Interview: 2011 Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Adam Riches returns to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014
The comedian's character-based shows feature a lot of audience participation, so be warned
This article is from 2014.
With his first full show since winning the 2011 Edinburgh Comedy Award, Adam Riches is promising more heavy interaction and in-your-face audience participation. Brian Donaldson will be sitting in the back row
‘I was too tall to be Tigger, and I couldn’t be Goofy, so I was a waiter.’ Adam Riches is recalling his time as a 19-year-old working at Disneyland Paris. This part of our story doesn’t have a happy-ever-after: Riches was fired for being a little bit too cheeky. ‘I hadn’t really worked out what I was going to do beyond that time but any kind of performance elements that I had just manifested themselves in me being a bit of a dick. And so I was constantly messing around; my parents weren’t there, it was a foreign country, I was 19. It was an amazing place with amazing people coming from all over the world. They all hated each other but they all combined to hate me. Yeah, I got fired for being a bit of a douche.’
Adam Riches has pretty much got where he is today by continuing to be a douche. Or, more accurately, playing a series of douches on stage. From his first Fringe show in 2006, he has built a reputation as a fearless performer of sketch comedy with an unusually high level of audience participation. His antics have featured Swingball and skateboards, while willing (ish) volunteers have thrown him across the stage (he was ‘being’ Daniel Day-Lewis at this point) and had a probiotic dairy product licked off their faces.
This last pursuit got him into a right old pickle, when one victim took exception to Riches’ advances in the guise of Victor Legit, an alpha male enforcer for the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT). ‘At a couple of late night gigs in London, I’ve had a couple of blokes react really badly to it and one of them had me by the throat and up against a wall. Of course, I’m still Victor, so I can’t back down from that. But really, how angry can you be in life if someone licking Yakult from your face is your trigger?’
Victor was a staple character in those early Fringe shows, but his creator cast him asunder for Bring Me the Head of Adam Riches, an hour which earned him the Edinburgh Comedy Award. ‘I cut him from the 2011 show because the spirit of that one was chaos and smiles. Even in the disgusting or pushier bits, all the characters are very much with you in doing it, whereas with Victor, I take one step back from the audience.’
The good news for Victor Legit fans is that he is back this year for Adam of the Riches, albeit older if not exactly wiser. ‘He has to have moved on a bit but I also have to introduce him again because most people won’t have seen him. I think there might be a physical change which will hopefully negate the aggressiveness and highlight his stupidity.’
Of course, with such a high level of in-your-face physicality going on within the room, there’s always a risk that things might go awry; and not just with the testosterone-fuelled reaction of some touchy punters. Riches earned himself a place in Fringe folklore with his 2008 show, when a tussle with a seemingly genuine member of the audience (it was a set-up involving his actor brother) went horribly wrong, and Riches was left in agony on the floor while an ambulance was called.
Given the nature of his show, some audience members believed this was merely an extension of his performance. When he left on a stretcher never to return, it was clear then that it wasn’t just the fourth wall that had been broken: his leg had snapped, though he did bravely return a few days later to perform bits of the show from a wheelchair.
Riches has a fairly strong notion of where his thick skin his has come from. For a period during his childhood, the family relocated to Glasgow when his dad ran a Berni Inn on Sauchiehall Street. ‘This was the late 70s, a time when Scotland-England rivalry was especially high. And I have all these stories of my dad being this Sassenach trying to win over the locals. And he was successful. My dad was extremely charming and genial, a very old-fashioned restaurant manager. It was like GoodFellas, where everything is laid on and he made everyone feel very special.’
Every time Riches prepares to take to the stage, he sees himself as the outsider about to confront a possibly hostile home crowd. ‘It’s the same thing, this idea of going into a foreign environment and trying to win them over with charm. That aspect of my dad is something I’ve tried to bring into the comedy so if I am going to use someone, then it should be a positive experience for them, albeit that they’re going to have to pay the ferryman along the way. But we don’t want them to suffer, we want them to come through it and succeed.’
The irony of all this is that as an audience member, Riches is absolutely terrified of any kind of participation. ‘I always sit in the middle of the back row so that I won’t get involved. It would be my worst nightmare. I’m good in a costume and with a script; I’m not good on my own in my own clothes.’
For Riches, audience participation for the sake of it or to get the performer out of a hole is never a good enough reason to do it. ‘It has to spring from the character or the scene, and come from a place of truth; otherwise it’s just a tacked-on gimmick. No one wants to see Passage to India in 3D; it’s not really using the medium for what it was intended. You want it to feel right.’
Hopefully that rationale will act as some kind of consolation if you do find yourself being dragged up during an Adam Riches show. And despite the sudden appearance of the emergency services at a previous gig, take solace that there is never usually any lasting damage inflicted on a member of the audience.
‘As far as I know, no one has hurt themselves on my stage; maybe psychologically, but that’s the good kind of damage isn’t it, because we can’t see it?’ he mocks. ‘There was a bit in the last show where I was thrown and that caused me more pain than anything else. But when an audience can see me in that situation, I think it calms them down when you ask them to do something because they’ve seen me there. It’s like the old thing of the movie sex scene where the director will get naked as well: it’s that kind of mindset. I hope no one has been hurt, and with the new show, nothing could happen like that. But who knows, I may be so desperate for material that I might end up punching someone.’
Adam of the Riches, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 2–24 Aug, 9.45pm, £10–£14 (£8–£12). Previews 30 Jul–1 Aug, £7.