The Worst Type of Stage Show Took Over the Edinburgh Fringe

In an act of extreme masochism, I went to watch four musical parodies, so you don't have to.
London, United Kingdom
August 28, 2019, 8:45am
now that's what I call Brexit
'Now That's What I Call Brexit'. Photo courtesy of PR.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a lot like Los Angeles. Every year, thousands of hopefuls descend with the dream of making it big, which affords it a vibrancy, but also a sense of desperation. It's a place where dreams are made – if your dream is to appear on a Radio 4 panel show with Sue Perkins – but also where ambitions die; where people finally decide to throw in the towel.

Related: the Festival would be the perfect setting for a remake of Mulholland Drive, concerning a plucky young ingenue who, after her Star Wars-themed improv show gets a one-star review on, descends into homicidal madness.

It could even be a parody musical – singlehandedly the worst type of stage performance in existence, and one that seems to have monopolised the Fringe calendar. Everywhere you looked this year there was a troupe up from England, disrupting the audience's opinions via the medium of song.

In an act of extreme masochism – and also in an effort to understand the stranglehold this micro-genre has on one of the world's great festivals – I signed up to watch four Fringe parody musicals myself this year. Maybe I'd have a great time and return from Edinburgh a changed man. Maybe I'd end up penning a parody musical of my own. Or maybe, just maybe, I would end up confirming my pre-existing prejudices and learn absolutely nothing.


Photo courtesy of PR.

'Now That's What I Call Brexit'

One of two Brexit-related parody musicals this year, there were many things I hated about this show. My main bugbear is that surely parody has to bear some relation to someone's real-life tics and mannerisms, even if grotesquely exaggerated?

The portrayals in this did not. Michael Gove is portrayed, correctly, as a smug weirdo – just in a way that bears zero resemblance to his actual smug weirdness. Theresa May, too, who is played here with a _Little Britain_-esque high-pitched honk, simply does not speak like that.

You can forgive some hamminess at the Fringe, but I knew that something very, very bad was going to happen when, in a scene set during the 2017 election campaign, one of May's advisors informs her "Corbyn's done a grime!" My instincts were correct. "Free stuff! We'll give you free stuff!" Corbyn raps in the next scene, surrounded by the exclusively white cast, all wearing black hoodies and speaking in MLE.

"Yo, Mr Corbyn, fam," one of these yoots demands, "What is you gonna do about Brexit?" This all felt a little unsavoury, but maybe it's forgivable, given it was in service of such an excellent point: "a politician trying to win votes by appealing to people's material interests is bad".

That said, it was gamely performed by the cast. The guy playing Boris Johnson was pretty funny, even if playing Johnson as a lovable buffoon barely qualifies as satire. If you're the kind of person who thinks "sheer, glorious silliness" is the supreme British quality, above, say, xenophobia, then you'd probably love it.

'Got A Text: A Musical Parody' (about Love Island)

I invited my friend Amber along to this one, because she's a big Love Island fan and I needed an expert insight, but we got off to a bad start: she's also a nail technician, and one of the very first jokes was about how people who do nails are stupid. Unfortunately, "beauty therapists are idiots" was a running theme.

Got a Text felt as though it was aimed at people who think Love Island is mindless rubbish, and feel superior for holding this opinion, rather than people who actually watch it. The nadir – of the show, but also, perhaps, my entire life – came with "It's a Millennial Life!", a song that poked gentle fun at some of the kookier signifiers of our generation, such as demanding participation trophies, not eating dairy products and, uh, being transgender ("You can't assume we're a girl or boy").

In the transphobic climate we're living in, making pronoun jokes which reduce trans issues to a trendy fad just isn't a great thing to do, as well as being lazy writing. If all your references read like they're ripped straight from the 17th volume of The Universe According to Clarkson, you need to get better references. The song also features the line, "Even though I have no job / Let's do a flash mob." I was trying to engage with this stuff on its own terms, but that simply isn't very good.

But at least the cast gave a game performance!


Photo courtesy of PR.

'Voldemort and the Teenage Hogwarts'

I have a terrible secret that reddens my face and stings me with shame: I really enjoyed this Harry Potter parody musical. Compared to the others, this was a slick production: the cast were actually good at singing and the jokes were pretty sharp.

The story concerns the young Voldemort, still in his Hogwarts days, and his love-across-the-divide romance with a Hufflepuff girl. She is called "Muffin" and her entire schtick is that she really likes eating baked goods (she sings "I like bagels and cake" and Voldemort rejoinders, "I have trust issues – and a snake!").

This is actually a far more nuanced characterisation than anything in Brexit or Got A Text. At one point, a talking painting sings a jaunty little tune about his fetish for watching teenagers fuck, and I'm ashamed to say that I honked with laughter. Later, Moaning Myrtle performs an R&B number that features the line, "You be the seeker... come get my snitch ;)", which also really made me chuckle (she's talking about her vagina!).

I could, however, have done without Dumbledore's "gangsta rap". A posh English person doing a comedy rap will never, ever be funny. Did we as a society really learn nothing from Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer? Are we doomed to forever repeat the same mistakes?


Photo courtesy of PR.

'Friendsical: A Parody Musical About Friends'

By this stage, I was beginning to tire of this whole thing. What was I doing here, beyond confirming that obviously shit things are shit?

The premise here is that Ross is staging a musical in celebration of his love for Rachel, which all of the characters are aware they're taking part in. There are a few jokes poking fun at the logical flaws of the series – they live in an implausibly expensive flat! They sure do spend a lot of time in that coffee shop! (I feel like I a: picked up all this stuff as an 11-year-old, and b: read about it in a Buzzfeed listicle ten years ago) – but, for the most part, there's not much difference in the style of humour. It's not so much parody as reenactment, which seems pointless. For instance, Janice is "parodied" as being loud and obnoxious.

I will say that all of the cast did pretty good impressions (Ross Gellar is just as much of a despicable creep as he is in the series), and they all gave an undeniably game performance!

So my lifelong prejudice against parody musicals had been proven almost entirely correct. But that, of course, doesn't matter: they'll keep happening and, in their own particularly offensive way, keep contributing to what many local residents hate about the Fringe.

Bookseller and journalist Lewis, 27, sums it up: "The ratio between the cost of living and the cost of shows prices local people out," he says. "But I guess it's particularly frustrating when you see abject, frivolous shite being peddled – it's a bit of a kick in the teeth when stuff like this is the reason your city is barely liveable."

"It feels like it's a _Grand Tour_-style rite of passage to perform a shite Fringe show to your friends who've all come up from England to see it," he continues. "A lot of it is just English folk tittering at their own prejudices being reinforced from the stage."

Given that the lion's share of these musicals are reflecting English concerns, this seems like a fair comment. Where's Nicola Sturgeon: The Musical, terrible though that would be? Where's Loki the Rapper: A Hip-Hop Parody? Where's People Make Glasgow: A Parody Musical About Glasgow's Twee, Cloying Sense of Civic Pride?

Whatever you think about the parody musical genre (which should be: it is terrible), it looks as though it's here to stay. If you've never been and want a picture of the Fringe, this year and every year to come, imagine watching a rerun of Alasdair McGowan's Big Impression on Dave, forever.