The 75th edition of an arts festival seems like an odd choice for an established comic to make their debut, a choice made even stranger by the performer making it clear they’re not wholly committed to performing comedy for that much longer. But if there’s one thing Patti Harrison can commit to, it’s the bit, and whether or not it marked the start of a farewell tour or a swansong for the performing she’s become renowned for, her Edinburgh Fringe Festival launch doubled down on her gloriously alienating style of comedy, delivering exactly what her international fans were looking for while giving newcomers a lot to chew on.
In many ways, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is like your usual comedy festival: warm crowds, unforgivingly long runs, and the ability to mold and alter your show’s content and vibe with each successive performance. But there’s a heightened, almost nauseating aspect to the Fringe that distinguishes it from other fests; it’s so punishingly exhausting and all-encompassing that it’s completely possible to feel out of place and depth when you start there, no matter how assured a performer you are stateside.
But Harrison, the complex and intelligent performer she is, seems to already be aware of the alienating effect of debuting at the Fringe, and works expectations of her discomfort into the act. After she enters the stage scuttling backwards and bent over as a metal track blasts out the speakers, the first ten minutes of her set are a perfectly pitched exercise in baiting audience sympathy and building apprehension, before gradually letting her performance descend into the absurdist and extended delirium that’s become her brand.
Softly spoken, her speech filled with stumbles and pauses, almost wincing throughout, Harrison plays the tension of the audience’s comfortability—because if there’s something Edinburgh Fringe audiences don’t know how to deal with, it’s bracing vulnerability from comics. Are we in on the joke? Is she being sincere? When titters come from audience members as she talks about her discomfort with performing, it’s unclear if these are Harrison die-hards already aware she’s not being serious, or clueless newcomers breaking up the palpable awkwardness.
It’s beautifully orchestrated, and pays off tremendously as Harrison leads her audience through a PowerPoint of trigger warnings, where she warns us of gravely traumatic content alongside semen effervescence and Pokemon, never breaking her muted cadence as the laughs rise up around her, or the intrusions of various loud sound effects, courtesy of the show’s sponsor “Noise Barn” (for all your inappropriately-timed soundboard needs). When some of the sounds sync up with the topics she’s mentioning, the naturally-found chaos is in full swing.
Harrison calls her set a work-in-progress, but it’s difficult to imagine a more assured hour, especially when the rambling confusion of her delivery is an integral part of her charm. Her bits structurally mirror each other, starting in an earnest place of observation or explanation, before building in a convoluted crescendo and bursting into physical performance or song—in the style of some of music’s well-known icons of today and yesteryear. If there’s any complaint about the idiosyncratic comedy hour, it’s that after Harrison’s initial, perfectly played awkward tension with the audience, they never subsequently fully buy that the comedian is being genuine and earnest with them, risking a lot of her patient set-up feeling labored.
There are nice moments of code-switching as Harrison adapts to her Edinburgh audience, if it’s not commenting on the sexual psychologies of the British Supernanny Universe (completely inaccurate impressions will always score points with me), it’s bluntly repeating back to a single audience member the pronunciation of a completely irrelevant British word. Don’t get the wrong idea: Harrison does not condescend a new audience by making her niche humor accessible, proven by the frequent walk-outs her show prompted.
Walk-outs are common across the Fringe; sometimes you’ve overshot your windows between shows and need to make a dash, some people genuinely prioritize going for an overpriced pint or use the poorly maintained bathrooms, but frequently people will just realize they have better things to do with their time than sit through something they dislike. There’s no stakes; if you don’t like what you’ve paid for, no fear of embarrassment or respect for the artist will keep you there. It can be awkward, sometimes funny—rarely does it add to your enjoyment of a performance, like it did here. Being on the same level as a weird comedian feels like you’ve tuned into a secret radio frequency, and sometimes the hostility of those not connecting can fuel how fun and exciting the show is. Harrison is performing layers of sincerity and persona, deflecting any criticisms of abrasiveness with the shots of vulnerability (genuine? performed?) she’s determined to administer throughout. It’s a sight to behold, and a joy to be a part of.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.