I just want to first make sure that we’re on level ground here: I think Barnardo’s is super. Give five stars to any charity, I say. They’re great – even those ones that fund counselling sessions for mules dissatisfied with the tedium into which their once lofty ambitions have descended.
It’s not important that a show hosted by Jo Caulfield is essentially starting at the bottom of a steep hill, as stimulating as her observational comedy and mundane audience interaction are. Any flagging mirth will in any case be dealt with by at least one of the bevy of contributors conscripted to the gig. James Acaster, the least known act, was excellent, and so too, unsurprisingly, was David O’Doherty. From Milton Jones and Tim Vine to Susan Calman, Dylan Moran and Aisling Bea, there is bound to be something to like.
But this isn’t the point. If I was going to assess the comic stylings of the comedians, I would review their solo shows. The point is that this is a charity gig.
The problem with it all was articulated best by the way Time Vine ended his set. A song, ‘Pen Behind the Ear’, plays throughout the auditorium as he attempts to catch a biro on the back of his ear, lasting for thirty seconds or so. He played this song seven times, at which point I think even his most stalwart fans were beginning to falter. We sat there watching a man aware that he was doing something entirely uninteresting, aware that the time was pushing on midnight and we had homes to go to, but who did not stop until, mercifully, after eight rounds of the song, he succeeded. And why did he keep trying? Because this was about him.
Having been asked at the beginning of the show to applaud those who had given up their night off to do this, it felt more like we were celebrating the comedians than the charity itself. Barnardo’s was barely engaged with, depending on two flimsy borders at the side of the stage to remind us of its relevance. It was little more than a footnote as our host sent us home, the recipient of some obligatory platitude like ‘They do great work’ or some such.
I can’t help but feel uncomfortable when self-importance is being embraced more than is charitable donation, but the gig was not without entertainment. It is undoubtedly a good thing that we have big names in comedy come together for a night of the Fringe for such a worthy cause. Barnardo’s has done and will continue to do much good, and it is only right that at such an expansive cultural festival we pay homage to the work that it has done.