“Sanitiser on the left as you go in; make sure you’ve got your masks on.”
Comedy on the Fringe in the time of Covid-19 has taken on a new, non-comic, dimension and scrabbling around for one’s facemask before entering a venue is, one hopes, going to be a uniquely 2021 experience.
Keeping everyone as safe as possible during the pandemic goes beyond masking up, however, as the Fringe veteran Ivor Dembina found to his palpable frustration on his opening night in the multi-chandeliered, sombrely lit, socially spaced-out ballroom. The sold-out show was restricted to just under half its 130-seat capacity, mitigating against the fairground familiarity and cosy intimacy on which the 70-year-old central Londoner’s humour thrives. Not that that would necessarily be a problem if everyone could hear him.
Enter (and turn up to full blast) what venue manager Brian Dobie said was the stipulated “enhanced air exchange” system (nobly designed, one would imagine, to dissipate any lurking germs). The upshot was that half the largely youthful audience couldn’t make out what he was saying, with several walking out as he worked his way with growing unease through his well-worn routine of circumcision jokes, put-upon Jewish husband gags (or should that be gagged-up Jewish husbands?) and heretical Holocaust humour.
Added to his problems were the blindingly strong stage lights which restricted his vision to the front row, leaving him none the wiser as to the unease at the back.
“Thanks you so much for coming,” he said more than once, clearly appreciating the extra effort involved in going to a show amid the pandemic, but by the end he was apologising to the lads at the back and the rest of the audience for the sound system, which was the reason for the walkouts.
The customary dry Dembina wit and self-mocking, knockabout style, which hinge on audience engagement as he tells his tale of a benefit gig at a north London synagogue whose rabbi draws up an ever-expanding list of “jokenrein” subjects, struggled to win through amid the trying circumstances. While the quickfire quips were there, it was as if they were being squeezed out as the increasingly foaming-mouthed funster, sporting a mop of greying hair that has taken on a life of its own during the pandemic, grew despondent and distracted and he asked a couple of blokes at the back to stop chatting.
“Hopefully we’ll get it right in the next few days.” And indeed they have – since my attendance the sound is much better than it was.
Old Jewish Jokes Laughing Horse @ The Counting House Until 18 August (not Aug 11)