised and went to university. She has degrees from Delhi, Oxford (for which she received a Radhakrishnan scholarship), McGill and Chicago Universities. She also has half a PhD and spent a short time as a model with Yves Saint Laurent. With that out of her system and professorial aspirations behind her, she deployed her qualifications in what became a successful career in investment banking. Encouraging her midlife career change to full-time comedian have been her Danish husband, her three children, their giant Labrador and her parents.
Eshaan Akbar shares a background with some similarities. He’s the son of a Labourite father from Pakistan and a Thatcherite mother from Bangladesh. Privately educated in England, he picked up a couple of degrees and worked in wealth management, local government and corporate communications. After three months of redundancy, which he hid from his parents by getting up and leaving the house as usual every morning, a friend suggested the he might take up comedy. As his confidence grew in that area, so did the invitations to write articles for The Guardian, The Times, The Observer, New Review and a number of other publications. With his flair for words he has also done some speech writing. His antics on stage might also show the occasional throwback to his choreographing and performing in a string of Bollywood dance productions.
Reviews of his Fringe debut in 2017 noted the secure autobiographical basis of his humour. Working his way through key aspects of his life, audiences came to know the man and understand the influences that created him. Islam features significantly in his jokes and is the major theme of this year’s show. He has now disavowed himself from the faith in which he grew up, not exclusively as a result of being overwhelmed by the lure of beer and bacon.
Prophet Like It’s Hot is a show about society’s relationship with faith and, in particular, its understanding of the Qur’an. The show is not without risks. If Salman Rushdie could have a fatwah placed upon him, an apostate who uses the holy book as a source of humour is surely living dangerously. He remains unrepentant, however. His show is not just about making jokes: in an age of misunderstanding he embarks on a course of demystification and exploration of faith in modern society, exposing the irrational and interpreting the rational. Potentially, the universal personal themes that are woven into the fabric of this performance should touch the hearts and lives of people with any or no beliefs.
The human condition is also the spine of Vee’s show, although the angle is quite different. Traditional aspects of Hindu life and culture certainly feature and associated Indian stereotypes afford some of the humour, but marriage and family life in general form the dominant themes of her comedy. Although she didn’t begin her new life until 2015 she has already managed to appear on QI and Have I Got News For You. Her instant appeal, intellect and performance skills have also earned her an appointment as the new host of BBC Radio 4 podcast Comedy of the Week. A comedy series of her own, Sindhustan, on the same channel, transmits later this year.
Sandhog marks Vee’s full-length debut at the Fringe. Rooted in her own experience, which is far more stable and secure than the show suggests, it explores the exhausting, complicated and inescapable urge to love in relation to one’s children, spouse and parents. It’s full of sensitive yet often uncomfortable and hard-hitting observations. If your relationship is on the rocks, if your family is even slightly dysfunctional or if it’s about time you faced some home truths, prepare to do some wriggling in your seat or even to slide under the one in front of you. Let it be known that lifetime monogamy is not obligatory and that divorce is an option; you just have to see the funny side of the options.
Both comedians delight in being subversive and challenging perspectives and norms that in their view are so often unquestioningly accepted. Through their humour they attempt to demystify values and traditions and bring nuance to simplistic reactions and generalisations. Believing that much comedy arises out of pain, their evenings of thrills for thinking people might serve to relieve some of their audiences’ sufferings. Simultaneously it might leave them a little uncomfortable with much to reflect upon. Either way there will be some great laughs involved.