Interview: Simon Munnery – ‘They knew it was going to be brilliant, so it wasn’t’
Offbeat comedian recalls his four most memorable shows over 30 years on the Fringe
It’s been 30 years since Simon Munnery first set foot on the Fringe. Few comedians have been so consistently innovative, daring and downright, well, Fringey. During a moment of serene retrospection, he recalls four memorable shows
Cluub Zarathustra II (Pleasance Courtyard, 1997)
‘You’ve had that workshop for six months and all you’ve got to show for it is two mops and a computer that doesn’t work,’ said my manager on the first night when it had all crashed horribly. He had a point. I was weeping but carrying on with the conversation anyway.
But the mops were very long, the computer eventually worked and the show attracted a cult following with people seeing it multiple times. They particularly liked the Self-Knowledge Impregnator, a huge box containing a powerful flash that burned the word ‘cunt’ into your retina, designed as a weapon against hecklers.
Magically, there was one great night when Ricky Grover acted as a doorman wearing a dress and carrying the audience one by one to their seats while whispering threats in their ear. That was the night Chanel Four were in, and six months later I was sitting on the bus thinking ‘blimey, I’ve got quarter of a million pounds to spend on hats’. Happy days.
Buckethead: phenomenon anon and on (Assembly Rooms, 2004)
It began with Trilogy the year before at The Stand, where I did three different shows in rotation: The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes, Onward and Upward, and Buckethead: Way of the Bucket.
Buckethead mark one was the hardest to stage: it used a live video link to the backstage toilet, multiple sound cues and actors (Jeff Green, Andrew Bailey and my first and current wife Janet). It was Andrew who had introduced me to the bucket two years before as a method of practicing the harmonica: I remember the two of us wandering down Dundas Street, buckets on head, parping away on our harps. It might not have been Dundas Street. Anyway, the show worked once maybe over the month, so I knew there was something in it, but not enough to justify three actors and a brainache of tech.
For Melbourne I converted it into a one-man play. It still had sound cues (interrogator‘s questions), until the penny dropped and I realised when you’re wearing a bucket you can do multiple voices and no one can tell. I love how the unnecessary gets stripped away. I ended up with a play that could be performed by one person under a tree, which I did in September in Stoke Newington. Unfortunately, it was a horse chestnut tree, hazardous for the audience but less so for me. I was wearing a bucket at the time.
Elizabeth and Raleigh: Late But Live (Underbelly, 2008)
I played Elizabeth to Miles Jupp’s Raleigh. The first night was dreadful: we’d never used the radio mics before and they played up so that we were getting the local taxi office coming through the PA. We ploughed on with the dialogue while the stage managers stood behind us fiddling with wires.
One night I had a stomach upset, it was nearly my cue and I needed a toilet fast. I found a cubicle but was physically prevented from entering by the vast hoops of my skirt. Eventually I solved the problem and went in sideways, did my business and made it to the stage with seconds to spare. What larks!
La Concepta (all over the place, but mainly Gayfield Square, 2011 and 2012)
‘All the rigmarole of haute cuisine without the shame of eating’ was the tag line for this parody of a restaurant for two people, then four, then eventually eight. It started as a sketch in my Annual General Meeting (a title I thought would become funnier as the years passed but didn’t) at The Stand but it needed to stand on its own. And this it did, mainly in Gayfield Square at the top of Leith Walk, but also on Portobello beach and the Meadows: although prop-heavy, it packed down into a suitcase, a criterion I still use for a show. Does it fit in a suitcase? Then it can be done.
I became a little worried about the legality of performing in a public garden but then noticed the police station opposite: if it was illegal I’d surely have been arrested by now. Being for small numbers meant I had to perform it five times a day to be economically viable, and although it rained a good deal that year (‘do you enjoy the dampness of the sauna but dislike the excessive warmth? Visit Edinburgh in August, home of lateral rain’), it only rained once during a show.
On the last night I did an impromptu performance in the flat where I was staying for Stand members of staff; they laughed like drains and it was wonderful to be doing it indoors again. It went so well that those eight went and got another eight members of staff for a second sitting, which was a bit of a flop, of course. They knew it was going to be brilliant, so it wasn’t.
Simon Munnery: Standing Still, The Stand, York Place, 5–29 Aug (not 15), 4pm, £12 (£10). Preview 4 Aug, £9; Simon Munnery and Friends: 30 Not Out, Famous Spiegeltent, St Andrew Square, 22 Aug, 6.45pm, £14 (£12).